Can Harvard Lampoon Rescue Wrestling Show? … Smackdown ! Beats Action

Wednesday, Sept. 22

Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling, which has been flagging in the ratings behind Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation, is looking to hire

real TV writers to spruce up its shows.

As it stands now, the story lines are left up to the wrestlers themselves, who are bigger on brawn and bluster than they are on imagination. So you get ” Raa raa raa grrr ” and not much melodrama in the ring. Thus the W.C.W. shows often seem just a step above public-access wrestling shows like Motor City Big Time Wrestling .

On the other hand, the World Wrestling Federation, which does employ writers, has epic story lines–like where Triple H gets Stone Cold Steve Austin arrested for ramming him, etc.

“Just think about it,” said a W.C.W. source. “They have so many hours of programming a week, and to keep a seamless story written is hard from week to week. Wrestlers doing the stories doesn’t usually work as strong. I don’t know how creative Hulk actually is, but I tend to think a story writer from Hollywood is a little smarter than Hulk.”

The recruiting drive is being planned about a month after Ted Turner fired W.C.W. president Eric Bischoff. Mr. Turner reportedly got rid of him because he was sick of seeing his wrestling organization getting smacked around in the ratings by the W.W.F. The rival wrestling outfit consistently draws a bigger audience per night on USA than the W.C.W. has on TNT (pulling up to a 7 rating, compared with between a 3 and a 4 rating for the W.C.W.).

The W.C.W. executives plan to begin their recruiting drive at the Harvard Lampoon , which has provided the best television comedy scribes for decades now. Conan O’Brien is one. Another is Billy Kimball, Craig Kilborn’s executive producer. So is former Saturday Night Live writer James Downey.

“A lot of wrestling depends on humor–they want it to be funny,” said the source, adding that the organization has intelligence that there are Lampoon alumni on the W.W.F. writing staff (which a spokesman for the W.W.F. refused to confirm or deny).

The guys over at the Lampoon weren’t too surprised at the W.C.W.’s interest in them. Believe it or not, they’ve had a relationship with the W.C.W.’s Macho Man Randy Savage for a couple of years now. In 1998, Lampoon named Mr. Savage Man of the Year. More recently, they’ve been in contact with him for a book they’re publishing with Time Warner. But, they said, Mr. Savage–who declined to comment–has yet to pop the question. Still, they said they’re open to it.

“It’s the most entertaining television there is,” Lampoon president Matt Warburton said of wrestling. “I think that humor writers are in an excellent position to contribute to the W.C.W. Maybe they can make a niche for themselves as the really funny wrestling show.”

For the funniest wrestling right now, check out Motor City . [Manhattan Neighborhood Network, 57, 10 p.m.]

Thursday, Sept. 23

Action , the new Fox half-hour comedy about a trash-talking movie producer played by Jay Mohr, was expected to hit the air on its debut night with some big numbers. Fox spent more than $4 million to promote it, and it got a lot of ink. But Nielsen ratings show that Action did only as well as UPN’s World Wrestling Federation Smackdown! Both drew nearly 5.5 million households between 9 P.M. and 10 P.M. As for reaching male viewers between the ages of 18 and 34–a demographic coveted by all the 18- to 34-year-old males who work in advertising– Smackdown! actually did a hair better than Action . UPN’s tab promoting the night? Put it at $0.

As much as that says about Action , it says a whole hell of a lot more about wrestling. Adam Ware, UPN’s chief financial officer, chalks it up to good writing.

“These guys have great, great stories,” he said. “Everyone used to say, ‘Gee, how do we make a male soap? and whoever could come up with that would be a hero. These guys have captured it.”

Tonight on Action, Peter can’t get money for his next film. [WNYW, 5, 9:30 P.M.]

Friday, Sept. 24

In late August, ABC announced it was pulling reruns of Sports Night from its

Tuesday-night schedule. The hope was that by yanking the ratings-challenged–but critically acclaimed–show for a while, it would seem fresher for its Oct. 5 season debut.

It was a blow to the Sports Night staff and TV powerhouse Aaron Sorkin. And it was also about the last thing they needed just then.

