How's this for high concept? A funny Washington show. Stick it in a Tuesday night time slot against a rerun of "thirtysomething." Throw in a little Americana, some television legends and one political bigwig.
Get Milton Berle. Bob Hope. Bill Cosby. Drag out the NBC arsenal of stars. And hey, how about a surprise appearance by the vice president of the United States?
We'll call it "Uncle Miltie Goes to Washington."
Yes, that really was Dan Quayle last night at the NBC Affiliates Convention gala at the National Theatre. And yes, Milton Berle really looked at the vice president and said, "He looks like a bad Pat Sajak."
You know, that other network's late-night talk show guy. The one that got canceled.
Television and politics make strange bedfellows, as the dinner and show that wrapped up this year's convention once again proved. This year, the NBC affiliates met in Washington for the first time and the network poured on the stars to boost the spirits of the troops who have to contend with Bart Simpson, funny home videos and channel zapping. Even the old stalwart "Today" show had to call in reinforcements.
"The affiliates love the stars the same way the public loves the stars. Everyone has their favorite," said one NBC executive. "At the same time, the affiliates have a special appreciation for those whose star power generates the greatest cash flow."
So the Talent, as the handlers refer to the stars, dropped in to schmooze with the station owners. The stars of the hit "L.A. Law." Jay Leno. Michael Landon. Betty White. Robert Stack. Tom Brokaw. Andy Griffith. Ed Begley Jr., the actor-environmentalist who biked up from Union Station and walked into the ballroom at the J.W. Marriott before the gala wearing his Nike sneakers and carrying his bicycle.
Leno, who just signed a new contract with NBC, stood patiently as the affiliates swooped down with their Instamatics.
"At least I know they're all watching the show. I don't have to have them go, 'Oh, I was watching "Nightline" and missed it,' " he said.
"If the affiliates didn't like you, you wouldn't be hosting 'The Tonight Show.' They would write a letter saying, 'Gee, can you get someone else? We don't like this guy.' And that has happened. So, you court them and you try to help them out; things of that nature. It's okay. It's all part of the job."
Of course, it's hardly combat duty. All the stars get limos, fruit baskets, everything that comes with the red carpet treatment -- in exchange for suggestions from the station owners about their shows and characters.
The affiliates want "romance, more sex, everything you can imagine," said "L.A. Law's" Blair Underwood. "More dirt. Basically, more dirt." Underwood's costar Harry Hamlin, here to lobby in support of the National Endowment for the Arts, was less accommodating.
"There's very little communication whatsoever with the affiliates. I'm my own person and I do whatever I feel like," he said. "My relationship with the affiliates is to provide the service that I'm contracted for, which is to provide the entertainment for their network. Over and above, everything else is none of their business."
The embattled "Today" show crew came out in force: Gene Shalit, Katie Couric, Faith Daniels, Bryant Gumbel ("People are very nice and I watch my manners") and return addition Joe Garagiola.
"I have gotten so much support," said co-anchor Deborah Norville. "It's been really gratifying after what was a period no one wanted to have happen. I always felt it before and after a rocky transition, and feel it even stronger today. It really makes you feel good."
That's the point. Everybody's supposed to go home happy and enthusiatic about the network and the new season.
That's why there were fresh roses on the tables. Chocolate boxes with NBC peacocks on the top. Eight silver trumpets heralding as the 1,600 guests walked from the hotel via red carpet to the theater next door.
The show opened with a smoke machine and the National Anthem, complete with a Stars and Stripes slide presentation. Scenes of the Statue of Liberty and farms flashed in the stripes; in the stars, pictures of NBC personalities.
And then the surprise guests: Dan and Marilyn Quayle, there to present Lifetime Achievement in Television Awards to Berle, Hope, Landon and Cosby.
Why the vice president at a network affiliates convention?
"So you could thank me," he said, "for making Johnny Carson and Jay Leno the funniest act on television."