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At long last, 'The Tick' makes it to the airwaves

Sunday, November 04, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

HOLLYWOOD - To borrow a phrase, good TV comes to those who wait.

And wait.

And wait some more.

"The Tick" is a great new comedy series, but it's been sitting on the shelf at Fox for almost two years. The pilot episode, airing Thursday at 8:30 p.m., was completed in May 2000.

TV Preview
"The Tick"
When:8:30 p.m. Thursday on Fox.
Starring: Patrick Warburton, Liz Vassey.

Fox planned to put "The Tick" on the air early this year as a mid-season replacement, but with its prime-time schedule performing well in the ratings and fearing a strike that could have delayed the new fall season, Fox decided to hold onto the nine episodes of "The Tick" that were produced.

That makes sense. What doesn't is Fox's decision to schedule the show Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. opposite NBC's powerful lineup and CBS's "Survivor: Africa." It's especially weird because the show's built-in audience match is fans of "The Simpsons," making 8:30 p.m. Sunday the obvious and ideal time slot.

Based on a comic book that was already translated into a cartoon series in the mid-'90s, "The Tick" proved a difficult show to adapt to the live-action format. A half-hour, single-camera comedy is expensive enough; adding costly super hero costumes and special effects busts the budget. Is Fox trying to flush this expensive series?

Fox Television Entertainment Group president Sandy Grushow said that's not the case. He hopes by promoting "The Tick" during the World Series, viewers will think to tune in.

"Baseball is a terrific promotional platform for a show like 'The Tick,'" Grushow said in July. "We're trying to take a legitimate run at this thing."

Star Patrick Warburton has faith.

"We could have gotten a better time slot," Warburton acknowledged at a July Fox party at a restaurant in the Hollywood hills. "I just want people to finally see it. It will make me happy to find out the network really is behind it. It's an expensive show to do, and they want to see how it does. I hope they have confidence in it. It's really something innovative."

That it is.

Best known as Elaine's boyfriend Puddy on "Seinfeld," Warburton stars in "The Tick" as the title character, a big blue super hero with antennae whose most endearing trait is his innocence.

"The Tick is an eccentric like Puddy, but the Tick is very enthusiastic and he's naive and he's oblivious to social norms," Warburton said.

Though the Tick often must defend The City from evil-doers, the series also spends time with the Tick and his friends at a Chinese restaurant.

"We're going to have the chance to express a lot of what made the comic book very funny, which was that it was antithetical to super hero genre stuff," said Ben Edlund, creator of the comic and executive producer of the new TV series. "More nothing happens in the comic book than something. What do super heroes do when nothing's going on?"

The Tick's sidekick, Arthur (David Burke), gave up his life as an accountant to battle evil. Captain Liberty, also known as Janet (Liz Vassey, "Maximum Bob"), can't decide whether she loves or loathes fellow super hero Bat Manuel (Nestor Carbonell, "Suddenly Susan"), who projects the image of a Latin lothario.

Executive producer Larry Charles ("Seinfeld," "Dilbert") said he sought to create a "Seinfeld"-like camaraderie among the characters.

"If the show is perceived as merely a super hero show or merely a super hero parody show, I don't think it's going to work on a weekly basis," Charles said at a July 2000 press conference. "What's great about the comic book and what was great about the cartoon also has to be great about the live-action show, which is the characters and the interaction of the characters and creating a world that you believe is real. It's a world in which the characters being super heroes is almost a secondary consideration, so that the characters are more important than their costumes."

Film director Barry Sonnenfeld ("Men in Black," "The Addams Family"), an executive producer on "The Tick," directed Thursday's premiere.

"It is very much my humor, which I hope is sort of a dry, visual, understated humor," Sonnenfeld said. "My humor has always tried to be: Let the audience be smarter than you are. And this show is all about that. Audiences are really, really going to get this show."

But it's been a long time in the making.

"We shot it really piecemeal," Warburton said. "We shot the pilot a year and a half ago. Six months go by and then we'd do two episodes. Three or four months go by and we'd do another four episodes."

Learning to control costs necessitated those fits and starts, Edlund said.

"We had to learn how to figure out how to maintain the integrity of the story and not spread ourselves too thin," Edlund said at a Fox party in January. "How ambitious can you get with the stories? How many places can you set up the camera in five days? We have to shoot in five days, and we want it to be unusual, compelling, provocative television. It's an engineering palindrome.

"We're swinging and hitting and then, like everything, occasionally we're swinging and missing," Edlund said. "You'll see some of our hits and some of our misses on the television screen."

What long-time "Tick" fans won't see are some of their favorite characters from the comic book and cartoon. For instance, Captain Liberty takes the place of American Maid. It's all due to a complicated legal quagmire that prevents Edlund from using some of the cartoon characters, even though the cartoon aired on Fox, too.

It's been a long journey with this blue blunderer for Edlund, who started the comic book at age 18. He's now in his early 30s. Only 12 issues of the comic were published in a five-year span, but the character developed a cult following.

"A lot of people take this stuff very seriously," Edlund said. "You have to reintroduce them to the fact it's the same comedic tone, the playground of ideas is the same, but parts of it naturally have to change. Like the mask of the Tick has to be removed [for the live-action series] to get the full comedic effect of Patrick's acting. There's really no way around it. It's better, and the fact that he looks vaguely like a Teletubby is not to our detriment."

If "The Tick" gets decent ratings, Fox's Grushow said the network has until December to order new episodes, though those might not be ready until late spring or summer at the earliest.

Warburton just wants the show to get a chance.

"We don't have any unrealistic expectations," he said. "We're going up against 'Survivor' and Thursday night. If we can get a good, strong third place, that would be great."

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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