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For Whom the Taco Bell Tolls


Oh, he was the man of Taco Bell.

But for only one night, as it turns out.

Tuesday's dreadful debut of ABC's "Taco Bell Dana Carvey Show" brought TV incestuousnesses full cycle from the late 1940s, when Milton Berle's "Texaco Star Theater" opened each week with a quartet of uniformed gas station men singing, "Oh, we're the men of Texaco, we work from Maine to Mexico. . . ."

In the spirit of his show's pledge to gently chide its sponsors--in that way he apparently sought to excuse or blur his role as comedy shill for them--Carvey appeared beside a dancing taco and a dancing bell, plus a minichorus that inanely sang, "We're in the mood for tacos and comedy, tacos and comedy. . . ." There was also an infantile impression of Ted Harbert, president of ABC Entertainment, greeting "this week's cheap sponsor, Taco Bell." And in a separate paid spot that starred pro basketball star Shaquille O'Neal and ran twice during commercial breaks, he surfaced briefly as President Clinton, declaring, "Taco Bell, you're the greatest."

Obviously, Taco Bell Corp. didn't think Carvey was the greatest.

With hit "Home Improvement" as a lead-in, Carvey's show predictably won its time slot in the national ratings (despite losing about 2 million households after its first 15 minutes). Yet the day after his stunningly bad and witless premiere, Taco Bell withdrew sponsorship from coming episodes.

Moreover, Carvey won't have even one night as the Man of Pizza Hut, which joined Taco Bell on Wednesday in deciding against future sponsorship. Their sister firm, Pepsi-Cola Co. (all three are units of PepsiCo Inc.), said that, for the moment, it planned to honor its own commitment to sponsor three episodes.

As originally conceived, the sponsor in the show's title was to change from episode to episode, depending on that week's main advertiser. On Thursday, ABC said that that practice would continue on "Carvey" installments that still have overall sponsors.

In a piece of epic mislabeling that set the stage for him becoming an undeserved martyr for cutting-edge boldness, Carvey on Tuesday night called his show "counter-culture comedy." What culture would that be, Lower Slobovia?

Some will accuse Taco Bell and Pizza Hut of timidity. On the contrary, they should be lauded for their good taste in changing their minds after looking at the limp tamale they were sponsoring and correctly judging it to be an artistic Chernobyl. The show's attempts at political satire were lowly at best, and what can you say about Carvey's joking reference to England's Princess Diana as a "slut" and "whore" except, what does that make philandering Prince Charles?

As he showed during his seven seasons on NBC's "Saturday Night Live" and in some of his theatrical movies, Carvey's characters and impressions of celebrities are very funny when supported by witty writing. Tuesday, they weren't. Consequently, everything he tried, from the Beatles to Ted Koppel, bombed horrendously. None more so than a sketch in which his Clinton clone exposed several sets of fake breasts while suckling a baby and three animals. Who wrote this stuff, Garth?

Even ABC seemed embarrassed, saying in a statement Wednesday that "portions of the premiere went too far" and that "we will be more careful in the future."

Perhaps the suckling was what did it for Taco Bell and Pizza Hut. It couldn't have been the show's pale, pawing digs at Taco Bell, which, if anything, were nothing more than beneficial mentions of the fast-food chain's name, the program becoming the commercial.

In that regard, Carvey's show is merely extending a very old TV tradition, and its banality notwithstanding, it deserves credit for at least being refreshingly honest about its sponsor tie-ins.

Television has been in the flimflam business for so many years that the public is now largely desensitized to the lies. One of the most common forms of deception--stations and networks manufacturing news stories to promote their entertainment programs--used to draw loud protests. Yet so routine are they now that they produce only collective sighs and resigned shrugs, as if the public were saying, "Well, that's television," and letting it go at that.

Just as some of TV's most prominent early series--from "The Bell Telephone Hour" to such anthologies as "Kraft Television Theater," "Philco TV Playhouse," "U.S. Steel Hour" and "Revlon Theater"--bore the names of their sponsors, so, too, does that practice still endure in the likes of "Hallmark Hall of Fame" on CBS and recently renamed "Mobil Masterpiece Theatre" on increasingly commercial PBS.

Since its inception, TV has been mainly a selling machine that oiled itself by using programs to keep viewers awake between commercials. Increasingly, though, the programs are the commercials.

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