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An Insider's Report on the Death of 'Wilton North'

February 14, 1988|PAUL KRASSNER

Fox Broadcasting's late, not-necessarily-so-great "Wilton North Report" is the stuff of history. Yes, very brief history. It was scheduled to open Nov. 30--then was postponed to Dec. 11. It lasted until Jan. 5.

One of its employees was the writer here, who is editor-publisher of the Realist and a stand-up satirist--and an occasional contributor to these pages. Calendar asked him for an insider's view on the show, its hopes, its fears, its ambitions--and its demise.

Advised of this article, representatives of Fox Broadcasting and "The Wilton North Report" as well as producer Barry Sand and the two hosts, declined comment. Said Fox spokesman Michael Binkow, "'The Wilton North Report' is a show in our past...." "I want this show to be unlike anything else that's ever been seen on television," Barry Sand told the writers. "I want it to be controversial, opinionated, provocative. I don't care if it offends people. We'll open each show with a review of that day's news, using actual footage, and we'll comment on it. I want that segment to be funny and hard-hitting, with a really strong point of view. It will be the signature of the show."

He paused to take a bite of his sweet potato, fresh from the microwave oven. There was a certain electricity about him, the kind a producer has when given wings to fly without a pilot.

"Fox is being very supportive. They're giving us a year to let the show develop and find an audience. There'll be a couple of hosts, male and female, who will take us through the show, reacting to everything--sort of like 'Siskel & Ebert Meet the Today Show'--but it's gonna be a writers ' show. We're gonna make dangerous TV."

As it turned out, the only dangerous thing about "The Wilton North Report" might occur if you kept the TV set balanced on the tub while taking a bath. How could it happen that a show with such high aspirations would end up wallowing in a swamp of mediocrity?

It was all Eddie Murphy's fault. If he hadn't asked Arsenio Hall to be in his movie, then "The Late Show," which we were "replacing," might have served as a missing link between a mom-and-pop grocery chain and a TV network, and Fox President Jamie Kellner wouldn't have had to fill that impending gap.

So Kellner approached Robert Morton, a particularly creative segment producer on "Late Night With David Letterman." Morton had to clear the offer with Letterman, who told him to wait a week before signing anything. Then Letterman went to NBC, saying he didn't want to lose Morton. Kellner then approached Sand with an offer to produce a Letterman clone show. Sand preferred to do something totally different, although he had no idea yet what it would be.

He told associates that he would never hire anybody for the new show that he couldn't fire. He didn't want some prima donna who might refuse to do a particular piece of material. And he certainly didn't want to hire a host who could become powerful enough to fire him . Barry Sand's show would be the star.

Barry had been excluded from writers' meetings at the Letterman show, but now he hired 11 writers, appointed himself as head writer--and excluded his co-producer from the writers meetings!

We had 2 1/2 months to get a show ready to go on the air five nights a week--a show without a concept.

Barry had planned to call it "Nightcap," but Fox wasn't thrilled. So the writers came up with a couple of hundred more, from "Beyond the News" to "Ha Ha Goodnight." Writer Lane Sarasohn noticed a sign in the elevator that said "Wilton North Building" and submitted it as a name that sounded like "The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour."

We needed a truckload of ideas for repeatable features, in-studio guests and possibilities for remotes. But they all had to be reality-based. Thus, we could have a tabloid reporter interview a woman who'd been given a root canal by a Martian because she believed that it really happened; it wasn't as if this was a sketch . We could have the Goodyear blimp present an aerial view of the hospital where Cybill Shepherd was giving birth or of Richard Nixon's 75th birthday party, because we weren't making up these events.

Similarly, unfulfilled fantasies ranged from putting together people with nothing in common--such as Rodney Dangerfield and Margaret Thatcher, to putting together people with some thing in common, such as Sonny Bono and Ike Turner, both of whose wives had left them and gone off to superstardom, or Richard Belzer and John Stoessel, each having been pummeled by a wrestler he was interviewing.

Jimmy Carter would analyze major issues while fly fishing; Roseanne Barr would give advice to the lovelorn. Ferdinand Marcos would explain his philosophy on a split screen with Jackie Mason. Joe Carcione would discuss vegetables and the royal family in a feature titled "Of Cabbages and Kings."

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