Norm Macdonald Gets Another Chance … Dangerous Liaisons is Finally a Sitcom … CBS’s Profits

Wednesday, August 4

ABC is giving Norm Macdonald’s sitcom another chance. Wouldn’t you? Even though it was slammed by critics when it debuted last spring, it still did well in the ratings–pulling in an average 11.6 million viewers per episode.

So Mr. Macdonald and co-executive producer Bruce Helford ( Roseanne , The Drew Carey Show ) are going back to the drawing board to see if Mr. Macdonald–dismissed from Saturday Night Live ‘s “Weekend Update” desk in January 1998 after NBC West Coast president Don Ohlmeyer decided he wasn’t funny–can work in a conventional sitcom format. Critics last spring asserted that Mr. Macdonald was good at Saturday Night Live , less cut out for the confines of half-hour prime-time comedy. So, Mr. Macdonald and Mr. Helford are adding bits: At the top of each episode, Mr. Macdonald will discuss why it has won whatever content rating censors have chosen for it. They will do loose sketches with special guest stars that have nothing to do with the show’s plot, à la Cheers . (In Norm , Mr. Macdonald plays a washed-up former hockey player who has become a social worker as part of a community service sentence for tax evasion.)

On Monday, Aug. 2, Mr. Macdonald was going over one of the first episodes line by line in his Los Angeles office. He admitted that the sitcom thing is not quite his bag.

“Well, um, it’s a lot of, you know, it’s a lot of, ah, compromise, you know?” he said. “In terms of, ah, story and so forth, like everything I’ve done has just been comedy, you know what I mean? On sketches it’s just comedy, and on stand-ups it’s just comedy. This is, like, ah, you have to have, like, stories, so sometimes you have to, you know, not do the comedy because it threatens the story and that stuff. So, sometimes, I have to throw out a good joke for a story point, you know what I mean?”

And then there’s the adjustment to the standards of prime time–which he hasn’t had to deal with since he was a writer on Roseanne .

“Like, I like saying ‘cock,'” he explained. “But I kind of knew they’d cut that out. Sometimes I’ll throw that in just to bug them, and use, like, super-dirty words and then, like, have discussions about it with the censor, just for a joke. Yeah. Like, I’ll have ‘c–-‘ in there and then the guy will say ‘You can’t say c–-,’ and then I’ll say, ‘But, but, but in context, it’s all in context.’ Like there’s any context! Like, ‘I c–- go to the store?'”

These are small complaints for a man whose career was almost derailed when he was fired from SNL . When he was there, NBC executives didn’t consider Mr. Macdonald a team player, felt that some of his jokes were offensive, said he built his own “Weekend Update” camp within SNL . They booted him and Lorne Michaels didn’t really do anything to stop them. Mr. Macdonald says he has no hard feelings and may even show up at Saturday Night Live ‘s 25th anniversary special on Sept. 26. “I like everybody at SNL , I don’t have any bad feelings about those guys,” he said. “And Ohlmeyer is already gone [he left his West Coast president’s post June 1], so there’s really nobody left to be angry at.”

Tonight on Roseanne , Roseanne and Jackie reminisce at their childhood home. [TBS, 8, 7:05 P.M.]

Thursday, August 5

Jason Katims is executive-producing Roswell for the WB, and that’s a crazy thing given that a few years ago he was practically penniless and slaving away on plays in his Park Slope walk-up.

On Thursday, July 29, Mr. Katims was in his office on the Paramount lot going over his budget–about $1.5 million per episode–with his money people in closed-door sessions. His seven writers were fine-tuning their episodes of the new show at computer terminals so the office almost looked like a daily newspaper, with black file cabinets, and desks lined up in a row.

Next door, on Stage 15, construction workers were finishing up the sets. Roswell is a high school drama–with alien themes–so the main set is a high school hallway with classrooms. Mr. Katims has been working nonstop since May, when he found out that Roswell –about aliens who try to blend in with their schoolmates–was being picked up by the WB.

“What happens is, once you get picked up, you’re a month behind in terms of being able to prep and shoot,” he said, lounging back in a brown loveseat. This is all new to Mr. Katims, 38 and a Midwood, Brooklyn, native. In 1993, he was writing plays that weren’t getting produced in his one-bedroom apartment in Park Slope. He was making between $20,000 and $30,000 per year by helping a friend lay out literary journals and corporate newsletters. One day in January of that year, when he was working at home, producer Ed Zwick called out of the blue. He said he read a 10-minute play Mr. Katims wrote which was published in the anthology of the Actor’s Theater in Louisville, and quite liked it.

