An Insider’s Report on the Death of ‘Wilton North’
Fox Broadcasting’s late, not-necessarily-so-great “Wilton North Report” is the stuff of history. Yes, very brief history. It was scheduled to open Nov. 30--then was postponed to Dec. 11. It lasted until Jan. 5.
One of its employees was the writer here, who is editor-publisher of the Realist and a stand-up satirist--and an occasional contributor to these pages. Calendar asked him for an insider’s view on the show, its hopes, its fears, its ambitions--and its demise.
Advised of this article, representatives of Fox Broadcasting and “The Wilton North Report” as well as producer Barry Sand and the two hosts, declined comment. Said Fox spokesman Michael Binkow, “‘The Wilton North Report’ is a show in our past....” “I want this show to be unlike anything else that’s ever been seen on television,” Barry Sand told the writers. “I want it to be controversial, opinionated, provocative. I don’t care if it offends people. We’ll open each show with a review of that day’s news, using actual footage, and we’ll comment on it. I want that segment to be funny and hard-hitting, with a really strong point of view. It will be the signature of the show.”
He paused to take a bite of his sweet potato, fresh from the microwave oven. There was a certain electricity about him, the kind a producer has when given wings to fly without a pilot.
“Fox is being very supportive. They’re giving us a year to let the show develop and find an audience. There’ll be a couple of hosts, male and female, who will take us through the show, reacting to everything--sort of like ‘Siskel & Ebert Meet the Today Show’--but it’s gonna be a writers ‘ show. We’re gonna make dangerous TV.”
As it turned out, the only dangerous thing about “The Wilton North Report” might occur if you kept the TV set balanced on the tub while taking a bath. How could it happen that a show with such high aspirations would end up wallowing in a swamp of mediocrity?
It was all Eddie Murphy’s fault. If he hadn’t asked Arsenio Hall to be in his movie, then “The Late Show,” which we were “replacing,” might have served as a missing link between a mom-and-pop grocery chain and a TV network, and Fox President Jamie Kellner wouldn’t have had to fill that impending gap.
So Kellner approached Robert Morton, a particularly creative segment producer on “Late Night With David Letterman.” Morton had to clear the offer with Letterman, who told him to wait a week before signing anything. Then Letterman went to NBC, saying he didn’t want to lose Morton. Kellner then approached Sand with an offer to produce a Letterman clone show. Sand preferred to do something totally different, although he had no idea yet what it would be.
He told associates that he would never hire anybody for the new show that he couldn’t fire. He didn’t want some prima donna who might refuse to do a particular piece of material. And he certainly didn’t want to hire a host who could become powerful enough to fire him . Barry Sand’s show would be the star.
Barry had been excluded from writers’ meetings at the Letterman show, but now he hired 11 writers, appointed himself as head writer--and excluded his co-producer from the writers meetings!
We had 2 1/2 months to get a show ready to go on the air five nights a week--a show without a concept.
Barry had planned to call it “Nightcap,” but Fox wasn’t thrilled. So the writers came up with a couple of hundred more, from “Beyond the News” to “Ha Ha Goodnight.” Writer Lane Sarasohn noticed a sign in the elevator that said “Wilton North Building” and submitted it as a name that sounded like “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.”
We needed a truckload of ideas for repeatable features, in-studio guests and possibilities for remotes. But they all had to be reality-based. Thus, we could have a tabloid reporter interview a woman who’d been given a root canal by a Martian because she believed that it really happened; it wasn’t as if this was a sketch . We could have the Goodyear blimp present an aerial view of the hospital where Cybill Shepherd was giving birth or of Richard Nixon’s 75th birthday party, because we weren’t making up these events.
Similarly, unfulfilled fantasies ranged from putting together people with nothing in common--such as Rodney Dangerfield and Margaret Thatcher, to putting together people with some thing in common, such as Sonny Bono and Ike Turner, both of whose wives had left them and gone off to superstardom, or Richard Belzer and John Stoessel, each having been pummeled by a wrestler he was interviewing.
Jimmy Carter would analyze major issues while fly fishing; Roseanne Barr would give advice to the lovelorn. Ferdinand Marcos would explain his philosophy on a split screen with Jackie Mason. Joe Carcione would discuss vegetables and the royal family in a feature titled “Of Cabbages and Kings.”
