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It is a laughing matter: Series picks funny people's brains

Bravo's new interview show explores the careers of those connected with the Second City comedy laboratory.

October 14, 2002|Donald Liebenson | Special to The Times

With the Bravo network's new series "Second City Presents ... With Bill Zehme," comedy has its own "Inside the Actors Studio." The host, a much taller, clean-shaven, more ebullient version of James Lipton, devotes each one-hour episode to one comedian or comic actor. Eschewing Lipton's signature blue note cards, Zehme consults his "Big Book of Comedy" to chart that performer's career, which is illuminated by conversation and illustrated with representative film clips.

First-guest honors on tonight's premiere episode go to Jim Belushi, who followed his brother John to the Second City stage. Future guests will include other Second City notables, Martin Short and Joan Rivers, as well as performers with a Kevin Bacon-esque degrees-of-separation relationship with the troupe. For example, Tracey Ullman, the subject of the second episode, recruited Second City veteran Dan Castellaneta for her sketch series.

"Inside the Actors Studio" was the obvious template for this series, according to producer John Davies, a native Chicagoan whose credits include NBC's "The Rerun Show" as well as such network specials as "A Comedy Salute to Andy Kaufman." Mounting a series of interviews with comedians has long been a pet project. "I was watching 'Actors Studio,' " he said in a phone interview, "and I thought that Second City has had many more famous graduates who've had just as big an impact on American pop culture."

Time magazine hailed Second City as "a temple of satire."

The company, as well as its predecessors--Playwrights Theatre Club, which debuted in 1953, and the Compass Players--spawned a who's who of comedy, among them: Alan Arkin, Dan Aykroyd, Shelley Berman, John Candy, Chris Farley, Joe Flaherty, Barbara Harris, Bonnie Hunt, Robert Klein, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Elaine May, Bill and Brian Doyle Murray, Mike Myers, Mike Nichols, Catherine O'Hara, Gilda Radner, Harold Ramis, Avery Schreiber and Fred Willard.

The association with Second City (in conjunction with Brad Grey Television) gives the series "immediate credibility," Davies said. "Bravo got [the concept] instantly. They treat comedy and drama equally seriously."

"We're all about exploring the arts, and this series upholds that tradition," said Bravo's Frances Berwick, senior vice president of programming. "What we were looking for and what we absolutely found is a lively interaction where you definitely get a lot about the craft of comedy from the artist's perspective."

Zehme sets the stage for each episode by relating what he "knows to be true" about a particular artist. Here is what is known to be true about Zehme. He is just shy of 6 1/2 feet tall. He towers as well as a show business Boswell. For a recent Esquire piece marking the 10th anniversary of Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" exit, Zehme interviewed the reclusive Carson, the celebrity journalism "get" of the new millennium.

From Woody Allen and Albert Brooks to Jay Leno and David Letterman, some of Zehme's most passionate writing has been about comedians. "You want to crawl under the veneer and figure out why they are funny," Zehme said.

"Sometimes it comes from a small dark place, and often a gigantic dark place. They give you a rich palette with which to work as a writer."

A collection of his magazine profiles, "Intimate Strangers: Comic Profiles and Indiscretions of the Very Famous" (Delta), will be published in December. He is the author of the bestseller "The Way You Wear Your Hat: Frank Sinatra and the Lost Art of Livin'," as well as the Andy Kaufman bio "Lost in the Funhouse: The Life and Mind of Andy Kaufman." He also collaborated on two Regis Philbin memoirs and Jay Leno's "Leading With My Chin."

Zehme is, for the most part, a television neophyte. He made the talk show rounds as the go-to guy in the wake of Sinatra's death. He filled in for Greg Kinnear for a couple of episodes of NBC's "Later." He also suffered the indignities of being Charles Grodin's sidekick for a night as research for an Esquire piece about second bananas.

But that's less important, Davies maintains, than what Zehme brings to the show as a lifelong student of comedy. "Bill and I have an appreciation for how tough comedy is, how serious the work is, how much effort [artists] put into it, and how much talent you've got to have to be funny," he said.

Second City Presents ... ," Zehme said, exists in part to further challenge this ancient bias. "There is no greater act in entertainment than the production of a laugh," he said. "To me, it's noble."

*

"Second City Presents" will be shown at 9 p.m. and midnight Mondays, 6 p.m. Tuesdays, 4 a.m. and noon Saturdays on Bravo.

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