Martin Short, Showbiz Buzz Boy … Sitcoms Sag … Gay TV

Jim Rutenberg

Wednesday, Sept. 15

This is a given: There is nobody as in command of the old variety-show idiom as Marty Short. And he’s taken the next big step: Just as Rosie O’Donnell commandeered the spirits of Merv, Mike Douglas and Dinah Shore for her return-to-cuddly-showbiz talk show, Martin Short has commandeered the spirits of Merv, Mike Douglas, Dinah Shore plus the entire SCTV alumni society for his. And that includes Katharine Hepburn, Ed Grimsley and Jerry Lewis. But, as anybody who watched the entire Jerry Lewis telethon last week knows, there is a strange conflict going on within the Short persona that is not unlike the one that his first guest, Billy Crystal, had to struggle with: Where he once lived to mock show business, he has now become show business. When he and Jerry sang “There’s No Business Like Show Business” on Labor Day, it was clear he had, like the body-ingested pilot he once played in Inner Space, been devoured by “the bidness.” The distance was gone. Mr. Short no longer looks like a moppet or a parody-meister; he’s a show business entity. And he and Mr. Crystal, trading licks on show No. 1, were–and we say this out of love, out of respect, with a lot of that really good stuff–a little Friars Club. And, as a host, and an interviewer, and we say this out of love, respect and really good stuff, he’s a very, very good guest. About as good as Jerry on his two talk shows. On the other hand, Mr. Short’s Janeane Garofolo was as good as anything the SCTV crew did and his Emmy-interview segment in show No. 2 made one laugh so much as to hurt the pelvis. Laughing. With spritzing. And loving. And all that really good stuff. So, is there an audience in the late afternoon for remotes with Mr. Short hopping the boundary between intra- and extra-show- business shtick? Our advice is this: It may not last for very long–the last time anybody tried any real comedy during the day was David Letterman’s morning show–so get to The Martin Short Show now. [WCBS, 2, 4 P.M.]

The sitcom–a dying form? Discuss.

This fall season, there will be more new dramas than half-hour comedies for the first time in a long time. ( Variety puts it at a decade.) And of the 16 sitcoms making their debuts, only two or three–Fox’s Action and Freaks and Geeks and ABC’s Oh, Grow Up –are expected to do O.K.

“Every network had a hard time with comedy last year,” said Garth Ancier, the new chief programmer for NBC, which used to rule the comedy roost but seems to have lost its edge, clinging on to Frasier and Friends as a life raft.

But why? Television executives blame a number of factors, including themselves.

“I think people started focusing last year all around town on the wrong issue. The issue was, ‘We don’t believe the traditionally shot, four-camera show is working, so we’re going to do a lot of single camera film pilots,’ and most of those were projects that didn’t pan out,” Mr. Ancier said. “I think instead of saying we’ve got to make funny shows with people who are funny in them, with funny writers and good ideas, everyone said, ‘This form isn’t working, so we’re doing one-camera film.’”

Mr. Ancier said he will spend the upcoming development season focusing on developing good, old-fashioned, funny half-hour shows. But when he pitches around for writers, he may have a hard time finding good ones. With more cable channels developing their own original programming, the Hollywood writing pool is thinning out–another reason given for this year’s dearth of truly funny shows.

“There just aren’t as many great writers as we need there to be. There’s the same number of smart show-runners as there’s always been, but now there are more networks,” said Bob Greenblatt, a former Fox programmer who now runs the Greenblatt Janollari Studio. That’s why, he said, you now see any writer from any halfway successful show getting huge development deals, even those who don’t have so much experience. For instance, Adam Chase, the Friends executive producer who started out as chief story editor on the show in 1994, just inked a $12 million deal to work up ideas for Michael Ovitz’s Artists Television Group.

Mr. Greenblatt said he expects things to turn around, pointing out that in the early 80′s, the same obituaries were being written about the sitcom. Then came Cosby , and the sitcom was back.

