Herb Sargent's office on the 17th floor of 30 Rock, NBC headquarters in New York, contains: a wall-size map of the world that shows where all U.S. military installations are; a half-eaten box of Kro n chocolate-covered strawberries; a photograph of Richard Nixon shaking hands with Elvis Presley; a can of Vermont maple syrup; sheaves and sheaves of old newspaper clippings; and Herb Sargent, a human unmade bed if there ever was one.
It's the same office Sargent occupied when he was supervising writer for the original "Saturday Night Live" and now, suddenly, he's in the satire business again, producing and helping write NBC's new summer topical satire series, "The News is the News," premiering tonight at 10 on Channel 4. It will not only be the only topical humor show in prime time, it will be the only weekly live entertainment program in prime time as well.
How else to describe it? "It's the kind of show I would like to watch--you know, if I weren't in television," mumbles Sargent, a crusty veteran of the comedy wars whose writing career in TV goes all the way back to the prehistoric days of "Broadway Open House," the late-night predecessor to "The Tonight Show" that starred a raucous Jerry Lester and Dagmar, the poor man's Jayne Mansfield.
Sargent's experience in satirical comedy includes a year as a producer of the American version of England's cheeky "That Was the Week That Was," which lasted from January of 1964 until May of 1965 on NBC. The cast included David Frost, and Nancy Ames used to sing the title tune. Remember?--"That was the week that was, it's over, let it go, oh what a week that was . . ." And so on.
"The News is the News," certainly a criminally terrible title for anything, will not be another spoof of TV news as such but will use a pseudo-newscast format to lampoon, satirize, bludgeon, incinerate, josh, reduce to ashes, and otherwise play havoc with the real news of the preceding seven days. Sargent thinks the first show will include a report on the grand opening of a new toxic dump site somewhere in New Jersey--"they treat it like they're opening a shopping mall, 'cause we've got to get used to them"--and a note on the first anniversary of the Argentine surrender of the Falklands to England.
"It's a great holiday down there," says Sargent. "They have a parade that goes backwards. Or something." Monty Pythonite Michael Palin will contribute a piece taped in England on the Margaret Thatcher victory there.
Perhaps it's easier to say what the show will not be like than what it will be like. It will not be like "Not Necessarily the News," the not necessarily funny show playing now on Home Box Office, which HBO Entertainment chief Michael Fuchs mysteriously thinks is just a laff riot. "I don't rush to watch it," Sargent says of that show. "I laugh at some of the sight gags they do; they find film and caption it sort of like Mad magazine."
"Not Necessarily the News" does take news footage and redub it to make it funny, or ostensibly funny, and occasionally puts an amusing new sound track to a scene from an old Ronald Reagan picture. A couple of these brainstorms made the "Tapes of Wrath" gag reel of news goofs that has been circulated widely through Washington. But mostly, "NNTN" is a series of flat, contrived sketches over which oceans of canned laughter are poured, until it all drowns.
Sargent was no fan of the ABC series "Fridays" either. "The level of intelligence was basement," he says. "And I think California is a trap that way. You look at their studio audience, and they're playing to that audience. It's the same with Johnny Carson. You hear him try to do a news-based joke and the audience does not know the name that he's mentioning. The only name they recognize is Jodie Foster."
Although he has been called in to do surgery on the new, anorexic version of "Saturday Night Live" ("I come in and correct a lot of spelling," he says), Sargent thinks that show is on a slightly higher level than "Fridays" was, "but just because of the geography, for one thing. It's certainly not as high as the old one. It's a copy; the old one was an original. And the audience was an original. It brought that audience out of the closet someplace."
"The News is the News" could fit nicely into the "SNL" time slot, Sargent thinks, should it do well in prime time.
Sargent has put together a small ensemble company to deliver the comedy news on his show. Only two weeks before the premiere, he still hadn't completely cast the program. He wanted Jane Curtin, of the old "Saturday Night Live" gang--a picture of Jane's new baby, which Curtin inscribed "That ignorant slut, Tess," is on one of Sargent's cluttered bulletin boards--and she seemed interested, but Curtin's agent demanded too much money. The budget for a summer series, especially this one, is tiny. It's a cheap show to produce--"Oh boy, is it cheap!" says Sargent--so not a lot is at stake if the public turns out to be not in the mood for it.
The beautiful and versatile Catherine O'Hara, of the late "SCTV" show, was also one of Sargent's first choices, but he says she was uncomfortable with the idea of a show in which she played only herself, not a gallery of nutty characters. But Sargent has high praise for the actors and actresses he did sign up, including Briton Simon Jones who is "everything I wanted David Frost to be but wasn't."
Since TV viewers have been conditioned to silly, groundless comedy in prime time--shows that might as well be taking place on the moon--"The News is the News" may have a hard time finding an audience. Or, the audience that would like it may have a hard time finding it. But if it all works out, "News" could be used to replace one of the weak shows in NBC's fall schedule, of which, as usual, there are many. Sargent just shrugs. He knows if the show fails hardly anybody will notice, but he says he's been wanting to do a show like this for 23 years, and wants it to work.
He even has a slogan for it--a takeoff on the Satellite News Channel's "Give us 18 minutes and we'll give you the world." Sargent's is, "Give us half an hour and we'll give you 24 1/2 minutes"--precisely the length of the show without the commercials.