Al Franken may not have what it takes to make him a star. Not only is he a talented writer, but he hasn't got an ego that sucks all the air out of a room.
Furthermore, in a recent appearance before television critics, Franken went out of his way to spread the credit around for the new NBC sitcom "LateLine," on which he is co-creator, co-writer, co-executive producer and co-star."In writing about the show, please make it clear that I'm not the star of the show," Franken told critics. "A little of me goes a long way."
Now that's incredibly unusual. Not that there aren't a lot of actors who could say the same thing (think Martin Short or Dana Car-vey), but most are so full of themselves they'll never recognize that fact.
And "LateLine" is a rather unusual sitcom. It's rather intelligent, for one thing and assumes that people are aware of the world around them.
As you can guess from the title, "LateLine" is based on the ABC News show "Nightline" - a workplace comedy set behind the scenes of a highly regarded network news late-night show.
Franken plays Al Freundlich, the chief correspondent on "Late-Line" who envisions himself as the successor to Edward R. Morrow but is sort of a sad-sack buffoon. And, as we discover in the pilot episode (which airs Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. on Ch. 5), the show's pompous, arrogant anchorman, Pearce McKenzie (Robert Fox-worth of "Falcon Crest"), keeps Freundlich around because he poses no threat whatsoever.
The cast also includes Miguel Ferrer as Vic Carp, the driven, manipulative executive producer; Megyn Price as Gale Ingersoll, Freundlich's savvy segment producer; Catherine Lloyd Burns ("Partners") as Mona, McKenzie's devoted assistant; Sanaa Lathan as Briana, the show's guest booker; and Ajay Naidu as Raji, the over-eager intern.
"We got some great acting going on on this show, but it ain't coming from me," said Franken, who cited some advice he once received that 95 percent of acting is knowing your character. "I feel very safe as an actor playing Freundlich, because I really feel like I know Freundlich."
Despite the fact that "LateLine" lampoons the entire network news business and "Nightline" in particular," the folks at ABC News actually went out of their way to help Franken and his partner, John Markus, develop their show. They spent about two weeks behind the scenes with the "Nightline" team.
"They were very, very generous to us and gave us access to all aspects of producing that show," Markus said. "We were there on the day, for example, when Ron Brown's plane went down and they found the Unabomber. So we got to see how they produce their show and the last-minute changes that happen. It was very important to us that the show have a genuine foundation."
The comedy in "LateLine" revolves mostly around the regular cast. Tuesday's premiere is an entirely (well, almost entirely) believable plot in which McKenzie announces his retirement and chooses Freundlich as his successor - all as a ploy to jack up his already extravagant salary.
But the show gets an extra kick from the amazing array of real newsmakers who show up as guests on "LateLine." The pilot episode features former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders speaking about the evils of tobacco.
Then there's former Watergate co-conspirator G. Gordon Liddy debating gay rights with Candace Gingrich, the activist sister of Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.
"All I'm saying is - God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve," Liddy says.
"Why don't you go hold your hand over a flame?" Gingrich replies.
(And you've got to admire a show that tells that joke without explanation, assuming viewers are smart enough to get it.)
The episode scheduled to air Tuesday, March 24, features an appearance by former Massachusetts governor and 1988 Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis on a report titled "Losing in America: The Ultimate Sin."
The third episode features both Rep. Richard Gephardt, the minority leader of the House of Representatives, and former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich - who not only makes jokes about his own short stature but openly worries when there's a report that PLO leader Arafat's plane has disappeared.
"Oh, man, we're going to get bumped big time," Reich frets.
If that's not enough, imagine Reich doing jokes from Buddy Hackett's act.
"He's a really good comic actor," Markus said of Reich. "He interrupted a family vacation to fly to L.A. and appear on the show. I took him aside during a break and I thanked him for doing this.
"And he looked at me and said, `Are you kidding? It's always been my dream to do a cameo on a sit-com.' "
Future episodes feature consumer activist Ralph Nader, tel-evan-gelist Jerry Falwell, former congresswoman Pat Schroeder and the members of the McLaughlin Group.
Sometimes even Franken and Markus have been surprised at whom they've been able to get on the show - and what they've been able to get them do to.
"We were working on a script together and we wrote a stage directing that said, `(Congressman) Barney Frank, wearing a hospital gown, sits on his bed eating pudding,' " Markus said. "And I said to Al, `We'll never get this.'
"And we've got Barney Frank, in a hospital gown, eating pudding.
Don't get the idea that "Late-Line' is cerebral humor by any means. It's often wry and dry, but it's also laugh-out-loud funny at times.
And, while this is faint praise, it's also far more intelligent than your average sitcom.