For Whom the Taco Bell Tolls

Oh, he was the man of Taco Bell.

But for only one night, as it turns out.

Tuesday's dreadful debut of ABC's "Taco Bell Dana Carvey Show" brought TV incestuousnesses full cycle from the late 1940s, when Milton Berle's "Texaco Star Theater" opened each week with a quartet of uniformed gas station men singing, "Oh, we're the men of Texaco, we work from Maine to Mexico. . . ."

In the spirit of his show's pledge to gently chide its sponsors--in that way he apparently sought to excuse or blur his role as comedy shill for them--Carvey appeared beside a dancing taco and a dancing bell, plus a minichorus that inanely sang, "We're in the mood for tacos and comedy, tacos and comedy. . . ." There was also an infantile impression of Ted Harbert, president of ABC Entertainment, greeting "this week's cheap sponsor, Taco Bell." And in a separate paid spot that starred pro basketball star Shaquille O'Neal and ran twice during commercial breaks, he surfaced briefly as President Clinton, declaring, "Taco Bell, you're the greatest."

Obviously, Taco Bell Corp. didn't think Carvey was the greatest.

With hit "Home Improvement" as a lead-in, Carvey's show predictably won its time slot in the national ratings (despite losing about 2 million households after its first 15 minutes). Yet the day after his stunningly bad and witless premiere, Taco Bell withdrew sponsorship from coming episodes.

Moreover, Carvey won't have even one night as the Man of Pizza Hut, which joined Taco Bell on Wednesday in deciding against future sponsorship. Their sister firm, Pepsi-Cola Co. (all three are units of PepsiCo Inc.), said that, for the moment, it planned to honor its own commitment to sponsor three episodes.

As originally conceived, the sponsor in the show's title was to change from episode to episode, depending on that week's main advertiser. On Thursday, ABC said that that practice would continue on "Carvey" installments that still have overall sponsors.

In a piece of epic mislabeling that set the stage for him becoming an undeserved martyr for cutting-edge boldness, Carvey on Tuesday night called his show "counter-culture comedy." What culture would that be, Lower Slobovia?

Some will accuse Taco Bell and Pizza Hut of timidity. On the contrary, they should be lauded for their good taste in changing their minds after looking at the limp tamale they were sponsoring and correctly judging it to be an artistic Chernobyl. The show's attempts at political satire were lowly at best, and what can you say about Carvey's joking reference to England's Princess Diana as a "slut" and "whore" except, what does that make philandering Prince Charles?

As he showed during his seven seasons on NBC's "Saturday Night Live" and in some of his theatrical movies, Carvey's characters and impressions of celebrities are very funny when supported by witty writing. Tuesday, they weren't. Consequently, everything he tried, from the Beatles to Ted Koppel, bombed horrendously. None more so than a sketch in which his Clinton clone exposed several sets of fake breasts while suckling a baby and three animals. Who wrote this stuff, Garth?

Even ABC seemed embarrassed, saying in a statement Wednesday that "portions of the premiere went too far" and that "we will be more careful in the future."

Perhaps the suckling was what did it for Taco Bell and Pizza Hut. It couldn't have been the show's pale, pawing digs at Taco Bell, which, if anything, were nothing more than beneficial mentions of the fast-food chain's name, the program becoming the commercial.

In that regard, Carvey's show is merely extending a very old TV tradition, and its banality notwithstanding, it deserves credit for at least being refreshingly honest about its sponsor tie-ins.

Television has been in the flimflam business for so many years that the public is now largely desensitized to the lies. One of the most common forms of deception--stations and networks manufacturing news stories to promote their entertainment programs--used to draw loud protests. Yet so routine are they now that they produce only collective sighs and resigned shrugs, as if the public were saying, "Well, that's television," and letting it go at that.

Just as some of TV's most prominent early series--from "The Bell Telephone Hour" to such anthologies as "Kraft Television Theater," "Philco TV Playhouse," "U.S. Steel Hour" and "Revlon Theater"--bore the names of their sponsors, so, too, does that practice still endure in the likes of "Hallmark Hall of Fame" on CBS and recently renamed "Mobil Masterpiece Theatre" on increasingly commercial PBS.

Since its inception, TV has been mainly a selling machine that oiled itself by using programs to keep viewers awake between commercials. Increasingly, though, the programs are the commercials.

The TV sports industry is no exception, evidenced by the way televised post-season college football bowls began including the names of corporate sponsors in their titles. Also, top tennis stars wear an array of corporate logos on their clothing during televised tournaments. And, in a distinctive brand of cross-promotion, Michael Jordan and other sports superstars are paid fortunes to make commercials that often appear during their televised games.

In another area of TV, performers on children's programs are forbidden by the Federal Communications Commission from being product spokespersons. Yet where does the program end and the commercial begin--and vice versa--on "G.I. Joe," "Barney" and infinite other kids' series whose characters also ring up big business as products on toy counters?

Carvey's series is a program-length spot in an era of program-length spots, from deceptive infomercials to "the making of . . ." programs that run on pay-cable channels as documentaries but are nothing more than advertisements for movies.

It was less than two months ago that NBC followed its Super Bowl XXX telecast with a heavily promoted, double-sized hour version of its hit comedy "Friends," whose commercial breaks featured Diet Coke spots starring "Friends" characters, whose dialogue for the commercials was written by the show's own creative team. Entertainment Weekly called it a reverse of 1950s network quiz shows when advertisers developed the programming, the difference being that now "the programmers are developing the advertising."

Something similar happened on CBS recently when Liz Taylor one evening starred in four back-to-back sitcoms whose common thread was a plot about fictional black pearls--which just happened to be linked to an actual Taylor fragrance now on the market.

That was much smellier than the "Taco Bell Dana Carvey Show," even though Carvey did casually slip a mention of Pepsi into one of the episode's sketches, and in another there was a lengthier reference to the nutty content of Snickers bars. ABC said that Snickers was not a sponsor of the show. Thus, a freebie.

As for Carvey's immediate future on ABC, the network said next week's episode will be named the "Mug Root Beer Dana Carvey Show." So raise 'em and sing a tune.

Oh, he is the man of Mug Root Beer.

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