Here's a fresh (and funny) refill of Canadian comedy


This is an interesting week for new cable arrivals. Scroll down and you'll see stories I sent to papers, about series that debut Tuesday and Wednesday (Aug. 2-3). Now here's another Wednesday one, this time about a clever new sketch-comedy show:

By Mike Hughes

LOS ANGELES --
Canadians, of course, are verty good at many things.

That includes
hockey, curling, truth-telling and moose-hunting. It also includes
sketch comedy.

From “SCTV” to
“The Kids in the Hall” to many of the “Saturday Night Live”
guys, Canadians have brought subtle wit to sketches. And now
“Baroness Von Sketch Show” brings us a new batch.

“We knew it wasn't
going to look like a classic sketch show,” Carolyn Taylor said.

That's partly
because all four regulars are women; guys are added at the fringe,
only as needed.

But it's more
because of the approach. This is filmed movie-style, with no
laugh-track and no audience. “If you have an audience, it affects
you,” Taylor said. “You just start doing it bigger and louder.”

The Canadian way
tends to be quietly clever. “Baroness” packs lots of bits – 13
to 15 of them in a half-hour show – each with its own setting. A
few have big plot twists, but most involve everyday quirks.

“The things we
tend to focus on are human dynamics,” Meredith MacNeill said.

She launched the
idea and is the semi-outsider in the group. She's the only one who'd
never been in the Second City improvisation troupe; she's also the
only one who'd never written for “This Hour Has 22 Minutes,” a
Canadian show satirizing the news. And she's also the only one who
spent 13 years in England, studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic
Arts and doing Shakespeare.

Then MacNeill
retreated to Canada. “I was a single mom and I had no money .... I
just had a suitcase and I lived with my parents at 37. (These were)
very amazing life choices.”

She worked on ideas
for a sketch show and asked Taylor to take charge. Taylor brought in
longtime comedy colleagues Aurora Browne and Jennifer Whalen ... who
is Canada's Tina Fey; she'd been head-writer of “22 Minutes” and
created two other shows, “Instant Star” and “Little Mosque on
the Prairie.”

The women filmed a
sample of their sketches, using one camera; they now use two.

That first version
included a notion that continues – the “red wine ladies,” who
pick any excuse to drink heavily. “The network, CBC, (said), 'I
don't know. It doesn't really have, like a traditional structure,'”
Browne said. “We are like, 'Trust us, women want to watch other
women getting drunk.'”

The network stayed
out of the way; so far, “Baroness” has had a six-episode first
season and a seven-episode second season, both now reaching U.S.
cable. That may not sound like much, but these half-hours are
carefully crafted. “We overwrite by a long shot,” Browne said,
“and we overshoot.”

By the second
season, settings were more elaborate. “We do a post-apocalyptic
scene that's sort of in a 'Mad Max' world,” Taylor said. “We go
onto the Titanic. We shoot something in space.”

But even when the
setting is large, Taylor said, the humor remains focused on small,
human quirks. “We do impressions of your family members and your
co-workers.”

-- “The Baroness
Von Sketch Show,” 10 p.m. ET Wednesdays, IFC, rerunning at 1 a.m.

-- Opener (Aug. 2)
reruns at 6:45 a.m. ET on Sunday, Aug. 6, and 4:15 a.m. ET on Monday,
Aug. 7.

 

What do daddies do? Rob Lowe takes his sons on quests for ghosts and aliens


My interest in ghosthunting-type reality shows is approximately zero. Still, I found it kind of interesting to see the "Lowe Files" opener -- which debuts at 10 p.m. Aug. 2 on A&E -- and very interesting to hear Rob Lowe and sons talk about their oddly adventurous life. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

LOS ANGELES --
What's it like when your dad is a Hollywood star with a fluid
imagination?

Rob Lowe's sons say
it was great when they were chasing monsters. “When we were really
young, we would go on Sasquatch hunting trips,” said John Owen
Lowe.

His brother Matthew
agrees. “Bigfoot ... was always the one I was most excited for.”

