Smarty-Pants Host of 'You Don't Know Jack': He's Got Game


Summer should be the time for throw-it-against-the-wall -and-see-if-it-sticks gonzo experiments on network TV. In theory, anyway. Find the next "Survivor" or "Millionaire" and--presto!--prime time as we know it changes forever, for better or worse.

The drill by TV nabobs should be this: Find something that is so wacky or groundbreaking that audiences are forced to turn their weary eyes to the tube. It doesn't always happen that way, though. Instead, viewers usually get tired rip-offs ("Twenty-One") or foul aberrations ("Fear Factor"). But what of "You Don't Know Jack" (premiering tonight on ABC)? A predictable clone or bizarre original? You be the judge.

"Jack" is based on the randy and amusing CD-ROM quiz game "where high culture and pop culture collide" that seemingly delights in reducing contestants to quivering masses of insecurity. Get a wrong answer and get a verbal slap-down from the smarty-pants game host.

This hybrid game show-comedy stars 48-year-old Paul Reubens in his first extended television role since "Pee-wee's Playhouse" was canceled in 1991 following Reubens' arrest for indecent exposure in a Florida adult cinema. He plays Troy Stevens, a dismissive game-show host with a fondness for colorful, double-breasted Nehru jackets who also sports a shag cut last popular when Herman's Hermits ruled.

Think Tony Clifton (Andy Kaufman's lounge lizard alter ego), Richard Dawson on LSD or David Spade as himself. All rolled into one oddly improbable . . . thing.

Next, there is the game itself, well-known to mostly college-age fans who have made it a popular CD-ROM since its 1996 debut. The TV show takes liberties, but there are still the familiar elements ("Dis or Dat," "Jack Attack"), and the show actually has a set--a cross between the bridge of the Starship Enterprise and the stage of the Wayne Newton show at the Stardust.

There also are three contestants--real ones, we are assured, who win real money. Stevens introduces them to the TV audience: "Now it's time to cheat . . . ah, meet . . . the contestants." He smirks, yawns and mugs for the camera.

Strange, very strange. But funny--occasionally very funny.

In an accurate assessment of his creation, producer Robert Morton--the former longtime producer of both "Late Night" and "The Late Show With David Letterman"--says: "It's hardly what you call middle of the road. You either love it or hate it." He admits that he is not sure which camp audiences will fall into.

"Jack" has had a long, bumpy road to the small screen. The idea, by all accounts, began with Jellyvision, the Chicago-based producer of the CD-ROM game, which immediately saw a TV angle. "When the CD-ROM premiered in '96, we were approached by lots of people to make a TV show because it seemed like such a sure thing, and we tried to move forward but never found the right approach, so we put it aside," says Jellyvision creative director Michelle Sobel.

Time Warner initially thought of creating a half-hour syndicated game show, but the company wanted to make--as Sobel puts it--"a straight game show, which was not the right approach." Next up to the plate was Carsey-Werner, the successful production company that had been developing other formats beyond the standard sitcom. Morton got the call to produce, and his idea for a host was Reubens, who had appeared on "Letterman" numerous times.

The former Pee-wee Herman was slowly building a movie career--no breakout roles, plenty of bit parts--and had not done much television since a small, recurring role on "Murphy Brown" (1995-97). But he had also tried to launch his own TV show.

"For many years, he wanted to do a variety show," but networks didn't quite grasp his vision, says Morton, who offered Reubens a chance to star instead in an offbeat game show.

At first, Reubens liked the idea. Then he changed his mind. "Jack" was in limbo again. Then, for reasons that no one seems to fully understand, Reubens came back.

The show was shopped to different networks. NBC and the WB were interested, but those talks went nowhere. ABC became the logical choice since Jellyvision also created the best-selling CD-ROM version of ABC's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire."

So now it all comes down to tonight. Should you stay home and postpone whatever plans might conflict with an appointment with ABC at 8? For students of the tube who wish to see something that amounts to a rare network risk, the answer is "yes." For everyone else, there are worse ways to spend an hour. "Fear Factor," anyone?

* "You Don't Know Jack" premieres tonight with back-to-back episodes at 8 and 8:30 on ABC.

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