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CHANNEL ISLAND

A comic redneck is again red-hot

March 05, 2007|SCOTT COLLINS | The Channel Island column runs every Monday in Calendar. Contact Scott Collins at channelisland@latimes.com.

HERE'S how quickly a career can change in television: Until a month ago, comic Jeff Foxworthy thought he was pretty much done with the networks.

Last week, though, the man who launched a million redneck jokes helped deliver some record-breaking ratings for Fox. New entry on the Foxworthy resume? Only prime-time game-show host in America with his own line of beef jerky products.

"I had no desire or aspiration to do more TV," Foxworthy said over the phone in his Georgia drawl last week, after massive ratings for "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?" caught network officials by surprise.

In the '90s, Foxworthy's self-titled sitcom burned out after a couple of seasons, and 2004's comedy variety show "Blue Collar TV," while popular, proved an odd fit at the teen-loving WB Network. But the Tuesday premiere of "5th Grader" logged an eye-popping 26.5 million total viewers, according to figures from Nielsen Media Research, and all three airings last week did a superb job hanging onto the huge audience from "American Idol." Following "Idol" might look like a cushy post, but as any producer can tell you, getting those millions of eyeballs to stay stuck to the screen is much harder than it sounds. Thursday's episode of "5th Grader" even climbed 18% among teenagers compared with "Idol," an almost unheard-of achievement.

"I don't know that I saw myself doing a game show," Foxworthy said. As one of the highest-grossing stand-ups in history -- his best-known bit remains the "You Might Be a Redneck" tagline that caught on in the early '90s -- he didn't need the cash. But he liked the concept of "5th Grader," in which flummoxed grown-ups trip up on elementary-school quiz questions ("How many sides does a trapezoid have?") and are then helped out by bright but not genius-level 10-year-olds. The show reminded Foxworthy of "Kids Say the Darnedest Things," an old quiz segment from Art Linkletter's popular daytime show that was later revived by Bill Cosby as a stand-alone show. "I told them, 'I'm supposed to speak to a Boy Scout troop and I have a show in Atlantic City, but let me start rearranging my life,' " he added.

FOX has been hunting a long time for a show like "5th Grader" -- a family-friendly, cheap-to-produce unscripted romp that can pair with "Idol," TV's biggest hit. Previous piffle like "My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance" and the game show "Unanimous" didn't quite fit the bill. Although it's still too early to tell whether "5th Grader" can graduate to long-term hit status, Fox is seizing on its early promise, last week quickly ordering four more episodes for its regular 8 p.m. Thursday slot. The series will continue at least through April 19.

"I think we've got a smash hit right now," said Mike Darnell, Fox's executive vice president of alternative programming. "I'm thrilled and a little bit shocked."

The truly amazing part is that it all came together, from pitch to premiere, in less than two months. That's the speed of lightning by the glacial yardsticks of network television, in which development moseys along on 12-month cycles and show ideas are often kicked around for years. But this is exactly how networks are being forced to do things these days, with the TV landscape evolving from one instant to the next, sweeping away yesterday's assumptions in an eye blink. Some shows still need ample time to marinate, but waiting for waiting's sake is a sure recipe for failure.

Producer Mark Burnett, whose "Survivor" and "The Apprentice" franchises have dominated large parts of the CBS and NBC schedules, came to Fox in January with an idea for a show based on quiz questions for grade-schoolers.

"The thing I really related to is that, as a parent of fourth-, fifth- and eighth-graders, I've found helping them with their homework is really hard," Burnett told me. "It's totally relatable for parents."

Darnell liked the idea but knew the original title had to go: "Do You Remember Grade School?" (Yes, and many of us don't want to go back.) Fox executives also tinkered with the structure of play, moving from a zero-sum style game to a more interactive contest in which the kids offered plenty of help to the bamboozled adults.

The result is disarming, undemanding and undoubtedly goofy. "5th Grader" seems like even more of a throwaway after the endless tears and triumph on the pop opera that is "American Idol." In Thursday's episode, a 31-year-old phone-sales rep named Larry sweated out a query about how many times the letter "e" appears in the phrase "Pledge of Allegiance." "If it helps, put your hand over your heart as you do it," Foxworthy quipped.

Darnell said the network got exactly what it wanted in a host: "Someone who could be a little sarcastic with the adults but not mean-spirited."

The gig seems to be working out for Foxworthy too. Sour experiences on "The Jeff Foxworthy Show" gave him trepidation about another big, prime-time outing. "I was trying to be what someone in L.A. thought Jeff Foxworthy ought to be," he said of the sitcom.

But after seeing Howie Mandel on NBC's hit "Deal or No Deal," Foxworthy thought a game show might be fun -- and if it failed, it wouldn't hurt his stand-up career.

Now, he has a little more success than he bargained for.

"I'm in the grocery store," he said, "and a 50-year-old guy comes up to me -- I'd never met him before -- and he goes, 'I only missed one question last night.' He was really proud of himself."

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