But that was long
ago and maturity has intervened – for the kids, at least. John
Owen, 21, studies science technology at Stanord; Matthew, 23, is in
Loyola Marymount's law school.

And what have they
been doing lately? The father and sons scurried around on weekends,
looking for ghosts ... and Bigfoot ... and a “wood ape” ... and
alien-abductees ... and even an undersea alien base.

Hey, blame it on the
drive-in movies. In 1972, when Rob Lowe was 8, he saw “Legend of
Boggy Creek.” He says it had “a guy in a horrendous suit, you
know, terrorizing people. And it so traumatized me that I was
obsessed with Bigfoot forever on.”

He passed that on to
his kids, John Owen said. “(He'd say,) 'We're going looking for
Sasquatch. Let's get the baby monitor on the roof and (search) for
aliens. Whatever ridiculous thing it was that day.”

Now Rob is reviving
that on TV. “It's like the 8-year-old boy trapped in a 53-year-old
man's body's sort of dream,” he said.

Crammed into
weekends, between their classes and his work on “Code Black,”
they had adventures that Rob calls “Anthony Bourdain in a blender
with Scooby Doo.”

Some of the trips
found nothing, John Owen said. “We would come out of some episodes
and be like: 'Well, that was a bust, totally a bust.”

But others were like
the one that will be shown in Wednesday's debut.

“Preston Castle,”
as it's now called, was a reformatory in central California from 1894
to 1960. There were several deaths there, including the 1950 murder
of the head housekeeper. Closed for 50 years, it's been used for
tours and a low-budget scripted movie.

Other ghost-hunter
shows have been there, but Rob said they hit the jackpot. “The
furniture was moving and the voices were talking and the lights –
all of that.”

And when other
adventures failed ... well, John Owen said that happens a lot with
his dad. “He likes to entertain these fantastic, ridiculous ideas
.... It's hilarious what he believes in. To give him some credit,
it's way more fun to be around somebody like that.”

And some old pals
would encourage this. When Rob and his brother Chad were young, their
mother moved them from Dayton, Ohio, to Malibu, where they grew up
alongside Sean Penn, Dean Cain, Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen ...
who much later told Rob's kids that the moon is hollow.

“In fairness,”
John Owen said, “he had pretty good talking points.”

Some of this was
total nonsense, the Lowes say, and all of it was interesting. “It's
just more fun to believe,” Rob said.

And what about
Sheryl Berkoff, his wife of 26 years and the boys' mother? She did
make sure they had a shaman for the Preston adventure, Rob said, but
she's mostly a skeptic with real-life concerns.

She couldn't care,
he said, “whether we were killed by Sasquatch, Bigfoot, shot by
rogue hunters. But she was very concerned that we might get ticks.”

-- “The Lowe
Files,” 10 p.m. Wednesdays, A&E.

-- Opener (“Preston
Castle” reformatory) is Aug. 2, rerunning at 11:03 p.m. and 2:03
and 3:04 a.m. It then repeats at 3 p.m. Friday, 1 and 2 p.m.
Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday and 2 and 4 p.m. Aug. 9, when the second
episode deals with alien abduction.

 

In a tiny, quiet space, the Unabomber created horror


The Television Critics Association sessions have started now, filled with fascinating people and stories. Here's the first one I'm sending, on a mini-series that starts Tuesday, Aug. 1:

LOS ANGELES -- Paul
Bettany was walking through someone else's life.

It wasn't a long
walk. This building – a re-creation of the cabin where Ted
Kaczynski became “the Unabomber” -- is prison-cell small.

“He lived in a
10-by-8 cabin, with no running water or electricity, for 20 years,”
said Bettany, who plays him in a new mini-series. There – in two
spurts – he mailed homemade bombs to strangers.

This cabin
re-creates what the FBI found after it arrested Kaczysnki in Montana
in 1996. Scattered are the essentials – Wonder Bread wrappers,
Quaker Oats boxes, flashlights, saws, even a guitar-zither.

