Out of the city, into the sitcom
We could sit here all day, rocking on our newsprint porch, remembering the many fictional city fellers who have inspired hilarity over the years by moving out to the country, as Norm Macdonald attempts to do in “A Minute With Stan Hooper,” a hard-working old-school sitcom premiering tonight on Fox. Surprises will be in store -- they always are.
“I bet these people never even heard of cappuccino,” Stan Hooper (Macdonald) says excitedly to wife Molly (Penelope Ann Miller). He means the people of Waterford Falls, Wis., the hamlet the Hoopers have decided to call home, 15 years after passing through on their honeymoon. But of course they have heard of cappuccino -- it is 2003, who hasn’t heard of cappuccino? What they have not heard of is “A Minute With Stan Hooper” -- the prime-time human-interest featurette in which Stan tells “real stories about real people living simple lives in the heartland of America” -- in spite of the fact that it “has been called the most popular minute on television.” That could be possible, one feels, if it were being compared strictly to other things on television that last exactly a minute.
After a decade of such minutes, reported from a New York studio, Stan feels the need to actually live among the real people whose real stories he tells and -- without so much as a phone call ahead or, it seems, a discussion with his producer -- has left Manhattan for “the vanishing America,” where he imagines the real people are. Of course, it isn’t the country into which the Hoopers have moved so much as into a sitcom, a place where the rules of logic bow inexorably to the law of the punch line. What’s more, outside of a couple of funny accents and quite a few jokes about cheese, the humor is unrelated to the geography -- there is nothing convincingly rural, regional or parochial about the milieu or the characters, which include an aspiring filmmaker (Eric Lively), his waitress girlfriend (Reagan Dale Neis), and -- spoiler ahead -- the gay couple who run the touristy town diner (Garret Dillahunt and Daniel Roebuck).
Which is to say it is a small-town comedy that has nothing to do with small towns. It makes you appreciate the relative veracity of “The Andy Griffith Show” or even of “Green Acres,” and the show it most closely resembles, “Newhart.” It’s no accident that Macdonald hired “Newhart” veteran Barry Kemp (also of “Taxi” and “Coach”) to help him develop the show. The smarter thing might have been to hire Bob Newhart as well.
An actor -- or more precisely, comedic presence -- who might have “Born to Smirk” tattooed somewhere on his body, Macdonald is not completely unbelievable as a human being, though casting him as Charles Kuralt makes as much sense as making Andy Rooney the new Terminator. The monotone he used to such good effect for his “Saturday Night Live” imitations of Bob Dole is only a slight exaggeration of his natural own; he expresses himself through changes in volume or speed, not intonation. He is a binary sort of presence, either on or off, nothing in between.
The show is neither a disaster nor a revelation. One can only with difficulty imagine it lasting more than a season, but there’s no particular reason it shouldn’t last one. It is professionally executed; the cast is appealing. The jokes come into view waving colorful banners that may be seen from miles away, but once they arrive are recognizable as jokes. There are one or two ripe ideas -- the house that Macdonald rents comes with an aggressive butler (the un-butlery Brian Howe), a concept Harold Pinter might run with, though I doubt they will be running in that direction.
If anything tips the scale in “Stan Hooper’s” favor, it is Fred Willard, the town’s cheese tycoon. (“They call me the Big Cheese. We get a good laugh out of that.”) As another player of limited range, he’s an interesting contrast to Macdonald -- he makes his stiffness work for him, amplifies it into a kind of generic American heartiness, and in such a way that he can make even a bad joke funny. Willard seems no more a product of the Wisconsin countryside than anyone else here, but his presence makes the series at least worth a look.
‘A Minute With Stan Hooper’
When: 8:30 p.m. Wednesdays. Premieres tonight.
Rating: The network has rated the show TV-PG (may not be suitable for young children).
Norm Macdonald...Stan Hooper
Penelope Ann Miller...Molly Hooper
Fred Willard...Fred Hawkins
Eric Lively...Ryan Hawkins
Reagan Dale Neis...Chelsea
Daniel Roebuck...Pete Peterson
Garret Dillahunt...Lou Peterson
Brian Howe...Gary Jamison
Creators, writers (tonight’s pilot episode), Barry Kemp and Norm Macdonald. Director, Kemp.