BOSTON — Think of "Broadcast News" with a touch of early "Murphy Brown" and a dash of "Nightline," and you get the idea: Al Franken's new sitcom, "Lateline" (premires March 17, 9:30-10 p.m., on NBC), takes a satirical look at the evening newsmagazine.
Franken plays Al Freundlich, an honorable, competent TV reporter who is also a bit of a doofus, hopelessly lacking in self-awareness. Franken is fragile, pompous, bright, and gullible all at once in the role.
But what is best about this comedy is its truly ensemble effort. Equipped with a crack cast, fine comic writing, and a string of complex, interesting characters, "Lateline" seasons its take on the newsmagazine with a good handful of real-life public figures.
In one particularly amusing show, wire services report the death of comedian Buddy Hackett, and the "Lateline" anchor announces it on air. House minority leader Richard Gephardt and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who have been brought in to comment on a mining-industry strike, start recalling Hackett's funniest films. And jumping on the "hot" story of Hackett's "death," "Lateline" dumps Freundlich's mining story only to learn that reports of Hackett's death have been greatly exaggerated.
It's Al Franken all over. His political satire on "Saturday Night Live" and "Politically Incorrect" has earned him a host of loyal fans. And while he has never done straight news, he has done commentary for CNN at the Democratic National Convention and been around the news, he says, a lot.
In fact, most of the guests that give "Lateline" its verisimilitude are men and women Franken has worked with or for: guests like Michael Dukakis, Joycelyn Elders, Jerry Falwell, Barney Frank, G. Gordon Liddy, James Lovell, Joan Lunden, and Ralph Nader.
"What Al and I try to do," says co-producer John Markus, "is write them as themselves - not give them a lot of jokes to do, but just try to put them in their own character.... It was important to us that the people in the news business not think we've taken tremendous license with what they do.
"It was also important to us in creating these characters," he continues, "that they be people the American public could relate to. Gale [played by Megyn Price] is a news producer, but what she does in her work is handle difficult, egotistical people. We can relate to that. That's what most of us are faced with at work."
"She can handle Freundlich because she has a heart," says Franken, "and she has a moral center so she understands that Freundlich also has a moral center.
"The basic producer-correspondent relationship seemed to me very funny," Franken says, but it's the whole hierarchy, from anchor to lowliest intern that he wanted to capture.
"Part of what we discovered in our research was that these relationships repeat themselves in different newsrooms," he says. "We did an extreme example of a high-maintenance correspondent, but certainly producers in the business all know a Freundlich."
"Lateline" is not a spoof, says Franken. "A spoof to me is a parody. I want people to understand that what they are going to see is a sitcom. Yeah, it's satirical, and we are talking about how news is done. We want to reflect the reality of the news business.... We spent a lot of time on the project, about eight months working on the pilot."
One of the ongoing targets of Franken and Markus's satire is the dumbing-down of news. On "Lateline," important stories don't see the light of day, while fluffy (and even false) stories do. Does the team think of their satire as cynical?
"I think it is a loving, but off-center look at news," says Markus. And Franken adds, "It may be unblinking, but it's not cynical."