“He said, ‘Do you know who I am?’ And I said … No, and he said ‘I created Thirtysomething ‘ and I said ‘That’s enough, got it,'” Mr. Katims said.

This morning on Chicago Hope : A father may have abused his child. [Lifetime, 12, 11 A.M.]

Friday, August 6

Speaking of Mr. Zwick, by July 28, he had had just about enough of all this talk in the press about how the networks don’t have enough minority actors in their fall lineups. Standing on a stage at the Ritz Carlton after talking to reporters about his new hour-long drama debuting this fall, Once and Again , he vented to NYTV.

“Let’s just say that the sort of furious, and, um, sort of frenzied seizing of an issue and the ephemeral pieties of a certain group in the media is as hypocritical and, generally, on the part of the white, male journalists, most of whom are in this room, are as hypocritical as the networks whom they seek to criticize,” Mr. Zwick said.

Had executives told him to diversify his white drama? “No,” he said simply. “They’re smart enough not to.”

For a little diversity in casting tonight, watch Homicide: Life on the Street . [Court TV, 40, 9 P.M.]

Saturday, August 7

Roger Kumble was leaning for balance against a wall on the smoking deck of Beverly Hills’ Le Colonial, an industry hangout with lots of wood, ceiling fans and young people making a killing in movies and television. It was 1 A.M. A night of drinking had him feeling pretty slap-happy. After years of slogging away in Hollywood in menial, unglamorous jobs–like writing voice dubs for the Power Rangers film–he’s now executive producing Manchester Prep for Fox. It’s another racy Fox show that’s about wealthy teenagers who screw each other over at every turn. It’s based on the movie that made his career, Cruel Intentions , which starred Buffy the Vampire Slayer ‘s Sarah Michelle Gellar and was a prep school version of Dangerous Liaisons , with two virginal deflowerings and a steamy lesbian kiss. It was Mr. Kumble’s first big screenplay and it wound up being a hit.

Mr. Kumble grew up in Westchester, the son of a Wall Street headhunter.

But, Mr. Kumble was asked, wouldn’t his show be better suited for cable since the movie was so risky? “I’m trying to be more creative. So it’s double-entendre … So, it’s like, there’s this one scene where Mimi Rogers has a cat in her lap, and it’s like ‘My, what a beautiful,'” and with that he shoved his interviewer’s shoulder with his right arm, “‘pussy!’ But we won’t say pussy.”

A wide-eyed young man in his 20’s walked up to Mr. Kumble. “I saw the pilot for the show. Fucking awesome,” he said.

“I’m Roger,” Mr. Kumble said, extending his hand.

“I know,” the kid said.

“I didn’t want to be presumptuous,” Mr. Kumble explained.

Tonight on South Park , it’s the Fourth of July. [Comedy Central, 45, 10 P.M.]

Sunday, August 8

Network advertising salesmen have wrapped up all their deals for the upcoming, ’99-’00 TV schedule. By the end of what’s called the “upfront” ad season–when companies buy network ad slots for the next schedule–NBC had raked in far more money than its competitors. Even though CBS won last season with the most viewers tuned in nightly–13 million–NBC, with 12.7 million nightly viewers, pulled in nearly $1 billion more than the Tiffany Network during the selling season. According to NBC’s finance executives, it collected $2.3 billion to CBS’s $1.4 billion. In fact, CBS took in even less than third-place ABC, which collected $1.7 billion. Though they wouldn’t release figures, sources at CBS, which reported dramatically increased earnings Monday, Aug. 2, criticized NBC’s analysis, saying their intake is a little higher and NBC’s is probably a little lower than claimed. Either way, what it all comes down to is demographics. NBC made more money because its audience is younger, it has more viewers ages 18 to 49.

Near a stage in the Ritz-Carlton, NBC West Coast President Scott Sassa pulled out a sheet of paper with a series of bar graphs underneath each of the networks’ call letters. The graphs showed the makeup of the U.S. population by age compared with the age breakdown of each network’s audience. At NBC, 2- to 17-year-olds make up 10 percent of NBC’s audience compared to 24 percent of the U.S. population. Eighteen- to 34-year-olds make up 24 percent of the U.S. population and 23 percent of NBC’s audience and people over 50 make up 27 percent of the population and 38 percent of NBC’s audience. ABC is about the same, with fewer 18- to 34-year-olds.

