TELEVISION : This Is No Gag--They Swear : Top-rated L.A. morning deejays Mark and Brian are out to show skeptics that their radio antics will play on network TV
Take two guys who most of the country has never heard of--not amateurs, exactly, but guys whose broadcast experience is in radio. Offer them a national, prime-time TV series. Then tell them that they have to shoot their TV series in between radio shows. Oh yeah--and the TV series is going to air opposite “60 Minutes.”
Is this a gag or what? It sounds less like the prescription for a 1991 network TV series than some stunt that KLOS-FM’s morning comics Mark and Brian would pull on an unsuspecting listener for laughs.
But it’s real, all right. And Mark and Brian are the two guys. The show is “The Adventures of Mark & Brian,” which previews Monday and Thursday nights on NBC before moving to its regular time slot next week opposite “60 Minutes” on CBS.
Southern Californians know Mark Thompson and Brian Phelps from KLOS-FM (95.5), where they are the No. 1-rated morning team in L.A. But the rest of the country?
“I just came to witness the slaughter,” Entertainment Weekly senior writer Alan Carter said with a sly smile as he filed into a meeting room recently at the Universal Hilton Hotel for a press conference with NBC’s would-be stars. He was attending the annual television critics press tour, a grand dog-and-pony show put on by the networks to hype the fall TV season.
The critics were skeptical because, unlike radio deejays who have made the jump--mostly unsuccessfully--to late-night or syndicated television, Mark and Brian are headed straight from drive time to prime time.
“This is a classic instance of an inside Hollywood deal where two guys went over big in L.A., made a lot of friends in the business, had lunches with network executives and decided to take the country by storm,” said Orlando Sentinel TV critic Greg Dawson, who was also heading into the news conference. “If they were in Minneapolis, Atlanta or Detroit, nobody would have given them a second look. I think it’s a bad call, a misjudgment on somebody’s part, to think that this thing will translate to the rest of the country.”
Moments later, people were seated, the lights dimmed and the national TV press got a taste of Mark and Brian’s reality-based series, in which they set out each week to dream the impossible dream--and usually screw up along the way. The snippets showed various quests: shark diving in steel cages, performing on stage with the Temptations and achieving weightlessness in NASA’s KC-135 anti-gravity airplane, nicknamed the “Vomit Comet.”
After the screening, the lights came up. In long hair and faded jeans, seated side by side in director’s chairs, Mark and Brian faced their critics.
The problem was, the critics didn’t seem to “get” Mark and Brian. On the subject of their KLOS radio show, one female reporter wondered: “Can you clarify the more outrageous of your stunts that you’ve done on the air? For example, I heard that you did one where you put diapers on and went to McDonald’s and did something ugly.”
“We peed in our pants,” Mark, 35, clarified.
The reporter looked miffed. “That’s one of your cute stunts, that you--"
“Well, cute, I don’t know,” Mark interjected. “But don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.”
The critics didn’t seem any clearer on Mark and Brian’s TV show. At one point, after 15 minutes of debate over the ethical implications of Mark and Brian dubbing their voice tracks in the Temptations segment (which opens the series Monday), one reporter finally summed up what seemed to be on numerous minds: “Why is this entertainment?” he asked dryly.
“I think we are, hopefully, microcosms of the American public here,” Brian, 32, responded patiently. “We’re not singers. We’re not dancers. We’re not actors. So (people) are going to be sitting in their living rooms, hopefully, going through these adventures with us . . . sometimes winning, sometimes losing. And the relationship between us two hopefully will make it more entertaining.”
“And we don’t know that it’s entertaining,” Mark confessed.
By answering questions with abject sincerity, Mark and Brian eventually warmed up the press. But Mark and Brian have a more formidable task ahead of them, with a much bigger crowd to win over than a stuffy house of TV critics. NBC Entertainment President Warren Littlefield, a self-professed radio fan of Mark and Brian, is gambling that they will do for NBC on a national level what they did for KLOS locally.
“They walked into the toughest radio market in America, and they took it,” said Littlefield, squeezing his fist during an interview from his hotel suite at the press tour. “I’m hoping they do the same for us. That’s why I gave them the toughest time period on television.”
