Even though the popular TV comedy "Night Court" tends to cast its characters against type, there's still been no way to spot the devilishness up Harry Anderson's sleeve, or the subtly smooth persona he's built around his live comedy and magic act.
"Harry Anderson's Sideshow," which airs on NBC tonight at 10 (Channels 4, 36 and 39), gives us both a glimpse of the quality that makes Anderson unique, and a lineup of some exceptional circus acts.
The setting is that of a small-time carnival, which fits in with Anderson's look of an early 20th-Century Rotarian con artist, and you know you're in the presence of a quietly wicked wit when, after actress and professional beauty Deidre Hall winsomely challenges him to expose the illusion of a circus guillotine, he decapitates her.
The disembodied Hall reappears a couple of times during the program, but Anderson never lets her, or us, off the hook by implying that the whole thing was a joke. She has to learn to live with her new condition.
In his club career, Anderson has preferred magic over straight acting or even telling jokes. Even his 1940s look, like a Midwestern crime reporter who's grown quietly cynical before he's grown up, is an extension of his play with illusion and the tacit note that a lot of our reading into personality is made through appearance.
Anderson loves noodling with tricks and gadgets, and as quietly intriguing as he is on his own, he prefers more or less an emcee role as his circus plays out its own more opulent trickery. The quality of the lineup is a bit uneven, but most of the acts are first-rate--particularly his Chinese acrobats. This viewer's favorites include the French balancing cyclist Charley Charles--who rides progressively (or regressively) smaller bikes, until, astride the tiny seat of a velocipede with wheels the size of half-dollars, he squeals "Ooh la la!"--and Pan-Tar and Maureen.
The latter act is wisely saved for last. Pan-Tar is a blond Germanic archer with the languid expression of a sorrowful young Werther, but he's murder with those crossbows, whose arrows whiz like bullets. The climax of his act involves a series of crossbows situated so that they trigger each other in a cross-volley that ends with an arrow plunged into an apple half-buried in Pan-Tar's Dionysian locks.
An appealing show, on virtually all counts, and Anderson's understated presence suggests that this could be the start of something big in his career.