Sources said the announcement came at a time when Sports Night was in total disarray. The problems stemmed from fights between Mr. Sorkin–on double duty launching his NBC drama, West Wing –and one of his stars, Josh Charles. Mr. Charles, a veteran of movies such as Dead Poets Society and Coldblooded , was said to be less than thrilled with the direction of the show–and even less thrilled by on-the-set direction from Mr. Sorkin. Sources said on the show’s first taping of the season, Mr. Charles publicly resisted Mr. Sorkin’s acting advice. Mr. Sorkin didn’t like being talked back to, and called up ABC entertainment chiefs fuming about his uppity actor.

“Josh comes from the movies, and he didn’t like a lot of the stuff Aaron had done. Josh was acting up,” said an ABC insider familiar with the situation. He added that programming executives put everything on hold while trying to cool the situation. “They came in and tried to make everybody make nice,” he said.

Apparently, the diplomacy mission has worked. Reached at his West Wing offices, Mr. Sorkin said he didn’t know what NYTV was talking about when the topic of a tiff between him and his star was brought up. “I love Josh and have since the first minute I met him!” said Mr. Sorkin.

So then, he was asked, absolutely nothing is wrong?

“Everybody who works on Sports Night is very into the show, and in the five days in which we have to do every show, there are probably 500 arguments that flare up in the right way or wrong way to do the show. It’s ‘Wouldn’t this be better than that?’ That kind of thing. It’s nothing to write home about.”

Neither is Coldblooded, which stars Jason Priestley as a bookie-turned-assassin. [WLNY, 55, 12:30 A.M.]

Saturday, Sept. 25

The ad people aren’t giving Freaks and Geeks much of a chance and predict it won’t do so well. But after viewing NBC’s 80′s high school show, we gotta say it feels like a winner for us, even if it brings back painful memories. [WNBC, 4, 8 p.m.]

Sunday, Sept. 26

% Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein, veterans of The Simpsons , started hitting the phones on their own to promote their new show, Mission Hill , the week of Sept. 13. Mission Hill is an animated series about young downtown-type slackers living in a big loft, and it was panned by some critics as just another show about young people. But what really bothered the creators was that many who reviewed it–or “previewed” it–hadn’t seen it. The pilot wasn’t available for review until mid-September. Most of the reviews were based on a script and a 30-second segment produced for advertisers in May, which the creators threw together at the last minute.

“If I saw that presentation, I would think the show sucked, too,” said Mr. Weinstein, 33. “But it’s also like, ‘C’mon! Don’t write that the show is terrible if you haven’t seen it!’ It makes me wonder how many other things have I read that end up not being true. Like, maybe Iraq really isn’t such a bad country, and people are writing that based on a 30-second presentation they saw.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Weinstein said, he watched as the WB went full-throttle promoting shows like Roswell and Angel while leaving his show alone. That hurts a guy.

And so the Mission Hill creators began calling reporters on their own and sending out tapes. They even dispatched a friend to hand out stickers at the CMJ music festival here in town. “It’s a grass-roots campaign where everyone on the show is saying, ‘Please watch this tape,’” Mr. Weinstein said. NYTV took a look at the show. While it starts out a little slow–thanks to the necessary exposition–it picks up at the end and genuinely delivers laughs. Mr. Weinstein said he’s not asking people to like it. He’s just asking for a chance.

Tonight it’s The Simpsons ‘ season premiere: Homer helps out Mel Gibson on his latest film, as Simpsons writers bravely struggle to come up with another plot. [WNYW, 5, 8 p.m.]

Monday, Sept. 27

There are some sad faces moping around the Court TV offices this week.

On Tuesday, Sept. 14, the staff of Snap Judgment , the network’s comedy show created by Daily Show whiz Lizz Winstead, was told the show would be shown only at 11 P.M. from now on; this, after the show had been airing at 7:30 P.M. and 11:30 P.M. each night.

Those working on the show were told to look at it as a good thing. Nielsen numbers were showing that in the early evening, the channel is mostly watched by women between the ages of 18 and 49. But their show appeals more to males, so it would be bumped later, closer to Cops . But three days later–on Friday, Sept. 17– Snap Judgment was canceled. Lionel (the one-name former radio guy), Liz Layton, Jamie Greenberg and the rest of the staff were told they could apply for other jobs at the network and were given time in the office to get their reels together. People inside Court TV say it just represents the channel’s new footing since the days of O.J.–when it was more a male channel. “They’re mostly a male show, and we’re skewing highly female now,” said a spokeswoman. “We absolutely love them, and we want to wish them luck in the future.” As of press time, the show was still scheduled to run tonight at 11 P.M. [Court TV, 40, 11 p.m.]