Every morning we waded through the newspapers and proceeded to write topical jokes for a pair of imaginary hosts who would set the tone of the show.
Barry wasn’t sure whether we should have real newscasters being humorous, or humorous actors being newscasters. He talked with Forrest Sawyer of CBS News and Judd Rose of ABC News. He went to central clearinghouses in Dallas and Iowa, fast-forwarding his way through tapes of 1,500 local news anchors until you could practically smell the hair spray.
He auditioned Philadelphia TV anchor Terri Merryman and L.A. disc jockey Steve Morris. Comedians Ellen DeGeneris and Rick Doukamin. Firesign Theater veterans Phil Austin and Phil Proctor. He considered Nina Blackwood of MTV and the zany Mark Blankfield of the old “Fridays” series and Marcia Strassman of “Welcome Back, Kotter.” He had lunch with Pat Sajak of “Wheel of Fortune,” but he was “too big.”
Three weeks before air time, Barry finally settled for Phil Cowan and Paul Robins, morning drive-time deejays from Sacramento, whose main talent seemed to me to be the ability to finish each other’s sentences. Their only TV experience was a three-month stint as field reporters on a local program called “TV Lite.”
The writers were instructed to hang around with them and learn their individual characteristics.
Phil was the one with the beard, but Barry asked him to shave it off. Paul was the one with the glasses, but Barry asked him to just wear the rims with contact lenses. They quickly became known as “The Guys.”
Politically speaking, Phil said, with all the passion of a Valley girl, “I can’t stand Ed Meese.” Whereas Paul said that he had voted for Ronald Reagan, twice, and he’d do it again. This riled writer Paul Slansky, an anti-Reagan fanatic on whose office wall was a framed cover of Time magazine--”Ronald Reagan: 1911-1985”--which would’ve been published if he hadn’t survived his operation. The Guys would soon refer to Slansky as Slantsky.
Some of the writers warned Barry that the Guys were conservative, uncharismatic squares, but he assured us that they would be “our puppets.” However, the scenario would develop into a living remake of the classic film, “Dead of Night,” where a dummy takes over the ventriloquist’s personality.
Beginning on Monday, Nov. 23, one week before “The Wilton North Report” was scheduled to premiere, we had a run-through of a complete show each night to see what worked and what didn’t. The set itself had all the charm of a yuppie prison yard. The Guys would be leaning against a rail, overlapping torsos so they could both fit into a two-shot frame, allowing them to relate as though they were in a Siamese gay bar.
A certain tension between some of the writers and the Guys began to intensify. The writers weren’t comfortable writing for The Guys. The Guys weren’t comfortable speaking the writers’ words. And it made many writers squirm to watch The Guys gesticulate, condescend and trivialize their way through each hour.
The Guys felt that the writers were submitting material too sophisticated for mass audiences. They insisted on getting writer credits since they participated in the process of changing the writers’ words. Indeed, for Wednesday’s run-through, they wrote their own opening segment, the sole point of which was a misperception of a photo of Li Peng, the new Chinese acting premier, as a photo of Howdy Doody. Then came a segue from Mars.
Paul: “Speaking of China, Phil, can you order Chinese food in prison?”
Phil: “Y’know, Paul, I don’t know. Why would you ask such a question?”
Paul: “Well, Nancy Collins will be interviewing Katya Komisaruk, a peace activist who’s facing a 10-year sentence for destroying an Air Force computer.”
Nancy Collins and Barry had been friends for 15 years. She had never done live TV interviews before. Now she was supposed to probe heavily within seven minutes. Her first question was, “Why would somebody so young and pretty like yourself put yourself in such a position where you might go to prison for 10 years?”
And later: “Aren’t you scared about going to prison?”
“I don’t want to go to prison. I want to stay home, and be with my friends, and my mother. But I know that this is important enough that it’s worth it for me to risk some time out of my life rather than risk the deaths of so many people.”
“You know, terrible things can happen to an attractive young woman in prison. . . .”
After the interview, The Guys interviewed the interviewer about the interview while the interviewee watched in the Green Room.
Paul: “I admire Katya’s courage. She took a big chance and she stood up for what she believed in. Having said that--is Katya a nut ?”
Nancy: “No, I don’t think she’s a nut. I think she’s the last of the bleeding heart liberals. I mean it’s not chic to be a liberal now, it’s not the ‘60s, people are not applauding these kinds of actions.”
