August 27, 1984
Views and Reviews
will tickle your funny bone --
if only CBS lets his best gags get on the air.
by: Pat Sellers
Zone's resident zanies: (rear
row, l to r) pregnant Lange,
Randolph, Linn-Baker, and Gunton; (front) bespectacled
Neenan and football-helmeted Mantenga.
I'm staring at a TV monitor
showing five punkers dying of radiation after the bomb. They're cajoled
into singing "Finiculi, Finicula" by a woman in a pink party gown with
sparkles in her hair.
John Manulis is the creator
of this madness, which he describes as "serious comedy." When
the 27-year-old Harvard graduate came up with a concept a year and a half ago
for The Comedy Zone, which was to focus on "comedy of the heart,
comedy of the ideas," there were doubts it would ever air. "It
was too frightening," he says, "or maybe too good." After
he had corralled the most prestigious group of writers since the Golden Age of
Television, he was turned down by a cable network. And then, surprisingly,
CBS bought it as an experiment. The show is running on five Sundays from
August to September. Its ratings will then be reviewed and CBS will decide
whether to pick it up as a regular fall series.
Among the previous TV
holdouts Manulis "lassoed kicking and screaming" into his core group
of seven writers and playwrights are Jules Feiffer (Grown-Ups), Wendy
Wasserstein (Isn't It Romantic), John Ford Noonan (A Coupla White
Chicks Sitting Around Talking), and Christopher Durang (Sister Mary
Ignatius Explains It All for You.) Neil Simon and Herb
Gardner are among the guest contributors, and Manulis says the "good
energy" about the show is such that Garson Kanin, a renowned scriptwriter,
asked why he hadn't yet been asked to contribute.
The six actors who are
regulars on the show are experienced theatrical performers. "We
wanted dramatic actors who could perform comedy, not stand-up comedians,"
says Manulis. The slight fellow in the big punk topknot, for instance, is
Mark Linn-Baker, who starred in Doonesbury on Broadway and in the 1982
film My Favorite Year. Serious and reserved, Linn-Baker says he's
shied away from television until now, but became interested in the project
because "they've amassed a rather awesome list of writers."
By contrast, Joe Mantegna,
wearing a punk wig that someone suggests makes him look like Jane Russell, had a
lot of experience in episodic TV (Soap, Archie Bunker's Place, Simon &
Simon) before winning a Tony this year for his performance in the Broadway
hit Glengarry Glen Ross. Throughout the six weeks of taping, he
would be doing double duty on the TV comedy and the stage play, but remained
unruffled about sprinting to the theatre. "I don't take it that
seriously, this business. It takes me about 45 seconds to get into each
Audrie J. Neenan, in the pink
party gown, has done Broadway and films as well as appearing on HBO's Not
Necessarily the News this past year. She relocated, on a week's
notice, from Los Angeles to New York to join the cast of The Comedy Zone.
"As actors, we couldn't have written a better ticket for ourselves: working
in New York with theater actors, theater writers and theater directors, on an
hour-long television show that's right after 60 Minutes. Yeah, it's
a dream ticket."
But for writer Durang, whose
bizarre vision resulted in the doomsday sketch, this dream ticket may turn
instead into a trip to The Twilight Zone.
"At first we were
excited about our time slot, because it follows 60 Minutes. But we
suddenly realized about three weeks ago, while talking to people at Standards
and Practices, that 8 o'clock is what is called the family hour, which means
there are all sorts of things we can't write about -- basically, sex and
Durang's Sister Mary
was about sex and religion. He concedes that those are his strong suits,
along with "writing about crazy people." One skit he's written
about VD that, he says, "would get on Saturday Night Live in a
minute," has become a test case. And a scene from his much-acclaimed
play, Beyond Therapy, will probably never make it on the air because one
character tells another, "You have lovely breasts."
"Apparently you can't
say the word 'breasts' at 8 o'clock," Durang says. "You can
maybe say it at 10. Isn't that silly?"
Producer Joe Cates, who has
produced comedy shows starring Alan King, Robert Klein, Madeline Khan and Steve
Martin and takes credit for introducing Jackie Gleason to Art Carney, says being
scheduled in the family hour is a mistake. "We're dealing with
material that's awfully grown-up, and I don't know how much of what we're
filming they're going to permit. When the censors looked at the material,
they screamed, 'Have mercy on us all! Put it on the air and we'll lose 50
stations.' But we're without shame," Cates jokes, modifying it with,
"I am the king of compromise."
Manulis, too, may often find
himself in a conciliatory role with writers who are protected contractually from
having to rewrite endlessly after they have produced their required ten minutes
of script per week. Not all of the material, of course, is chosen.
How do you tell a writer of the caliber of Feiffer that his stuff is not up to
says, wincing. "Or you blame it on the network; they make great
Also according to their
contracts, the writers work individually. An attempt to have them write a
piece each week as an ensemble "met a gory death. You've never heard
a longer silence than in that room filled with ten people. It wasn't that
they were apathetic. It was just that these men and women who usually sit
down alone with a typewriter were suddenly faced with other people who were
going to judge their idea before it got the chance to be put into a neat
Manulis concedes that dealing
with all his writers individually is sometime akin to "trying to juggle
eight lovers at the same time."
Still, when the going gets
rough, either with the staff or the network, he can reflect back on the advice
of his father, Martin Manulis, who produced Playhouse 90, the most golden
show of television's Golden Age. The senior Manulis' words of wisdom:
"It isn't worth the ulcers"; and "whatever happened to