There's one
hand-made chair – no company was expected – and an abundance of
books and working material. “He made the epoxy out of the hooves of
animals and the bombs ... from the roots of mushrooms,” Bettany
said. “He sort of created C4 out of that stuff.”

And then he mailed
his bombs, killing people he didn't know. Fear spread.

“When I was a kid,
I was scared of the Unabomber, because he could just send ... anybody
a package at any time and destroy you like that,” said Andrew
Sodroski, who wrote and produced the mini-series.

This is the
Discovery Channel's first plunge into a scripted mini-series. It fits
the channel, Sodreski said, because it focuses on the FBI profiler
who helped catch Kaczinski. “You have this man who is just an
ordinary, blue-collar cop who discovers a whole new field of
forensics .... That is so Discovery.”

Jim Fitzgerald
pushed “linguistic forensics” -- figuring who might have written
an anonymous piece. He wanted the FBI to meet the demand that a
“Unabomber manifesto” be released to newspapers.

“The FBI does not
negotiate with terrorists,” said Chris Noth, who plays Fitzgerald's
boss. So “that was a big deal that it was in the papers. That
never happened before.”

And it worked. David
Kaczynski read it, contacted the FBI and said the author might be his
brother. Firzgerald analyzed other writings and agreed, which was
enough to get a search warrant.

“I think David
felt really tormented,” Sodroski said. “He really wanted to save
his brother. He didn't know how and he felt an obligation to the
world to turn Ted in.”

David is played by
Mark Duplass, who knows fraternal quirks, after two decades of
filmmaking with his brother Jay. “We spiritually and emotionally
unabomb each other all the time,” he said.

The leads are played
by two men who also are known to action fans. Sam Worthington – who
starred in “Avatar” and is currently makig the sequel – plays
Kaczynski; Bettany – who is Vision and the voice of JASPER in the
“Avengers” movies -- is Kascynski.

That left Bettany
trying to figure out what it would be like to be alone. “I've got
three kids, a dog, a cat and a wife,” he said. “There's no
aloneness in my life, you know.”

So he “experimented
by absolutely turning off my phone and not being in contact with my
family, even, for three days.” One thing he learned: “The amount
of time there is in a day is extraordinary.”

Still, that time was
spent in “a very, very nice cabin with a pool.” What would
Kaczynski's life be like?

Bettany studied the
FBI's list of books in the cabin. They were “fascinatingly cliched
in that they were like Joseph Conrad's 'The Secret Agent' and Fyodor
Dosoyevsky's 'Crime and Punishment' and Arthur Koestler's 'Darkess at
Noon.' They were all about ... the man who feels like an alien in
society and commits a crime that he can't come back from.”

From that cabin, Ted
Kaczynski committed horrid crimes that spurred fear, rage and the
innovative use of linguistic forensics.

-- “Manhunt:
Unabomber,” Discovery and Investigation Discovery

-- Eight-hour
mini-series; the opener is 9-11:02 p.m. Aug. 1 and reruns often;
subsequent ones are 10-11 p.m. Tuesdays

 

Havana may be crumbling a bit, but it's doing it cheerfully


Right now, Geoffrey Baer is back home in Chicago, filming the latest of his river-journey specials. On Tuesday, however, we'll see him far from his comfort zone, in an entertaining visit to Cuba. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Geoffrey Baer is
used to criss-crossing the nation for PBS specials.

He's shown us “10
Towns That Changed America” ... and 10 parks .. and 10 homes ...
and 10 buildings. He's taken river journeys through his Chicago home
town. But now “Weekend in Havana” has whisked him to fresh turf.

“I had never been
to Havana,” Baer said. “I really didn't know what to expect.”

Well, he sort of
expected crumbling buildings, crumbled lives and old American cars.
He found all of that (plus some newer Russian cars), but also found
surprises. “What amazed me was to see a night life that could have
been in Soho.”

