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Commentary : THE UPHILL FIGHT OF A DOWNBEAT COMEDY

March 20, 1994|SCOTT WILLIAMS | ASSOCIATED PRESS

NEW YORK — Bulletin: Thomas Pynchon, great American novelist, has served as a script consultant for "The John Larroquette Show," a bleak, mordantly funny sitcom wasting in the lowlands of NBC's Tuesday nights.

"In a weird way, we got him to rewrite the script," says Larroquette, who plays John Hemingway, an existential hero-schlemiel-alcoholic-night manager of a St. Louis bus station to which the adjective "sleazy" is a high compliment.

You see, both Hemingway and Larroquette collect rare first editions of Pynchon, the reclusive author of "Vineland," "Gravity's Rainbow," "The Crying of Lot 49" and 'V."

Pynchon has a special love for the losers lost on the wayside of the American dream. So co-executive producer Larroquette decided to feature Pynchon in a script and sent the work-in-progress to Pynchon's agent for approval.

"We made up a novel that he hasn't written--and he gave us permission to say that he had written 'Pandemonium of the Sun,' " Larroquette says.

The mysterious, never-photographed Pynchon refused, however, to let a "Larroquette" extra, in a plaid shirt, be videotaped from the rear and represented as Pynchon.

One scene called for Hemingway's antagonist, the lunch counter operator, Dexter (Daryl "Chill" Mitchell), to reveal, quite casually, that he's a longtime pal of the much-traveled writer.

"You must have seen him, he was sitting here last night!" Dexter insists. The script says Pynchon was wearing a T-shirt with the picture of a certain, obscure musician.

"Pynchon, through his agent, wrote back and says, 'Would you please make it a picture of Rocky Erickson on the T-shirt?' " Larroquette says.

"I looked up Rocky Erickson. He was a psychedelic rock 'n' roll musician in the '60s who was institutionalized shortly thereafter and spent most of the rest of his life in an insane asylum. Somebody that Pynchon liked, I guess."

Larroquette owns uncorrected proofs to "V." and "Gravity's Rainbow" and even one of two signed copies of "V."--the first British edition. He also has collected more than a thousand volumes of Samuel Beckett's works.

But Larroquette never wrote the author of "Waiting for Godot," "Malone" and "Krapp's Last Tape." "I started writing a letter to Samuel Beckett," he says, managing a dry, existential chuckle. "And I thought, 'What for? To tell him, "I like your work"?' I mean, he needs that? He cares?"

These days, Larroquette's literary excursions are circumscribed by his intense desire to make a go of his series, which NBC offers each Tuesday night on the sacrificial altar opposite ABC's monster hit "Roseanne."

He saves a special, icy contempt for the programmers who staked his fledgling show's success against one of ABC's best performers. "It wasn't brave and daffy, it was stupid," he says.

Since March 8, NBC has been airing back-to-back episodes of "Larroquette." Critics, fans and lovers of Thomas Pynchon hope this double-pump strategy will boost the show into a strong second season. Larroquette wants nothing more than a different time slot or a different night. "There's no way I can compete" with "Roseanne," he says.

"I'm not saying she's not an actress. I'm--and I use the term loosely--an actor, and my whole purpose is to hide my personality. "Roseanne's life is her act," he adds. "That's where she gets her humor from, the things that happen to her. I don't want people to know things that happen to me.

"She's got this great platform that she's very comfortable with, exposing herself. As I said ... on the 'Today' show, the only way I could compete with her is if I started drinking again and rekindled my affair with Prince."

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