A Perverse Zen Master Goes to Head of the Class : Television: Reluctant to commit to yet another unconventional comedy series, Dabney Coleman returns on Fox's 'Drexell's Class,' premiering tonight.

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Otis Drexell, crotchety fifth-grade teacher and scam artist, has only two classroom rules: "Never shout when the teacher has a hangover," and "All loose change belongs to the teacher."

Dabney Coleman, who plays the caustic educator in the new Fox sitcom "Drexell's Class," has just one: no jokes.

"The first time I read the (pilot script), I said, 'Too many jokes,' " Coleman said. "I like to say things funny, not say funny things. There is more acting involved than just saying that supposedly funny line that a lot of sitcoms rely on. I don't want to do jokes."

Of course, sitcoms taped before audiences are DOA without jokes, and two of the show's executive producers, Tom Moore and Phil Kellard, most recently producers of the relatively punch line-free "Doogie Howser," complain that the hardest thing about "Drexell's Class" is having to think up one-liners. (The show premieres at 8:30 tonight on KTTV Channel 11 and XETV Channel 6.)

But Coleman, the star of such unconventional TV comedies as "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman," "Buffalo Bill" and "The 'Slap' Maxwell Story," said that his fighting the writers' predilection for punch lines is his only defense against getting stuck in just another fuzzy sitcom full of cute, wise-cracking kids. He is one actor who takes funny seriously.

After a relatively unhappy season of bickering with acclaimed television producer Jay Tarses over the tone and content of " 'Slap' Maxwell" four years ago, Coleman had resisted accepting another TV series. He was won over by the character, whom David Neuman, the show's executive producer, describes as "crusty but malignant."

Drexell is a teacher by default--a man furious with the fates for leaving him without a 95-m.p.h. fastball. He's in trouble with the Internal Revenue Service, saddled with two alimony payments and stuck with keeping his two teen-age daughters in skimpy Madonnaesque school clothes. He'd prefer to be gambling or scamming in some crazed business scheme, but teaching is his only reliable source of income.

Coleman, the king of TV curmudgeons, said that Drexell's acerbic bite suits him like the fat cigars they both love to smoke. "I lean toward mean," says Coleman, now in his late 50s. "I like that. It's fun and it will never cease to be fun because you can't do that in your real life. At least you can't get away with it."

But Coleman and the producers caution that Drexell is not really all that cruel, at least not in the malevolent way that characterized Buffalo Bill. He's sarcastic and insulting, even with his cute young charges, but, the producers insist, he is a good teacher. Neuman calls him a "perverse Zen master." To teach his class about survival, he takes them on a field trip to Las Vegas, where he proceeds to lose all their money. No pennies left for a hotel, he offers instructions in the fine art of desert camping. No cash even for fast food, he persuades them that barbecued iguana is as good as Chicken McNuggets.

Peter Chernin, president of the Fox Entertainment Group, said that what makes "Drexell's Class" "fun" is playing against the "teacher/schoolroom arena that has been over-saccharinized by the networks. We want to show a teacher who isn't always the perfect role model, but who challenges and pushes his students to be independent and to think for themselves. Kids respond well to that, and as long as he is a good teacher, I think he can get away with anything."

Nonetheless, one writer for the show, who did not want to be identified, said that Fox, known for its irreverent shows such as "Married . . . With Children" and "In Living Color," has been pressuring the producers to make Drexell redeemable. Fox has asked that Coleman not smoke cigars on camera and has encouraged the inclusion of scenes that more conspicuously display his commitment to his students. So far Coleman and the producers have resisted.

"He does do nice things, but not in that heart-of-gold, redeemable fashion TV always pushes at us," Kellard said. "We will always back off from that moment where the violins swell and you know you're about to get the moral."

As long as the ratings swell, Fox--which has struggled to find a popular bridge between two of its hippest and hottest shows, "The Simpsons" and "Beverly Hills, 90210"--will be willing to live without the violins. Last season, the fourth network failed to capitalize on "The Simpsons" craze with the much maligned and little-viewed "Babes."

Chernin said that logically, "Drexell" should appeal to both the large children's audience of "The Simpsons" (because of the kids in the cast) and to the teens and young adults who respond to what he calls the "edge" in Fox's Thursday lineup. But he added that if the show is not good, logic is meaningless.

"I don't think the audience ever responds to calculated demographic manipulation," Chernin said. " 'Babes' didn't work because the audience didn't like it. Had there been some kids in there, I doubt it would have been any different."

Neuman insists that only by vigorously maintaining the twisted, satirical bent of its cartoon lead-in will "Drexell" be able to hang on to the teens and young adults that Fox craves. "If we start doing a smarmy, fuzzy show, we will lose that group, because why not switch over to 'A Different World' (on NBC), where heart and emotion are done very well," Neuman said. "We have to be an unpredictable alternative."

That unpredictability will lure adults too, Coleman contends: "This is humor that adults will laugh at or else I'm in the wrong place. I wouldn't want to do a show that was just for a bunch of fifth-graders. This character says a lot of things in a way that adults will want to hear another adult stand up to a little brat."

Coleman, who may take a few slaps from television critics for compromising his literate TV pedigree with what seems to be a rather conventional sitcom crammed with a bunch of smart-aleck kids, admitted that the one perk that coaxed him back into series TV is the chance that such visibility might catapult him into the kind of movie career he relishes. He has appeared in such movies as "Tootsie," "On Golden Pond," "9 to 5" and "Where the Heart Is," but still, he said, he has not been able to land significant parts in "meaningful films" directed by the likes of Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola.

"It's a risk because I still don't know what this is going to be, and the worst thing for me is it goes for five years and it's just jokes and it's a huge hit. That's my nightmare," Coleman said. "But the one thing that comes out of even a bad show that is successful is that you can cash in on the celebrity. People in this business like to cash in on hot names. Not everyone needs that kind of boost, but it seems I do. It can, I suppose, work against you, too. I could get an image of this guy, Drexell. 'Oh, he's a funny guy' or 'He's a sarcastic, mean guy.' But at least you're going to get a shot."

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