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High on charm; low on ratings: Why do networks still hunt for Bonnie?

Tuesday, October 01, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

It's a question I've heard more than once: With so many failures under her belt, why do network executives keep giving Bonnie Hunt sitcoms?

Hunt, the blond star best known for playing a White House tour guide in the 1993 movie "Dave" ("We're walking, we're walking!"), is a funny woman and a favorite guest of talk show hosts, especially David Letterman. But her humor doesn't translate to sitcoms.

The failure of "Grand" (1990, NBC) and "Davis Rules" (1991-92, ABC and CBS) had nothing to do with her, but the two shows she starred in, wrote and produced -- CBS's "The Building" in 1993 and "The Bonnie Hunt Show" in 1995 -- were her babies. Both series received critical acclaim, but viewers didn't tune in.

Indefatigable, she's trying again on ABC's "Life With Bonnie" (9 tonight).

For the third time, she surrounds herself with friends/fellow Second City alumni, several of whom appeared in her earlier shows, and she's again writing scripts. (Letterman executive produced her first two shows, but he's not involved this time.)

Instead of Bonnie Kennedy or Bonnie Kelly, as in her first two series, Hunt plays Bonnie Molloy. If this show doesn't make it, she may start to run out of Irish surnames.

This time Hunt plays a wife and mother of three who juggles family life with hosting a local morning TV talk show in Chicago. Parts of "Life With Bonnie" are scripted; other portions, particularly when she's hosting the morning chat show, are improvised.

It's an awkward mix, and Hunt's track record isn't great, so why do network executives keep giving her a shot? Because, in person, she's charming, hilarious and extremely easy to like. It's that Bonnie network executives envision as America's sweetheart, a TV star legions of viewers will tune in to see. Just read these snippets from her press conference at July's TV critics press tour.

A television critic, dressed in a tropical shirt, asked a question Hunt didn't really answer. He tried to rephrase, leading her to respond with mock snappishness.

HUNT: What the hell are you looking for? Because, baby, I'm it. Are you married?

CRITIC: Odd you should ask. ...

HUNT: What happened? Are you getting divorced?

CRITIC: Yeah.

HUNT: I'm sorry. Well, that explains the shirt, my friend. Please don't tell me you're driving your Corvette. And it's so wrong. I'm sorry, I'm sorry for what's happening to you. I shouldn't make light of it. I'm sorry. I'm sorry.

CRITIC: It's OK. It was only 25 years.

HUNT: Are there children?

CRITIC: Yes. So why is comedy important to you?

HUNT: I'm sorry. I'm from an Irish Catholic family. It's a knee-jerk reaction and I don't want you to think that I'm making light of your divorce, but she was a bitch.

See? She's quick and funny, and her timing is impeccable.

When a reporter asked her to demonstrate how she spit water through her teeth in the pilot episode, she replied, "Come on. I'm not going to perform for you guys. That's ridiculous." She waited a beat and then launched into song, "Summer time, and the women are easy...."

Mark Derwin, who worked with Hunt on "The Bonnie Hunt Show," was a late addition to "Life With Bonnie" (he plays Hunt's husband). Derwin was working on the daytime soap "One Life to Live," but his character went into a coma, freeing him up for "Bonnie."

"When he starts waking up, we know we're dying," Hunt said.

And Hunt on religion: "There's nothing funnier than religion. Try explaining it to a kid. I had it all wrong when I was a kid. I mean, my mother told me when my father found a German shepherd that was pregnant on the railroad tracks that [the dog's] husband left her because [my mom] didn't want me to think that dogs had puppies without being married."

The premiere of "Life With Bonnie" two weeks ago handily won its time slot, but it had no real competition. Tonight it moves to its scheduled home, 9 p.m., and goes up against NBC's "Frasier," CBS's "The Guardian" and The WB's "Smallville." Now the odds don't look so good, especially for a show that lacks typical sitcom rhythms.

ABC Entertainment president Susan Lyne acknowledged that "Bonnie" will face an uphill battle for viewers.

"We know it will take time to percolate, and it may also take time for people to catch onto the show. It's a family comedy but also a workplace comedy. It has both scripted and improvised elements, so it is a little different," Lyne said. "But she's playing a character that's very relateable. This is a woman who's a mother, but she's also got a job and feels like she never has enough time for any one piece of it. Every woman I know has the same feeling."

Whether or not "Life With Bonnie" succeeds, Hunt's already had feature film success with the movie "Return to Me," which she co-wrote, directed and appeared in. If this sitcom doesn't survive, it doesn't sound as though Hunt will be too upset.

"I really can be perfectly honest in saying that when you fail by your own standards, it's a form of success," she said. "There's always a hesitation because when you fail, it's pretty public, and not to mention that everybody in your family has an idea on how you could have fixed it. Uncle Chester always calls and goes, 'You know what the problem was? The girl next door. She was dragging you down.' You worry about it, but no, I'm thrilled to be employed and work with all my friends and people that I admire. You're just lucky to work. That's the bottom line."


You can reach Rob Owen at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com . Post questions or comments to http://www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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