Yes, Cubans' basic
pay is tiny, redeemed partly by the fact that the government takes
care of housing, health, education and more. But some people
supplement that with outside money – anything from tourism to music
tours. Baer found young people with money to spend.

Some packed into a
former factory building, now repurposed with nightclubs, galleries
and performance spaces. Others went to mini-restaurants, tucked
inside private homes.

“They used to
operate in secrecy,” Baer said. “They were sort of a precursor to
Airbnb.”

He traveled with
jazz pianist Roberto Fonseca and flamenco dancer Irene Rodriguez,
both the products of arts academies. “The government is very
pro-arts,” Baer said.

In the city, he
found noise, color, street musicians and odd little “coco taxis”
that are sort of like riding in a coconut. Away from the city, he
visited the cottage where Ernest Hemingway wrote “The Old Man and
the Sea” and more

“Hemingway adored
Cuba and thought of himself as a Cuban writer,” Baer said. “He
lived in Cuba longer than anywhere else.”

Then Hemingway and
other Americans departed. Now some are returning, at least for a
visit.

-- “Weekend in
Havana,” 8 p.m. Tuesday (July 18), PBS

 

 

Yes, locally-made movies can have a Hollywood feel


(This is a story mainly for people in the Lansing, Mich., area, relating to film screenings on July 16 and 30. If you're not near Lansing ... well, there are TV stories below, with more on the way.)

By Mike Hughes

This once seemed
semi-impossible – a Hollywood-looking movie on a Michigan budget.

But in a two-week
stretch (Sunday and July 30), two films have Lansing screenings. You
can credit improved technology, plus:

-- Good sites, odd
hours: Walking to work in Detroit, David Tappan goes past the Fisher
Building; then he actually saw its elegant lobby. “I thought, 'This
is perfect.'”

Filming “Chocolate
and Cigarettes” there meant starting at 8 p.m. and ending at
sunrise. “Confidence of a Tall Man” had opposite hours: Set at
Zoobie's, an Old Town bar, it shot from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

-- Keep it short:
“Chocolate” is 15 minutes, “Confidence” is 31.

-- Use Michael
McCallum: He's the “Chocolate” star and the “Confidence”
director. “He's kind of an actor's director,” said Johnny
DeMarco, that film's star.

-- Add outsiders:
“Chocolate” co-stars Jenna Sofia from New York and Alora Smith, a
Detroit-area actress who moved West. For a Skype try-out, she was in
Hollywood and McCallum was in a Lansing bar. “It's not the ideal
audition scenario,” Tappan granted.

-- Show range:
McCallum plays tough guys in many films, including “Confidence”;
now “Chocolate” has him floundering in love. “I've had my
troubles with romance,” he said. “I had a deep pool of experience
to draw from.”

-- Elegance helps.
“Confidence” opens with a gorgeous saxophone solo from Gary
Clavette; “Chocolate” -- seeking a Federico Fellini feel – even
has two ballroom dancers.

-- Have a story.
“Chocolate” is bittersweet; “Confidence” borrows DeMarco's
bar-manager memories.

-- Audacity helps.
DeMarco is the guy who, new to acting, travelled to New York to seek
a “Sopranos” role; he was rejected, but encouraged. Tappan, 24,
moved from California to join Detroit's emerging film community. “My
friends thought I was crazy,” he said. Now he has a movie.

Movie parties

-- “Chocolate and
Cigarettes,” doors open 8 p.m. Sunday, UrbanBeat Event Center, 1213
Turner St., $5 cover charge. Film at 9 p.m.; music by Jeff Shoup jazz
trio.

-- “Confidence of
a Tall Man,” doors open 8 p.m. July 30, Tavern and Tap, 101 S.
Washington Ave., $10 cover charge; includes music by two of the
people – Alex Mendenall of Lansing, Jim Shaneberger of Grand Rapids
– on the film's soundtrack.

-- Both are the
first public showings of the films, made in Detroit and Lansing,
respectively. Many of the actors will be there. “Confidence” has
DVD's and CD's for sale; “Chocolate” has posters.