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Aliens Are Winning This War

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There’s a new monster among us, albeit a benevolent one. Since landing here from some far-off galaxy three weeks ago, it’s already sent the television networks scrambling for big artillery to fight it and various mutant clones to join it, if indeed it’s here to stay.

“3rd Rock From the Sun,” a sitcom about four aliens who bumble their way onto Earth, assume human forms and get sucked into life in a small college town, has become the first stand-alone hit of the 1995-96 season. And it looks nothing like “Friends,” or “Ellen” or “Caroline in the City” or “Partners” or any of the other network comedies about young adults looking for sex in big-city apartments.

Which is probably a big reason why NBC’s “3rd Rock From the Sun” is doing so well.

“We are fortunate to be a very different-looking and different-sounding comedy than any of the others that are on right now,” said Terry Turner, who, with wife Bonnie Turner, created the series and oversees its production. “And that makes it much easier for people to distinguish us from everything else. It’s the luck of timing.”

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Luck was aided by a massive promotional push by NBC during the holiday football glut and perhaps by the shear absurdity of seeing Academy Award-nominated actor John Lithgow, the series star, walking around in leather pants so tight they squeak with every step.

Whatever the reasons, “3rd Rock” has rocketed into the Top 10. In its three outings so far, it has captured the same 23% share of the available audience on Tuesdays at 8:30 p.m., nearly a 30% increase over what “NewsRadio” had been delivering for NBC in the same time slot.

It has scored higher ratings than NBC’s “Frasier,” which immediately follows it, and it has won its time period, whipping ABC’s “Hudson Street” so thoroughly that the first-year Tony Danza comedy has been exiled to Saturday nights. Beginning tonight, ABC brings back veteran “Coach” in an attempt to stop the “3rd Rock” juggernaut.

And, this being Hollywood, its success has sent studios, production companies and networks scurrying to develop the next “3rd Rock.”

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“Oh, I’m sure that tons of material that is more high-concept, that has been sitting around for years, is coming out of filing cabinets and trucks all over town,” said Warren Littlefield, president of NBC Entertainment.

The Turners believe the show’s appeal--besides its cast, which includes Jane Curtain as Lithgow’s authentically human foil and straight woman--lies in the concept of having aliens on Earth. It permits all styles of humor and wry observations on the behavior and foibles of humans.

“I think we like all kinds of comedy, from Oscar Wilde’s word play and satire to Laurel and Hardy trying to push a piano up a staircase. We’ll do absolutely anything to make people laugh,” said Bonnie Turner, who previously teamed with her husband for seven years to write for “Saturday Night Live.” They also wrote “The Brady Bunch” movie and teamed with Mike Myers to write the screenplay for “Wayne’s World.”

“And one of the things we use as a touchstone that I get from thinking about my daughter is that we’re all aliens,” Terry Turner said. “We all came from a weightless environment without knowing any of the customs or rules of human behavior. And slowly we learn and absorb them, and by the age of 7 or so we lose that wonderful childish ability to say exactly what we see as true. Like with a 3-year-old who is looking sort of uncomfortable, when you ask what’s wrong, he’ll say, ‘My underwear is stuck in my butt,’ while I, with the same problem, would respond, ‘I don’t know, I just don’t feel very well,’ because it’s somehow impolite to say the truth.

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“And that’s what these characters do that I think the audience just really loves. They give you the unedited, innocent, literal truth of what’s going on that in some cases can be completely offensive and in others utterly charming.”

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But the Turners were anything but enthusiastic when the Carsey-Werner Co., producers of “The Cosby Show,” “Roseanne” and many other hit sitcoms, asked them to develop a comedy about aliens. Even though “My Favorite Martian,” “Mork and Mindy” and “Alf” had all made it big, they figured a show centered on nonhumans would never make it on the air in a TV environment dominated by young urbanites.

Then, during breaks from their work on another project, they realized they could make the aliens humans, free of special effects and scary lighting. They called back Carsey-Werner and wound up producing a pilot for ABC. When a deal with that network fell through, Carsey-Werner sold it instead to NBC, where in just three weeks it has turned into a headache for ABC.

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Alan Sternfeld, ABC’s senior vice president of program planning and scheduling, conceded that “3rd Rock” has exceeded the network’s estimates of how well it would do against its own Tuesday night lineup (although he pointed out that, even before “Coach” jumps back in the game, ABC has been winning the night, thanks to “Roseanne,” “Home Improvement” and “NYPD Blue”).

Sternfeld believes “Coach” will hold more of the “Roseanne” audience than “Hudson Street” did and will chip away at least some of “3rd Rock’s” ratings.

“Bring ‘em on,” said a confident Littlefield, whose network has surpassed ABC this season as top dog in prime time. “I think we’ll do just fine. I have a lot of confidence in the show. We’re hot. We have a lot of momentum. It may do better than Tony Danza did, but we don’t feel threatened by ‘Coach.’ ”

As for the Turners, they are leaving it to the network suits and demography mavens to wrestle over the competitive strategies.

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“I am a bit surprised, to tell the truth, that ABC has gone after us already, I guess because I’m still surprised at the fast success of our show,” Bonnie Turner said. “But ABC is going to do whatever they feel they have to do. I’m hoping we will hold onto our audience, but all we can do is keep on being funny. And anyway, maybe our audience is made up of all the aliens out there, and I’m sure they’ll be loyal to our aliens no matter what else is on.”

* “3rd Rock From the Sun” airs Tuesdays at 8:30 p.m on NBC (Channel 4).


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