Tough Days for TV Tricksters … MTV Captures Kabul … The Return of Rodney Rothman

Wednesday, Dec. 19

Who’s got the hardest TV job in post–Sept. 11 Manhattan? That’s easy: on-the-make yuksters with wacky, in-your-face Candid Camera –type shows. It used to be so simple-pulling pranks on unsuspecting rubes in New York for TV fame (look at the soon-to-be ex–Mr. Barrymore, Tom Green)-but it’s not so easy now, in a tensed-up, super-suspicious city. At least that’s the deal according to Frank Gregory and Adam Dolgins, the two brainiacs behind VH1′s currently-on-hiatus-but-still-alive stunt show, Sledgehammer .

“In the wake of Sept. 11, it’s so much harder,” said Mr. Dolgins. “Everyone’s sort of looking for bombs, and we’ve got hidden camera equipment under our jackets. We can’t just walk into the offices of Spin magazine, get past their receptionist, pretend that you’re the new intern and pester everyone.”

Well, of course not-because if you did that, curly-haired Spin editor and nonstop VH1 moonlighter Alan Light’s liable to cozy up and assign you a 3,000-word cover tribute to No Doubt! But nowadays, Sledgehammer staffers-who have in the past done stuff like wander into guitar shops and smash guitars, or have someone loudly play a synthesizer keyboard outside public tennis courts-have to be extra cautious. Not only has security been heightened at formerly juicy targets-like Spin- but the show’s producers are wary of stunts that might attract overburdened NYPD officers, who aren’t likely to be thrilled to respond to Viacom-sponsored goofing off. Sledgehammer , of course, already ran into trouble with the law on Oct. 3, when a Michael Jackson impersonator was busted for trespassing at Yankee Stadium-just moments before he was to throw out the first pitch. That case remains unresolved.

And VH1 is also being cautious about Sledgehammer ‘s antics, apparently. “The network has also gotten a lot more challenging about what they’ll allow us to do,” Mr. Dolgins said.

Still, Mr. Dolgins said that the jokes go on, and that many New Yorkers have been surprisingly mellow about being messed with. “As far as screwing with the common man, I’m pleased to say that New York has retained a very healthy sense of humor,” he said.

Sledgehammer ‘s biggest problem: getting people to watch the darn thing. The show premiered on Sept. 20-not exactly the most appropriate date for a premiere, to say the least-and is now cooling its heels while VH1 preps a relaunch. Mr. Dolgins said they’re hearing January, or maybe even later this spring.

Time to pray to St. Alan Funt! Tonight on VH1, inevitable-yet-still-depressing 90′s revivalism rears its ugly head in the too-soon, yet perversely tantalizing epic Too Legit: The M.C. Hammer Story . Wonder who plays the dancer with the haircut shaped like a Dairy Queen cone. You thought you forgot about him, didn’t you? [VH1, 19, 9 p.m.]

Thursday, Dec. 20

Even as it whacks jobs on the home front, you can sleep safe knowing that MTV is still fighting the good fight abroad, trying to sell Ja Rule, J. Lo and Alien Ant Farm records to the culture-starved, war-torn masses outside of America. Now the music channel’s got a young ‘un rambling around the dusty streets of Kabul, siding up to shell-shocked Afghan teens and asking them MTV-viewer-supplied questions like: “If you could choose one of the following concerts to attend, would it be: Backstreet Boys, Spice Girls or Linkin Park?”

If that sounds like “Operation Dumb-ass Drop” to you, rest assured that the guy doing the asking-CNN’s Jason Bellini, a former MTV guy who’s moonlighting overseas for his old network-knows a silly question when he reads one. “Most of these teenagers have been completely cut off from the outside world, from Western culture, for the past five years,” Mr. Bellini said the other day on a five-second-delayed horn from Kabul. “So they really don’t identify with most of the artists these kids are talking about.”

Hmmm. Wait a sec. You mean, if we move to Afghanistan, it’s quite possible we’d never have to read another Kurt Loder New York magazine essay about the “raw melodic grandeur” of the Strokes?

Mr. Bellini did note that some of the Afghan teens he encountered were very hip to a certain movie about a sinking boat.

“They love Titanic, ” he said. “One girl I interviewed yesterday was wearing a Titanic scarf over her head, and I asked her about the movie, and she was a little embarrassed. Her friend wanted to know: Was it true that Leonardo DiCaprio died on Sept. 11? I was able to deny that rumor, and she was very relieved.”

