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Comedy Central to 'kick robutt' in new series

Wednesday, July 12, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

PASADENA, Calif. -- This may be the weirdest TV series yet. Imagine robots, created by Silicon Valley geeks, fighting in a ring with an announcer calling the plays ("He ripped its arm off!") WWF-style.

"BattleBots" will arrive on Comedy Central this fall, and while it's partially for laughs, the show's inventor, Trey Roski, seems to take it seriously (for details visit www.battlebots.com). Not so twins Jason and Randy Sklar, hired by Comedy Central to be the show's field correspondents.

"We are huge sports fans, and we can say without hyperbole there is no greater drama in the history of sports," Jason said with much hyperbole. "These are athletic competitors. They are fighting to the death. This is not fake; this is real. There are real pieces of robots flying around."

"This is not a blood sport," said executive producer Mack Anderson, "it's an oil sport."

Bill Nye the Science Guy will serve as the show's technical expert, with "Baywatch" babe Donna D'Errico, er, rounding out the broadcast team.

The first "BattleBots" episode was taped in San Francisco, because "San Francisco has always been a robot town," Jason said, but future installments will film in other cities (Las Vegas next).

Roski said some robots cost almost $75,000 to build, with contestants putting them together for the love of sport. He said corporate endorsements, if any can be found, may help the 140 people competing cover the cost of robot construction.

Winners receive a share of the show's profits, and a trophy, the Golden Nut (insert your own joke here).

Roski said robot competitions began 14 years ago when engineers at toy company Mattel used to play with the robotic toy trucks they made and augment them with, say, flame throwers. Now some of the competing robots weigh as much as 500 pounds.

"I want to quit my show right now and build robots," said Robert Smigel, who has his own series coming to Comedy Central this fall.

Smigel, best known for creating Triumph The Insult Comic Dog for "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" and "The Ambiguously Gay Duo" for "Saturday Night Live," will use some of the characters he's created for past sketches and add to those with new characters in skits, some live-action, some animation. He'll also continue to work on both NBC series.

DUELING NETWORKS: Yesterday I reported BBC America will bring the latest series from the team behind "Absolutely Fabulous" to America. BBC America announced "Mirrorball" would premiere stateside next year, but it turns out that announcement was premature.

As it happens, the series is a co-production between the BBC and Comedy Central, with Comedy Central getting the rights to air all six episodes of "Mirrorball" next summer. BBC America will air only the show's pilot sometime in 2001.

"SOPRANOS" SITUATION: Prior to last month, questions about actress Nancy Marchand's health hung over "The Sopranos," but they weren't openly addressed. With her passing, questions about the show's future stories are unavoidable. Chris Albrecht, HBO president of original programming, said "Sopranos" creator David Chase plans to write in the death of Marchand's pivotal character, Livia Soprano.

"Nancy had been sick since the beginning of this production," Albrecht said. "So David's plan was to just keep going and let the situation play itself out. It's a terrible loss for the show, but the show will deal with it in real terms."

Albrecht said the specter of Livia will "be alive in the show, not only in the physical plot lines, but also in the psyche of Tony ... David has got this well in hand."

Albrecht denied published reports that there may be strife between the network and "Sopranos" stars Edie Falco and Lorraine Bracco, who have reportedly asked for a raise for the show's third season.

"We're gonna make them an offer they can't refuse," Albrecht said. Like we couldn't see that one coming.

"It's all much ado about nothing," he said. "When you have a hit show, people look to have the success of that shine on them as much as possible. There is absolutely no trouble with anyone."

MILLER TIME: Albrecht said Dennis Miller, star of HBO's "Dennis Miller Live," sought permission before agreeing to appear as one of the hosts on ABC's "Monday Night Football."

"We have exclusivity with Dennis in television," Albrecht acknowledged. "We have assurances from ABC that they'll plug ["Dennis Miller Live"]. We're very confident about the return we are getting for letting Dennis do this."

Albrecht said Miller's stint on "MNF" dovetails nicely with his HBO schedule, with his show returning for new episodes in January, just after "MNF" ends its season.

