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Some 'Chimp Channel' Segments Descend From Classics

Television: New TBS series, debuting June 10, stars chimpanzees in scenes parodying famous movies and TV shows.

June 01, 1999|MICHAEL P. LUCAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It could have been a moment from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Two actors were being led to their marks on a sound stage while crew members were wondering if they'd had a lot to drink.

"Sometimes when they have Pampers on, even through Pampers, if they have to go, they have to go," costume designer Terri Valazza said with a sigh, sweeping past a clothes rack with two of almost everything to be worn for the day. "It depends on how much they drink that morning. So we have to have doubles."

The actors weren't Errol Flynn or John Barrymore but Kenuzi and Jonah, two water-imbibing stars of "The Chimp Channel," TBS' first original sitcom and the first all-simian series since ABC's Saturday morning "Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp" departed in 1972. Welcome to primate-time TV.

Unabashedly lowbrow, the show, which debuts June 10, is about a quirky group of characters who work at a TV studio. Among them are schmoozing general manager Harry, vainly handsome leading man Brock, self-absorbed diva Marina and eager intern Timmy. We also see them in snippets of parodies with titles such as "NYPD Zoo" and "Touched by an Anvil."

"The whole grid is our playground," Jim Head, the real cable channel's senior vice president of original programming, said with a laugh. He strolled through the stage pointing out a living room set with a sloped picture window and yellow sofa, and a talk-show set that awaited an orangutan wearing horn-rimmed glasses. In the wig room, Scully and Mulder hairpieces, at the ready for an "X-Files" parody, sit side by side.

And take "Cosmetic ER."

"We couldn't save her--she was too ugly," voice-over actress Jennifer Hale said, recalling a catty line from Marina, who plays a nurse. "It's everything you wouldn't dare say in real life."

Reflecting the Superstation's strategy to reach 18- to 49-year-old male viewers, a lot of the gags are on the racy side and, in fact, earned the first two episodes a TV-14D rating, which means the dialogue is inappropriate for children under 14.

"Well, I can say it's not me, it was the chimp who said it," Hale said.

Here on the sound stage, off-camera trainers are flapping their fingers and thumbs together, trying to get Kenuzi to move his mouth. The chimps are portraying smartly suited studio executives seated in a theater where they've just watched a screen test made by the egotistical Brock, who has pretensions of Hollywood stardom.

Kenuzi has a difficult scene. He must slap one hand over his eyes in disbelief and then put a phone to his ear with the other while moving his lips so his line--"I can't believe how bad it is"--can be dubbed in later.

Getting a chimp to do all that is not easy, said series co-creator Tim Burns. The writers often have to bend a little if the chimp can't exactly get it right.

"You write it as funny as you can and the chimp adds this whole new physical level," said Burns, who had writing credits on the feature films "An American Werewolf in Paris" and the Brooke Shields vehicle "Freaked."

While the apes can't always follow the script, their reactions are cataloged, and mixed and matched in the editing room to create a cohesive scene. Of course, sometimes they improve on the original treatment, as when apes playing background roles in a restaurant scene take to running forks through their hair.

"They're a comedy writer's best friend," Burns said. "I think the stuff is funny to begin with, but there's no replacing how much funnier it is when the monkeys add their own peculiar performance style."

Since those performances are coached by trainers, it's difficult to shoot more than two chimps at once because signals coming in from off-camera can get crossed. So high-tech editing is used to multiply the number of apes in the frame--and of course multiply the comedy.

"When we did 'Full Monty' we had six or seven chimps dancing," Burns said proudly.

Back on the screening-room set, the actors strive to achieve the magic moment--before, as often happens, they get bored and their attention wanders. American Humane Assn. field representative Netta Bank, watching on a monitor, rated the crew's treatment of the animals "A-plus."

"This is all chimps, all the time, so they're treated like stars," Bank said. "It's as if you had Harrison Ford or Mel Gibson on the set. They have their own dressing room, their own green room. They have a play area for themselves."

Trainer Debbie Jacobsohn said the chimpanzees work until they reach puberty at 8 to 12 years old, and indicate that they're ready to retire when they start attacking members of the crew. In an enclosure behind the stage, a cast member waiting for his call swung lazily by one long, hairy arm.

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