Yes, you read correctly: Titanic scarf.

Tonight on MTV, SpongeBob SquarePants . Look, SpongeBob ‘s a hip guy, and cross-network cross-pollination is the wave of the future, but when MTV starts raiding the Nickelodeon cookie jar, you know times be tight ! [MTV, 20, 11:30 p.m.]

Friday, Dec. 21

If you’ve been noticing a little extra estro in your flip around the dial, that’s because this week-after a long, long delay, thanks a lot, Time Warner Cable -the much-hyped Oxygen network finally made its New York City debut. Now, when your faraway friend in the suburban sticks prattles on about this week’s installment of The Isaac Mizrahi Show , you’ll know exactly what that crazy Caravan-driving yahoo is yapping about!

“I think we’ll be opening a few bottles of champagne,” said chief O2 spokeswoman Laura Nelson. “I’m pretty sure about that, because I’m the one who is planning it.” (What a boss!)

Ms. Nelson also spilled the beans that come Jan. 1, O2 will be rolling out a big sweaty smoochfest devoted to … men!

Hey, wasn’t this supposed to be the one channel where you couldn’t watch a Noah Wyle documentary? Ms. Nelson said that O2 viewers were asked, “Who is the celebrity you’d most love to spend the night with?” We’ll leave that one alone-but apparently, George Clooney and Brad Pitt did predictably well, and so did … Clark Gable. Some of O2′s hip viewers, clearly, are early to bed, early to rise!

Tonight, O2 gives New Yorkers a big welcome hug with a concert from the hyper-serious, monotoned and still mysteriously sexy chanteuse, Natalie Merchant. Up Close and Personal with Natalie Merchant. [OXY, 61, 8 p.m.]

Saturday, Dec. 22

Hey wait, is that Monday Night Football on Saturday night? Yes, it is-rescheduled for the holidaze-and it promises to be just as dull, and to graze its way long past midnight! Raiders at Titans. [WABC, 7, 9 p.m.]

Sunday, Dec. 23

Tonight on WNBC: Beloved . Also known as “Unloved.” With Oprah Winfrey, that magazine editor. [WNBC, 4, 8 p.m.]

Monday, Dec. 24

Do you know the Metro Channel? It’s that peppy “downtown” channel that seems to have profiled every nubile handbag maker south of 14th Street, and from which six people at every cocktail party you go to have been fired. Now the Rainbow Media cable outlet is feeling some econo-pain, too, having jettisoned four shows you never watched- The Daily Beat, Gameface, Out of Bounds and Unblinking Eye -and committing more resources to its dry-as-paste Metro Traffic & Weather Channel. What does that shakeup mean for Metro’s two remaining signature shows-the repeated-10,000-times-a-night New York Central , with frisky Michael Musto and Lori Kramer, and Full Frontal Fashion , with couture lunatics Judy Licht and Robert Verdi? A Metro spokesperson said the network remains “totally committed” to both programs, and that they’re not on the chopping block. So splurge on that Bendel’s sweater, Judy!

Tonight, the FFF gang gathers under the mistletoe; look out, here comes a randy Karl Lagerfeld, fresh from the M.A.C. counter! [MET, 70, 8 p.m.]

Tuesday, Dec. 25

Merry Christmas! Today, in a big holiday coup, WPIX WB 11 brings back a perplexing Manhattan tradition: the inane yet comforting Yule Log. Now if they could just get smoldering WB Morning News entertaino-reporter Lynda Lopez to light that puppy from the tip of a Manolo Blahnik, that’d be sumthin’ ! [WPIX, 11, 8 a.m.]

Wednesday, Dec. 26

“The N.B.A. and NBC was an excellent partnership for a long time. It was mutually beneficial, and it included some of the greatest days in the league’s history. But ultimately, who thinks that in the end this is anything other than a business?”

That’s Bob Costas, the face of NBC Sports, talking about his employer-the ex-home of pro football, baseball and basketball, now that ABC/ESPN/Disney and AOL Time Warner have swooped in and snapped away N.B.A. hoops following the 2001-2 season. Now NBC still has some pretty tantalizing stuff-let’s see, there’s the Olympics, plus NASCAR, horse racing, golf and disco figure skating-but it’s a far cry from the days when Mr. Costas and his colleagues also got to chronicle Michael Jordan jumpers and Kirk Gibson moon shots.