Paul: “We got some writers you should talk to . . . .”
Phil: “This woman strikes me as monumentally naive. I mean all that’s gonna happen from this is that Katya’s gonna go to jail . And, you know, the nice thing about this, Nancy, is, who knows, we may be seeing Katya right here on Fox in “Women in Prison.”
In the Green Room, Katya didn’t exactly flash a friendly smile at the guys on the monitor.
Barry had asked me to do a commentary in the evening’s run-through.
“I’m here to say that marijuana rots your brain,” I began. “I speak from personal experience. Recently I was experimenting with pot--and suddenly I had this weird hallucination. I saw Mr. Potato Head surrendering his pipe to Surgeon General (C. Everett) Koop. It all seemed too real.”
I went on to describe further experiments and hallucinations. “The evil weed was destroying my sense of reality. So I think it’s a good thing we found out about Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg smoking those joints. His mind was also totally destroyed by marijuana. Why else would he squelch a Public Health Service Study on the impact of federal budget cuts on infant mortality?”
And I concluded: “On my last experiment with pot, I hallucinated that Ronald Reagan was holding this live turkey and telling it he didn’t know if he would grant a pardon to Oliver North and John Poindexter. The turkey, in turn, suggested that Reagan should compromise by following the example of Mr. Potato Head and taking away Poindexter’s pipe.”
Barry said, “I don’t think we can get away with the pot stuff. There’s a law against that at NBC.”
“Barry, we’re not at NBC.” I was ready to quit. Hardly anything I wrote was getting into the script, and now I wouldn’t be able to speak my own words. “I’m confused. You said you wanted me to do a hard-hitting, funny commentary . . . .”
“Don’t be confused,” he said. “You’re right. If we can’t do it on Fox, where can we do it?”
Barry was so concerned with being innovative that many suggestions fell through the cracks.
Merrill Markoe could not be a host because she was too associated with the Letterman show. Yet we did have Dr. Barry Bloom, a cosmetic dentist, as a guest, with The Guys grilling him about whether or not there is an anti-tartar gel.
We could not document a woman who collected lint from dryer machines, color-coded it, and made collages, because it was “too ‘P.M. Magazine.’ ” But it was acceptable to have a correspondent go shopping for expensive luxury items and ask each salesperson if this car or that painting would impress her friends.
Barry wanted to reach a young audience, but he turned down as an interview subject Jello Biafra, lead vocalist for the Dead Kennedys, who was spearheading the campaign against rock censorship. Yet he took on as a regular field reporter venerable physical-fitness expert Jack LaLanne.
The Guys tried to get Barry to bring down the level of material, and he tried to get them to stop sounding so shrill.
The show had started out as a vehicle for contemporary satire but was turning into a conveyor belt of refried cotton candy.
On Sunday morning, Nov. 29, Barry had breakfast with Fox executives. They felt that the show was unfunny, mean-spirited, and resorted to cheap jokes about people’s looks.
That afternoon--one day before we were scheduled to go on the air--Barry gathered the staff in the conference room.
“The spirit of the meeting was friendly,” he said. “They think the show is terrific. They think the news section is not terrific. I’ve tried for two months to make the news work at the top of the show. It doesn’t work. It just plain and simply doesn’t work. It is incongruous with Phil and Paul. We have two guys who are likable, friendly guys who we present in the news section as unfriendly and unlikable.”
What Barry originally envisioned as the signature element of the show--the opening news segment--he was now dropping. We were throwing out the baby and keeping the bathwater.
“The only way the show’s gonna work is for Phil and Paul to be Phil and Paul. They are the franchise. I have guided everybody in the direction of ruining the careers of two nice guys. Our job now is finding ways to get people to like them. The show should be whimsical and lighthearted. It should not have a heavy hard edge. Barry Diller (Fox chairman) said to me, if I wanted to put the show on the way it is, I can. I have chosen to not go on the air Monday.”
Opening night was being postponed for a couple of weeks so that the writers and The Guys could become better acquainted.
And the sweet potato was replaced by Maalox.
It was never clear why Jodie Foster had been scheduled to be our first guest, but when the show was postponed, she had to go to Paris. Other guests just changed their minds and canceled out, from John DeLorean to Baba Ram Dass.
We lost the President’s son, Michael, reportedly because a Slansky joke about Nancy Reagan had been leaked to Michael’s publicist. Still, hit man Jimmy (The Weasel) Frattiano kept his commitment to “The Wilton North Report” if not the Mafia.
