From "Seinfeld" to "Big Bang," he's given us global comedy


Five days before the new season officially starts, NBC offers an advance peek at one show ... and (in support) an actor we've enjoyed, from "Seinfeld" to "The Big Bang Theory." Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

With his voice
alone, this actor can give us a world tour.

He's been V.M.
Koothrappali on “Big Bang” and Babu Bhatt on “Seinfeld.” He's
been Indian, Pakistani, Turkish and many more, including outer-space
guys.

He's been Dr.
Sleevemore and Dr. Bonjahli and Dr. Rajneesh and ... well, at least
15 TV doctors. He's also been Professor Pyg, Mr. Pickle, Mr.
Fetuccini, Chutney the Elephant and a talking guitar.

You expect him to
have a five-syllable name and a distant accent. Actually ... he's
Brian George and he speaks with the Oxford-English tone we expect
from someone educated in London and Toronto.

But what about that
voice we often hear? “That was the accent I grew up up around,”
said George, who was born in Israel (with roots that are Lebanese,
Indian and Iraqi), but grew up in England and Canada.

He heard the accents
– from family and neighbors – a a boy and has re-harvested them
ever since. That paid off big, 25 years ago. “'Seinfeld' was very
good for me,” George said.

Now he's back, this
time as a series regular. In “I Feel Bad,” George, 66, plays the
father of Emet (Serayu Blue), the show's central character. “He's a
little progressive, but still a traditionalist,” he said.

This is basically a
comedy-drama about women having overcrowded lives. As a bonus,
however, it reminds us that there's great variety to being the child
of immigrants.

Its star (Blue) and
creator (Aseem Batra) seem to have the same background. Both were
born in 1975 in the Midwest – Wisconsin and Ohio, respectively –
to parents from India. Still, there was a difference.

“My parents were
really open to me doing whatever I wanted to,” Blue said.

Batra's parents
didn't see it that way. They “were hoping that I would do something
more traditional than this,” she said.

She finds that
understandable. “They came to this country with $8 in their
pockets” and prefer the steadiest route to success. “I think they
just wanted me to be a doctor and then quit to have kids.”

George's own life
has been a tangle of countries and voices. His dad was born in
Lebanon, his mother in India, but they moved to Jerusalem. He was
born there, then was 1 when they moved to London and 14 when they
moved to Toronto.

His would eventually
attend the University of Toronto and then study comedy with Second
City and John Candy. But in conversation, his voice reflects the
early years in an all-boys London school.

But in his career?
That's when he pulls out the accents he heard as a kid.

“Seinfeld” was
the big break. (Jerry gave Babu terrible advice about switching to a
Pakistani-themed restaurant; later, Elaine fouled up the mail and he
was deported.) More roles have flowed in, both in animation and
live-action. He's already done 15 “Big Bang” episodes, as the
wealthy (and now swinging-single) doctor talking to his son Raj via
Skype.

“I Feel Bad” is
one of his less-ethnic roles. “When I was auditioning, it was every
ethnicity,” Blue said. Once she was cast, her character and her
parents became Indian.

“We had this
conversation,” George said, “saying, 'How lovely that it's just a
blended family and that's it' .... It's just a dopey family, with
problems that they get through.”

-- “I Feel Bad,”
9:30 p.m., Thursdays, NBC, starting Oct. 4, but two episodes will be
at 10 and 10:30 p.m. Wednesday (Sept. 19), after the “America's Got
Talent” finale

"Me So Horny" guy? Now he seems "Me So Nice"


You meet a lot of interesting people during Television Critics Association interviews, but few more interesting than Luther Campbell, the rapper turned youth-football patron. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Luther Campbell was
grinning about one of life's odd twists.

“We're the
cleanest show in the room,” he said. “So this is a first for me.”

This was a
Television Critics Association session with the Starz network. A few
minutes earlier, another show (“Power”) had dealt with sex and
violence; now his show was talking about kids and football.

Back home in Miami,
Campbell said, people always knew him as a community/kids guy. “The
rest of the world saw me as the 'Me So Horny' man.”

Hey, it's a hard
image to shake. There was Campbell (as Uncle Luke) with his 2 Live
Crew colleagues, explaining: “Ah, me so horny/Ah, me so horny/Ah,
me so horny/Me love you long time.” He reportedly produced a porno
film, started an adult magazine, had six kids from five relationships
and was at the core of a rule-breaking scheme to pay University of
Miami football players.