As always, it boiled down to dollars. “I don’t have any doubt that the N.B.A. and the Olympics are Dick Ebersol’s two favorite things,” Mr. Costas said, referring to the NBC Sports president. “But if you’re going to lose $100 million a year-which is what they calculated-then personal connection can’t justify that. If it ever got to be that the next time around, to get the 2010 or 2012 Olympics, you had to lose more money than a company could justify, then you’d have to console yourself by watching tapes of past Olympics. That’s just the way it is.”

Tonight on NBC, The West Wing . In tonight’s episode, President Bartlett is confronted with some bad news: In order to pay for Katie Couric, he’s going to have to slash grain subsidies. And Rob Lowe. [WNBC, 4, 9 p.m.]

Thursday, Dec. 27

One of the undiscussed sidenotes of the recent, widely circulated “Get Cancer” e-mail hissy fit between That 70s Show creator Mark Brazill and Undeclared creator Judd Apatow was the appearance of a name that careful readers in New York may remember: Rodney Rothman.

Mr. Rothman, you might recall, was the author of the now-infamous New Yorker piece “My Fake Job,” in which he purported to have snuck into an anonymous downtown dot-com company, taken a desk and loafed around, unmolested, for two weeks. When it debuted, the piece was hailed as a brilliant takedown of dot-com excess and naïveté, and word spread that it was being shopped as a movie. Word also started to spread, however, that a few minor things mentioned in Mr. Rothman’s piece (like a back rub from a company masseuse) didn’t actually happen, and that Mr. Rothman’s mother worked at the very same company. Embarrassed, The New Yorker wound up publishing an apology.

Still, Mr. Rothman-a former head writer for the Late Show with David Letterman -landed on his feet. He’s a supervising producer on Undeclared -about a corps of dorks living in a dorm at a fictitious California university, it’s one of the fall’s better new shows. He popped up in the “Get Cancer” e- mishegas -so named because that’s what Mr. Brazill cruelly instructed his ex-colleague turned rival, Mr. Apatow, to do-when Mr. Apatow credited Mr. Rothman with a pithy response to the remark: “I’ll wait till you get it and then steal it from you.”

Efforts to reach Mr. Rothman on the West Coast were unsuccessful. Phone calls to a rep for Dreamworks Television, Undeclared ‘s production company, were not returned, and Mr. Rothman’s East Coast rep didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Tonight on Fox, the dopey baby movie Nine Months , with Hugh Grant, who knows a thing or two about the cold hard truth. [FOX, 5, 8 p.m.]

Friday, Dec. 28

Everyone knows that the Fox News Channel and CNN hate each other’s guts, right? One of the wackier competitive high jinks they pull is to buy local advertising air time on each others’ networks-so, for example, when you sit your ACLU-card-carrying, Greta Van Susteren–loving tooshie on the couch for a blast of CNN, you get hammered here and there with a flirty ad for Roger Ailes’ Sixth Avenue gang. Lately, it’s gotten even more amusing, as CNN has been running ads for Fox News refugee Paula Zahn’s morning show on FNC programs, including The O’Reilly Factor . A Fox rep said such reverse buys are pretty standard, and said that Ms. Zahn’s spots had been no biggie over at her old shop. A CNN rep didn’t respond to comment.

Tonight on The O’Reilly Factor, Mr. O’Reilly shows off all the hard-earned coal he got in his stocking. [FNC, 46, 8 p.m.]

Saturday, Dec. 29

Tonight on TNT, Footloose . Your Kevin Bacon joke here. [TNT, 3, 8 p.m.]

Sunday, Dec. 30

On HBO tonight, more repeats of Sex and the City, here to prep you for the new mini-season slate of episodes coming Jan. 6, which have been interpreted as some shrewd super-genius move on HBO’s part -since we’re all starved for some decent television-but are actually just some extra episodes the network cranked out earlier this year because at the time they, like everybody else, thought there was going to be a big actors’ and writers’ strike. [HBO, 32, 9 p.m.]

Monday, Dec. 31

You choose to rock out with Dick Clark. We choose to roll gently into 2002 with a repeat of Larry King Live , who gives thanks for Vanilla Sky , health and peace, in that order. [CNN, 10, midnight]

Tuesday, Jan. 1

Happy New Year! And happy 14th anniversary to the finest movie ever made about 80′s trick bartenders, Cocktail . [TNT, 3, 8 p.m.]