Still, the people who handicap these things said, in the meantime, you can expect the networks to try out new types of shows. They’re calling it “alternative programming.” In that category are Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and Whose Line Is It Anyway? Besides drawing amazing ratings–the 22 million viewers who tuned into Who Wants to Be a Millionaire at the end of its run last month was almost unheard of for a game show, and in the summer, no less–these shows are also cheaper to make. While a sitcom can cost $700,000 to $800,000 per episode (not including the tab for talent), a Whose Line Is It Anyway? can be produced for less than $300,000. “There is a tremendous cost savings and, for a show like Millionaire , it’s a pretty big win for the network,” said Bill Cella, head of network ad buying at McCann Erikson. “It’s cheaper programming. That’s kind of the new wave that’s starting to come out.”

Tonight, on Frasier , Roz’s parents have big noses. [WPIX, 11, 7:30 P.M.]

Thursday, Sept. 16

Used to be when you thought of Rob Lowe, you thought of St. Elmo’s Fire or some other brat-pack smash. Even with his recent comeback, things seem to have gone way downhill for him. When NBC plugs his role in The West Wing , it lists his only credit as Atomic Train . Maybe things will get better when his new show debuts. Speaking of television movies, it’s a two-hour Diagnosis: Murder . Is a masked TV magician killed for ratings? [WCBS, 2, 8 P.M.]

Friday, Sept. 17

Lucille Ball: feminist hero?

That issue came up on a recent night when a few of us were sitting around the dinner table talking about how I Love Lucy is considered one of the best sitcoms ever. All of a sudden, Becky Hubbert–a costume designer who works as a stylist on assorted commercials and theatrical productions–exploded. She said that, while Lucy makes her laugh, she has come to realize that Lucy actually was hurting the feminist cause at the time.

“I’d never thought of Lucy as antifeminist. I’d always thought of her as amazingly strong,” she said. But then someone pointed out to her that Lucy was always getting in trouble, always looking stupid, and her opinion changed.

“She always fucks up and cowers,” Ms. Hubbard said. “She never, ever gets it right, never. Desi forgives her, of course.”

Ms. Hubbard pointed to a classic episode as an example: “She’d try to be sneaky and underhanded, and it wouldn’t work out. In this one episode, she was saying, ‘Oh, it’s easy to get a job, it’s easy to be the man of the house.’ So she and Ethel go to an employment agency and they have no experience so they lie and get a job and immediately fuck it up. Desi tries to keep house and fucks up, too. The end is, ‘We should just keep our positions. Our positions are what they are for a reason. You’re the breadwinner, I’m the housewife,’ which is really pretty crappy.”

Judy Rhee, a production designer for television, commercials and movies (she just finished up Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream ) who was also sitting at the dinner table, strongly disagreed: “She did not cower. She was very strong and she was not made out to look like an idiot,” Ms. Rhee said. “It was for comedic purposes that she was getting into all this trouble.” In the end, Ms. Rhee’s point was that Lucy had a show named after her. [Nickelodeon, 6, 11 P.M.]

Saturday, Sept. 18

Who’s cooler than Francis McDormand? Nobody, that’s who. Catch her tonight in Fargo , especially since Saturday Night Live and Mad TV are still in repeats. [TNT, 3, 10:25 P.M.]

Sunday, Sept. 19

Something possessed Keri Russell, star of Felicity , to go out and cut all her hair off, which doesn’t seem to make much sense because isn’t that why people like her? Because of that great hair? Now, think of her as Sampson, weakened. Maybe she’ll be able to pull it off, anyway, but it definitely could prove to be a big mistake. It’s not on tonight, but it will be in this slot next week. [WB, 11, 9 P.M.]

Monday, Sept. 20

If Ellen DeGeneres were to come out of the closet on national TV today, it probably wouldn’t cause much of a stir. It’s just not such a crazy thing to see on the tube these days. In all, there are 17 new gay characters on the four major networks this television season, on shows like ABC’s Wasteland and Oh, Grow Up and on Fox’s Action . When you tally it all up, there’s probably about the same number of new gay characters as there new minority characters.

How could that be? Well, there are simply more gay writers than minority writers in Hollywood. “As a writer, as a storyteller, you draw from experience,” said Wasteland creator Kevin Williamson, who’s openly gay, when asked why he thought it was. “So I am writing from what I know. That’s Writing 101. And so these are the stories that are coming out of me at this time in my life. If we’re not seeing enough diversity on television, I would encourage us to get some more creators in there, some more diverse storytellers, so that they can create these stories, so they can make their way to the air.”