WAR AND PEACE: Production of HBO's ambitious 10-part miniseries "Band of Brothers" continues throughout 2000 in the United Kingdom. Early footage of the series, executive produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, looks promising.

"Band of Brothers" is based on Stephen Ambrose's book of the same name about the 506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army. Easy Company parachuted into France early on D-Day morning and captured Hitler's Eagle's Nest at Berchtesgaden.

Stars include Scott Grimes, David Schwimmer and Donnie Wahlberg.

"SEINFELD" REDUX?: Larry David, co-creator of "Seinfeld," will star in HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," a comedy series with a basis in reality. David plays himself, a TV writer, who interacts with real-life celebrities playing themselves.

There's no script, but an outline for each episode that dictates where the story will go. David, the cast and celebrity guest stars improvise their scenes. Cheryl Hines plays David's wife, and Jeff Garlin plays his manager. Ted Danson, Mary Steenburgen, Kathy Griffin, Richard Lewis and Julia Louis-Dreyfus appear in episodes slated for the show's 10-episode first season, premiering Oct. 15.

REAL TV: With the success of CBS's "Survivor" (and the lesser success of "Big Brother"), reality TV is the talk of this summer's press tour. So it's no surprise HBO took the opportunity to announce two new docu-series. "Greenlight," executive produced by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, will chronicle the making of a major motion picture produced by Miramax. Albrecht described the 13-week series as "the real version" of "Action," the failed Fox sitcom that was originally developed for HBO.

The second follows in the tradition of the network's "Real Sex" and "Taxicab Confessions." The 13-week series "G-String Divas" (premiering Aug. 12), filmed at a strip club near Philadelphia, chronicles the lives of exotic dancers, including Jordan, "a sultry Brazilian bisexual who excels at lap dancing."

Now there's something you won't see on "Survivor."

"BIG" BOTHER: The more I watch CBS's "Big Brother," the more I hate it. It's just bad, boring television, much worse than the few dull, padded parts of "Survivor."

But the worst part of the show is listening to Karen, the mother of four from Indiana, bad mouth her husband. She's planning to leave him and talks all about what a jerk he is. Even if the guy is a monster, it's not fair to her children to air this dirty laundry in such a public forum. I'd have more sympathy for Karen if her husband changed over time, but she says he's always been cold and uncomplimentary toward her. If that's the case, why'd she marry him?

I'd also echo a comment made by housemate William, who said, "I don't know how she got past the psych exam."

Monday's episode featured the voice of "Big Brother," which is sometimes male and sometimes female. So would that be Big Sister or Big Mama?

There also was an injury to one of the chickens the housemates rely on to provide eggs. They were in a tizzy until producers (a k a Big Brother) agreed to take the chicken to a vet. Later they painted the chicken's toenails with blue nail polish while clucking. My chicken-speak-to-English translation skills are rusty, but I think the chicken was begging, "Slaughter me, please!"

"SMARTS" SET: Pittsburgh area native Frank Nicotero will host the new syndicated series "Street Smarts," airing this fall on WPXI. Part game-show, part man-on-the-street question show, it's similar to when Jay Leno asks questions of passers-by on various topics on "The Tonight Show."

In "Street Smarts," two in-studio contestants compete to see which can best predict how people on the street will answer random questions. Nicotero, a stand-up comic who moved to Los Angeles after winning $14,000 on the Lifetime game show "Debt," already has conducted more than 1,000 interviews in cities across the country, with varying results.

"I've had a pigeon defecate on me. I've had people pull their shirts up. I've had guys pull their pants down. It's spur-of-the-moment stuff," Nicotero said. "I haven't been hit yet. People are usually good. It's a lighthearted approach."

"BUFFY" CASTING: Young actress Michelle Trachtenberg has been tapped to play the "little sister" to "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" this fall, according to Daily Variety. I'm still wary of this move, but Trachtenberg, 14, is a great little actress, who starred as the title character in "Harriet the Spy." She also appeared in the movie "Inspector Gadget," partially filmed in Pittsburgh, and was a regular on Nickelodeon's best original series ever, "The Adventures of Pete & Pete."

Post-Gazette TV Editor Rob Owen is attending the Television Critics Association summer press tour through July 25.

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