Inside a dubbing stage on the Columbia Pictures lot, silhouetted against a monolithic video screen the size of a freeway billboard, Clyde Phillips stares up at the 10-foot-high, fish-eye image of a sexy high school principal in a fire-engine red business suit. The principal (Melanie Chartoff) has just fired her "special obedience helper" (Taj Johnson), a student who finds pleasure in his classmates' pain.
"We need a whimper here," one of three engineers seated behind a sound board calls out.
Phillips turns to the engineer. "Can't we beat a dog or something?"
He's joking, of course. But in the heat of dubbing sessions for the Fox Television series "Parker Lewis Can't Lose!," almost anything goes. About 300 sound effects are recorded each week for the bizarre high school comedy that resembles a video-game meltdown. Live-action characters inhabit a synthetic universe of extreme camera angles, electronic illusions and computer-digitized sound effects.
Phillips, 41, the show's creator and executive producer, steps up to the live microphone to record the whimper.
"The sound effects are what make the dub of the show so fun," another engineer says while waiting to give Phillips his cue. "Everything else you do, unless you're doing a cartoon, has to be the actual sound--see a dog, hear a dog. Here it's see a dog, hear a lion."
The free-for-all dubbing session is probably no surprise to regular viewers of "Parker Lewis." The series stars Corin Nemec as a casual kid in funky silk shirts who uses his command of various computer, videotape and electronic skills to orchestrate daily events in his favor. His trademark mantra is "Not a problem."
At the start of the season "Parker Lewis" and NBC's "Ferris Bueller" were both considered knockoffs of the John Hughes feature film "Ferris Bueller's Day Off." But "Bueller," starring Charlie Schlatter, was assaulted by critics and soon canceled by NBC. "Parker Lewis," meanwhile, widely acknowledged as the smarter of the two high-school comedies, seems to have found a niche at Fox. Despite low overall ratings, it ranks high with teen-agers and adults 18-34.
Youthful minds seem to be drawn to the show's unusual sights and sounds. When the halls of Santo Domingo High School are empty, wind howls and tumbleweeds roll by. Glass shatters whenever Ms. Musso, the principal, slams her office door. When the 6-foot-7-inch, 270-pound school bully (Abraham Benrubi)--normally filmed from the stomach up--enters a room, the Earth shakes ponderously. When he's hungry, his stomach roars like Godzilla.
"It's stylized reality," says Lon Diamond, the series' co-creator. "It's sort of rooted in reality, but we twist up the jokes and the situations. It's not like we're in a regular proscenium sitcom show where you have the character and the joke. We have the character, the joke and the style , too. It's like one extra weapon that we have to go crazy with."
Some of the sound effects come so fast that they're written into scripts as verbs--characters whoosh from one place to the next. Many of the thousands of sound effects "Parker Lewis" draws from belong to Hanna Barbera's cartoon library. In fact, most of the series' sound engineers come from an animated background where such terms as bloogle, whistle splat and vroop are commonplace.
"The show is a lot like 'The Three Stooges,' " supervising sound editor Bob Redpath says. "It's like doing a cartoon. We have latitude and creative license to make things sound like we want."
The mind behind most of the mischief is Phillips, who in 1987 was asked to develop a high school comedy for CBS, which was airing his youth-oriented cop drama "Houston Knights" at the time. Phillips sold CBS on the idea for "Parker Lewis" and recruited Diamond to help develop it. But CBS ultimately passed, and Fox, after a dozen rewrites, took a gamble.
"Look, we are always interested in any show that somehow looks like it's taking a different slant on things," Fox Entertainment Group president Peter Chernin says. Because of its technology, "Parker Lewis" is more expensive than standard half-hour series and Fox pays higher licensing fees to broadcast it.
But Chernin, who in January ordered four additional episodes of "Parker Lewis," bringing the total number this season to 26, seems unconcerned.
"One of the big concerns I have is that there are far too many sitcoms on television, far too many people sitting around a living room telling jokes," he said. "We're always looking for different ways to attack comedy. 'Married...With Children' does it with characters, 'The Simpsons' does it with animation and 'Parker Lewis' does it with style."
Instead of the standard three-camera set-up before a live audience, "Parker Lewis" episodes are shot film-style over five days with one camera and no laugh track. The series is underscored by laid-back steel guitar riffs and original music, composed and recorded live each week by an eight-man band.
Although Phillips' new ABC legal drama "Eddie Dodd" (see Page 79) is based on the James Woods character in "True Believer," the producer shrugs off the suggestion that "Parker Lewis" was patterned after Matthew Broderick in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off."
"I'm watching a Marx Brothers move last night, and Groucho Marx breaks out of the scene and steps forward and starts talking to the camera," Phillip says. "I mean, we didn't invent this stuff. We did not invent high school comedy. Max Shulman didn't invent it with 'Dobie Gillis.' Garry Marshall didn't invent it with 'Happy Days.' John Hughes didn't invent it with 'Ferris Bueller.' "
"Parker Lewis Can't Lose ! " airs Sundays at 7:30 p.m. on Fox.