Onion and Conan: A Pairing for the Century

Wednesday, March 17

Mo Rocca’s gig as an on-air correspondent for The Daily Show With Jon Stewart might not pay as much as his former job, but at least he can tell his mother about it.

Up until a few months ago, he was making $150 an hour editing Perfect 10: The Connoisseur’s Magazine , a soft-core publication that only displays women with natural, unaugmented breasts.

“I quickly became anti-implant myself,” said the slight, thin-faced Mr. Rocca, 30.

On The Daily Show , Comedy Central’s news send-up, Mr. Rocca profiles eccentrics, from a man obsessed with First Ladies to a Californian who claims to have visited the 16th century in a time machine. Mr. Rocca conceded that his subjects are often unfamiliar with The Daily Show and may not know what they’re in for, exactly.

A couple years ago, after a stint in children’s television, Mr. Rocca was unemployed and found himself down and out in Los Angeles. When he learned that a rich publisher with a passion for real bosoms–Norm Zadeh, Ph.D., as he calls himself on the masthead–was offering a lot of money for someone to join his magazine, Mr. Rocca’s “moral queasiness dissipated immediately.”

“He was especially pleased that I went to Harvard, so he made me the grammarian,” said Mr. Rocca. “He was obsessed with proper grammar.”

Logging 25 hours a week interviewing women about their sex lives, Mr. Rocca paid off his student loans early. He didn’t feel dirty–after all, Perfect 10 eschews below-the-waist nudity, and reads more like Playboy than Naughty Neighbors . “My Harvard friends thought it was great, and my feminist women friends are more postfeminist; they thought it empowering in a strange way,” he said.

But then Mr. Rocca’s children’s-TV career restarted in New York, where he began story-editing The Wubbulous World of Dr. Seuss for Nickelodeon. Living a double life was not quite so wubbulous: “I was doing preschool by day and porn by night. I was trying to compartmentalize.” The stress proved too great, and television won out over pornography.

Tonight on The Daily Show , Mr. Rocca brings together his two interests as he profiles a 53-year-old archivist for the Library of Congress in Washington who also runs a library of pornography out of the home he shares with his mother. [Comedy Central, 45, 11 P.M.]

Thursday, March 18

Toward the end of ’99, there’s sure to be a flood of tedious century- and millennium-themed programming. Giving viewers relief from all that, perhaps, will be the editors and writers of The Onion , a satirical newspaper published in Wisconsin (and available on the Web). According to Onion manager David Miner of 3 Arts Entertainment in New York, The Onion is near a deal with NBC to produce a series of specials, the first of which would be called Our Dumb Century . They’re talking a fall ’99 air date.

As of press time, Onion editor Scott Dikkers was scheduled to have a meeting in New York with Conan O’Brien and his producer, Jeff Ross. The pairing of The Onion and Late Night With Conan O’Brien makes sense: Both have a gleefully absurd take on the world, and Mr. O’Brien is an Onion fan.

In Madison, Wisc., Mr. Dikkers is working on a script to translate the book into TV. “It will compete with the Peter Jennings and Brokaw specials,” said Mr. Dikkers.

Whereas programs like The Daily Show With Jon Stewart crack jokes about current events, The Onion fabricates news stories that reflect the world as accurately as real journalism. (“President Feels Nation’s Pain, Breasts”; “Perky ‘Canada’ Has Own Government, Laws”). On April 1, Random House’s Three Rivers Crown imprint will publish the first Onion book– Our Dumb Century –which documents the last 100 years as seen on the pages of The Onion . Sample headline from the 40’s: “Betty Grable Appointed Head of U.S. Army Special Masturbation Fantasy Squadron.”

If Mr. O’Brien teams with The Onion , NBC would likely be more committed to the idea, possibly coughing up a bigger budget for the proposed specials. “If Conan is involved, it changes the equation,” said the source close to the NBC negotiations. NBC and the people at Late Night had no comment. Tonight on Late Night : Barbara Walters. [WNBC, 4, 12:30 A.M.]

Friday, March 19

The Fresh Step hoax moved one step closer to reality when MTV got in on the joke.

On the Feb. 23 edition of Total Request Live , Fresh Step stopped by MTV’s glassed-in studio in Times Square to chat with host Carson Daly, who introduced them as “a new guy-group sensation.” At the end of the interview, the boys sang a snatch of their new song, “Don’t Talk to the Hand (Girl, Talk to the Heart).” Sample lyric: “Girl, you’re freaky fresher than a fresh work of art!”