The writers were still complaining about the blandness of the hosts. “They’re gonna give white bread a bad name.”
“Let’s make it real clear,” said Barry. “I’m sticking with these guys. It’s two straight white guys surrounded by madness. So let’s find the madness.”
Later, in my office, he asked how I thought we could make the show more compelling. I gave my weekly suggestion that he let political satirist Harry Shearer do the news segment. Barry said, “I’ve talked with Harry, but he wants to do characters. That’s too sketchy. We have to be a reality-based show.”
I picked up a book. “This is by Aaron Freeman. He performs with Second City in Chicago. He’s done commentaries on ‘MacNeil/Lehrer.’ ” I turned the book over to show his picture. “And he’s black.”
Barry smiled. “A black couldn’t hurt.”
He looked at Freeman’s tape, then flew him in like an ebony messiah. He would present an irreverent look at the news at the front of the show every night. Then it became a commentary at the back of the show three times a week. Then once a week.
Next came award-winning investigative reporter Stan Bohrman to do the news at the front of the show with The Guys reacting to it. “Stan Bohrman is ‘The Wilton North Report,’ ” Barry declared.
But Bohrman was reduced from a three-minute newscast to five seconds about the summit conference, only to be stopped by The Guys and used as a lead-in for them to talk about the President’s dog. Bohrman complained, “I’m in a suit looking somewhat like a newsman, but I’m a straight man to their bad jokes. I wasn’t hired for that.”
On Friday, Dec. 11, we went on the air, ready or not. Yup, there were The Guys, explaining how to tell them apart: “I am Paul, I’m not as tall. He is Phil, he’s got the big bill.”
Nancy Collins interviewed Gary Hart’s 23-year-old daughter, Andrea; this was a few days before he announced his re-entry into the presidential race.
Question: “When your father had to pull out of the race, he disappointed a lot of people who had worked for him, and he certainly probably disappointed people who were even closer to him. Aren’t you angry with him?”
Answer: “There’s no anger, there’s no anger at all.”
Q: “You weren’t disappointed by any of his actions that caused him to pull out of the race?”
Q: “He has said actually that in terms of the whole Donna Rice thing that he did not have an intimate relationship with Donna Rice. Do you believe that?”
A: “It’s none of my business. I’ve listened to whatever he said and I believe whatever he said.”
Q: “I guess it’s a little odd to me that there wouldn’t be some doubt, given the situation.”
A: “No, there’s no doubt at all. . . .”
On the second show, Nancy Collins interviewed producer Allan Carr.
Q: “Now Joan Rivers just sued Gentleman’s Quarterly for some $50 million. And you were in this article. So what’s the story here? What is she complaining about?”
A: “Well, I can’t say because I’m one of the two people named as being at this event, and I don’t know who wrote this or what went on, and so I can’t say anything because it’ll probably be legally--hello--that was it, I was there, I don’t know anything yet.”
Q: “But do you?”
A: “I don’t. I don’t know if I’m supposed to know anything or not yet. I haven’t been told what I’m supposed to know yet, but someone will tell me.”
The next day, Fox’s legal department sent out a memo requesting that “at no time shall Joan Rivers’ name be mentioned on the show or to the press due to a legal stipulation in her settlement agreement.”
The criterion for reality-based comedy had entered a gray area as a Pee-wee Herman doll was interviewed and an electric toaster possessed by the devil produced a slice of toast with the message “Go to Hell” branded on it.
The reviews of the show were devastatingly fair.
“If it wasn’t my show,” said Barry, “I’d be laughing at me.”
Representing his fellow writers, Billy Kimball told Barry they felt they could no longer write for The Guys and posed the hypothetical situation that the writers would quit en masse if the hosts remained.
“Then the writers will have to go.” Barry called their bluff. “It’s Phil and Paul’s show.”
And somehow it continued, with the momentum of an awful marriage where it’s too late to back out because the ring has been purchased, the invitations mailed, the caterer hired, the flowers ordered, even though the wedding ceremony is really just a premature funeral.
Barry’s creative consultant, Matt Neuman, advised him that the general perception of The Guys was they gave the “impression of a lightweight, insignificant, trivial show.”
Things were not going well for Barry.
