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Published: Wednesday, 7/20/2005

Funny business

BY ROB OWEN
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - So you think you can produce a better sitcom than what you see on TV?

Bravo's "Situation: Comedy " (8 p.m. next Tuesday) begins with a contest as everyday people pitch sitcom concepts to NBC executives. (Bravo is an NBC cable cousin). One of the contestants is Matt Caruso of Canonsburg. His sitcom, "On Your Mark, " is about a young man living with unconventional roommates.

Caruso had a champion in "Situation: Comedy " show runner Maxine Lapiduss, a Squirrel Hill native who's written for "Ellen, " "Dharma & Greg " and "Roseanne. "

"I loved Matt; he was such a doll, " Lapiduss said. "He was a little tongue-tied at the beginning [of his pitch], and he really rose to the occasion. I thought his show had great potential. "

She said the other "Situation: Comedy " executive producers, including Sean Hayes, who plays Jack on "Will & Grace, " also liked Caruso's script.

"Of the crop, it was definitely in the Top 5, " she said, noting that no one knew anything about the writers gender, race, hometown, etc. until after they picked the final nine from the more than 10,000 entries.

In the end, Lapiduss' affection for a contestant doesn't matter because in next week's premiere NBC Entertainment president Kevin Reilly will choose the two winning scripts that will be produced as 15-minute presentations.

"It's 'Who's the Boss' meets funny, " pitches one writing team, jokingly describing their concept.

"It's 'Sex and the City' meets 'The Golden Girls' but with men and strippers, " Caruso said in his pitch.

In another proposed series, a single mom searches for the sperm-donor father of her teen daughter, which turns out to be an identical plot to a midseason comedy already ordered by The WB.

After the two chosen pilots air on Bravo at the end of "Situation: Comedy, " viewers can vote online to give one a green light. The winner will receive $25,000 and representation for one year with a Hollywood talent agency and the possibility no guarantee of getting the show picked up for NBC's prime-time schedule.

Given the recent dearth of quality comedies this fall, there are relatively few sitcoms in prime time, period the goal of the series is to find new writing talent in hopes of giving the genre a shot in the arm. But viewers will see just how difficult that can be with network executives, multiple producers and the winning writers all weighing in.

It's a series that will appeal to people interested in how Hollywood works. A future episode about casting the two pilots is especially revealing, showing how capricious some decisions can be. It also depicts what Lapiduss calls the "managed chaos " of the pilot-making process.

Lapiduss recognizes the irony that with so many sitcom writers currently out of work, it takes a reality series to get her back in the sitcom producing game.

"I have lived through these swings, and it's gonna swing back, " she said. "It just takes time, and somebody's gonna hit, and when it does, it will open the pipeline again. "

"Situation: Comedy " resembles "Project Greenlight, " which aired its third season on Bravo this spring, but few viewers tuned in . Lapiduss, who's hoping to shepherd a second edition of "Situation: Comedy " if this one proves successful, isn't worried.

" 'Greenlight' is its own animal, " she said. "This is different because you're going to see the product. You don't have to go to a movie theater and pay 10 bucks; this is coming into your home and you get to vote. I loved 'American Idol' for that reason. I love to be able to see the kids [perform] and participate [in voting]. "

Whatever the future of "Situation: Comedy, " Lapiduss, a 1983 graduate of Allderdice High School and a 1987 graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, said she's continuing to work with her "Situation: Comedy " co-show runner, Stan Zimmerman, pitching pilots to networks for fall 2006. She's also re-staging a variety show she first did in 1997 a jaundiced look at the TV business hoping to garner cable network interest.

State of HBO

Although HBO led all networks in last week's Emmy nominations, it was down from 124 nods a year ago to 93 this year, indicative of the network's somewhat diminished stature. Without past hits "The Sopranos " and "Sex and the City, " the network's ratings for original series are down, but HBO chairman and CEO Chris Albrecht tried to drown the notion that such a thing should matter, attempting to steer critics toward the idea of the network's breadth of programming beyond scripted series to include movies, sports and documentaries.

