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TV REVIEWS : 'Ben Stiller' Is a Winner; 'Woops!'? Oops!

September 26, 1992|HOWARD ROSENBERG | TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

His parents, the comedy team of Stiller and Meara, are funny. But Ben Stiller is funny !

The proof is his rip-roaring, hilarious half-hour show on Fox: It ranks with HBO's "The Larry Sanders Show" as the creamy class of the new season's comedy series.

"The Ben Stiller Show" premieres at 7:30 p.m. Sunday on Channels 11 and 6, in advance of the 10:30 p.m. debut of a lesser Fox comedy, the aptly named "Woops!" The two are part of a counterprogramming, eight-comedy evening on Fox, the latter half of which faces movies on ABC, CBS and NBC.

Besides his parents, Stiller's satirical pedigree includes "Saturday Night Live" and his own series on MTV, also shrewdly titled "The Ben Stiller Show." The Fox version consists of short films and other amusing nonsense, and the premiere's mercilessly spoofing content is the closest thing in years to the tone of the brilliant "SCTV."

It includes "U2: The Early Years," a riotous sendup of rock's cosmic Irish band with Stiller as its stylish lead singer, Bono Hewson. Hosted by Dave Madden, who played the manager on "The Partridge Family," the MTV-style "rockumentary" has Bono doing a cereal commercial and the band playing the 1980 bar mitzvah of a Joel Wasserstein. Bono: "Look at him, the very vision of manhood. And how about Leo Krupnick, who made that great gefilte fish sculpture, huh?"

Almost as funny is Stiller as Eddie Munster in a takeoff on "Cape Fear" and as a Hollywood agent, the ponytailed, glib, insincere, oil-spewing Michael Pheret. A recurring character, he takes meetings tonight with guests Garry Shandling and Roseanne and Tom Arnold, telling them: "I'm so glad we're having this conversation."

Although airing on Fox, "The Ben Stiller Show" is from HBO Independent Productions. And like every bold satirist, Stiller doesn't spare the hand that feeds, witness Sunday's "HBO Presents the Last Stand of Yakov Smirnoff," which pokes fun at HBO's comedy specials while sending an even sharper arrow through the heart of Commie-trashing Smirnoff's stand-up act, which crumbled simultaneously with the collapse of the Soviet Union. And coming in the second episode is a period spoof of Fox's "Cops," with police this time moving in on Salem's witches.

Along with Stiller's considerable acting gifts, the premiere's staging and devastatingly clever writing form the underpinning for its success. Viewers should be so glad "The Ben Stiller Show" is having this conversation.

But what is a "Woops!"? Not much, judging by an opening half hour that introduces six survivors of a nuclear holocaust who strive--comedically, insists Fox--to "build a better world." Their base is a miraculously untouched farm house where they arrive one by one:

Sixth-grade English teacher Mark Braddock (Evan Handler), wealthy financial analyst Curtis Thorpe (Lane Davies), "politically correct" Alice McConnell (Meagen Fay), homeless Jack Connors (Fred Applegate), pathologist Frederick Ross (Cleavant Derricks) and manicurist Suzanne Skillman (Marita Geraghty).

Yes, everyone but Gilligan.

As a concept, "Woops!" has satirical possibilities. But they aren't realized in the premiere: The topical humor is heavy-handed and the highlight is an attack by a mutant giant spider that convinces the six protagonists that, despite their inability to get along, they have no choice but to remain together.

Fortunately, viewers do have a choice, and one suspects--when comparing this new comedy with the promising new "Flying Blind" that precedes it--relatively few will choose "Woops!"

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