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COVER STORY

Stepping Out of Character

TV dinners: We've got to get these characters together.

July 05, 1998|Robert Hilburn | Pop Music Critic

Did you ever wonder what critics do, when they're not, well, criticizing? They're a lot more than the sum of their reviews. Almost like regular people. Really. The art critic likes junk TV. The movie critic swoons over opera. The theater critic listens to 'girl' singers. Go figure.

With that in mindwe thought we'd indulge a summer fantasy and let our critics show a side of themselves you might not imagined. Here are some of the things they love to watch or when they're not even getting paid to do it.

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If there's one thing that "Seinfeld" reminded everyone, it's that television brings out the worst in us.

How else to explain why millions got caught up in the lives of four people who are so self-absorbed that the only ones who can stand them are each other?

We tend to think of our favorite sitcom characters as lovable, in the tradition of "I Love Lucy" and "The Andy Griffith Show"--sweet people you'd actually like to have living next door.

Yet many of television's most memorable characters are the last people you'd want to see moving in: from Ralph Kramden, the volcanic Brooklyn bus driver in "The Honeymooners," to Basil Fawlty, the insufferable innkeeper in "Fawlty Towers."

And the gallery of these extreme characters isn't limited to the imagination of sitcom writers.

Plenty of real-life personalities have intrigued us with their obsessive behavior, from ultra-emotional '50s talk-show host Jack Paar to Dick Vitale, the basketball announcer who gets so hyper for every game that he expends more energy than any of the players.

If you put Elaine Benes in a room with some of these classic TV figures from over the years, she'd be so intimidated that she'd retreat into a corner with the equally neurotic and shy Ally McBeal.

Then again, you've got to wonder if anyone would want to be in a room with these characters. They are endlessly entertaining on television, where you control the length and frequency of their visits.

Seeing them all walk up your driveway is a different story.

Imagine trying to work out the dinner seating plan for this cross-section of 10 of the most Self Absorbed People on TV.

Here's what you might expect if they actually ever did get together.

RALPH KRAMDEN

Expect him to be in a bad mood. Something will have gone wrong at the bus station--maybe he got passed over again for that promotion--or another one of his get-rich schemes will have backfired. He's bound to get into an argument with his wife and shout, "I am the king of the castle, Alice." But there's an underlying tenderness. At some point, he'll hug her and proclaim, "Baby, you're the greatest."

MAGNUS VER MAGNUSSON

He's the superstar on ESPN's "World's Strongest Man Competition," the guy from Iceland whose veins stretch to the breaking point and whose face turns beet red as he strains to pull a jetliner down a highway by himself. He always walks away OK, but he looks like he's going to implode. The reason he's fascinating is that you can't imagine someone devoting his life to this goal. One good thing about having him at the party is that you can probably talk him into going into the backyard and pulling up that dead, 30-foot palm tree by the roots. Just make sure he doesn't go after the wrong tree.

ERNIE BILKO

Ernie's job on his classic sitcom is head of the Ft. Baxter Army motor pool, but his real calling is as the base con man. You name your game--cards, dice, raffle tickets--and Bilko is going to come out on top. Once on the grounds, he should quickly clean out gullible Kramden. He'll probably also organize a pool to see how much food Ver Magnusson will consume during the evening.

CHARLES GRODIN

The actor turned talk-show host spent every night for years talking about the O.J. case, so you know what's going to be on his mind. Grodin retraced the same territory so much that if you turned on CNBC late at night you couldn't tell if the show was a repeat from earlier in the evening or from earlier in the year. If he sits down next to you at dinner, his first question will be, "So, where do you think he hid the bloody clothes?"

DICK VITALE

Babbeeeee! Vitale, the motor mouth of basketball announcers, is going to be high maintenance. It'll help if you set some home court rules. He can't talk about basketball. That includes basketball games, basketball movies, basketball players, basketball equipment. Still, avoid sitting near him--and pass out ear plugs. The man speaks at only one volume--extra loud.

BASIL FAWLTY

Don't let him get near Kramden. The wives, Sybil and Alice, will get along fine, but Fawlty can be so rude and snobbish that the wrong word at the wrong time to Kramden and you're really going to see Ralph act out his constant threat, "POW . . . Right in the kisser!"

JOHN McLAUGHLIN

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