Wednesday, March 29
Besides gleaming new arteries, David Letterman also has two new head writers, the fraternal team of Eric and Justin Stangel, who started work on Monday, March 20. Like previous head writer Rodney Rothman, who got the same gig at 24 years old, and recently left the show after five years, the Stangels are cubs; Justin’s 30, and Eric is 28.
Three years ago, the brothers were hired as a package, which for some reason creeps NYTV out in the same way that Angelina Jolie’s whole incest-chic thing did on the Oscars. Hey, but if it worked for Neil Simon and his brother …
At The Late Show With David Letterman , the Stangels have been responsible for remote segments, earning points with Mr. Letterman’s mom, Dorothy, at the Nagano Olympics, and hitting the road for the show’s recurring small-town, Kuralt-like segments like “Biff Henderson’s America.”
The Stangels grew up in Chappaqua, N.Y. Eric went to Syracuse to study journalism. After school, he got an internship with Charlie Rose, where he got very good at photocopying. Justin went to film school in Australia and fell in love with a nice Australian girl, who then made off with his CD collection and two sweaters.
Back in New York, the brothers formed a comedy troupe called Big City Comedy and rented a theater downtown, hoping that maybe the networks or Comedy Central would come calling. (They didn’t.) Then, in 1996, as NYTV discovered in a recent telephone conversation, they got their big break.
Justin Stangel: We did some freelance work for Norm McDonald when he was doing “Weekend Update” on Saturday Night Live .
Eric Stangel: We faxed jokes for months and never heard anything. There was no acknowledgment that they even received them, so one day we called to make sure they were even getting them. We called, and they said, ‘Yeah, yeah, we know who you are.’ That Saturday, we tuned in and our first joke was on.
J.S.: We were watching at home, and I said, ‘ Holy crap ! Was that our joke?’
E.S.: We had this fear that somebody had written the exact same joke and we were just fooling ourselves … I think it was about Kevorkian. But then Norm was really nice to us.
NYTV: Eric, can you take Justin?
E.S.: I’m a bit leaner than Justin and a little bit taller too, but there’s some weird mental thing that I have … I think I could take him by using that … because mentally, he’s far weaker than most people.
J.S.: He could outsmart me, but if it’s just a question of muscle …
NYTV: Who did better on their S.A.T.’s?
J.S.: Eric clearly did … I took it twice and if you added both of those scores together, I still did shitty. I had a high school literature teacher senior year tell me that my life would amount to nothing.
E.S.: I think he had two parents who told him that, too.
NYTV: So who’s funnier?
J.S.: Eric is definitely funnier.
NYTV: So, is Justin dead weight?
E.S.: No, no, no! Justin’s got his purpose. He sits there and looks pretty.
J.S.: And contractually, they can’t get rid of me without Eric.
NYTV: And do you both get paid the same amount of money?
E.S.: As far as Justin knows, we are equals.
J.S.: I haven’t been allowed to read any of the paperwork, but as far as I’ve been told, we’re equals.
Tonight, Dave welcomes kid scientists. And Jimmy Smits. [WNBC, 2, 11:30 P.M.]
Thursday, March 30
Maybe it was those lips. Ever since NYTV was a brooding little shaver, it always thought that Martin Donovan was a big stud. He was in all those Hal Hartley movies– Amateur , Simple Men , Flirt, etc. His role in 1990’s Trust summed it up: He played Matthew Slaughter, an angry young man who speaks little, has impossibly good floppy hair, refuses to repair television sets for moral reasons, and carries a live grenade in his pocket at all times. Mr. Donovan was always the quiet guy on the verge of exploding.
So, even though NYTV has never swung that way, Mr. Donovan became NYTV’s gunpoint gay lover, i.e., if somebody with a gun ever told NYTV that they had to sleep with another man, Mr. Donovan was the guy.
“I’m very flattered,” Mr. Donovan said, perhaps a little uneasily. Now NYTV must share his guy crush on Mr. Donovan with the world: He’s playing shrink Dr. Neil Harrison in Wonderland , ABC’s new Bellevue mental hospital drama, which premieres on March 30, up against– gulp – ER . (Hey, ABC programmers! Remember that feeling you got watching the fight scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the one where the guy doesn’t notice the airplane propeller behind him? Getting that feeling again?)
Mr. Donovan was in his Upper West Side apartment, raising his voice above a loud sawing noise in the background, which he explained was his wife putting documents into a shredder. He said she’s fond of doing her shredding while he’s talking on the phone.
Mr. Donovan was sounding pretty Zen about the whole ER thing. “There’s pros and cons in the world of TV strategy,” he said. “Our lead in is the highest-rated show in the history of the universe, you know, Millionaire . That helps. It’s a matter of whether or not ER still has legs. From what I understand, it was going to be either ER or Law & Order . Either way it was going to be a tough nut … If it can’t handle ER , I hope ABC is smart enough to stick with it and put it somewhere where people will get to see it.”