Except for the videos. His field directors were bringing back mini-documentaries with a touch of soul. Wendy Apple tracked down a mercenary. Nancy Cain captured a retirement party. Maxi Cohen listened to kids describing their dreams. Jake Haselkorn went to follow the team with the worst sports record in the country--the high school basketball team in Wallace, S.C.--but on the night he filmed their game, they won , for the first time in years.
“What went right, coach?”
This was the way to go then. Transform “The Wilton North Report” from a nightly magazine show into a video variety show. Get a new set. Have The Guys be veejays--do what they do best--but instead of music videos, they’ll present life videos. It will have gone from being a writers’ show to being a hosts’ show to being a directors’ show. Experimentation, that’s the name of the game.
For this new format, Barry wanted me to introduce underground videos and discuss them with The Guys. As if for practice, instead of my regular commentary on New Year’s Day, I would be discussing the highlights of 1987 with The Guys. It worked out just fine.
That was Friday. At 10 p.m. Sunday, Barry called and asked me to do a commentary in the opening segment on Monday and if that worked out, I would do it every day. What a thrill--to be opposite Carson and Koppel--an American dream! My ship had finally come in, only it happened to be the Titanic.
On Monday, Fox executives met with the affiliate board, which recommended with one abstention that the show be canceled immediately. On Tuesday, Jamie Kellner announced it at the affiliates’ convention. There was a smattering of applause. “The show was a bit too ambitious,” he explained. “We supported Barry Sand as fully as we could, and it did not work.”
The show had four more nights to go. It was sad for folks who had jobs suddenly pulled out from under them, and it was a cultural shame because such a unique opportunity had been blown. Barry had really believed that Fox would give him a year. In any case, he was now unleashing me.
For the final show, The Guys were rehearsing a piece written by Greg Daniels and Philip Walsh.
Phil: “Secretary of Education William Bennett has proposed a ‘perfect’ curriculum for the fictitious James Madison High School. With four years of English, three each of science, math and languages, and only two semesters of physical education required, he might be on the right track, but he’s neglected one important detail: the human factor. For you see, even a ‘perfect’ high school needs students--and teachers. Let’s meet them.”
Paul: “This is the Science Club. They believe it’s all right to perform their eugenic experiments on remedials brought in from neighboring districts.” He stopped and addressed the stage crew. “OK, who knows what eugenics means? Raise your hands.”
The Guys burned the manuscript and put it in their wastebasket.
Daniels and Walsh found this out and taped the charred remains of their work to The Guys’ door.
Various writers wanted to avenge the script-burning and either punch out The Guys or confront them during the taping: “You buffoons have ruined this show!”
Meanwhile, Nell Scovell had written a piece for The Guys. She crossed over the line and took it to them, even though Barry had rejected it several days earlier. They took it to Barry, and he decided to run with that and pull the high school piece.
Now the writers were angry at Scovell. She went to Barry and asked him not to use her piece. Barry put the high school piece back in. The Guys refused to do it. Barry decided not to use either piece.
In my commentary, I nominated Secretary of State George Shultz as Jerk of the Week. “The honor goes to an individual who, although he is perfectly willing to take a drug test, he refuses to take a lie-detector test. So even though we can’t be sure if he’s lying, at least we know he’s not stoned. Or if he is stoned, he’s not telling the truth about it. Frankly, I think he was tripping on something during the Iran-Contra hearings. Remember when he suddenly did his impression of Jimmy Durante: Everybody wants to get into the act . I expected the entire Senate committee to stand up and sing ‘Dinka Dinka Doo. . . .’ ”
Barry came over and talked about how Durante used to stand in a spotlight, wave goodnight, then walk to another spotlight, farther away, wave goodnight again, and so on. That was how Barry had hoped to leave this show, like Durante standing in a spotlight and waving goodnight. Instead, it was more like Hal the Computer in “2001,” with his memory banks being systematically depleted.
“I’m fried,” Barry said.
That night, at a farewell staff party in the Fox garage, there was no response when the host of the late “Wilton North Report” walked in, but the cleaning lady got an ovation.
It was she, after all, who took care of the mess every evening after we had finished constructing our electronic sandcastles.
Epilogue: At the moment the time slot carries reruns of “The Late Show,” with and without Joan Rivers. A new one-host late-night show--in the traditional talk-show format--is coming in March. Fox Broadcasting said it is looking for someone with “young urban appeal.”
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