If you’re a 14-year-old girl and haven’t heard of Fresh Step, that’s O.K. It’s a fake, a deadpan hoax from the writers at Late Show With David Letterman . Rather than crack one-liners about the current boy-band craze that has propelled groups like Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync to stardom, the Late Show writers decided to concoct their own sensation. Fresh Step–also the name of a kitty litter brand–is awful, but in a subtle way. It’s too

real to be a typical parody. Which is probably why MTV, the network that has bent over backward for Backstreet Boys et al., went along with the joke. “We treated them like they were any normal, real band that MTV would have on and plug,” said Deb Savo, the producer of Total Request Live , who brought the group to MTV after she was pitched by Jill Leiderman, a Late Show producer.

On Total Request Live , the only hint that something was amiss came when Mr. Daly asked the band why they didn’t have any fans cheering for them outside the studio. “We’re keeping it on the down low,” was one band member’s response.

The Steppers, by the way, are actors; Three of the five (Jeremy Kushnier, Jamie Gustis, Brad Madison) are cast members of the Broadway show Footloose . In the band, they wear extra-baggy pants and barrettes, and go by the names Corey, Jeremy, Jamie, Brad and D.J. On March 3, their second appearance on Late Show , they performed a complete version of “Don’t Talk to the Hand.” (Sample lyric No. 2: “I’m full of flavor, just like beef stew.”) According to the band, the song comes from the Dimension Films movie Talk to the Hand , starring James van der Beek as a popular high school boy and Sarah Michelle Gellar as the unpopular girl who happens to be hearing-impaired.

Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync are, essentially, manufactured creations, the brainchild of former transportation magnate Louis J. Pearlman and his Orlando hit factory. Which raises a philosophical question about Fresh Step: Just because it happens to be created by comedy writers, does that make it any less real? [WCBS, 2, 11:30 P.M.]

Saturday, March 20

It makes perfect sense that Robert Smigel is developing a show based on “TV Funhouse,” his series of animated shorts that has been one of the more consistently funny elements on Saturday Night Live in the past three years. But why is he working for Fox, and not NBC? “NBC passed,” said Mr. Smigel. “It’s a late-night project, and they already have a zillion things in late night. And it’s definitely too racy for prime time.”

Mr. Smigel’s shorts borrow the static quality of bad children’s animation for inspired superhero cartoons like Ambiguously Gay Duo and The X-Presidents , the latter starring Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush as superhuman crimefighters. Other segments pair recognizable audio tracks, such as CNN broadcasts, with absurdly appropriate visuals, resulting in, for instance, Bob Dole’s body falling apart as he speaks.

According to a Fox spokesman, Mr. Smigel’s show is in development for the fall season. Mr. Smigel said he has also written a feature film script about the X-Presidents characters and has discussed it with Miramax’s Dimension Films.

Mr. Smigel, 38, is a former writer and producer of Late Night With Conan O’Brien . He occasionally returns to the show to “make an idiot out of myself” with his vaguely French dog-puppet character, Triumph, who threatens to “poop on” anyone he doesn’t like.

He works out of his Greenwich Village home. “I fax crap out of my house,” he said. “By crap, I mean brilliant comedy.” [WNBC, 4, 11:30 P.M.]

Sunday, March 21

Despite more than two decades of success as a comedy writer, Bruce Vilanch sometimes can’t resist the easy, stupid joke. This, for instance, is how he answers his phone: “Proctology!”

Heh, heh.

But tonight’s his big night–his 10th year writing for the Oscars . More precisely, he’s writing for host Whoopi Goldberg, his frequent collaborator. (Yeah, that’s him in the center left square on Whoopi’s Hollywood Squares , where he’s head writer–the chubby guy with long frizzy hair, a walking sight gag. “It’s my dream gig,” he said of the show. “I get to sit in the Paul Lynde bitter queen square and crack wise.”)

Any jokes tonight about Elia Kazan, the former name-dropper (to Joe McCarthy) who’s receiving a lifetime achievement award? “Any time there’s political action in the context of the Oscars, it’s funny,” Mr. Vilanch said.

Mr. Vilanch will become somewhat of a celebrity himself with the upcoming release of Get Bruce! , a Miramax Films documentary.