"There are a lot of different water coolers in a lot of different places, " he said. "People at the water cooler in Pittsburgh, they might not be talking about the same thing as the people at the water cooler in Beverly Hills. We have a broad constituency, and it is a mistake for us to define our business by an 18-to-49-year-old rating. "

He did admit the experiment to put original series on Monday night with "Six Feet Under " was a mistake; in the future HBO will stick with original series on Sunday. But he wouldn't concede that "Six Feet Under " has become monotone, and he said it ends in a way that's "powerful, poignant, poetic, unique. "

"Sopranos " creator David Chase has been teasing the idea of an additional season beyond the one that will air next March, but Albrecht said he has no idea whether that will happen.

"David has always been most concerned about leaving the audience feeling great about the show, " Albrecht said. "I know he knows he can tell more, but I think if he felt he's got 12 more episodes in him, but only 11 of them were going to be really good and the last one wasn't going to be, he would in his mind make the decision not to do it. "

Almost four years after announcing it had acquired the film rights to Pittsburgh native David McCullough's "John Adams, " HBO is ready to start production of a miniseries this fall. No casting yet, but "John Adams, " executive-produced by Tom Hanks, will film in Europe, Colonial Williamsburg and Richmond, Va., in 2005 and 2006 and will air in 2007.

Channel surfing

AMC will air all the James Bond movies produced between 1962 and 1989 beginning with "Dr. No " on Aug. 8 and concluding with "License to Kill " on Aug. 30. The films will be restored and will air in the letterbox format. South Fayette's Jenna Morasca will be among the former reality show contestants starring in the cable movie "Kill Reality, " and the making of the movie will be chronicled in a weekly series premiering Monday at 10 p.m. on E!

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rob Owen is the TV editor for the Post-Gazette.

OR

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rob Owen, the TV editor for the Post-Gazette, is attending the Television Critics Association summer press tour in Los Angeles.

This file was called owen0718 tb in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette system.

Sony Pictures Television

Riley Freeman moves from the funny papers to television when "The Boondocks " premieres this fall on Cartoon Network. 'Boondocks' to jump

into Adult Swim GO BEHIND THE SCENESwith Press Tour Journalat www.post-gazette.com/tv BEVERLY HILLS, Calif.

If you've been offended by the comic strip "The Boondocks " in this and other newspapers, prepare to have the same reaction when a 30-minute animated series based on the strip premieres in Cartoon Network's Adult Swim block at 11 p.m. Oct. 2.

The strip's writer, Aaron McGruder, is executive producer of the 15-episode first season of the animated "Boondocks. " Like the strip, the series follows the daily life of Robert "Granddad " Freeman (voice of John Witherspoon), who lives in the boondocks with his grandkids, 10-year-old Huey and 8-year-old Riley (both voiced by Regina King), who move in with him after living in Chicago's South Side.

Huey is a left-wing revolutionary who's determined to dislike suburbia. Riley is a proud product of modern rap culture.

In the first episode, "The Trial of R. Kelly, " Granddad plays chess, and he and his opponent discuss the trials of famous black men in a scene charged with humor and racial politics.

"What did O.J. Simpson say to Kobe once his case was over? Don't let this whole trial thing turn you off to white women. "

Because of the production time necessary for animated shows McGruder has already been working on the series for 10 months it can't be as topical as the comic. Instead, he said, it will be story-driven in a way the comic can't be.

Now 31, McGruder got his first syndication contract for the strip at 23, fresh out of the University of Maryland. He said he originally conceived of "Boondocks " as a TV show, but at the time figured it might be easier to get a comic in newspapers than a show on TV.

But newspapers have been a challenge, too, sometimes pulling the strip if editors deem the topics or language offensive.

McGruder said he has never read fan mail or hate mail, but he's aware that some African-American leaders, including Jesse Jackson, have called his syndicate to complain about the comic. He said Jackson was upset when McGruder took him and other black leaders to task when they made a fuss about a Rosa Parks joke in the movie "Barbershop. "

"I didn't call him back, " McGruder said. "What are we going to talk about? 'OK, you're mad about the strip, you're gonna try to explain to me why 'Barbershop' is the end of the world. I don't really agree.' It's part of the feedback you don't want because it makes it hard to do the job. Jesse could call me and give a brilliant explanation of why what I did was terribly wrong, but it was still funny, and that's my job. "

That said, McGruder acknowledged that he has softened in recent years since having more involvement in Hollywood and a greater opportunity to meet the people he criticizes in the comic, which has often skewered TV shows, movies and celebrities.

