Never Ready for Prime Time? : 'Doctor, Doctor' is the latest wild and crazy comedy to find the going tough on network TV

He performs CPR on stuffed pink ponies; he skis on his couch; he pelts his friends with anchovies, sucks on a baby's pacifier and even slips on his own banana peels. He's a mixture of Lucy, Maxwell Smart, Uncle Fester, Mork from Ork, Max Headroom and Hawkeye Pierce. Told that a colleague's son can't go with him to the park to play basketball because there are too many weirdos there, he responds assuringly, "That's OK--I'm fluent in weirdo."

Dr. Mike Stratford, the lead character in the wacky sitcom "Doctor, Doctor," is probably the most outrageous person in prime-time television today.

Make that was .

CBS pulled the show off the air after last Monday's broadcast, shoving it into that nebulous TV limbo the networks call "on hiatus." And though the producers deliberately tried to temper the show's looniness with a conventional setting, "Doctor, Doctor" nonetheless could be on its way to becoming yet another testament to the maxim that weird and wild comedies cannot find a home on network television.

CBS has assured Norman Steinberg, the show's creator and executive producer, that "Doctor, Doctor" will return later this year and that it is still a "definite candidate" for the network's fall lineup. It remains in production. But Steinberg isn't thrilled about going off the air--even temporarily.

"I wish I did feel confident," he said. "I'm in love with my show and confused as to where it's going to be. I do think it would have been better if we just stayed on the air and ran new episodes and reruns until the fall, just to keep us up there. I don't want to be forgotten."

During the last several months, "Doctor, Doctor" and its star, Matt Frewer (of "Max Headroom" fame), have tried to straddle the perilous fence that separates successful mainstream TV sitcoms and the handful of nutty, demented comedy series that break with the medium's familiar formulas but leave behind a large part of the audience in the process. "Sledge Hammer!," "Police Squad," "Quark," "When Things Were Rotten"--every few years one network or another attempts to resurrect the bent but popular antics of Mel Brooks and Buck Henry's 1965-70 series "Get Smart" with parodies, sight-gags and bizarre characters. Except for "Mork and Mindy," ABC's 1978-1982 series that offset Robin Williams' improvisational madness with traditional sitcom trappings and a love story, most have suffered a quick death.

"Looniness is hard to maintain from week to week," Steinberg said. "My heart is still in lunacy, but when the point is just lunacy, even inspired lunacy, I don't think it holds up on weekly television because it's not connected to anything."

It is easy to see why Steinberg has been insistent about making sure "Doctor, Doctor" is perceived as more than just uproarious high jinks, no matter how hysterical they might be. He learned his lesson.

In 1975, riding the success of "Blazing Saddles"--a movie they co-wrote with three others and that Brooks directed--Steinberg and Brooks again teamed up on "When Things Were Rotten," a TV satire on the legend of Robin Hood and his merry band. The show was hailed as one of the most inventive of its day, but it lasted only a few months.

"We all pour our hearts into these things, and you think that they are the best stuff that has ever been conceived," Steinberg said. "And when it gets canceled quickly, it breaks your heart."

As a collaborator with Brooks and the co-writer of such films as "Johnny Dangerously" and "My Favorite Year," Steinberg has earned a reputation for producing loony stuff. But when then-CBS Entertainment President Kim LeMasters asked him to create another "Get Smart"-type show two years ago, Steinberg refused. He offered instead "to cut the difference" with a series about an oddball character who nonetheless functions in a conventional world. The result was "Doctor, Doctor," which premiered last June.

"I want to write about things that I'm interested in, people I know," Steinberg said. "That's not to say I want to make big comments or I'm in this to cure society." But, he pointed out, his latest show is about doctors dealing with the problems of the contemporary world, not Robin Hood, Friar Tuck and the hazards of Sherwood Forest. He and CBS have prefered comparisons to "MASH"--where characters behaved like pranksters one minute and then performed heroically the next--than to purely twisted shows such as "Police Squad!" or "Sledge Hammer!"

Other producers understand why Steinberg would want to mitigate "Doctor, Doctor's" looniness with conventional characters and plot lines.