Despite the influx of new gay characters, it still isn’t enough for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. They claim that not enough of the new gay characters are lead characters. Today on the Ellen rerun: the one where she and Paige go to a health spa and, in the end, Ellen is stuck, hanging on a fence. [Lifetime, 12, 4 P.M.]

Tuesday, Sept. 21

Finally, Melrose Place meets Spin City , when Heather Locklear debuts as the Mayor’s campaign manager on Michael J. Fox’s City Hall sitcom. After Melrose Place was canceled, Ms. Locklear was offered parts on King of Queens , Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place and Spin City . She said she chose to go with Spin City because she wanted to work with Mr. Fox. It’s not clear how she’ll do on a sitcom, but it should do O.K. for the show’s ratings. [WABC, 7, 8 P.M.]

Peter Bogdanovich’s Movie of the Week

Since for me the Polish-German Ernst Lubitsch (1892-1947), once internationally famous for his “Lubitsch Touch,” is high among the 10 best and most influential picturemakers of the Western world–one to whose work I gravitate even more as I get older–it follows that if there’s a rare Lubitsch film on, it’s almost automatically movie of the week. Based on the famous Sigmund Romberg operetta, 1927′s The Student Prince [Monday, Sept. 20, Turner Classic Movies, 82, 3 A.M.; also on videocassette] , one of Lubitsch’s last silent pictures, is not really representative of him, being neither a romantic comedy nor a historical drama, but rather an extremely touching sad love story.

When I first saw it 30 years ago, I rated The Student Prince in my movie-card file as “Exceptional,” adding: “Typically sublime visit to the beautiful world of Lubitsch and his royal kingdoms, about a crown prince who falls in love with a barmaid and cannot marry her. Full-bodied and eloquent performances by Norma Shearer, Ramon Novarro, Jean Hersholt and the rest of the cast. A lovely movie and a minor masterpiece.” The other day I saw the film for only the second time and it killed me. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a picture that as brilliantly (wordlessly, remember) captures the intoxicated, overpowering feeling of two people falling in love as the first few scenes between Shearer’s tavern maid and Novarro’s title character. The gestures, body language and looks that pass from one to the other are astonishingly fresh and evocative–superbly modulated, choreographed, photographed and edited by the master.

This is the picture that moved the status of Norma Shearer (1900-1983) substantially upward; within three years she would win a best-actress Oscar (for 1930′s dismal The Divorcee ) as well as five more Academy nominations in the same decade. Absolutely her most beguiling and emotional work, however, is in The Student Prince . Just as this Lubitsch portrait of turn-of-the-century Old Heidelberg is also the zenith in the career of Mexican-born Ramon Novarro (1899-1968). A 1920′s heartthrob in the Valentino vein, his biggest success was in the original Ben-Hur (1926), but he never before or since displayed the sensitive range and subtlety of his work for Lubitsch. As for Danish character-man Jean Hersholt (1886-1956), his name today may only be familiar because the Academy annually (since 1956) presents a Special Oscar called the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, named to commemorate the actor’s outstanding humanitarian activities. If any performance sums up this Hersholt image, it’s in The Student Prince as the self-effacing, benevolently loving tutor to the crown prince. All three stars don’t seem to be acting in this movie; their characters’ actual existence becomes palpable.

One sequence Lubitsch didn’t shoot was inserted at the insistence of M-G-M chief L.B. Mayer, who felt there needed to be a more obvious romantic sequence, Lubitsch’s version being more circuitous and understated. This scene, directed by later weepies veteran John M. Stahl, brings Shearer and Novarro for a tryst onto a pretty obviously fake hill of budding, rustling flowers. Although the sequence seems totally out of character for the movie–and nearly an archetypal example of kitschy silent-movie sentimentality–one’s affection for Shearer and Novarro is so strong by that point you don’t really mind too much.

While he bewitchingly conveys the heady beauty of blossoming love, Lubitsch also quite devastatingly expresses the crushing anguish of lovers’ parting and loss. Seeing The Student Prince brings with it a kind of shock of recognition: Yes, the movies really can tell you so much about human beings without the use of words. How to describe the delight in watching Shearer innocently edge all the way behind Novarro when she’s first looking him over, or the way she walks purposefully but with no reason around his room before leaving the first time? Lubitsch reminds us that once upon a time pictures were about feelings, and they had a heart.