Littlefield placed “Mark & Brian” on Sunday night to mine the young viewers not watching the news on ratings powerhouse “60 Minutes.” The question is: With TV networks so quick to pull the plug on low-rated programs in this tight economy, will Mark and Brian have time to win over fans?
“We might be pulled from TV in a week,” said Brian, a Cambridge, Ill., native who toured the Midwest with his own comedy improv group before turning to radio. “We might be the first TV show to be pulled halfway into our first episode.”
“And honestly, at this point, we’re a lot better on radio than we are on TV,” said Mark, who began his radio career as a janitor at a station near his hometown of Florence, Ala.
“Yeah, we suck out loud,” Brian said.
Last month, Mark and Brian were named Billboard magazine’s Rock Air Personalities of the Year for the second consecutive year. But they admittedly did not have an easy time when they arrived in Los Angeles four years ago from the small WAPI-FM in Birmingham, Ala., where they were haphazardly thrown together as a morning radio team. Rita Wilde had their time slot then on KLOS, which was firmly entrenched in playing morning rock ‘n’ roll.
Listeners responded with hostility when the two wisecracking, cocky pranksters took control of the airwaves--until they discovered Mark and Brian’s soft underbelly. More than anything, the two are best friends on the air--and off. They get their biggest laughs when their comedy bits crash down on their heads. They’re the type of guys who as kids made anonymous phone calls and asked, “Is your refrigerator running?” Only now, they’re adults and they do it for a living.
Plus they have money and an arsenal of electronic gadgets to realize their goofy ideas. The team was dipped in a vat of chocolate on Valentine’s Day for their first on-air stunt, at a cost of $5,000. Their most expensive stunt, last year’s “Above and Below” show, when Mark scuba-dived and Brian sky-dived simultaneously while staying in radio contact on KLOS, cost $25,000.
Although the duo climbed steadily in the Arbitron ratings, it was still more than two years before they reached No. 1.
“We have to win them over quick,” Brian said of the national TV audience he is about to face. “Because here at KLOS we had five days a week, four hours a day for people to get used to us. And it took them at least a month here when we first came. At least a month. And on television we have one day a week for a half-hour. So we have to hit them fast and hard.”
They may find that difficult to do, though, given the tight standards of network television. Notorious for balancing on, and occasionally falling over, the line of good taste and decency, Mark and Brian have had to tone down their act for the tube.
“For one of the quests on television, we wanted to sneak into the Playboy Mansion. We were limited because we’re on Sunday nights,” said John J. Strauss, who co-created and co-writes the TV series with Ed Decter.
“In prime-time television, it’s tough to do anything racy with them,” Strauss said.
“It’s like moving from R to G,” Decter explained.
Mark and Brian were seated in a studio after their radio show, looking beat. On this particular morning, there were no stunts. They were more sedate, amusing themselves during most of their program with the Final Word, a plastic, battery-operated device that curses. They had been up till midnight the night before with local firefighters shooting their TV show.
Since production began several months ago, Mark and Brian’s personal lives have been on hold. Because “Mark & Brian” is shot documentary style, each episode requires five exhausting--and expensive--days of taping. They are on a 100-to-1 ratio, meaning that for every 100 minutes shot, one minute winds up on screen. Veteran executive producer and director Don Mischer, who has won nine Emmys, called that an “unprecedented venture in network television.”
“We get up at 4 in the morning for the radio show,” said Mark, who has a wife, Linda, and two young children. “We get here and do four hours of what we hope sounds fun, but actually it’s pretty stressful in there, trying to get everything right and sound unrehearsed.”
“Then, if it’s a TV day, we have to head straight out,” Brian continued. (He dates pop star Paula Abdul, but doesn’t have time to see her much.) “A van picks us up at 10 a.m. and takes us to our first location.”
“Hair and makeup in the van,” Mark kicked in.
“Then we film all day long,” Brian said. “And not just in one place. In filming this, we’re packing and unpacking the cars and vans, driving from location to location all day. It’s a very long day. We’ll get off around 8 or 9 p.m. Then we have to go rehearse whatever we’re going to be doing for the quest. Like the Temptations show, we rehearsed till 11:30 p.m. every night.”