So did he go through years of intense psychotherapy to prepare for this role of administrator to the criminally insane? “No,” said Mr. Donovan. “I just spent 15 years hard drinking. That was my therapy for a while.”
So, NYTV asked, when did you kick the bottle?
“Now how did we get onto this subject?” he said. “Let’s talk about the show.”
Ah, yes, the show. If the first episode is any indication, Wonderland is one of the more inventive things to appear on TV in quite a while. Think One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest meets Oz . The camerawork is a little dizzying, but the dialogue is gritty and raw. The acting is pretty good, too. (Ted Levine, best known for his penis-tucking dance as Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs , is particularly strong as a shrink fighting for custody of his young boys.)
Is this finally Mr. Donovan’s big break? After all those years in the purgatory of art-house fame, will he finally become a household name?
At least there’s one part of town where he’ll always be a star. “Downtown is chock full of Hartley fans,” he said. “It just seems like everybody south of 14th Street has been to film school. They all know me that way.”
NYTV has seen quite enough of that Topo Gigio lookalike Noah Wyle, even with his new limp. Watch Wonderland and make this guy a big TV star. [WABC, 7, 10 P.M.]
Friday, March 31
Last week NBC debuted Battery Park , a Barney Miller -esque comedy created by Chris Henchy and Gary David Goldberg, and starring Elizabeth Perkins. The show, a midseason sub for Stark Raving Mad (miss that one yet?), got some good reviews and a decent time slot at Thursday nights between Frasier and ER . Wait a sec. A cop show set in Battery Park? That ain’t exactly Fort Apache.
“Of all the places in New York to put a [TV] police precinct, Battery Park is a strange choice,” said Det. Billy Stiles, the community affairs officer for the 1st Precinct, which includes Battery Park.
It’s not that Battery Park is a bad neighborhood for a TV show, Mr. Stiles said. It’s just a little dull. From a cop’s point of view, nothing really exciting happens down there, amid the skyscrapers, apartment towers and tourists queuing up for the Statue of Liberty ferry. “Unlicensed vendors are probably the biggest thing we get down here,” Mr. Stiles said.
So upon hearing that Battery Park ‘s debut episode featured a shooting, burly mobsters and other assorted action, Mr. Stiles chuckled.
“I don’t think you’ll have a lot of mobsters running around down here,” he said.
In fairness, Battery Park is a comedy, and it’s probably not a good idea to set a comedy in a precinct with multiple homicides, armed robberies and sexual assaults. Mr. Henchy, the show’s co-creator, said the region was chosen for its diversity of residents and businesses–not for its unlawful behavior. “This show isn’t about solving crimes,” Mr. Henchy said. Instead, he said, it’s about the relationships of “very normal people with extraordinary jobs.”
But Battery Park makes NYTV wonder: as the shiny, dot-com Gotham becomes less gritty, what’s the next wave of New York cop shows? Yorkville Heat ? Murray Hill 911 ?
For a grungier rendering of the law-enforcement business (and heck, even some pretty good comedy!) watch Cops tonight. [Court TV, 40, 8 P.M.]
Saturday, April 1
Best remaining name in the men’s N.C.A.A. Final Four basketball tournament: Wisconsin’s Duany Duany. [WCBS, 2, 5 P.M.]
Sunday, April 2
A couple of reasons to watch Showtime’s wonderfully campy Noriega: God’s Favorite , with Bob Hoskins as the now-incarcerated Panamanian strongman: See Manuel Noriega chasing his mistress around the room, screaming, “Submit to me, you pompous, white-assed bitch!” See Noriega, resembling a shrunken Elvis in pompadour and yellow jumpsuit, coming on to Cesar, his jet pilot–as Cesar tries to fly the plane! “I love to fly,” says the famously zitty and apparently bisexual Noriega, stroking the pilot’s cheek. “General!” Cesar shrieks, sounding a bit like a Latino Charles Nelson Reilly. Wince as Noriega gets a painful skin peel in Switzerland. (Showtime could have saved a bundle in makeup by hiring Eddie Olmos.)
Sounds made-up, right? Actually, New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright said he was scrupulous about getting close to the truth. “That scene with Cesar is actually in Congressional testimony from the Kerry Commission,” he said. “This pilot was flying along and suddenly Noriega gave him a blow job. The pilot wasn’t gay. He told the Congressmen he was shocked, but what could he do?”
Plus, for the book, he interviewed one of the General’s most trusted aides: his dermatologist. [SHO, 48, 8 P.M.]
Monday, April 3
Men’s N.C.A.A. Final Four basketball championship. If Wisconsin’s there, Duany Duany goes for trophy trophy. [WCBS, 2, 9 P.M.]
Tuesday, April 4
CBS unveils its mob drama Falcone , a.k.a. The Sopranos for people too cheap to get HBO. [WCBS, 2, 9 A.M.]