For those well versed in television history, Mr. Vilanch will never be forgiven for co-writing one of the great TV atrocities: The Star Wars Holiday Special , a wholly incompetent variety show aired by CBS in 1978 and starring the cast of Star Wars , along with Bea Arthur, Harvey Korman, Art Carney and the Jefferson Starship. With the imminent release of a new Star Wars film, bootleg videotapes of the show are a hot commodity.

“I just saw George Lucas at the Grammys and reminded him of that show,” said Mr. Vilanch. He recalled that Mr. Lucas was “absolutely hands-on involved” with the variety show project, and created the story centered around Chewbacca’s family. “It wasn’t a great idea, because Wookies don’t speak English. They basically sound like fat people having orgasms.”

Mr. Vilanch bought a copy of the video a few months ago from a collector, and could not sit through it. “We didn’t think it was a bad idea at the time,” he said. “We didn’t realize Lucas had in Star Wars something that was biblical, that a generation would refer to as if it was the Holy Grail.” [WABC, 7, 8:30 P.M.]

Monday, March 22

On this edition of True Hollywood Story , Kristy McNichol addresses why she bowed out of the series Empty Nest in 1992–a perplexing career move that plagued historians for seven grueling, angst-filled years. Now the healing can begin. [E!, 24, 8 P.M.]

Tuesday, March 23

Title of the week: Jack Horkheimer: Star Gazer . [WNYE, 25, 1:40 P.M.]

Peter Bogdanovich’s Movie of the Week

The name for probably my favorite movie genre, screwball comedy–essentially romantic farce–was coined, it seems, from the original Variety review of Carole Lombard’s dizzy performance in the utterly delightful 1936 Depression-era comedy directed with consummate savoir-faire by Gregory La Cava, My Man Godfrey [Saturday, March 20, Turner Classic Movies, 82, 6 A.M.; also on videocassette] . Said the trade paper’s critic, accurately: “Lombard has played screwball dames before, but none so screwy as this one.” Two years earlier, Howard Hawks had started Lombard as an out-there comedienne, with John Barrymore, in the backstage classic, Twentieth Century , but in My Man Godfrey she conclusively immortalized herself as the gorgeous queen of madcap.

Playing the younger daughter in a wealthy, eccentric East Side family, Lombard sets off on a Park Avenue treasure hunt, trying to best her older, saner sister (Gail Patrick) and her quite loony mother (Alice Brady) by bringing in the most difficult treasure required, a real live “forgotten man,” the 30’s term for a down-and-out member of the homeless. The ugly irony of rich people playing games with the poor is not lost on La Cava, and the darker social aspect of this often satirical, witty piece is never totally out of sight.

The hobo Lombard brings home is done with graceful, charming dignity by William Powell (who, earlier in the decade, had been married to Lombard for two years) and both he and his ex-wife received Oscar nominations for best actor and actress. The simple plot–cleverly adapted by Morrie Ryskind from Eric Hatch’s novel (screenplay also nominated)–is that Lombard convinces her long-suffering father (Eugene Pallette in an archetypal basso profundo performance) to hire Godfrey (Powell) as their live-in butler, not least because she has romantic stirrings for him, hence the triple-entendre of the title: prize, butler, lover. Godfrey, of course, does more than his job and teaches the entire family some basic lessons about life, before a slight cop-out reveals that he’s not really a bum after all.

The most delicious subplot has to do with the relationship between the mother (a hilarious turn by Brady, who received an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress) and her “cultured” gigolo, a Russian pianist-artiste-charlatan (the outrageously funny Mischa Auer, who was nominated as best supporting actor); his sulks and posturing moments are among the picture’s best. Of course, La Cava’s impeccable direction (also recognized with an Oscar nomination) keeps everything going in exactly the right tempo, together with a slight detachment that makes it all the more sophisticated and resonant. Not surprising from this underrated filmmaker who did W.C. Fields’ best silent picture, So’s Your Old Man (1926), as well as the superb show-business comedy-drama Stage Door (1937), along with a number of other likable, affecting works throughout the 20’s and 30’s.

But Lombard’s wacky, touching energy and joie de vivre here at age 28 is what gives My Man Godfrey its most indelible impression. That she was killed in a plane crash only six years later–at the height of her career, having just shot Ernst Lubitsch’s anti-Nazi comedy classic, To Be or Not to Be (1942)–is still hard to reconcile, giving all the greater poignancy to that old phrase about the good dying young.

Onion and Conan: A Pairing for the Century