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The Boston Phoenix The Silly Season

Goodbyes, Tinky Winky, Howard

By Robert David Sullivan

MARCH 1, 1999:  We've reached the halfway point of the dismal 1998-'99 television season, and the lack of exciting new shows has left people talking about some pretty silly topics. But there are reasons to be cheerful about some of them.

For instance, a highly placed source within Kenneth Starr's office tells me that the special prosecutor is amassing evidence of a vast left-wing conspiracy, centered in Hollywood, to keep President Bill Clinton in office. Apparently, it is no coincidence that several TV actors playing highly trusted authority figures -- Andre Braugher on Homicide: Life on the Street, Jimmy Smits on NYPD Blue, and, most recently, George Clooney on ER -- quit their roles at the same time the Republicans were trying to drum up popular support for removing Clinton from office. Their plan was to disrupt American viewing habits and cause so much anguish that we would demand stability in the White House.

Actually, the long goodbyes of Smits and Clooney have helped their respective shows in the ratings, and NYPD Blue, at least, has become considerably more watchable this season. Law & Order also seems to become more popular every time it makes a cast change. An ironic result of all this hype is that the networks may be less willing to give multiyear, multimillion-dollar contracts to the stars of such ensemble dramas (a genre that has become more popular this season while situation comedies have gone into a steep decline). Instead, we may see more big-name actors signing up for a season or two of, say, The Practice. This trend could keep long-running shows from becoming stale, and it may even spread to sit-coms. I nominate Frasier as the series most in need of a shake-up. Will somebody please leave?

After all the about Tinky Winky's gay tendencies, here's more news about Teletubbies (weekdays at 12:30 p.m. on Channel 2): videos of the surreal show are now outselling videos of Barney, the simpering dinosaur whose theme song ("I love you, you love me . . . ") reminds me of a blind date begging for a pity fuck. I've seen my two-year-old nephew watch Barney with a honey-glazed look in his eyes, and I've seen him watch Teletubbies with an intense "What the hell???" expression on his face. Tinky Winky is not the bad influence here.

The Howard Stern Radio Show (Saturdays at 11:30 p.m. on Channel 4) hasn't come close to beating Saturday Night Live, but it's been modestly successful in its first six months. (It runs about even with Fox's MAD TV in larger cities, though it's banned in many other markets.) Critics are generally divided; some condemn the show as tasteless, but the more broad-minded counter that it is merely pointless. As the title suggests, the show is little more than videotaped portions of Stern's radio show, with Stern and company sitting in front of microphones and trying to get guests to remove articles of clothing. This attempt at an after-hours party atmosphere isn't necessarily a bad idea, but I always thought something was missing.

I found the solution at the Museum of Television and Radio in New York, where I watched a video from the 1950s version of The Tonight Show. The host was the witty and versatile Steve Allen, who has since written several books lamenting the decline of literacy and good taste in this country. The videotaped episode of Tonight, from the fabled Golden Age of Television, took place on Halloween night, with Allen and his costumed guests wandering about a cramped studio and making mildly risqué ad-libs. They also played games like "pass the gourd," in which a guest holding a gourd beneath his chin tried to pass it to a guest of the opposite sex without using his hands. If he played the game right, a male guest spent most of the time with his face shoved into a woman's cleavage. The show itself was fun but utterly pointless.

So all Howard Stern has to do is dump Robin Quivers and hire Steve Allen as his sidekick. Stern can keep his raunchy personality; Allen can handle the more refined innuendoes. Steverino can also get in a few classy piano riffs. His best-known composition, "This Could Be the Start of Something Big," would be perfect for so many Howard Stern moments (bra removals come to mind). The program could be retitled Howard Stern's Marvelous Party, and the Emmys would flow like cheap vodka.

And on the subject of positive spins, the stupidest thing I heard on TV last week was on the new TV Guide Channel, that constant scroll of program listings that has replaced the Prevue channel on most local cable systems. During a promotion of upcoming basketball games in this shortened NBA season, the announcer exclaimed, "Thanks to the strike, it won't be long until it's playoff time!"

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