‘D.C. Follies’ Guests Are Full of Foam
Mr. Reagan, take a couple of steps back before you speak.
Ollie North, can you sit up real straight?
Dan , Dan Rather--you have fuzz underneath your chin.
director, “D. C. Follies”
After years of people saying Washington has gone Hollywood, Hollywood is going Washington.
It happens at Hollywood Center Studio, where political and show-business celebrities kick back, down a few brews and reveal what they really feel about current affairs and each other for “D. C. Follies,” a 6-week-old syndicated TV series starring three chiefs of state, three former Presidents, several presidential hopefuls, a dozen top entertainers and Fred Willard.
Everyone but Willard, however, is made of foam.
In a given segment, you might see Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher lamenting the fall of Britain as a superpower, the Rev. Jesse Jackson fighting for minority representation on the “Follies” softball team, Ronald Reagan unsuccessfully trying to explain his economic plans and Richard Nixon planning a comeback.
The show, which airs locally on KABC-TV Channel 7 on Saturdays at 7 p.m., was inspired by the popular British TV series “Spitting Image,” which lampoons people and events in the headlines. NBC aired several “Spitting Image” specials last season.
“But we’ve been planning this for two years and we’re different, anyway--we have a live star and weekly guest stars and our puppets are stylistically different, much warmer,” says Marty Krofft, who produces “Follies” with his brother, Sid, and Syndicast Services. “We’re making Richard Nixon a star--he could run again.”
Nixon appears alongside the likes of Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Nancy Reagan, Oliver North, Barbra Streisand, Dolly Parton, Tammy Bakker, Sean Penn, Princess Di, Andy Rooney, Mikhail Gorbachev, Oprah Winfrey, Woody Allen, John Madden, Cher, Jack Nicholson and George Bush. They come to life through the skills of eight puppeteers and the voices of three in-studio impressionists.
Willard plays the barkeeper at a “Cheers"-like establishment where the personal sides of public figures flow freely. The humor borders on political but is more societal barb than social satire.
For instance, Nixon having words with Jimmy Carter: “Jimmy, you never got caught with another woman, you never stole other people’s speeches, you never cheated on Rosalynn, you never cheated in college . . . and you have the gall to call yourself a Democrat.”
Or President Reagan and Soviet leader Gorbachev discussing world affairs during the NFL players’ strike.
Reagan: “I can’t believe I gave up a scab football game to argue with this guy.”
Gorbachev: “Did you say scab football? I love scab football. Remember that spy satellite we launched in June? I use it to get Redskins games.”
Sid Krofft, the nuts-and-bolts half of the production team, admits the show pulls some punches, especially compared to “Spitting Image,” but he insists it’s a matter of giving American viewers what they want. “We don’t want to hit too hard because we don’t think people like that type of thing,” he says. “We think the English show was a little too vicious.”
“But there’s also no such thing as being a little pregnant,” adds the more vivacious Marty. “We take a position, then evaluate each line. We’ll go out on a ledge, but we don’t want to be tasteless.”
“Follies” is put together by a staff of 70 for $160,000 a week--less than a third the cost of a prime-time half hour. On taping days, the soundstage resembles any three-camera comedy, the principal difference being the special props that allow cameras to hide the inner-workings of its foam-carved stars. And there are fewer actors to feed.
“See that kid over there--last time he was here, he wanted to know if the puppets were coming to lunch with us,” Willard said of a young visitor en route to an afternoon meal break.
“Sometimes,” he added later, “you really do feel like you’ve talked to these people because they move and talk in the right voices. I go home and tell my wife what I said to Nixon that day--it’s like working with the real people, only less intimidating.”
Puppets, molded at a cost of $1,500 to $3,000 each and taking two to four days to construct, are divided between political and entertainment personalities. The Kroffts would like to add more from show biz and the sports world but admit to legal concerns.
“Political figures are no problem but entertainment figures are,” Marty says. “That’s why Woody Allen is used sparingly--we hear he likes to sue.”
A volatile political climate, however, has kept scripts meaty since “Follies’ ” inception. “God was good to us and gave us the Contra thing,” Marty says. “And with the stock market plunge--Reagan saves us every week.”
The ideas and words of a handful of writers are developed over a two-week period with fine tuning coming during a two-day blocking, rewriting and shooting schedule. The show is taped three days before it airs to help keep it topical.
Though “D.C. Follies” has a choice time slot on KABC-TV, it is not as easily found on some of the other 96 stations that carry it. The show airs in a midnight slot in Chicago and competes with “Saturday Night Live” in New York. It has not yet achieved the national ratings level that advertisers were promised, the producers acknowledge, but they expect it soon will.
That’s why the show’s distributor, Access Entertainment, already has renewed “Follies” through next season, has asked for a one-hour “D. C. Follies” special for the spring of 1988 and given the go-ahead on “Red-Eye Express,” a late-night music show using the Krofft puppets as co-hosts.
The Krofft brothers--fifth generation puppeteers whose marionette act led to careers in Hollywood as producers of such shows as “H. R. Pufnstuf,” “Barbara Mandrell & the Mandrell Sisters,” “The Donny & Marie Show” and the feature film “Middle Age Crazy"--couldn’t be happier.
“Especially since we’re puppeteers,” says Sid, “and we’re finally doing a puppet show.”