“Then get home and in bed by 12:30 a.m., hopefully asleep by 1 a.m., back up at 4 a.m. and do it again,” Mark said, shaking his head hopelessly.
Has their morning show suffered as a result? Last month, Brian had to phone in an apology to his radio listeners from a hospital after he and Mark missed an entire morning show to stand by a mother as she delivered her baby. (That episode will be seen Thursday.)
“There were some questions initially,” said KLOS news director Chuck Moshontz, a satirical sidekick on Mark and Brian’s radio show. “There’s a finite amount of energy each individual has, and people can handle only so many demands. So you have to worry about that. But I’ve been more reassured as time goes by. Even though it may be killing them, they’ve been doing a good job of keeping the focus of the show real sharp.”
“This radio show is the only reason we’re on television, and we’re contracted to KLOS for four more years,” Mark said.
“And this is where we’re from too,” Brian said. “So we’re not going to leave. But these 18-hour days. I don’t know how long we can keep this up. I really don’t know.”
Mark took a deep breath. “It’s very tough.”
Mark and Brian were being courted by TV producers as early as six months after their arrival in Los Angeles. The reason they waited so long, they said, is that all the offers they received were for syndicated or late-night programs, including a bid from CBS Entertainment President Jeff Sagansky.
Mark and Brian, however, wanted prime time. Although they base their appeal on being no-talent bums, and claim to know nothing about “show biz,” they can be pretty shrewd in career advancement. By 1987 they had grown bigger than Birmingham, after taking WAPI to the top, and were being lured by stations in St. Louis and Atlanta. But the guys apparently had an eye on L.A. They say that KLOS General Manager Bill Summers heard “rumblings” of them “through the radio grapevine.” But Summers said his first encounter with Mark and Brian was listening to a tape they sent to the station.
This time around, the leap is even bigger. Before accepting NBC’s offer, Mark and Brian consulted some TV producer friends. Brian said: “Every single one of them told us: ‘Point blank, guys, it will take you a month of late-night shows to reach the same number of people who will see you in one 30-minute prime-time show. If you can make prime time, do it. Then you try late-night if prime time doesn’t work.’ ”
At first, NBC wanted Mark and Brian to star in a sitcom. Last year a pilot was taped with Mark and Brian as the guerrilla hosts of a wild cable-TV show.
“They tried to re-create some of our live radio moments in front of an audience. But they had to script them out, and block them, and we’re not actors,” Mark said.
Finally, in an unusual sign of faith, NBC’s Littlefield gave Mark and Brian $1.5 million to shoot another pilot. “This time they said, in their own words, ‘Do what you want to do.’ Which still didn’t happen. We’re never going to be able to do what we want to do. But they did take one aspect of our show, the quest aspect.”
Several days later, Mark and Brian, dressed in bright yellow firefighter gear, were bent over a female dummy, learning from a firefighter how to carry a human body from a burning building. They were at the rookie training center in East Los Angeles, and their quest was to become firefighters.
“How do you lift 200 pounds over your shoulder?” Brian asked.
“Well,” the firefighter said, “that’s why we’re men here.”
“Oh, that’s why we’re men. I thought it was to belch,” Brian said.
Brian looked down at the fake body and reached out impetuously: “I gotta know. I just gotta know.” He unzipped the dummy’s top and found two anatomically correct breasts.
“We might just want to take her home and practice with her there,” Mark observed.
How much of this will make it to the final episode is anyone’s guess. What the show’s writers do is set up situations, give Mark and Brian a task to accomplish and then let them fly. The best moments are edited into a half-hour program.
Later in the day, the two rookie firefighters burst into a burning tower to pull out a body and then rappelled 100 feet to the ground. While they survived those challenges, the real Mark and Brian quest lies ahead: to make it through a network season unscathed.
“In this quest thing, it’s probably about as close to what we would have done as we can possibly get,” Mark said. “We’re not saying it’s great, and we’re not saying it couldn’t be better, because we’re sure it could. But we’re really trying something fresh and new.”
“If we fail,” Brian said, “if the show is taken off the air for whatever reason, we’re not going to feel too bad. Because we go down trying something different that no one has really done before. So at least we’re not going to die in some stale sitcom.”