Now the same guy
finances and leads a free program for Miami kids. It's sort of “Me
so nice.”

Campbell grew up in
the Liberty City area, which Starz's Carmi Zlotnik calls “a
dangerous neighborhood in Miami that is arguably the NFL's largest
and most successful football factory.”

He was a product of
that factory – a 160-pound high school linebacker, good enough to
improve his situation. “The only people who got bused to South
Beach (were blacks who could) play football.”

Campbell says he
wasn't a big star, but he was helpful. “I was a comedian .... I was
the one who cracked people up.” He would go on to be a DJ and then,
at 24, to be part of 2 Live Crew.

In 1989, the Crew
faced obscenity charges for the album that included “Horny” and
more. The group needed that boost, says the Rolling Stone
Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Fireside, 2005). After making
“otherwise unexceptional recordings for five years, (it gained)
national notoriety.”

Campbell was always
in court and in the news, eventually winning each case. He remained
in Miami and, he says, saw bigger issues. “Knock on the door, the
mom answers. There's a mattress and eight kids sleeping on that one
mattress. This (stuff) is real.”

He started the youth
football program and befriended many of the kids. “(Devonta)
Freeman is like our son” and sometimes lived with Campbell and his
wife. “We basically took him in ... at the age of 8.”

Now Freeman is a
young running back for the Falcons and has already had two 1,000-yard
seasons. Other Liberty City guys have thrived, including Lavonte
David (an all-pro linebacker for Tampa Bay) and Chad Johnson, a
Cincinnati Bengals great who caught 67 touchdown passes.

“In Chad's case
you could always tell he was going to be something,” Campbell said
... even when he was a young offensive lineman, not a receiver.

That success will
elude most kids, Campbell said, “but they'll have an opportunity to
get a college degree.” With that in mind, he expects progress
reports from school and a 2.5 grade point.

He's also expanded
the program to include girls – now there's basketball, dancing and
more – and life “When kids sign up, they bring in their parents,”
he said. “One of the things we ask is, 'Are you registered to
vote?'”

-- “Warriors of
Liberty City,” 8 p.m. Sundays, Starz, beginning Sept. 16

-- Opener reruns at
11 p.m. and 1:01 a.m.; then at 1:50 and 7 p.m. Monday; 6:20 and 9
p.m. Tuesday; 9:02 p.m. Friday (Sept. 21), 5:08 and 10:23 p.m.
Saturday, 11:48 a.m. Sept. 23

 

Cleese towers over comedy, past and present


John Cleese is one of the towering figures of comedy, literally and figuratively. Long ago, his "Monty Python" and "Fawlty Towers" shows were brilliant; now he's part of a clever new show, "Hold the Sunset," which starts Wednesday (Sept. 12) on the Britbox screening service. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

The late Douglas
Adams offered a viable theory of comedy:

All truly funny
people, he said, are exactly 6-feet-5 inches tall. For proof, he
mentioned himself (author of the “Hitchhiker's Guide” and “Dirk
Gentley” books), plus another author (P.K. Chesterton) and actors
John Cleese and Peter Cook.

Sure, we might
dispute the specifics. (Some sources put Chesterton at 6-4 and Cook
at 6-2), but Cleese agrees with the concept. “Yes, this is true,”
he said. “The very best comedians are very, very tall.”

He mentions a
glaring exception – Ronnie Corbett, the late British comedian, was
just under 5-foot – but adds: “He was the exception that proves
the rule.”

Now Cleese's
towering brand of comedy returns to TV. “Hold the Sunset” -- on
the Britbox streaming service – is his first situation comedy in 39
years. “My No. 1 mission was to get John back on the BBC,” said
Chris Sussman, the “Sunset” producer.

No extra work was
required; the “Sunset” scripts were already written. The cast
includes two acclaimed writers – Cleese (“Monty Python,”
“Fawlty Towers”) and Joanna Scanlan (“Getting On”) -- but
there was no call for them to improvise. “It is really beautiul,
beautiful, nuanced writing,” Scanlan said.

That left Cleese
with easy work. “For the first time in my life,” he said, “I'm
playing myself .... I just sit there making snarky remarks and hoping
someone else will open the front door.”

