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TV: Nyuk-nyuk to pride

Three Stooges throw a pie in the face of today's sitcoms

If "greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends," then greater love hath no comedian than this, that a comedian lay down his face, body, clothes- himself, in other words-for a laugh. Recent comedians have done the opposite. The goal of Jerry Seinfeld, Rosanne, and Ellen Degeneres in the sitcoms that bear their names, for instance, is to play themselves, and as a result their "selves" (Seinfeld's neurotic New Yorker, Rosanne's dysfunctional white trash, Ellen's uncloseted lesbian) is all they end up playing.

Older comedians were funnier because they knew not only that jokes need butts but also that there's no better butt of a joke than the comedian himself. Milton Berle,Lucille Ball, the Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello, and Laurel and Hardy knew that they couldn't have their self-respect and eat it, too. So they simply ate it and have earned the undying affection of every generation since.

Few old-time comedians, however, have remained as popular as the Three Stooges. From 1934 to 1959, they turned out 190 "shorts" (the 20-minute made-for-theaters films for which they're best known), and since 1958 these same shorts have been a staple of local television stations, not to mention film festivals and fan-club conventions. Now, with the advent of Stooge TV-a nightly, one-hour, three-episode Stoogefest that the Family Channel runs, interestingly enough, right after The 700 Club-national access to the Stooges' unique brand of slapstick and farce is easier than ever.

"Farce as farce, farce for its own sake unhampered by lessons and deeper meanings, is a conservative art form," writes Florence King. "Liberals are the ones who demand that their entertainment be didactic and 'worthwhile'." No comedians forswore lessons and deeper meanings with more energy, wit, and audaciousness than Moe, Larry, and Curly (later Shemp, then Joe, and finally Curly Joe).

Having developed split-second timing as young vaudevillians, the Howard brothers (Moe, Curly, and Shemp, nee Horwitz) and Larry Fine (nee Feinberg) went on to split the atom of absurdity with explosively funny results.

"Our comedy is based on upsetting dignity," Moe once told an interviewer, and that went double for the Stooges' own. With their comic haircuts and, in Curly's case especially, ill-fitting clothes, they looked funny even before they opened their mouths.

And although what came out of their mouths was funny, the comedy for which they're best loved (and sometimes criticized) was physical. By making every prop in their sets a potential weapon or hazard, they even managed to upset the dignity of mere possessions.

But perhaps their biggest contribution to the overturning of pomposity was their transformation of the great American pie fight into a source of genuine yet comic catharsis. Because self-importance and a face dripping with whipped cream are mutually exclusive, the Stooges' pie fights embodied the reductio ad absurdum of human pride. Nothing would improve an episode of Seinfeld, Rosanne, or Ellen more quickly.

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No, we can't get along

Fox police drama shows that reality is not politically correct

To better appreciate the importance of television's longest-running real-life drama, COPS, imagine the following: It's 1991, and the show has chosen the officers of the Los Angeles Police Department as its subject. Late one night, a squad car becomes involved in a dangerous, high-speed chase. Several tense minutes later, the police, having brought the vehicle to a halt, experience difficulty in subduing the drug-crazed driver. Exasperated, they hammer him to the ground with billy clubs and finally bring him under control.

Other than the fact that the segment might merit the series another Emmy nomination, nothing in it would strike those familiar with either the show or police work as a big deal, least of all that the reckless driver's name would happen to be Rodney King.

That the Rodney King incident wasn't an episode of COPS instead of a home movie is a shame. Without so much as a voiceover, the show would've almost certainly presented Mr. King as a thug who even with his beating got off easy.

Every week COPS provides an officer's-eye-view of (mostly) big-city life in the United States. What emerges is a portrait of the police as unglamorous heroes doing a dangerous job for an ungrateful public. What also emerges is a portrait of that public as a tired, poor, huddled mass of wretched refuse yearning to break laws and lie about doing so to avoid going to jail.

Granted, modern government is too big and we have too many laws. But enforcement of the most basic criminal laws is consistent with the biblical idea of the role of government and thus is no threat to liberty. During a typical season, a viewer will see inner-city crack addicts arrested for possession, intoxicated Mardi Gras revelers arrested for public urination, cross-dressing prostitutes arrested for theft, middle-aged joyriders arrested for going the wrong way on one-way streets, and dozens of variations thereon. An occasional disaster rescue or domestic dispute will interrupt the flow of criminal activity, most of which has its roots in the drug trade.