Tuesday, Sept. 28

It’s just about a month before CBS bumps This Morning for a guy named Bryant Gumbel and something called Early Show . With Jane Clayson named as co-host, all that’s left for Mr. Gumbel, producer Steve Friedman, CBS news division chief Andrew Heyward and president and chief executive Les Moonves to agree upon is the news reader. Said to be among those being considered: current news reader Julie Chen and Saturday anchor Dawn Stensland. [WCBS, 2, 7 A.M.]

Peter Bogdanovich’s Movie of the Week

Among hip Western connoisseurs both here and abroad, there have been four really memorable, artistically consistent director-star series in the genre’s sound era: eight John Ford-John Wayne features (from Stagecoach to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance ); four Howard Hawks-Wayne pictures (including Red River and Rio Bravo ); five Anthony Mann-James Stewart sagas (from Winchester ’73 to The Man From Laramie ); and seven intimate ones from Budd Boetticher-Randolph Scott. The least known are the low-

budget, quickly shot Boetticher-Scott films, all intriguing, at least four of them remarkably complex, powerful and unpretentious sagebrush chess games, all written by the talented Burt Kennedy, with Scott or Mr. Boetticher as producers; starting with 1956′s Seven Men From Now and concluding with 1960′s color and wide-screen Comanche Station [Sunday, Sept. 26, Turner Classic Movies; 8:30 p.m.] . The other two are The Tall T (1957) and Ride Lonesome (1959).

When I first saw Comanche Station in the mid-60′s, I wrote and filed a card that read: “Personal, effective Boetticher-Scott Western about a man searching the plains for his wife, captured years ago by the Comanches; he saves another man’s wife, then must contend with three outlaws accompanying them, who are after the $5,000 reward put up by the woman’s husband. Written with depth and character, well acted, and strikingly directed, this is an evocative, often ambiguous, fascinating work.”

Probably the major distinguishing aspect of the Boetticher-Scott movies is the complicated cat-and-mouse relationships they depict between Scott and the various heavies, all of whom are given considerable dimension and charm, with such enormously effective character leads as Lee Marvin, Richard Boone, Pernell Roberts and, in Comanche Station , Claude Akins. Akins becomes quite a contender opposite Scott, with typically fine malevolent support from the brilliant former child actor Skip Homeier, already a Boetticher veteran from The Tall T . The well-conceived woman in the piece is played simply and convincingly by Nancy Gates.

Mr. Boetticher (pronounced Bet’-a-ker) was born in Chicago in 1916 under the inappropriate name of Oscar Boetticher Jr., and got into directing pictures through one of the most unusual and roundabout ways in movie history. After graduating from Ohio State, having played football and been a varsity boxer (“I had to be,” he said, “with a name like Oscar”), he went down to Mexico in the mid-1930′s and became a professional matador. When 20th Century Fox needed a technical adviser for the Tyrone Power bullfight picture Blood and Sand (1941), they hired Mr. Boetticher. Within three years, he was directing low-budget programmers under his birth name, but in 1951, the billing became Budd, with his first important, and clearly semi-autobiographical picture, Bullfighter and the Lady , starring Robert Stack. Over the next four years, Mr. Boetticher directed 10 action and Western quickies before making another bullfight picture, The Magnificent Matador (1955), with Anthony Quinn. The amazing series of Randolph Scott Westerns followed (the others: 1957′s Decision at Sundown , 1958′s Buchanan Rides Alone and 1958′s Westbound ), bracketed by exceptionally well-done crime pictures, The Killer Is Loose (1956), with Joseph Cotten, and The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960), with Ray Danton.

At the peak of his career, having been offered Scott’s next (and last) film, Ride the High Country (directed by Sam Peckinpah, 1962), Mr. Boetticher instead went to Mexico to shoot a documentary about his friend, the world-famous matador Carlos Arruza. The decade-long struggle with this ill-fated work, Arruza (1972), could be a hell of a movie in itself and is a riveting memoir, told unflinchingly by Mr. Boetticher in his book When in Disgrace : imprisonment, bankruptcy, divorce, insane-asylum commitment, near-death–first from starvation, then a lung infection–and the accidental death of his hero, Arruza, as well as much of his film crew. Certainly a survivor, Mr. Boetticher today remains youthful, candid, courageous and one of our finest living directors.