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Never Ready for Prime Time? : 'Doctor, Doctor' is the latest wild and crazy comedy to find the going tough on network TV

March 04, 1990|STEVE WEINSTEIN

He performs CPR on stuffed pink ponies; he skis on his couch; he pelts his friends with anchovies, sucks on a baby's pacifier and even slips on his own banana peels. He's a mixture of Lucy, Maxwell Smart, Uncle Fester, Mork from Ork, Max Headroom and Hawkeye Pierce. Told that a colleague's son can't go with him to the park to play basketball because there are too many weirdos there, he responds assuringly, "That's OK--I'm fluent in weirdo."

Dr. Mike Stratford, the lead character in the wacky sitcom "Doctor, Doctor," is probably the most outrageous person in prime-time television today.

Make that was .

CBS pulled the show off the air after last Monday's broadcast, shoving it into that nebulous TV limbo the networks call "on hiatus." And though the producers deliberately tried to temper the show's looniness with a conventional setting, "Doctor, Doctor" nonetheless could be on its way to becoming yet another testament to the maxim that weird and wild comedies cannot find a home on network television.

CBS has assured Norman Steinberg, the show's creator and executive producer, that "Doctor, Doctor" will return later this year and that it is still a "definite candidate" for the network's fall lineup. It remains in production. But Steinberg isn't thrilled about going off the air--even temporarily.

"I wish I did feel confident," he said. "I'm in love with my show and confused as to where it's going to be. I do think it would have been better if we just stayed on the air and ran new episodes and reruns until the fall, just to keep us up there. I don't want to be forgotten."

During the last several months, "Doctor, Doctor" and its star, Matt Frewer (of "Max Headroom" fame), have tried to straddle the perilous fence that separates successful mainstream TV sitcoms and the handful of nutty, demented comedy series that break with the medium's familiar formulas but leave behind a large part of the audience in the process. "Sledge Hammer!," "Police Squad," "Quark," "When Things Were Rotten"--every few years one network or another attempts to resurrect the bent but popular antics of Mel Brooks and Buck Henry's 1965-70 series "Get Smart" with parodies, sight-gags and bizarre characters. Except for "Mork and Mindy," ABC's 1978-1982 series that offset Robin Williams' improvisational madness with traditional sitcom trappings and a love story, most have suffered a quick death.

"Looniness is hard to maintain from week to week," Steinberg said. "My heart is still in lunacy, but when the point is just lunacy, even inspired lunacy, I don't think it holds up on weekly television because it's not connected to anything."

It is easy to see why Steinberg has been insistent about making sure "Doctor, Doctor" is perceived as more than just uproarious high jinks, no matter how hysterical they might be. He learned his lesson.

In 1975, riding the success of "Blazing Saddles"--a movie they co-wrote with three others and that Brooks directed--Steinberg and Brooks again teamed up on "When Things Were Rotten," a TV satire on the legend of Robin Hood and his merry band. The show was hailed as one of the most inventive of its day, but it lasted only a few months.

"We all pour our hearts into these things, and you think that they are the best stuff that has ever been conceived," Steinberg said. "And when it gets canceled quickly, it breaks your heart."

As a collaborator with Brooks and the co-writer of such films as "Johnny Dangerously" and "My Favorite Year," Steinberg has earned a reputation for producing loony stuff. But when then-CBS Entertainment President Kim LeMasters asked him to create another "Get Smart"-type show two years ago, Steinberg refused. He offered instead "to cut the difference" with a series about an oddball character who nonetheless functions in a conventional world. The result was "Doctor, Doctor," which premiered last June.

"I want to write about things that I'm interested in, people I know," Steinberg said. "That's not to say I want to make big comments or I'm in this to cure society." But, he pointed out, his latest show is about doctors dealing with the problems of the contemporary world, not Robin Hood, Friar Tuck and the hazards of Sherwood Forest. He and CBS have prefered comparisons to "MASH"--where characters behaved like pranksters one minute and then performed heroically the next--than to purely twisted shows such as "Police Squad!" or "Sledge Hammer!"

Other producers understand why Steinberg would want to mitigate "Doctor, Doctor's" looniness with conventional characters and plot lines.

Alan Spencer, creator of the "Dirty Harry"-parody "Sledge Hammer!," believes that no one at the networks these days is concerned with the issue of funny comedy writing. Instead, he said, network executives "push warmth, poignancy and fuzzy dramatic moments. When Mel Brooks made 'Get Smart,' the goal was to do the funniest show on the air. The networks don't have that same aspiration today."

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