Alan Spencer, creator of the "Dirty Harry"-parody "Sledge Hammer!," believes that no one at the networks these days is concerned with the issue of funny comedy writing. Instead, he said, network executives "push warmth, poignancy and fuzzy dramatic moments. When Mel Brooks made 'Get Smart,' the goal was to do the funniest show on the air. The networks don't have that same aspiration today."

He said that on "Nutt House," the series that Spencer and Brooks created for NBC this season only to have it canceled after five episodes, NBC wouldn't let him get "too weird because they were afraid of doing just a cult thing. So we ended up making something that no one liked. If the Marx Brothers were to make a TV show today, I'd like to see what kind of notes they'd get from the network."

Dave Thomas, who is in the midst of producing and starring in six comedy specials for CBS, agreed that many network executives are fearful of no-holds-barred comedy. CBS made him scrap much of his initial show, he said, because network research indicated that it offended people. To get on the air, he said, he was forced to produce a watered down, less darkly humorous version.

"I don't think they feel real comfortable judging comedy, so they refuse to stick their neck out and let something really wild out on their air," Thomas said. "They insist on formulas of what's worked before so they are guaranteed to make money.

"They do know in the back of their minds that they are obligated to put something unusual or experimental on the air now and then, because the really big hits, like 'All in the Family' or 'Moonlighting,' are those things that are truly original. But when they do schedule that kind of show, they are so apprehensive about it to begin with that if they don't see immediate results, they quickly yank it off the air and pronounce it a failure."

Spencer recalled that when the critically praised "Police Squad!" was canceled after a short run in 1982, Anthony Thomopoulos, then-president of ABC Entertainment, explained its demise by saying, "It required constant viewing, and I don't think that people can watch a TV series without some distractions." In other words, if viewers tried to make a sandwich, read the newspaper or do their math homework while watching the series, they missed the jokes.

"To some extent, the networks still think that people use television as a fireplace, as background noise, and they won't watch anything they have to pay attention to," Spencer said. "But all of these wild and crazy shows have an extremely loyal following. Ten million people might watch every week, but for TV that's considered a small audience. But that cult following of 10 million is going to make a movie a big hit."

Indeed, when Paramount resurrected the show's premise and made "The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!" in 1988, it was a smash. And Fox, the upstart fourth network that can live with less than gargantuan ratings, seems to be capitalizing on the Big 3's skittishnish by scheduling and sticking with such unusual and at least slightly twisted comedies as "The Simpsons," "Married . . . With Children" and "The Tracey Ullman show."

If you were going to make even a half-crazy TV comedy, Frewer--with his unkept hair, skinny glasses and tendency to make goofy faces and slip into bizarre accents without warning--would seem to be the perfect lead. Weirdo, he acknowledges, is in his blood.

At a recent filming, Frewer was performing a scene in which his character and a date, after a romantic dinner, were returning to his apartment. As he flipped on the living room lights, she sighed, "that was wonderful." The script called for Frewer to then flip the lights off and on again. But Frewer went further, flipping the light switch again and again and insisting that the two had entered "The Twilight Zone." Then, with the lights flashing repeatedly, he broke into a version of a Bee Gees disco-smash, absurdly mimicking their infamous falsetto.

The show's writers come up with a full slate of jokes and gags each week. But Frewer, 32, who studied classical acting in England and went on to endure a four-hour-a-day makeup ordeal to portray the weird video mutant Max Headroom, has been granted the freedom to deviate from the script almost at whim. Unlike most other shows, where the actor's job is to repeat the same lines on every take of a scene, he'll improvise new jokes or blurt out puns and non sequiturs every time they re-shoot.

On a recent show, for example, Frewer, whose character moonlights as a TV-news health commentator, opens the episode with a segment on aphrodisiacs. In describing the alleged sexual power of ground up rhinoceros horns, the line as scripted read, "A little bit of this powder has been known to quadruple the population of Africa overnight." Frewer changed it to: "This stuff has been known to quadruple the population of Steve Garvey's family." In this same episode, Frewer's character tries to cheer up his partner's son after a frustrating school debate by telling him, "Debaters get all the chicks." On a subsequent take he punctuated the line with: "Especially master debaters."