But at CBS, nearly 50 percent of the audience is older than 50.

“Look at our buddies over at CBS. They’ve got nobody young, look at that,” he said, gleefully pointing to his charts. A security guard approached and handed him a note, which he quickly read. “What the …! They want me to make a decision here?” The note was from his business affairs people, who needed to know if he was going to sign off on a pilot for midseason. He wouldn’t say anything about the pilot, but after his little lecture, you could bet it would aim to be a favorite with the younger crowd.

For their part, CBS sources said Mr. Sassa, whose network lost its lead last year, shouldn’t point fingers. “They should worry about their own strategies rather than trying to pick apart those of the No. 1 network,” carped one.

Speaking of oldies, CBS viewers can go back in time by watching Ed Sullivan’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Classics. [VH1, 19, xtarting at 5 P.M.]

Monday, August 9

Ed Decter and John Strauss have been television and film writing partners for the past 17 years. They’ve been getting by just fine, making plenty of money, even though most of their films didn’t get made, and their TV shows either flopped or floundered ( The Closer , Chicago Sons , Boy Meets World ). But then they wrote a screenplay called There’s Something About Mary , which they optioned to the Farrelly brothers, who rewrote it and made it a hit. Messrs. Strauss and Decter were at the ABC press tour party at the Pasadena Ritz-Carlton and said they have no problem that the Farrelly brothers got all the credit. All that matters is that the right people know about it. And they do. “It’s opened so many doors for us,” Mr. Decter said. “We’re very happy passengers on the Farrelly train, believe me. We’ve got a film that’s rolling for Universal called Head Over Heels , starring Monica Potter and Freddie Prinze Jr. Another one that’s going is with Minnie Driver as the lead, called The Secret Lives of Debutantes .” And then there’s their new show that debuts this fall on ABC, Odd Man Out , a family sitcom about a kid who lives with all women. They were asked which parts of the show they wrote … The part where Ben Stiller’s character jams his penis in his zipper? “That was theirs,” said Mr. Decter. The dog in the cast? “He [Peter Farrelly] told us exactly what he was going to do. We’re both dog owners and lovers, and I knew he could do it. I knew he could do it! Because of just the enthusiasm!” So, well, guys? What did you write? “We wrote a really nice, romantic comedy that would have done $40 million at the box office. They said, ‘Look, we think those days are over. We need to do something where we combine the raunchy stuff that we do with a really good story,’ and we said ‘Try it, go ahead.'” It made more than $350 million worldwide.

Tonight, on Boy , a controversy surrounds a school production of Hamlet . [WPIX, 11, 6:30 P.M.]

Tuesday, August 10

Heather Locklear showed up at the Pasadena Ritz-Carlton on July 28 to talk to the TV press about her upcoming role on Spin City , in which she will play the mayor’s campaign manager. She’ll always be at loggerheads with Michael J. Fox’s character. It was pointed out that this is Ms. Locklear’s M.O., parachuting into shows that are already well established. Just like she did with Dynasty , and Melrose Place . Since she was offered her own development deals, why did she choose to go to Spin City and move to New York? “It’s always better to join a successful show, I think, than a show that’s not even on,” she told a group of reporters clustered around her in the hotel lobby. “Even if it’s a great show, if it’s not on the air and nobody sees it, then nobody sees it.” Huh? “It just takes a long time to develop it, to get the right writers and all of that. That is a lot of work, and why wait?” Then she was whisked out the door and through a gantlet of paparazzi–without Michael J. Fox. An ABC publicist was seething, yelling at a bunch of underlings, “Wouldn’t it be right to have them walk down the aisle together,” he screamed. “C’mon! It makes me fucking angry! We’re trying to sell a show!” So Ms. Locklear was brought back up the aisle and had to walk the gauntlet again, this time with Mr. Fox.

Tonight, on Spin City , that goofy mayor just can’t figure out how to use his new surveillance vehicle . [WABC, 7, 8 P.M.]

NYTV can be reached electronically at jrutenberg@observer.com.