Cleese, 78, and
Alison Steadman, 72, play widowers who are ready to marry – until
they're descended upon by her son, daughter (Scanlan) and
daughter-in-law. The commotion grows and Cleese withdraws ... which
may be his natural state.

His humor, after
all, started when he felt like an outsider. “It was a survival
mechanism when I went to school,” he told the Television Critics
Association. “I was very tall and everybody teased me for being
called 'Cheese.' I found if I could make them laugh, somehow the
atmosphere improved.”

The family surname
really was “Cheese,” he wrote in his memoir (“So, Anyway ...,”
Random House, 2014). That was changed before he was born, but his
unusual look remained. “I would pass six-foot before I was 12,”
he wrote. “I had 'outgrown my strength,' and my physical weakness
meant that I was uncoordinated and awkward.” His gym teacher called
him “six foot of chewed string.”

His inclinations
were equally mild. Cleese grew up in a village, with no siblings.
“Everyday sanity is harder for 'only children,'” he wrote. “They
have nothing to moderate or dilute parents' influence.”

His dad, a calm
insurance man, didn't require much dilution, but his nervous mom did.
“Mother experienced the cosmos as a vast, limitless booby trap.”

So Cleese squirmed
at the notion of being noticed ... until he began doing sketches in
school. After seeing Cook's “Beyond the Fringe,” he cranked up
the comedy ... but still considered this only a diversion. He studied
law at Cambridge and even had a job offer from a law firm ... but was
lured away by two other offers – take the college show to London's
West End and write comedy for BBC.

That led to the
“Monty Python” TV show and movies, then to “Fawlty Towers”
and beyond.

Now his life has
slowed down – and his feelings about his height have changed.
“Trying to get into things like cars becomes a major undertaking,”
Cleese said. “For the first 60 years of my life, I was very
grateful that I was tall. And now it's very inconvenient.”

He's had a long
career, working with people in different contexts. Charles McKeown,
who wrote all the “Hold the Sunset” scripts, was an actor in many
of the films by “Python” people.

Cleese recalls
“Life of Brian,” with “that wonderful moment when an old man
with a white stick shouted, 'I was blind and now I can see' – and
falls into a pit. That was Charles. Funniest moment.”

-- “Hold the
Sunset,” any time starting Wednesday (Sept. 12), www.britbox.com.

-- That's a
subscription screening service started by two British groups, BBC and
ITV

 

It's the brand new -- and sort of old -- TV season


Hey, television is a moving target these days. On Sunday (Sept. 9), I sent my six-part season-preview package to papers and put the sories here. (Scroll down for the others.) The next day, I had to update it, to reflect Les Moonves' departure from CBS. Here's the new version, which also includes some other improvements.

By Mike Hughes

Each September, TV
viewers look for new shows, new people, new ideas.

So what are this
year's key shows? There's “Magnum” and “Murphy Brown,”
“Charmed” and “Sabrina,” “Last Man Standing” and
“Roseanne” without Roseanne and ...

Wait, what year is
this, anyway? “Standing” debuted in 2011, but the others
mentioned above range from 1980 (“Magnum PI”) to 1998
(“Charmed”); still, they're crucial to the season that will
officially start on Sept. 24, 2018.

Yes, there are newer
shows worth noting. ABC's “The Rookie” (Nathan Fillion as a
40-year-old newcomer cop) particularly feels like a hit. But the
revival flurry has changed everything.

Last year it was
“Will & Grace” coming back after 20 years and “Roseanne”
after 30. Both had the original casts; both pleased critics and
scored in the ratings.

Remakes seemed
viable – especially for “Murphy Brown,” said creator Diane
English. “When we left these characters in 1998, there was no
Internet. There was no social media. Cable news was just getting
started.” To put the old characters in this new world “was very
rich for us, very, very rich.”

Her revival has the
original cast. By comparison, “Magnum” will star Jay Hernandez –
who was 2 when the original began and 10 when it ended. “I used to
watch it as a kid,” he said. “I was a big fan.”

Now he's the one
driving the sleek cars and charming the people. “Thomas Magnum
survived on his charm,” said Peter Lenkov, who created the reboot.
“He lived on the good graces of his friends. (He) didn't use a gun.
He was somebody who was the underdog in most situations.”

