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Hank Azaria's Midseason Journey

Television* Actor takes a wait-and-see attitude as he tries to add his sense of comedy to his new sitcom.

January 04, 2002|MICHAEL E. HILL | WASHINGTON POST

Anyone familiar with Hank Azaria's Emmy-winning work in the earnest and moving TV film "Tuesdays With Morrie" might be surprised to learn that he has a new sitcom debuting next week.

Imagine that, they might say.

But might they watch "Imagine That"?

NBC has tacked that title onto Azaria's show and dropped it into the 8 p.m. Tuesday time period once occupied by the unsuccessful comedy "Emeril."

Azaria's is also the latest comedy to copy a formula that has proved poisonous when it comes to sitcom success--the practice of selecting a star to headline a show and then building the series around him or her. Bette Midler, Geena Davis, Jason Alexander and Michael Richards are among those who have gone this route and failed. Richard Dreyfuss seems to be holding his own in CBS' "The Education of Max Bickford."

"Imagine That" also taps into the main character's fantasies, an idea that has met with limited success in at least one other show--"Inside Schwartz"--this TV season. Adding to counter-indicators is a split earlier this year between Azaria, who is an executive producer of the show, and the producer who was to run the show.

"Right now," Azaria said, "we have five episodes we're going to air. If people like them, we'll go forward." Then he would find a new producer, he said.

Azaria brings his comic sensibility and gift for impersonations to this series centered on Josh Miller, a TV comedy sketch writer. The inspiration for Miller's work often comes from his personal fantasies, inserted into the action, with Azaria playing key roles in those daydreams.

A companion theme to the piece is Miller's reticence, which puts him at a disadvantage in dealing with comic situations at home and in the workplace.

"The pilot is the closest to what my vision of the show was," Azaria said. "It's more about, to me, giving the show more of my sensibility, to make it more real when we're not in the fantasy part of the show."

The charm Azaria displayed when he co-starred with Jack Lemmon in "Tuesdays With Morrie" won him an Emmy. Most recently, he appeared in "Uprising," a story of Jewish resistance in the Warsaw ghetto.

Azaria also has a comic sense that may be less obvious. He had a recurring role as the dog-walking neighbor in "Mad About You." And he has an Emmy for his work on "The Simpsons," in which he provides the voice for a number of characters, including Police Chief Wiggum and Moe the bartender.

In "Imagine That," Azaria's character has to cope with problems on two fronts. At home, he has to deal with his ambitious wife, played by Jayne Brook. She's a lawyer, which should be good for some humorous asides, and their love life--or lack of it--is fodder for much of the first installment of the series.

The supporting cast features Katey Sagal, a veteran of "Married

Joshua Malina, a familiar face from "Sports Night," plays Josh's fellow writer and friend; Suzy Nakamura ("The West Wing") and David Pressman play members of the writing staff; and Julia Schultz is Josh's hot-dressing assistant.

Azaria would like to combine all this with the smarts and multi-character aspect of "The Simpsons": "One of the reasons I wanted to do this show is so I can do a different character every week. This show comes out of how much I enjoy doing that."

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