"I do think about it now when I sit down to write about people, and if I think I am I gonna see them, it's not worth it, " he said. "Yeah, I can't help but soften, but I don't need to be hard my whole life. But I think more of it was just trying to do something else creatively. 'OK, I get it, that movie was bad.' I did it and didn't have the burning need to do it week-in and week-out. [Now it's] only when people really deserve it. "

Originally made as a six-minute pilot for Fox, the TV version of "The Boondocks " migrated to Adult Swim after Fox passed on it, which was fine by McGruder. He said Fox didn't have a problem with the language or dialogue as much as the storytelling structure, which he described at Fox as "rigid. "

"Adult Swim is much more open to telling bigger stories that aren't constrained to the living room, " he said. "We got notes from Fox about showing the characters in the living room, the kitchen, the neighbor's house, their living room, their kitchen. 'We have to see that or we don't know where they live or where they eat.'"

Among TV shows, McGruder said, "The Boondocks " series probably bears the closest comedic sensibility to Comedy Central's "Chappelle's Show. " He said he and Dave Chappelle are friends of about the same age and have similar cultural influences. He's also a fan of Adult Swim's "Harvey Birdman, Attorney-at-Law " and both the British and American versions of "The Office. "

Like "Chappelle's Show, " the TV version of "Boondocks " includes use of the N-word.

"I think it makes the show sincere, " he said. "At a certain point, sometimes we use bad language, and the N-word is used so commonly now, not only by myself but people I know, that I feel it's fake to write around it and not use it. "

'Entourage' renewed

HBO announced late Friday that its comedy series "Entourage, " the best original program on the network these days, has been renewed for a third season.

But fans of the canceled "Carnivale " should find a new way to spend their time. It won't be back, despite their efforts.

"Never have we gotten besieged the way we have been besieged by "Carnivale " fans for deciding to not go on with the third season of that show, " said HBO chairman and CEO Chris Albrecht. "Literally, 50,000 e-mails over a weekend, and I don't mean the first weekend. It is so over the top, not just in terms of the number, but in terms of things that they say and threaten. "

Albrecht said if the series hadn't cost about $4 million per episode, it would have returned.

"If 'Carnivale' was a $2 million-an-hour show, we'd keep going with it, " he said. "It's not a big show for foreign [distribution] You just have to say, 'Can I take this money and allocate it in other ways to appeal to that same audience?' Although after reading the e-mails, I'm not sure. "

He also said in the original concept for the second-season finale, Brother Justin (Clancy Brown) was more definitively dead, giving the show a greater sense of closure than it ultimately had.

Albrecht sounded somewhat regretful about his decision, and perhaps one of the factors that went into making it.

"This is an example of why you shouldn't listen to critics, " he said. "Everybody [pooped] all over that show. "

Channel surfing

In 2006 Showtime will blow the dust off and restore the Liza Minnelli concert special "Liza With a 'Z,'" which aired only once on NBC in 1972. Beginning this week, the elimination episode of "Rock Star: INXS " moves to 9 p.m. Wednesdays, bumping "The King of Queens " to 9:30. GSN, formerly Game Show Network, premieres "Ballbreakers, " described as "pool on steroids, " tonight at 10. Showtime has not yet decided whether it will renew the heavily promoted but little-watched comedy series "Fat Actress. " After the success of "Into the West, " TNT is planning another limited series for next summer. "Nightmares & Dreamscapes: From the Stories of Stephen King " will tell eight stories adapted from a 1993 King anthology.

Post-Gazette TV editor Rob Owen is attending the Television Critics Association summer press tour. You can reach him at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com.

END OF TRANSMISSION FROM PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE

This file was called rowen0716 TB in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette system.

"Mindfreak " Criss Angel brings his bold brand of magic to A&E. 'Mindfreak' magician conjures up fascinating stunts for A&EBEVERLY HILLS, Calif.

Fans of magic, "Fear Factor " and heavy metal somehow those three things do go together will likely be drawn to A&E's "Criss Angel Mindfreak " (10 p.m. Wednesday ), a new series hosted by a magician/musician with long black hair, clad in leather and with chains around his neck.

Angel looks as if he'd be Marilyn Manson's in-house magician, and his name brings to mind Kiss rocker Peter Criss, but he's an articulate even soft-spoken guy.

