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The First Floppy-Disk Sitcom : George Lucas and 'SCTV' Alums Turn a Computer Game Into a Comedy for Family Channel

September 30, 1990|DANIEL CERONE | Times Staff Writer

In the endless quest for new television ideas, film-maker George Lucas has pirated a computer game and turned it into a TV series.

The new comedy show "Maniac Mansion" from Lucasfilm Ltd. Television is user-friendly (just log on your TV set and punch in The Family Channel). It's based on the computer game "Maniac Mansion" from Lucasfilm Ltd. Games. And next month "Maniac Mansion" will become a game from Nintendo.

"It all sounded a little sketchy to me at first," admitted executive producer Eugene Levy, best known for his work with the Canadian-based "SCTV" comedy series.

But, despite its genesis as a commercial venture to cash in on a computer game, "Maniac Mansion" is a strikingly uncommercial TV series. It's a stylized, sharp-edged comedy that's a bit like David Lynch on helium. The series avoids the standard sitcom laugh track and relies on the droll humor of its mostly "SCTV" cast for laughs.

"You can't ask for a title that screams more wacky and zany than 'Maniac Mansion.' So we took the series in the opposite direction," Levy explained.

In the series, Joe Flaherty stars as Dr. Fred Edison, a well-intentioned third-generation inventor who lives with his wife (Deborah Theaker) and quirky family in a Frank Lloyd Wright-style home, where he fiddles with the powers of a meteor buried under his basement laboratory. Flaherty's misguided experiments have left his 4-year-old son (George Buza) a hulking 250-pound brute and Uncle Harry (John Hemphill) a genetically altered, wisecracking housefly.

"I made a decision before doing this show that I was going to try and avoid doing stuff that's commercial," Flaherty said, "because when you fall on your face doing that, it's just plain embarrassing, and there's nothing to save your rear. I'd rather do something you can get behind, so if it flops you were at least trying. It's not like, 'Well, gee, it was a great idea. Suzanne Somers was the mother and I, I . . . ."

The award-winning "Maniac Mansion" computer game that launched the TV show was described by one reviewer as a "cross between 'The Rocky Horror Picture Show' and 'The Addams Family.' " The game asks all good users to come to the aid of a pretty cheerleader who is at risk of having her "pretty brains sucked out" by a lunatic scientist holding her captive in his Victorian mansion, where weird things started happening after it was struck by a meteorite.

"It was never the intention that the game would be spun off into anything," co-executive producer Barry Jossen of Lucasfilm Ltd. Television said. "But we felt there were certain elements of the game that could be turned into a television series."

Levy, recruited by Lucasfilm and The Family Channel for his comedic talent, didn't completely agree. Still, he was interested in "Maniac Mansion" because it was shooting near his home in Toronto and he had about five months to kill before starting a film project with another "SCTV" alum, John Candy, this fall.

"The original treatment for the show was based on the look of the packaging of the computer game, which is a kind of Gothic, horror-monster mansion," Levy said. "I inquired as to how locked in we were to the original (show) bible, and they said, 'Look, you can do what you want.' That creative carte blanche is the reason I agreed to do the show."

All Levy and his "SCTV" team proposed to retain from the computer game was the title, the meteor and a gentler Dr. Fred. Lucas, who flew to Toronto for an early brainstorming session, stood behind Levy.

"Eugene Levy was responsible for creating the style of the show," said Lucas, who has maintained a hands-off approach on the series. "So when he asked me what I wanted, I said I want 'Maniac Mansion' to be as 'out there' as possible . . . . When people are flipping the channels, I want the show to feel so different that it makes them stop and take notice."

"That's something I really took to heart," Levy confirmed.

There was still one catch, however. The Family Channel, formerly called the Christian Broadcasting Network, maintains a wholesome approach to programming. "Maniac Mansion" had to conform to standards and practices that forbid the promotion of such typical comedy targets as smoking, drinking, drugs and divorce.

"We didn't have a problem with that," Levy said. "I have kids myself and know what they can and can't watch. I wanted a show kids would gravitate toward in a big way without pandering to them, and parents would like for their own reasons."

"Maniac Mansion" is the boldest of a trio of new series--including the sitcom "Big Brother Jake" and the adventure series "The Return of the Black Stallion"--that marks The Family Channel's strongest effort yet in original programming. The cable network feels weekly series attract regular viewers, especially a George Lucas series based on a popular computer game.

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