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Pbs Trying Its First Comedy Series

October 17, 1987|DIANE HAITHMAN | Times Staff Writer

Playwright Wendy Wasserstein tells why she hates to drive:

"The car moves," Wasserstein said with a shudder audible by phone from Manhattan, the urban anxiety pit where she learned to drive two years ago. "And there are other people on the street, and then you have to turn, they don't even let you just go straight. . . ."

Wasserstein, whose plays include "Isn't It Romantic" and "Uncommon Women and Others," used her own nightmarish experiences on the road as the basis for "Drive, She Said," the second episode of "Trying Times," a PBS comedy series that debuts in Los Angeles Monday at 10 p.m. on KCET Channel 28.

"Trying Times," a series of six weekly half-hours produced by KCET and Jon S. Denny, brings together unusual bedfellows from the worlds of theater, performance art, feature film and television to create public television's first comedy anthology series.

All the episodes have in common a personal view of a modern problem. These are not the life-and-death social issues and incurable diseases currently in vogue at the networks, but rather those little things that drive America quietly out of its collective mind.

"It's about our national neurosis, our distinctly American Angst ," said Denny, who acknowledged that some of the ideas for the series were culled directly from his own psychotherapy sessions. "My basic feeling is that things like melancholia and hopelessness bring out the best in people, and we shouldn't take life too seriously.

"Life is hard for everyone, not just you and me. Each episode manages to be quirky in an individual way--existential comedies for people who are trying to find their way in the world."

"It's the poetics of anxiety," said one of the series' writers and stars, Spalding Gray, who occupied himself at a luncheon interview worrying about a very arty pasta salad on the menu that contained both grapefruit and vegetables (Gray read somewhere that it is unhealthful to combine fruit and vegetables, and has mistrusted the combination ever since).

"I think seeing these (shows) provides some relief from anxiety," he said. "It's like an aspirin."

Performance artist Gray ("Swimming to Cambodia") drew on his own experience with writing partner Renee Shafransky to create "Bedtime Story," the saga of a Los Angeles couple trying to decide whether to have a baby. The man, portrayed by Gray, suffers insomnia, kept awake by the insistent and very loud ticking of his girlfriend's biological clock. Shafransky's part is played by Jessica Harper.

Gray, who describes their script as a "comic 'Twilight Zone,' " took the notion of the biological clock literally, placing a large and visible clock on Harper's stomach. Gray and Shafransky still have that clock at home in the closet of their Hollywood Hills home; it conveniently stopped at 4:30, and they have decided to put off the baby decision for now.

The first "Trying Times" installment is playwright Beth Henley's "Family Tree," a disaster with a happy ending in which a young man brings his fiancee (Rosanna Arquette) home to meet the family.

Other episodes: "Get a Job," in which a 30-year-old perpetual student (Steven Wright) must get his first real job because his parents finally stop paying the bills; Bernard Slade's "Moving Day," in which a recently divorced woman (Candice Bergen) must move to a new house, and "The Visit," by "Beyond Therapy" playwright Christopher Durang, in which a high-school flame (Swoosie Kurtz) returns to wreak havoc on the lives of a married couple (Jeff Daniels and Julie Hagerty).

Denny proposed the idea for "Trying Times" to KCET on the theory that public television could use a healthy dose of humor. "The funniest things I've ever seen on PBS are the pledge breaks," Denny said. "They're very good at doing programming with llamas and insects and sharks, but the only comedy that I remember seeing had a British accent."

KCET president William Kobin had been talking about wanting to do a comedy series since he arrived at Channel 28 in 1983. He felt that the station's Los Angeles location made it the ideal spot to gather the American comedy talent that public television has largely ignored.

"This is absolutely the station in the (PBS) system where a humorous program should be done," Kobin said. "We felt it would give us the opportunity that we want so much, to work with the wonderful creative people within the (Hollywood) community."

Other actors on the series include Teri Garr, Ron Silver, Hope Lange, Tim Matheson, Catherine O'Hara and "Talking Heads" musician David Byrne. Directors include Alan Arkin, Sandy Wilson ("My American Cousin"), Jonathan Demme and Michael Lindsay-Hogg ("Brideshead Revisited).

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