be the time for throw-it-
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
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
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
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
"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
"For many years, he wanted to do a variety show," but networks didn't quite
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
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?