It seems only appropriate to launch a TV comedy service on April Fool's Day. That's exactly what Viacom--the company that already brings you MTV, Nickelodeon and VH-1--is doing. Starting today at 4 p.m., some cable subscribers will be able to catch the debut of HA!, a new 24-hour-a-day, basic-cable comedy network.
Viacom hopes that the timing is more ironic than prophetic for the chances of survival of TV's second all-comedy channel. "We could be for comedy what CNN is for news, or ESPN for sports," says Ed Bennett, president of HA!
Perhaps. But questions about the venture abound. For one, it might be asked, how many more whacks on its funny bone can the country endure?
If you don't care to watch an unending roster of comics stand and deliver in any one of 350 comedy clubs nationwide, or to go to the movies, there's plenty of opportunity to find amusement in front of the TV at home by watching A&E's "Evening at the Improv" and "Caroline's Comedy Hour," the syndicated "Comic Strip Live" and "The Laugh Factory," HBO's "One-Night Stand" and "Women of the Night," MTV stand-up spots, "The Tonight Show," "The Arsenio Hall Show," "Late Night With David Letterman" and the odd, fraught-with-peril comedic appearance on the syndicated "Showtime at the Apollo."
This does not include "I Love Lucy," "Leave It to Beaver," Andy Griffith, Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore reruns. Or Nick at Nite. Not to mention regular prime-time network comedy programming.
To the outside observer, it would appear that that portion of the ozone layer covering the continental United States has mysteriously transmuted into laughing gas.
Too, there's the parlous fate of that other comedy channel called, imaginatively enough, the Comedy Channnel, which was spun into orbit by HBO last November and instantly plunged into a trough of public indifference, critical disdain and cable inaccessibility, where it remains mired hemorrhaging, by one trade press account, $1 million a month (though HBO claims that figure is exaggerated). HBO says major rescue plans are being drawn up for the programming, but the problem of getting cable operators to carry it remains. HA! is having the same difficulty in finding room on already crowded cable systems. (See accompanying story, this page.).
Then there's the matter of HA!'s programming. Though original production is planned, HA!'s initial schedule resembles an expanded version of Nick at Nite--virtually nonstop reruns of old sitcoms.
"Given that there's an oversaturation of stand-up comedy, we hope to move on to the next level by developing variety and comedy shows that'll work and survive," said Bennett, who also is president of VH-1, MTV's sister music-video service. But HA!--whose startup budget is $100 million--intends to build up to such fare by going first with the older, more conventional TV shows--"proven shows," Bennett said, "with characters and stories that create a sense of warm, familiar, comfortable programming with which we can build an audience."
Thus the lineup includes "Car 54, Where Are You?," "McHale's Navy," "CPO Sharkey," "TV's Bloopers and Practical Jokes," "Candid Camera," "Rhoda," "That Girl," "The Best of Groucho," "The Lucy Show," "Phyllis," "SCTV" and the "Saturday Night Live" years that featured Billy Crystal and Eddie Murphy. A classic variety showcase will offer "Your Show of Shows" and "The Red Skelton Show." An afternoon block, put together by former NBC, CBS and ABC programmer Fred Silverman, features shows that dropped out of sight before anyone could miss them; they include "The Associates," "Working Stiffs" and "Occasional Wife."
Original programming will begin in May, according to Viacom, and will offer such shows as "The Storytellers," in which film directors such as Gary Weis catch celebs telling tales; "Clash," a game show pitting unlikely contestants against each other (such as taxidermists versus the Audubon Society); "London Underground," a co-production with the BBC in which British and American comedy and music acts get together, and "The Big Room," in which established comedians and monologuists are filmed in action by noted movie directors (Mort Sahl and Nicolas Roeg are teamed in the first installment, which airs at 7:30 tonight).
HA! has also signed series development deals with MTM Enterprises and Imagine Films Entertainment, where the Second City Repertory Company is working on new material.