An Insider's Report on the Death of 'Wilton North'


'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."

        As it 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 writers meetings!

        We had 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.
        Similarly, unfulfilled 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 Kings."
        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.
        He auditioned 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."

        Three 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 individual characteristics.
        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."
        Politically speaking, 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 Slantsky.
        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 ventriloquist's personality.

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