Many questions, most of them painful, are raised by "The Wilton North Report," Fox Television's bewildering new late-night talk show. One of them is, how do they manage to cram so little into just one hour of television?
"Report," named for the building in Hollywood where it is taped, premiered recently on Channel 5 after a mysterious two-week delay, and immediately prompted rumors that it was earmarked for the guillotine. Actually, a slower, more agonizing form of execution is likely.
You don't tune in a show like this to enjoy it. You tune in to watch it squirm.
Two luckless and feckless Sacramento disc jockeys, Paul Robins and Phil Cowan, cohost the program, offering limp transitions between facetious commentaries, show biz interviews, oddball features and alleged topical satire. The satire sometimes consists of Robins and Cowan drawing doodles on photographs with an electric crayon.
Their comment on the decision of Gary Hart to reenter the presidential race consisted of playing a tape of Hart's announcement with canned laughter added. They said they couldn't improve on Hart's performance; they couldn't improve on anybody's performance.
The taped features aspire to the kind of "found comedy" practiced to perfection by David Letterman on his "Late Night" program. Letterman and his camera crews venture out in New York City to locate overlooked absurdities in everyday life. It helps immeasurably to have a Letterman doing the finding.
Barry Sand, executive producer of "Wilton North," previously produced Letterman's show. But in his new post, he hasn't found any "found comedy" yet. Indeed, he seems to have as much chance of finding Judge Crater and Jimmy Hoffa. The program is uncertain in tone and attitude, and often there's no way of knowing how to take it.
On one recent show, Jack LaLanne, the aged fitness buff, was dispatched to Braun Laboratories for a discussion with an expert on the DNA molecule. LaLanne said, "This is going to be really incredible," and, once at the lab, asked a number of specific, highly technical questions of a patient scientist. The purpose of the visit remained a mystery.
The night before, an announcer promised "the guys from Chippendale's like you've never seen them before!" The joke was that the famous male strippers stood motionless before the camera and discussed the pros and cons of the Strategic Defense Initiative. The hilariousness was mitigated by the fact that the dancers didn't sound nearly as uninformed as the producers probably wanted them to sound.
Other segments have aimed low and groveled. Greg Jackson, a regular contributor and veteran of other TV flops, was all a-giggle and agog over his interview with a porno star and the fact that he had called a "phone-sex" service while being videotaped. The smirky self-consciousness was unbearable.
"I think you need a good paddywhacking," said the woman on the phone. She was being much too gentle.
One goal of "Wilton North" is to have its cake and kick it, too. Segments taped in the Catskills tried to make fun of elderly vacationers playing bingo and taking dancing lessons. As a finale, the men dressed in women's bathing suits and sashayed about as their wives hooted. The footage seemed moronically cruel.
Later, cameras caught a third-rate comedian doing his act in a tacky resort. We were apparently supposed to find him amusingly unfunny. Actually, his lousy jokes were refreshingly direct compared with the convoluted smart-alecky conceits of "The Wilton North Report." Who are these nobodies Robins and Cowan to make fun of an honest shlub doing his best in the boonies?
The hardest task in assessing the program is finding its low point. Richard Dominick, editor of a supermarket tabloid, paid a visit to a cheerfully pixilated woman calling herself the Archangel Uriel and claiming to have lived 55 previous lives on earth, one of them a waitress at the Last Supper ("More lamb, more wine," she remembers hearing).
Uriel was just the kind of eccentric who used to turn up within the warmer confines of George Schlatter's "Real People." But "Wilton North" didn't know what to make of her, nor how to use her, and the segment was followed by Cowan tastelessly inquiring whether Uriel was "a nut."
The idea of ferreting out weirdness, exploiting it, then ridiculing it, is childish and lame. It's a form of bullying. Letterman seems to have a keen sense of how far to go with his japes (not to mention his gibes) and doesn't make "Wilton North's" error of bludgeoning the defenseless.
Not that there aren't many legitimate complaints to be made about the haughty Mr. Letterman and his prankish pack of wags. But this is neither the time nor the place to discuss them. Or if it is the time, it is not the place. And conversely, if it is the place, perhaps the time is not yet nigh. Nighness is difficult to calculate.
When it's not being not funny, "Wilton North" offers lectures on hotness. The announcer promises "hot gossip" and "hot commentary." Nancy Collins, interviewing producer Allan Carr (but why????), began, "So, who's hot now? Is anybody hotter than Michael Douglas?"
Carr said, "He is just hot and nice and a good person." Director Oliver Stone, on the other hand, is "now hotter than ever," whereas director Adrian Lyne is "only the hottest director in America."
Collins promised that after a commercial, Carr would discuss Joan Rivers, a previous occupant of the time slot. When they returned, and she asked him, Carr said, "I can't say anything." Lucky we waited!
On the first show, Collins interviewed Gary Hart's daughter Andrea, first asking her about her two meetings with Mikhail Gorbachev, then apparently sandbagging her with unexpected questions about her father's indiscretions. It was not nice.
As if all this were not enough (and nothing's not enough if this isn't), Cowan and Robins offer a crawl of the day's temperatures from around the nation, accompanied by campy music and random stock footage. Like much of the show, it can only inspire blank-faced stares, something like those on the faces of Cowan and Robins.
"Wilton North" seems to be just the show for -- for whom? Perhaps for people who don't want a show. Perhaps for those who thought that it was categorically impossible to embarrass Fox Television. Perhaps for those who find Muzak just too darned entertaining.