Monday, July 24, 1989

'Not Necessarily' a Last Bastion of Necessary Satire
It's Wednesday Night Live.
     It's also "Not Necessarily the News," a weekly (three times a month) series on HBO and a TV institution (now in its sixth year) whose fate is in the balance.
     Well, junior institution.
     "NNTN" is a minor league pitcher (audience-wise) with a major league curve. Because it's been on cable (HBO claims an audience of 15.9 million households), it hasn't even approached the ratings or exposure of NBC's infinitely more infamous "Saturday Night Live." No one has written any books or made any TV movies about the cast of this series.
     Yet "NNTN" has always been one of TV's funniest shows (often more consistently funny than "SNL") and a rare TV venue for slashing political satire.
     The question is whether truly biting political satire is craved by American viewers in sufficient numbers now to keep a 10:30 p.m. half hour like "NNTN" on the air. Perhaps not.

HBO reports that the show's ratings are in the "blah" range, passable, but hardly institution-like. So, whether "NNTN" is extended past its present nine-episode commitment that ends Aug. 2 remains uncertain.
     Here's hoping. . . .
     A creation of Moffitt-Lee Productions, "NNTN" is in some ways better and meaner than ever.
     This season's "live" element and cast are new, and the format increasingly resembles an actual newscast, with Annabelle Gurwitch and Tom Parks as anchors. Most important, the show's mandate - to deliver as many cheap shots and low blows as possible - happily survives.
     Example: A takeoff on the ABC News "Person of the Week" - substituting another "P" word for Person.
     As with much satire, there are as many misses as hits: Some of the humor is especially cheap and sophomoric. Dopey reporter Joe Guppy is dopey. And heading the list of good ideas that flopped were Gurwitch's "interview" with embattled author Salman Rushdie, and also the usually amazing Harry Shearer as former House Speaker Jim Wright (good impression, bad material).
     At its best, though, "NNTN" is not only fearlessly tasteless, but frightfully funny.
     Continuing to tops its repertoire are often-hilarious "dirty tricks" interviews of political figures - ranging from President Bush to members of his Administration - in which "NNTN" mischievously slices its own questions and reactions into footage of actual interviews, changing their meaning.
     In the hands of "NNTN," for example, Secretary of State James Baker's taped responses to an unknown interviewer somehow became a conference with a nun about the conduct of Baker's son "Jimmy" at a Catholic school. In another episode, Republican National Chairman Lee Atwater appeared to be responding to Park's question about Vice President Quayle when he said: "I think he's a charlatan and phony."
     You can fault "NNTN" for distorting reality, but at least its intentions are bad.
     The show also has a collection of acerbic political commentators, the best of whom has been Will Durst, who noted recently about the Bush presidency: "The only problem with doing nothing is, how can you tell when you're done?"
     One of the show's most inspired bits to date, meanwhile, found Gurwitch daydreaming as Parks delivered a nasty commentary on Bush. Suddenly she was Madonna, gyrating and dancing in her underwear while fawning over a Bush look-alike in a parody of the singer's "Like a Prayer" video.
     Not all of the show's targets relate to politics.
     It was "NNTN" that broke the story on "Batman and Rainman," for example. And one of the show's brightest elements is Richard Rosen's hard-hitting Rosen Report, tough, relentless, and passionate, investigative journalism at its best.
     Only recently he was brutally confronting dishonest New York street vendors, not only those selling phony Rolex watches, but also sellers of counterfeit Rolodexes ("This one has no vowels").
     Also ranging far and wide is the show's consumer advocate, Merrill Markoe, who looked and sounded suspiciously like writer/TV commentator/coffee spokeswoman Linda Ellerbee recently when she put on large eyeglasses to offer her credibility and services to advertisers:
     "I have access to cameras, studio time. I've got eyeglasses, everything it takes to make your refreshing beverage a huge seller. And as long as I keep talking with this big smile on my face and a certain amount of authority, I bet no one notices this isn't part of a newscast."
With HBO and MTV launching comedy channels and stand-up comics continuing to proliferate throughout television, the small screen is becoming America's electronic Catskills, a training ground helping to revitalize an entire industry. Fine, as long as the social and political humor of an "NNTN" isn't killed off in the process.
     Wednesday's episode is the show's 80th in a long run that deserves to be even longer, one that has proved "Not Necessarily the News" is necessary.

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