LOS ANGELES TIMES,
SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 14, 1988
An Insider's Report on
the Death of 'Wilton North'
By PAUL KRASSNER
'I want this show
to be unlike anything else that's ever been on
television," Barry Sand told the writers. "I
want it to be controversial, opinionated, provocative. I
don't care if it offends people. We'll open each show
with a review of that day's news, using actual footage,
and we'll comment on it. I want that segment to be funny
and hard-hitting, with a really strong point of view. It
will be the signature of the show."
He paused to take a bite
of his sweet potato, fresh from the microwave oven. There
was a certain electricity about him, the kind a producer
has when given wings to fly without a pilot.
"Fox is being very
supportive. They're giving us a year to let the show
develop and find an audience. There'll be a couple of
hosts, male and female, who will take us through the
show, reacting to everything - sort of like 'Siskel &
Ebert Meet the Today Show' - but it's going to be a writers'
show. We're going to make dangerous TV."
turned out, the only dangerous thing about "The
Wilton North Report" might occur if you kept the TV
set balanced on the tub while taking a bath. How could it
happen that a show with such high aspirations would end
up wallowing in a swamp of mediocrity?
It was all Eddie
Murphy's fault. If he hadn't asked Arsenio Hall to be in
his movie, then "The Late Show." which we were
"replacing," might have served as a missing
link between a mom-and-pop grocery chain and a TV
network, and Fox President Jamie Kellner wouldn't have
had to fill that impending gap.
So Kellner approached
Robert Morton, a particularly creative segment producer
on "Late Night With David Letterman." Morton
had to clear the offer with Letterman, who told him to
wait a week before signing anything. Then Letterman went
to NBC, saying he didn't want to lose Morton. Kellner
then approached Sand with an offer to produce a Letterman
clone show. Sand preferred to do something totally
different, although he had no idea yet what it would be.
He told associates that
he would never hire anybody for the new show that he
couldn't fire. He didn't want some prima donna who might
refuse to do a particular piece of material. And he
certainly didn't want to hire a host who could become
powerful enough to fire him. Barry Sand's show
would be the star.
Barry had been excluded
from writers' meetings at the Letterman show, but now he
hired 11 writers - and excluded his co-producer from the
2 1/2 months to get a show ready to go on the air five
nights a week - a show without a concept.
Barry had planned to
call it "Nightcap," but Fox wasn't thrilled. So
the writers came up with a couple of hundred more, from
"Beyond the News" to "Ha Ha
Goodnight." Writer Lane Sarasohn noticed a sign in
the elevator that said "Wilton North Building"
and submitted it as a name that sounded like
"The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour."
We needed a truckload of
ideas for repeatable features, in-studio guests and
possibilities for remotes. But they all had to be
reality-based. Thus, we could have a tabloid reporter
interview a woman who'd been given root canal by a
Martian because she believed that it really
happened; it wasn't as if this was a sketch. We
could have the Goodyear blimp present an aerial view of
the hospital where Cybill Shepherd was giving birth or of
Richard Nixon's 75th birthday party, because we weren't
making up these events.
fantasies ranged from putting together people with
nothing in common - such as Rodney Dangerfield and
Margaret Thatcher, to putting together people with something
in common, such as Sonny Bono and Ike Turner, both of
whose wives had left them and gone off to superstardom,
or Richard Belzer and John Stoessel, each having been
pummeled by a wrestler he was interviewing.
Jimmy Carter would
analyze major issues while fly fishing; Roseanne Barr
would give advice to the lovelorn. Ferdinand Marco would
explain his philosophy on a split screen with Jackie
Mason. Joe Carcione would discuss vegetables and the
royal family in a feature titled "Of Cabbages and
Every morning we waded
through the newspapers and proceeded to write topical
jokes for a pair of imaginary hosts who would set the
tone for the show.
Barry wasn't sure
whether we should have real newscasters being humorous,
or humorous actors being newscasters. He talked with
Forrest Sawyer of CBS News and Judd Rose of ABC News. He
went to central clearinghouses in Dallas and Iowa,
fast-forwarding his way through tapes of 1,500 local news
anchors until you could practically smell the hair spray.
Philadelphia TV anchor Terri Merryman and L.A disc jockey
Steve Morris. Comedians Ellen DeGeneris and Rick
Doukamin. Firesign Theater veterans Phil Austin and Phil
Proctor. He considered Nina Blackwood of MTV and zany
Mark Blankfield of the old "Fridays" series and
Marcia Stassman of "Welcome Back Kotter." He
had lunch with Pat Sajak of "Wheel of Fortune,"
but he was "too big."
weeks before air time, Barry finally settled for Phil
Cowan and Paul Robins, morning drive-time deejays from
Sacramento, whose main talent seemed to me to be the
ability to finish each other's sentences. Their only TV
experience was a three-month stint as field reporters on
a local program called "TV Lite."
The writers were
instructed to hang around with them and learn their
Phil was the one with
the beard, but Barry asked him to shave it off. Paul was
the one with the glasses, but Barry asked him to just
wear the rims with contact lenses. They quickly became
known as "The Guys."
Phil said, with all the passion of a Valley girl, "I
can't stand Ed Meese." Whereas Paul said
that he had voted for Ronald Reagan, twice, and he'd do
it again. This riled writer Paul Slansky, an anti-Reagan
fanatic on whose office wall was a framed cover of Time
magazine - "Ronald Reagan: 1911 - 1985" - which
would've been published if he hadn't survived his
operation. The Guys would soon refer to Slansky as
Some of the writers
warned Barry that the Guys were conservative,
uncharismatic squares, but he assured us that they would
be "our puppets." However, the scenario would
develop into a living remake of the classic film,
"Dead of Night," where a dummy takes over the