New and Vintage Comedy in a Slick Package

MTV hopes Ha! - its channel of sitcom classics and original programs - will duplicate the success of its music videos. TELEVISION

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor. Daniel B. Wood is the Monitor's television writer.

YOU asked for it, America. You got it. It's the 24-hour ``Ha! TV Comedy Network,'' which began airing Sunday with re-runs of ``Saturday Night Live,'' ``The Lucy Show,'' ``Rhoda,'' ``That Girl,'' ``Love American Style,'' and other all-American so-called ``evergreen'' series. An original program called ``The Big Room,'' starring Mort Sahl, is the first of a number of original programs producers say will make up 25 percent of the programming by December.

Like the three other MTV-owned and operated cable networks - MTV: Music Television, VH-1, and Nickelodeon/Nick at Nite - HA! has its own slick packaging and stylized look.

Tom Freston, chairman and CEO of MTV Networks, says, ``Not only do we see this as a very natural extension of our business; we see this as the great MTV growth opportunity as we move into the '90s. ``Ha! is the MTV for us for this decade.''

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Part of the idea is to get far more than the 5 million to 10 million households now plugged in to MTV to identify with the channel itself, rather than programs on the channel.

``We want to build up a brand-name loyalty like we have on all our networks, so that people say, `I watch HA!''' rather than ``The Sgt. Bilko Show'' or ``McHale's Navy,'' says Mike Klinghoffer, vice-president for production. ``People don't do that with the major networks. That's what's unique about us.''

With three successful up-and-running networks, MTV planners began researching in 1986 to find out what America wanted for a fourth - sports, film classics, shopping, cooking? Nationwide polls, as well as the growth from 200 to 1,000 comedy clubs across America in recent years pointed to the answer: a place to watch comedy at all hours of the day.

``There is a misconception that there is a lot of comedy out there already,'' notes Mr. Klinghoffer, adding that prime-time's proportion of 40 percent comedy represents only three hours of the day. ``If you look at the other 21 hours, comedy only equals 11 percent, including all networks, independents, major cable stations.''

Like MTV, which was born out of the success of a video-music show called ``Pop Clips,'' HA! could be said to have been born of the success of the all-comedy line-ups of Nick at Nite, he says. In any case, such ``niche programming'' is only the latest example in a pattern TV analysts say will continue segmenting the American viewing audience for years to come.

Producers hasten to add that HA! will not be primarily a station for standup comedy. Instead, its line-up will mostly include the top sitcoms of TV history: in addition to those mentioned, ``Car 54, Where Are You?'' ``Phyllis,'' ``Candid Camera,'' ``Your Show of Shows,'' and ``The Red Skelton Show.'' A regular 120-minute block will also show such short-lived series as ``When Things Were Rotten,'' ``Working Stiffs,'' and ``Occasional Wife,'' whose deaths MTV producers feel were premature.

Some $50 million to $150 million will be spent on original programming, to be rolled out at the rate of two to three shows per month through December. Of note, according to producers, will be ``London Underground,'' a co-production with the BBC, mixing American and British variety fare. ``Viewers will really get to see the difference between the American and British sense of humor, from timing to subject matter,'' notes Klinghoffer.

Another show, ``The Big Room'' takes veteran comedians - Mort Sahl, Sheky Green, Jan Murray - and pairs them with top directors of today. The lead-off show with Mort Sahl is shot by Nicholas Roeg in 35-mm film, as a fluid production, which sets it apart from the ubiquitous standup look of a comic in front of a nondescript brick wall. Future segments feature Steve Allen, Pat Cooper, and Freddie Roman.

Of additional interest is ``Whose Line Is It Anyway?'' in which members of a live audience suggest improv routines to be performed spontaneously. ``They might ask the actors to do the same, single story in the style of Faulkner, Mother Goose and Truman Capote,'' notes Klinghoffer.

MTV hopes to build an audience for HA! by promoting it on the company's other networks, whch now are available to 50 million people. Already, MTV's other channels have been engaged in an eight-week countdown, with plugs from such notables as Henny Youngman, Mel Torme, and Carl Reiner. MTV expects to announce call-in campaigns for such fare as Eddie Murphy's early skits of ``Gumby,'' ``Mr. Roger's Neighborhood,'' and ``Buckwheat,'' from ``Saturday Night Live.''

``If you ask people what are the best shows in the history of TV, they tell you `Mary Tyler Moore,' `The Lucy Show,' `Dick Van Dyke,''' says Klinghoffer, adding that 95 percent of his channel's fare will be exclusive. ``We have all of those. There has never been a place to go that can consistently deliver that quality of comedy.''

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