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Blazing a Trail for Humor on Public TV

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

By David SterrittStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 17, 1990


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.''

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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.

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.''