The value of the series lies in its nearly unedited presentation of its subjects. "We don't editorialize about what [the cops] do or how they do it," explains John Langley, the show's executive producer and creator, in an interview at the COPS website. "We just show it, and hopefully the facts speak for themselves."

It is this policy of noninterference that makes the series as bracing now as it was when it debuted eight years ago. The viewer who comes to it after a diet of TV's slanted "documentary" fare may find the jerkiness of the hand-held cameras and the warts-and-all view of the criminal activity jarring at first. (Artlessly blurred faces and deleted expletives are the only censorship.)

But it's because of this objectivity that COPS is able to convey one of its primary messages: Reality is not politically correct. That a disproportionate number of the drug arrests occur in minority neighborhoods, for instance-and that many of the officers are themselves black or Hispanic-does not seem to trouble the show's producers. Neither does the fact that "police brutality," shown in its proper context, is often revealed to be nothing more than a professional response to a provocative situation.

Like Mr. Langley, who says that producing the series has given him "a profound respect for police officers ... and everyone else involved in public service," those who watch the show will find their appreciation for law enforcement-and for the fragility of the civilization that spurns it-reinforced.

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Gratuitous virtue

Promised Land's faith makes prime-time, but faith in what?

When people say, "There's nothing good on television," they usually mean "There's too much gratuitous sex-violence-obscenity." And they're right.

But, as Shakespeare proved, there's no metal so base that a talented dramatist can't turn it into gold. Therein lies the real reason standard-issue TV should rub us the wrong way: Its sex, violence, and obscenity function not as elements of a serious conflict that will end meaningfully resolved but as meaningless titillation.

Viewers of Promised Land, a spin-off of Christian producer Martha Williamson's hit Touched by an Angel, need to ask whether the virtues it celebrates serve a similarly meaningless function: Do its faith, hope, and love suggest a deeper reality of which they are the fruit? Or do they exist merely to provide an alternative to sex, violence, and obscenity, guaranteeing nothing more than that shallow-minded regenerates stay as glued to the screen as shallow-minded degenerates?

Promised Land has no angels. But its central characters, the Greenes, because they're just a little lower than the angels from whom they've spun off, provide the show with a morally vital foil for the morally inert forces behind the conflicts. The characters refer to "God," not "Jesus," to "the Lord above," not "the Lord," but in every other respect they walk, look, and sound like the sort of evangelical Christians that television usually demonizes.

Gerald McRaney--whose appearance alongside Marilyn Quayle at the 1992 Republican Convention marked his coming out as a conservative--plays Russell Greene, a middle-aged husband and father of two. Having lost his job in the pilot episode, he now travels the highways of America in an RV that contains not only his wife Claire (Wendy Phillips) and children Dinah (Sarah Schaub) and Joshua (Austin O'Brien) but also his mother Hattie (Celeste Holm) and his nephew Nathaniel (Eddie Karr).

The Greenes see their rootlessness as a "great commission" of sorts, stopping only long enough for Russell and sometimes Claire to keep their cross-country trek in the black by finding temporary work, and at each stop they encounter a crisis that they quell with a peace that passeth understanding. (The constant motion is also part of a contemporary trend that declares church-rootedness unimportant.)

But if the variety of the crises keeps the concept fresh (three recent episodes dealt with a mine cave-in, a suicidal teen, and an age-discrimination case), the combined intensity and frequency of the crises may provoke from the viewer a disbelief that he might have trouble suspending, especially since the Greenes resolve nearly every crisis with a speed possible only in mainstream television's telescoped time.

The acting, however, is uniformly good. Although Ms. Phillips's Claire frequently seems on the brink of tears, she, too, conveys an inner strength and, during the cave-in episode, scolds the mine's owner for blaming the accident on a "vacationing" God by exclaiming, "God is not on vacation! He's right here among us!" Who would've thought such a declaration possible on prime-time TV?

Recently, the show has provided a counterbalance to its happy endings by turning Joshua's blindness (the result of a drive-by shooting accident) into a running complication; the show also emphasized the disappearance of Nathaniel's father (Russell's brother), the search for whom accounts in part for the family's itinerancy. Because nothing evokes verisimilitude like an unresolved conflict, Promised Land now seems less like Fantasy Island than at any time in its six-month run.

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