Down and Funny


It seems only fitting that the creator of NBC's new sketch comedy series "The Downer Channel" is having a bad day.

"I am now on a holiday in Connecticut," Michael Halpern says with a sigh, during a recent phone interview. "I am so miserable about my e-mail situation and I seem not to be able to find a new solution. I can't get into the e-mail. I am using a friend's computer because my modem can't find the dial tone. It's overwhelming."

"The Downer Channel," premiering Tuesday, puts a quirky spin on life's little and not-so-little frustrations via comedy bits and interviews with real people such as a woman who is deathly afraid of clowns or an overweight Barry Manilow impersonator having trouble finding a job.

"The Downer Channel" stars Jeff B. Davis, Lance Krall, Mary Lynn Rajskub and Wanda Sykes and is executive produced by Steve Martin; his partner, Joan Stein; Robert Morton, late of "Late Night With David Letterman"; Steve O'Donnell; and independent production company Carsey-Werner's principals Marcy Carsey, Tom Werner and Caryn Mandabach.

Steven Wright, a veritable icon of downerism, appears in several sketches as Walter, a hapless writer who spends most of his life on hold with computer help lines.

"I would say [Walter] is a pretty good alter ego," says Halpern. "Being on hold and dealing with all of this stuff in the world is really overwhelming to me."

Halpern began thinking of "The Downer Channel" while an executive in the movie division at HBO. "Everything I was interested in [doing as a movie] was either dark or darker," he says.

"I kind of came up with this idea that I'd have this network I'd run and it would be called the Downer Channel. So I would [say]: 'If don't get this on HBO, I'll do it when I am running the Downer Channel.' My father--one of his big words he uses is 'disappointment'--so I thought my father would have a show on the Downer Channel and it would be called 'Disappointments."'

Enter Halpern's good friend Stein, with whom he often joked about his Downer Channel.

"When she and Steve Martin came together, she said why not do the Downer Channel as a show. The idea of pulling it together and making it into a show was some thing I hadn't quite thought about. When she presented the idea to Steve Martin, kind of without telling me she was going to, and came back to me saying he was really enthusiastic about it, I was like--'Oh, my God. This could happen!"'

Martin, says Stein, was very involved. "He wrote some pieces," she says. "He can look at some thing--he's such a keen observer--and make one suggestion that changes everything."

With its hip, colorful graphics and fast-paced sketches, "The Downer Channel" recalls the classic sketch comedy series "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In."

"If you are going to a [dark] comedy, you have to find a way to at least package it with sugar and the right colors," says Halpern. The producers wanted "The Downer Channel" to have a very contemporary sensibility. "The pace of it is also something we felt was very appropriate for the Internet generation," says Stein.

Stein believes "The Downer Channel" will appeal to all age groups. Sketches run the gamut from a "Lassie" spoof called "Cat Lassie" to the more sophisticated "Withholding Family."

"We just attacked subjects that are familiar and annoying to us that we thought were funny," says Stein. "We were fairly proactive in the way we approached the subject matter. The writers and producers offered ideas from their guts."

Rajskub, who was a regular on HBO's "The Larry Sanders Show," says each of the four-member ensemble was hired for a specific reason. "I guess I felt more like the emotional one, a person who is, maybe, in a state," says the stand-up comic, who plays every thing from a germ-obsessed woman to the frustrated teenage daughter in "Withholding Family."

"Lance is very physical and he's really into doing characters," she explains. "Jeff is very physical, too, but Jeff is more intellectualized. Wanda is very sarcastic."

Rajskub definitely related to the downer aspect of the material. "A lot of my [stand-up] material is about just being uncomfortable," she says. "And there is a sketch [on the show] called 'Uncomfortable Girl.' I certainly have things that annoy me. I have a short temper. I get annoyed driving, but [mainly] it is a general uncomfortableness."


"The Downer Channel" airs Tuesdays at 8:30 p.m. on NBC. The network has rated it TV-PG (maybe unsuitable for young children).

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