Blazing a Trail for Humor on Public TV

Producers say PBS's only American-accented comedy offers `tales of survival'. TELEVISION

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

PUBLIC television has its merits, but being funny isn't chief among them. Comedy works its way into specials and series from time to time, but for years - aside from the imported ``Monty Python's Flying Circus'' and a few other exceptions - it was hard to find sustained laughter on PBS channels. Until a program called ``Trying Times'' came along. Conceived by producer Jon S. Denny, it showcases ``comedies from the frontlines of contemporary life,'' putting an ironic spotlight on ``personal chronicles of survival in the maelstrom of modern times.''

Mr. Denny and his colleague, executive producer Phyllis J. Geller, have shepherded ``Trying Times'' through two critically acclaimed PBS seasons, the second of which continues through next month. Unlike sitcom episodes on the commercial networks, each half-hour segment is complete in itself. Episodes from the series have won awards at numerous film and video festivals. Aside from a streak of frequently rueful humor, their chief hallmark is a diverse array of on-screen talent carefully chosen from the stage and motion-picture worlds.

The current season features such performers as Stockard Channing, Peter Riegert, and Jean Stapleton; such directors as Alan Arkin and Buck Henry; and such writers as A.R. Gurney and Terrence McNally.

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How did it all begin? I asked Mr. Denny and Ms. Geller during a visit to KCET here, which coproduces the series.

``I had noticed that all the comedy I'd seen on PBS had British accents,'' says Denny with a smile. ``And that the funniest thing I'd ever seen on PBS were the pledge breaks!''

American comedy was pretty much missing from the PBS schedule. Which meant there was a potential opening for Denny's idea of ``a series of half-hour tales of survival.'' Essential to his plan was that the series would be ``written by America's most adventurous and bold playwrights - who did not have a forum on American television [and could] contribute to a medium that is less adventurous and less bold than it could be.''

The hour was ripe for such a project. ``At that time within public television,'' says Geller, a veteran public-TV producer, ``there was a lot of discussion [saying] it was time for ... something dedicated to humor.'' As senior vice-president of national productions at KCET, she immediately supported Denny's notion of giving writers ``the opportunity to write in a different form, an innovative form. ... That walks right into our continuing mandate and agenda in public television. Most of our dramas have always started with the vision of writers.''

Why was PBS the right habitat for ``Trying Times,'' rather than a commercial network?

``I think network television's goal is fundamentally to sell Fruit Loops and deodorant,'' says Denny with another grin. ``PBS's mandate is to present new voices, distinct voices. I was very much attracted to PBS for that reason.''

Geller adds that ``for their own purposes [the commercial networks] need a kind of predictability. Otherwise, what are they selling to the sponsors? And this [program] is not predictable. It can't be predictable when you take six or 12 writers and say, `Go!' That's pretty risky. And that's the business we're in.''

Telling writers to ``Go!'' isn't all there is to the ``Trying Times'' method, however. On a ``philosophical'' level, Denny says, the show is always about ``neurotic or struggling people who are dangling from the end of their ropes in this thing called life, and managing in some existential way to find some hope, some sense of self-worth and survival. ... They're comedies about people confronting both self and society in ways that are self-revealing, and say something about the world in which we live.''

Both producers feel this theme is better suited to PBS than to commercial broadcasting. ``We certainly do see ourselves as an alternative,'' Geller says. ``In the past ... we certainly have been a breeding ground for ideas, because we have different masters to serve.''

When an idea clicks with audiences and gets picked up by commercial television, she continues, ``then it's time for us to do something else. The important thing is that we foster the new ideas.''

Geller notes that ``Trying Times'' was first conceived before the ``dramedy'' genre - drama with humor, but no laugh track - caught on with commercial shows. She speculates that, if financing for the program had come together more quickly, viewers might now see ``Trying Times'' as the model for that whole format. But financing can be difficult in public television, she continues, and ``Trying Times'' has needed help overseas foreign coproducers in both its seasons.

Despite this, Denny and Geller have managed to retain control of the program's content. ``One of the true joys'' of doing such a show, Denny says, is that its episodes ``are not homogenized'' like many commercial TV and motion-picture projects. ``They're sometimes unsettling,'' he adds, ``hopefully in satisfying ways. You may watch a half-hour and say, `I'm not quite sure what it is I just watched.' That is, again, one of the true joys.''

Geller agrees. ``We work in a system that's so seductive,'' she says about PBS programming, ``that it's kept me for many, many years. The writers and directors come in, but there's never anyone looking over their shoulders other than the producer and the executive producer. It just stops there. There are no 75 levels ..., which certainly allows writers and directors to have a freedom of expression they don't always feel. And I think it filters down to the actors as well, because they're not seeing 17 executives on the set.''

For the creative talent involved, Denny says, ``Trying Times'' can be an opportunity to do something offbeat, in the manner of ``an Off-Hollywood play [that's] not quite television, not quite film, not quite theater. It's an odd collage of something new.''

This challenge must appeal to performers, since high salaries are not a drawing card of the series. ``We give actors those upper three figures,'' says Denny with a laugh. ``We take them to a power lunch at Arby's, where over a beef and cheddar we convince them that it's clearly not for the money, but everyone has got to do one of these. It's the PBS macho!''

In the end, both producers agree, all concerned with ``Trying Times'' are attracted less by prospects of fame and fortune than by the opportunity to say things that are a bit more eccentric and less formula-bound than the commercial networks might allow.

``Each of them in a strange way,'' says Denny, referring to the episodes, ``says something about the durability of hope. Even in the darkest of hours and the darkest of times that we live in - in which melancholia and anxiety and cholesterol run rampant in the streets - there is something to be said for the art of survival!''

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