At the start of a press conference Thursday, Criss demonstrated his talent by swallowing a shot of wine containing needles. Then he downed some thread before pulling the thread, with needles hanging from it, from his belly button. Gross? Kind of, but pretty fascinating, too.

Criss describes what he does as "blurring the line between mentalism, illusion and stunts. " Wednesday's premiere will feature Angel being set on fire in one stunt and levitating on Fremont Street in Las Vegas in another.

"A lot of what I do is completely real. A lot of it is completely an illusion, " Angel said. "What I try to do is blur the lines between both of them and leave it up to the audience to determine what is what. "

Angel said he doesn't fear death, but he also doesn't take irrational risks.

"I spend many years sometimes developing how to actually do this so I don't kill myself, although the danger is always evident, " he said. "I have not come across anything that I wanted to do that I couldn't do. Some take longer to figure out how to do safely. "

Angel said "Mindfreak " will carry a disclaimer discouraging viewers from attempting any of his stunts at home.

"There is a strong warning right up top of the show, and in some of the shows. I underscore that with me personally saying the warning. "

Angel appears to have a rivalry going with illusionist David Blaine (Angel said Blaine challenged him to a head-to-head contest, but now doesn't return his calls), but he said what sets his magic show apart is the way it focuses on his preparation.

"This is the first show that really unveils the secrecy and lets the viewer actually see the process, the trials and tribulations from inception to fruition, " Angel said. "It really gets people vested on that emotional level so that when I perform it, whether they love me or hate me, they're connected somehow. "

'Curb' returns

HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm " returns for a 10-episode fifth season Sept. 25 at 10 p.m. It will be followed at 10:30 by "Extras, " a new BBC co-production starring Ricky Gervais ( "The Office ") as a movie extra who's always clamoring for more screen time.

A&E's decline

A&E has become a muddled mess, a mishmosh of mostly reality lowbrow series ( "Growing Up Gotti ") and middlebrow movies ( "Faith of My Fathers ") with an occasional quality drama ( "MI-5 ") thrown in here and there.

Next up: Taking a cue from NBC's "Behind the Camera " TV movies, A&E will produce films about the making of "Psycho " and "Saturday Night Live. "

On the reality front, A&E will air a five-part series about men with girlfriends who are considering the priesthood called "God or the Girl? " "Dallas SWAT " is "Cops " with a SWAT team. "Jackpot Diaries " trails instant millionaires and what happens after they cash their winning checks. "Rollergirls " follows a team of women who participate in Roller Derby.

BBC America improves

While A&E continues to traffic in a lot of junky programming, BBC America is recovering from its over-reliance on British reality imports and is moving back toward its drama-centric roots.

The network previewed two upcoming series that look worthwhile. "Bodies " (9 p.m. Sept. 29) was described by the British press as a darker "ER " as it chronicles the politics, malpractice and black humor inside an English hospital.

The daring "Viva Blackpool " (10 p.m. Oct. 23) isn't intimidated by the failure of "Cop Rock " as its characters sing along with famous tunes ( "Viva Las Vegas, " "These Boots Were Made for Walking ") in a casino-set mystery-thriller.

When "Viva Blackpool " aired in England, the title was simply "Blackpool, " but BBC America programming executive Kathryn Mitchell added "Viva " to the title because she was worried "that people would think it was a thriller about some sort of lake of death. "

Channel surfing

The Parents Television Council has filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission over the f-word airing in the lyrics of a tape-delayed Who performance during ABC's broadcast of Live 8. ABC's new reality show "Brat Camp " had a winning debut Wednesday that was watched by 10.4 million viewers. Don't hold your breath waiting for that third season of Comedy Central's "Chappelle's Show. " Chappelle's creative partner has parted company with the network, according to USA Today. NBC has ordered "The Book of Daniel " for midseason. This drama follows an Episcopalian minister (Aidan Quinn) who's on prescription pills and is the only one who sees and hears Jesus (Garret Dillahunt). Steve Guttenberg will play a mayoral candidate and Charisma Carpenter ( "Angel ") will be a young stepmother in season two of UPN's "Veronica Mars. "

Post-Gazette TV editor Rob Owen is attending the Television Critics Association summer press tour. You can reach him at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com.

GO BEHIND THE SCENESwith Press Tour Journalat www.post-gazette.com/tv

END OF TRANSMISSION FROM PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE



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