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TELEVISION / 'Jack' on the Box / Paul Reubens hosts a quirky CD-ROM quiz game on ABC, but audiences will have the final answer on whether it will be a hit

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

for-

ever, 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, does it? Instead, viewers usually get tired rip-offs

("Twenty-One") or foul aberrations ("Fear Factor"). But what of "You Don't Know

Jack" (premiering Wednesday at 8p.m. on WABC/7)? 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 slapdown 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 the charts.

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 (3.5 million units sold,

with eight editions for CD and, more recently, for Sony PlayStation and the

Internet). The TV show takes liberties, but not egregious ones from the

original. Most notably, it has added distractions, such as a mariachi band and

a screaming "baby" to disrupt the contestants' concentration. There are still

the familiar elements ("Dis or Dat," "Jack Attack"), but 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,

and occasionally we get a tight head shot of a heavily made-up face with bad

teeth.

Strange, very strange. But funny-occasionally very funny. Yup, ABC's taking

a genuine risk. No doubt about that.

In an accurate assessment of his creation, producer Robert Morton-the

former longtime producer of both "Late Night" and "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. Morton recalls reading the pitch script and says, "It was some of

the wildest stuff I ever read." Something about a bunch of showbiz types

sitting around a boarding house who then suddenly hear a cry for help outside.

They see then-NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield floating down a

river clinging to a branch and promise to save him if he gives them their own

variety 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.

Morton said, "Just go out and do the show' [as Reubens], but he said 'I've

only done Reubens once in my life [as a guest on "The Tonight Show"]...and

hated it.'" So the new star got free reign to create his own persona.

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 bestselling CD-ROM version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,"

which airs on the network.

So now it all comes down to Wednesday night. 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?

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