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‘Lateline’ tries, tries again
Funny show is back for a third attempt at success

SHARE ‘Lateline’ tries, tries again
Funny show is back for a third attempt at success

The motto for the NBC sitcom "Lateline" at the moment seems to be: If you don't succeed, try, try again.

And again, if necessary.Tonight at 7:30 (on Ch. 5 locally), this smart, goofy, funny and deserving sitcom returns to the NBC schedule for the third time. If the ratings don't take off this time around, the show will be history.

The not-so-funny thing is that "Lateline" is better than most of what's already out there. And considerably better than just about every sitcom NBC has put on the air since the show first debuted in the spring of 1998.

But the programming idiots at the Peacock -- some of whom are no longer with the network -- saw fit to schedule tripe like "Conrad Bloom" and "Encore, Encore" and left "Lateline" on the backburner as a midseason replacement show. Then, when the show finally made it on the air in January, it was scheduled in the middle of NBC's struggling Wednesday night lineup -- directly opposite ABC's top-rated sitcom, "The Drew Carey Show," and the highly rated premiere of CBS's "60 Minutes II."

"Lateline's" ratings weren't good. Duh!

So the show was yanked (again) after only three episodes. Now it's back for one more try.

It's still the same show. It's still about a group of people who work behind the scenes and on-camera at a "Nightline"-like network show based in Washington, D.C.

The writing is still crisp, often hilarious. And the cast is excellent, including Robert Foxworth as pompous anchorman Pearce McKenzie; Miguel Ferrer as manipulative executive producer Vic Karp; Al Franken as dopey chief correspondent Al Freundlich; Megyn Price as capable producer Gale Ingersoll; Catherine Lloyd Burns as Pearce's devoted assistant, Mona; Sanaa Lathan as researcher Briana; and Ajay Naidu as intern Raji.

But perhaps the news-based comedy in the show has led to some misconceptions. That and critics (like yours truly) calling the show "smart."

Sure, it's very smart at times. But this is no high-brow exercise. "Lateline" is downright goofy with great frequency, often going for belly laughs and slapstick humor.

"We're not afraid to get silly on the show," said creator/executive producer John Markus. "I'm amazed sometimes at what high- and low-brow things are in one episode. I mean, we'll have jokes about the First Amendment and we'll have Al sitting on a toilet. We actually don't shy away from that."

"We don't think there's any contradiction in doing silly and physical comedy with doing satirical comedy," said Al Franken, who not only stars as Al Freundlich but is the show's other creator/executive producer. "I've never understood why sometimes people have objections to mixing the two."

Tonight's episode mixes Vic's first re-entry into the dating scene since his divorce with Gale's first outing as executive producer of the show with a debate on Social Security of all things. And, while it's smart stuff, it's hardly cerebral -- it includes a very funny sight-gag that has Al brawling with his sound-man.

And, as the show is wont to do, it includes an appearance by a real-life politician, former U.S. Senator Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), who has a few things to say about Social Security and about the salaries of network anchormen.

But don't be put off by the fact that real-life newsmakers appear on the show. It's fun if you know who these people are, but it doesn't hurt if you don't.

"We have a credo, which is that we like to reward people for knowing things but not punish them for not knowing things," Franken said. "So, occasionally, we put stuff in there where if you know that Dick Gephardt is the minority leader of the House and Dick Gephardt's on our show, you may appreciate the fact that what Dick Gephardt is saying is coming from the mouth of the House minority leader. If you don't know who Dick Gephardt is, you'll at least know in the context of the show that he is a politician.

"We like to spice the show with politics and news and all of those kinds of things without distancing ourselves from people who aren't interested in those things."

And, while the show often deals in politics, it doesn't espouse a particular viewpoint. The writers take equal delight in pricking the heels of the left and the right, the Democrats and the Republicans.

"I am a friend of the president's -- not a close friend, but I do admire him and I do like him," Franken said. "But the show has no political agenda. We've always felt it was inappropriate for a sitcom to be preachy."

In the end, "Lateline" is a half-hour of entertaining TV. And there's little enough of that available on any channel.

"Sometimes the words 'satire' or 'spoof' or 'parody' are used about our show, but it's an ensemble comedy -- an office comedy," Markus said. "And every week we write it to tell stories that way. And the other things we hope are just the spices, as Al said earlier."

LIDDY ON "LATELINE": One of the real-life guests who turn up on an upcoming episode of "Lateline" is convicted Watergate felon and right-wing radio talk-show host G. Gordon Liddy -- in a debate about gun control, no less.

(In the episode, Al and Raji go undercover to buy an illegal gun.)

"We had a lot of debate while we were writing the script to make sure that we didn't come out on one side of the issue," Markus said. "Since G. Gordon Liddy is in the episode, we wanted to really balance the show."

But when Liddy reported to the set, he asked for a conference with the producers.

"G. Gordon Liddy said, 'Guys, I have a problem or two with the script,' " Markus said. "And I just thought, 'We're going to lose G. Gordon Liddy.' "

Didn't happen, however.

"We went into Al's dressing room and G -- we call him G -- he sat down and he said, 'You know, there are several instances in the script where you misidentified your weapons,' " Markus said. "And that was his big note!

"That made me feel great because he was comfortable with everything else. I mean, we want everybody from both sides of the aisle to be comfortable on the show."