Now “Magnum” is
likely to be a ratings hit; so is “Murphy Brown” ... despite the
internal troubles at their network. Les Moonves – who led CBS for
two decades of ratings power – resigned after a second wave of
sexual-abuse allegations from his past.

“Leslie has been
an excellent boss and a mentor for a long time,” Kelly Kahl, CBS'
programming chief, said to the Television Critics Association, prior
to the new allegations and the resignation. “And he put me in this
job. (But) all allegations need to be and are being taken seriously.”

Now Kahl and his top
aide are the lone men at the top of CBS. “We have 61-percent female
executives at the VP level or higher,” Kahl said. “The heads of
drama development, comedy development, current programming,
alternative, daytime, scheduling are all women.”

Meanwhile, the women
running (or co-running) two other networks face their own problems.

At ABC, it was a
late-night tweet that got Roseanne Barr fired. The network was
planning a powerhouse Tuesday line-up, with top newcomers “The
Rookie” and “The Kids Are Alright”; now the night needs viewers
to accept a no-Roseanne “Roseanne,” suddenly redubbed “The
Conners.”

And at Fox, it's a
fresh twist: Its movie studio is being sold to Disney (which owns
ABC) ... leaving Fox as the only network without the pipeline of a
big-deal studio.

Dana Walden, co-head
of Fox, insists that's good. “It will be the only network to
operate with complete independence,” she said, bringing “a great
opportunity (for) vibrant, independent studios.”

Still,
show-ownership can be crucial. It's one reason ABC canceled “Last
Man Standing” ... and Fox picked it up a year later. Walden also
said it's a reason “Lucifer” wasn't renewed by Fox. “Given that
it was owned by an outside studio at the time, we couldn't justify
the economics.”

Then Netflix, with
its international audience, grabbed “Lucifer.” The show “has
really resonated with audiences in parts of the world where we have
licensed it,” said Netflix programmer Cindy Holland.

For that matter,
Netflix has grabbed a lot of shows. It has signed long-term deals
with the top producers for ABC (Shonda Rhimes of “Grey's Anatomy”
and “Scandal”) and Fox/FX (Ryan Murphy of “Glee” and
“American Horror Story”). And it has even disrupted the witchly
world of CW.

That mini-network
often focuses on fantasy, youth and women, so it seemed logical to
plan remakes of two witch shows. This fall, it will have “Charmed,”
but not the other one.

“'Sabrina' was
...in development here,” said CW chief Mark Pedowitz. “The studio
came to ... me and said, 'We have a two-year commitment from
Netflix.' I said, 'Go with God. It's the right thing to do for your
business.'”

Netflix's strategy –
making big deals and trying everything -- has been decried by others.
At FX, John Landgraf talks about curating for quality; at HBO, Casey
Bloys echoes that. “There is no plan to dilute HBO programming,”
he said. “No one is asking us to take pitches for a 'Love Boat'
reboot.”

At Netflix, Holland
says a mass approach is fine. “Quality and quantity are not
mutually exclusive.”

Maybe. We'll soon
see if this high-quantity season can also deliver some quality.

TV's best new dramas seem old ("Magnum") and new ("The Rookie")


Yes, there are some good TV dramas this fall. Many critics dislike the new "Magnum," but I think it's terrific; most like "The Rookie." Here's the drama round-up I sent to papers, as part of a six-part season preview. To find the mainbar, scroll up; to find the others, starting with sci-fi and fantasy, scroll down. 

By Mike Hughes

Television still
likes the drama of daily life ... as long as those lives include
cops, crooks or wobbly psyches.

The new season has
lots of variations on crime shows, plus a few looks at love (true or
twisted) and life. Here's a look at what's new:

 

The best

-- “The Rookie”
(10 p.m. Tuesdays, ABC, Oct. 16). At 40, John has a heroic moment ...
then makes a big move: He dumps his comfortably unexceptional life
and becomes a Los Angeles cop. With Nathan Fillion, 47, starring,
this is the rare show that has it all – large bits of drama, small
bits of humor, occasional action ... and some stories that are
wrapped up by the end of the hour.