"We struck a bargain that I would allow him to roam the range as long as he allows me to tell him when it stinks," Steinberg explained. "But it's always within the parameters of the story. He's very controlled, but I do let him go because we get gold. He's a wonderful improviser. I've never seen anyone quite that good except for Robin Williams."

"A lot of the improvisation makes it in the final show, and a lot of it is too blue," Frewer said. "With the stuff that hits the cutting room floor we could put together a show that's too racy for cable. But I love it when I can really let rip. They've written a scaffolding that is real strong, and I can hang my stuff on that or jump clear off the scaffolding or hang myself on it. If the structure wasn't so strong, it would probably end up a 22-minute mess."

Though CBS executives contend they still have big plans for the show, thus far "Doctor, Doctor" has produced only marginal results. Cursed with the 10:30 p.m. time slot in CBS' all-comedy Monday lineup, it managed a relatively low 18-to-20% share of the available audience most weeks and failed to hold many of the viewers watching "Newhart," the show that preceeds it.

Even with its difficult time period, however, "Doctor, Doctor" has scored well with the prized younger adults that have largely eluded CBS for years, according to Betsy Frank, senior vice president at the Saatchi & Saatchi advertising agency in New York. In fact, she noted, the Monday night lineup--especially "Murphy Brown," "Designing Women," "Newhart" and "Doctor, Doctor"--basically contains CBS' only shows besides "60 Minutes" that sometimes win the battle in their time periods for adults ages 18 to 49.

Mired in last place among the three major networks, CBS' new entertainment chief, Jeff Sagansky, has pledged to program shows that will draw those younger viewers--especially comedies. " 'Doctor, Doctor' is certainly a show with younger appeal," acknowledged Sagansky's chief lieutenant, Peter Tortorici, senior vice president for prime-time programs.

Tortorici agreed that even younger-skewing comedies probably won't work at 10 and 10:30 p.m. "The biggest counterprogramming force at that time is sleep," he said. "Sometimes at the end of a long day, I'm watching this show and laughing and the next thing I know I'm looking at (Channel 2 sportscaster) Keith Olbermann with the Lakers' highlights."

He said that CBS will bring "Doctor, Doctor" back at 9:30 p.m. on a new night, but he could not pinpoint exactly when that will happen. Steinberg has been lobbying for just such a time period all season, but rumor has it that the network might not reschedule the show until June--after its fall schedule is announced. Steinberg said that CBS will have to come to terms with his actors, one way or another, by May. He also said he would try to sell the show elsewhere if the network cans it for good.

"They are telling me that they have faith in it, but with a special show like this it requires a leap of faith," Steinberg said. "The faith that Grant Tinker (former chairman of NBC) showed in "Cheers," "St. Elsewhere" and "Family Ties" was borne out by the fact that they became huge popular and critical hits."

Despite the evidence presented by his yanking "Doctor, Doctor," Sagansky is reportedly willing to take some risks. Mark McClafferty, president of Eddie Murphy Television, said that only two months before Sagansky took over, Murphy was so disenchanted with CBS that he tried to get out of his production contract with the network. His company's offbeat pilot, "What's Alan Watching?," had been turned down last spring. But Murphy came away encouraged from a recent meeting with Sagansky. And McClafferty said that the company has two comedies in development for CBS, one of which is "way out there."

Frewer believes that with a better time slot and a little more patience from CBS, his sort-of "way out there" show will be able to find a larger, mass audience--provided he and his producers resist any urge to lure viewers with a warmer, fuzzier formula.

"That's not what we're about, and we'd be ruined if we ever became anything but a wild-card show," he said. "I'd cringe if people started to say, 'The reason I'm watching this is because it feels so comfortable to have Matt in my living room.' I would much prefer they were saying, 'What is he going to do next?' and liked the fact that there is something fresh and risky about it. If they get comfortable with the show, then that means it's probably been diluted into this amorphous, milquetoasty thing. And who wants to be a part of that?"

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