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ABC sitcoms hit, miss

Sunday, March 21, 1999

By Rob Owen,Post-Gazette TV Editor

Voice. It's the key to the best TV sitcoms of recent years. "Seinfeld" had a distinctive voice. "The Drew Carey Show" has a unique voice.

Two new ABC shows have a voice, but only one of them is likely to appeal to a wide swath of viewers. That one would be "The Norm Show," premiering Wednesday at 9:30 p.m.

The voice in question is that of Norm Macdonald. Getting fired from "Saturday Night Live," supposedly because an NBC executive didn't think his "Weekend Update" was funny enough, may have been Macdonald's best career move.

While "The Norm Show" does nothing to redefine the genre, it will make many viewers laugh. Sometimes that's enough.

Macdonald stars as Norm Henderson, a former professional hockey player forced to become a social worker as a way to make amends for a conviction on tax evasion charges. His co-workers include lonesome Laurie (Laurie Metcalf, playing a role similar to her "Roseanne" character) and doofy Danny (Ian Gomez, the former boss at Dean & DeLuca on "Felicity").

Norm is self-obsessed and boorish, but charming nonetheless. The pilot, written by Macdonald and Bruce Helford (also the executive producer of "The Drew Carey Show"), carries Macdonald's trademark humor. He can be mean, but always with a smile.

When he has to talk to a client who's gone to work in a massage parlor, Norm not-so-gently tells her, "Look Taylor, I don't think you understand, you're a huge whore!"

Anyone familiar with Macdonald's work recognizes this as his type of humor.

"The Norm Show" will likely appeal more to men than women, but Metcalf's presence could help the show reach a wider audience. Whatever the gender, some viewers will be grossed-out by Macdonald's humor (an oral sex joke about a 70-year-old prostitute and her dentures is pretty nasty).

Inappropriateness aside, "The Norm Show" brings a new comedic voice to prime time. Macdonald's voice may not be to everyone's liking, but it's at least fresh, distinctive and funny.

The same can't be said for "It's Like, You Know ..." which sounds a lot -- A WHOLE LOT -- like "Seinfeld." Yes, there's something wrong with that.

"It's Like" (premiering Wednesday at 8:30 p.m.) is the West Coast version of "Seinfeld," with characters again obsessing over meaningless minutia ("Don't you think the letter Q' should come a lot further down the alphabet?" one of them asks).

Comparisons shouldn't be a huge surprise. The program's executive producer, Peter Mehlman, worked on "Seinfeld" and wrote the famous "Yada Yada" episode.

Jerry was the straight man on "Seinfeld," and in "It's Like" that role falls to Chris Eigeman as the New Yorker who moves to Los Angeles to write a book about hating L.A. While there he stays with his get-rich-quick-scheming college roommate, Robbie (Steven Eckholdt), who brought the Jewish High Holy days home to cable customers through a service he calls "Pay-Per-Jew."

Robbie's second best friend is Shrug (Evan Handler), a bald-due-to-stress guy who lives off his trust fund. Think of him as this show's Kramer. Robbie's next-door neighbor, and the show's best running gag, is actress Jennifer Grey ("Dirty Dancing"), who appears as herself.

When Arthur first meets Grey he doesn't recognize her. She quickly fesses up: She had a nose job, which the actress had in real life. That blatant honesty about a celebrity is rare, and rarer still when the celebrity is talking about it herself.

The final regular character, Lauren (A.J. Langer, best known as Rayanne from "My So-Called Life"), is a massage therapist who doubles as a subpoena-carrying process server. Arthur is smitten by her when they sit together on the plane from New York to L.A.

The show's title is worked into every episode, presumably because it's a phrase that originated in Southern California. In Wednesday's premiere, an airline pilot tells passengers, "if

you're wondering about the weather in L.A.., it's like, you know, sunny."

This sitcom isn't just derivative, it's only occasionally funny and doesn't always make sense. Throughout the first episode a New Yorker keeps walking down the aisle of the airplane, talking loudly to her mother, saying things like, "Mommy, the bottom line is, the guy's a pig." It's a complete non-sequitur that distracts from the thrust of the scene.

Also, will jokes about Southern California geographic regions mean anything to anyone in the other 49 states?

A future episode solves this problem somewhat by comparing televised Los Angeles police chases to snow days on the East Coast, an apt comparison that opens the show up for viewers outside the L.A. market.

But where "Seinfeld" obsessed over the little things many people can relate to, "It's Like" obsesses over things few people have ever thought about.

"Isn't it amazing Germany didn't change its name after World War II?" Arthur says. "I mean, how could they stick with the name Germany?"

"ValuJet changed their name," Grey adds.

True, yes. Funny, not really.

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