-- “Magnum P.I.”
(9 p.m. Mondays, CBS, Sept. 24). Yes, plenty of critics have grumbled
about the show and the obvious fact that Jay Hernandez is no Tom
Selleck. He's seven-and-a-half inches shorter and, by our
calculation, only 58 percent as handsome. Let's set that aside,
though; Hernandez is good and the show is terrific. Slick and sleek,
it has Magnum and his former war buddies racing around the Hawaiian
sunshine, thwarting bad guys,. Perdita Weeks is a great addition as a
very different Higgins.

The rest

-- “Mayans MC”
(10 p.m. Tuesdays, FX, started Sept. 5). Almost four years after
“Sons of Anarchy” ended, fans finally have this spin-off. In the
first two episodes, we've learned that the two brothers have had big
secrets. One is a member of the tough motorcycle club; the other, an
ex-con, is just starting. The result is intense, brutal and often
compelling.

-- “You” (10
p.m. Sundays, Lifetime, started Sept. 9). Smartly written and
beautifully filmed, this at first seems like the best love story ever
... then quickly settles for being one of the best stalker stories.
There's great work from director Lee Krieger and his stars, Penn
Badgely and Elizabeth Lail.

-- “A Million
Little Things” (10 p.m. Wednesdays, ABC, Sept. 26). Think of this
as “This Is Us” without the family ties. Four guys are
hockey-game buddies, bringing their wives and loves into the
friendship. Then something happens that makes them question
everything. The result has substance, depth ... and, alas, lots of
lingering questions.

-- “FBI” (9 p.m.
Tuesdays, CBS, Sept. 25). TV has tried the FBI before, but not like
this. Now the stakes are higher, the technical abilities are steeper
... and the show has a female star. That's Missy Peregrym, who was
terrific if “Rookie Blue” and others; here, she's confined to a
one-note character in a show that – like most from producer Dick
Wolf – sometimes feels flat and stiff.

-- “New Amsterdam”
(10 p.m. Tuesdays, NBC, Sept. 25). The setting is a mega-hospital,
one that's been in New York almost forever. A new medical director
(Ryan Eggold of “The Blacklist”) makes sweeping changes ...
including firing an entire department. That's a bit abrupt, but there
are signs this could evolve into a solid show.

-- “All American”
(9 p.m. Wednesdays, CW, Oct. 10). Growing up in a tough neighborhood,
Spencer has one way out: He's a football star ... and an ambitious
coach (Taye Diggs) can get him a transfer to a glitzy Beverly Hills
High School. An interesting, culture-clash tale, this is partly based
on a true story ... but some of the soap-style twists strain its
credibility.

The enigmas

-- “Kidding” (10
p.m. Sundays, Showtime, started Sept. 9). Jim Carrey is superb as a
caring kid-show host whose life – and, maybe, mind – crumbled
after his son's death. But despite some good moments, the show
becomes a monotone, pushing him deeper into despair.

-- “Mr. Inbetween”
(11 p.m. Tuesdays, FX, Sept. 25). Back in 2005, this was a
micro-budget Australian movie, seen by approximately no one, not even
Australians. Now it's a TV series ... and an oddly charming one,
about a guy balancing his worlds as good dad and a calm hitman. One
scene – involving his daughter's legends, from Santa to unicorns –
is a classic.

And more

There are lots more
shows out there, including several we haven't seen yet. Some top
examples:

-- “The Good Cop”
(Sept. 21, Netflix). With “Monk,” writer-producer Andy Breckman
proved that a crime-of-the-week drama could also have humor and
heart. Now he has Josh Groban as a straight-arrow cop whose dad (Tony
Danza) is an ex-cop, used to bending the rules.

-- “Wanderlust”
(Oct. 19, Netflix). Toni Collette is a psychologist who – after a
near-death experience -- decides to broaden her life.

-- “Homecoming”
(Nov. 2, Amazon Prime). Two great talents – Julia Roberts ad “Mr.
Robot” creator Sam Esmail – combine, in a story of bureaucracy
gone bad. A sampling is compelling.

-- “Little Drummer
Girl” (starts Nov. 19, AMC). After winning praise and awards with
“The Night Manager,” AMC has another John LeCarre novel. This one
– which was a 1984 Diane Keaton movie – has an actress (Florence
Pugh) pulled into intrigue by an Israeli spy (Alexander Skarsgard).