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TV REVIEW : 'What's Alan Watching?'Eddie Murphy's Shot in the Arm for Ailing CBS

February 27, 1989|TERRY ATKINSON

Eddie Murphy is a heck of a kidder, and we know you're going to think we're kidding when we tell you this, but it's true: The acerbic black comedian's return to television is a comedy special about a white teen-age boy in a very Caucasian family. Really.

That's just one of the surprises in store for anyone who tunes in to the terrific "What's Alan Watching?" (8-9 tonight on Channels 2 and 8).

Murphy served as executive producer, and he also appears in a couple of wild character roles--most notably impersonating singer James Brown--but this is like nothing he's ever been associated with before. The real point of reference here is "James at 15," that 1977 movie (and subsequent short-lived series on NBC) that depicted a teen-age boy's travails with love, life and family.

"What's Alan Watching?" is what you might get if "James at 15" had been zapped into 1989. Zap is the word, because, in a flip on James' daydreams, Alan's fantasies are centered around his television. He's constantly zapping it with his remote control, and sometimes whoever he's watching--a woman taking a shower in one of those teasing soap ads, the Smothers Brothers, a cheerleader he has taped at school--talks to him.

But while "James at 15" was primarily dramatic, "What's Alan Watching" is almost totally comic--and almost totally successful at it too.

Like Alan Hoffstetter himself (played with verve by heartthrob Corin (Corky) Nemec), the hour is funny, irreverent and lively to the point of antsiness. Director Thomas Schlamme and writers Barry W. Blaustein, David Sheffield and Bob Tischler (the latter also produced) pull every trick in the book to get a laugh.

Sometimes that results in low comedy (Dad bumping his head while fixing the toilet) and caricature (Alan's whiny sister with an inexplicable New York accent; her Carpet King boyfriend who's always eating off the rug in his TV ads).

More often, it results in super-hip humor--much of it reflecting sharp truths about teen-agers, television and modern American life.

A lot of the funny stuff comes from Alan, who frequently talks to the camera (just as his TV characters often talk to him) and from his wacky family, rounded out by a tap-dance-and-song instructing Mom ("She's turning my little brother into Al Jolstein , dude," complains Alan's punkish rival in love).

And a lot of it comes from that crazy-quilt television: Our boy seldom stays with anything longer than a microsecond. The natural juxtapositions are funny enough, but when he actually sticks with something for a few seconds, it's often a scream--like a biography of Mr. Ed, those terrific skits that Murphy stars in, and a "Jeopardy!" takeoff in which Alex Trebek introduces the category "Alan's Family."

There are also numerous little comic quickies that you may miss if you blink. When Alan flips to a scene from "Best Defense," one of Murphy's few cinematic mistakes, he remarks "bad movie" and flips on. (You can almost hear Murphy's chuckle, self-deprecating this time, in the background.)

"What's Alan Watching?" is a pilot for a possible series that, if scheduled, should bring ailing CBS the young blood it desperately needs.

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