US Magazine
August 27, 1984

TV Views and Reviews
John Manulis will tickle your funny bone --
if only CBS lets his best gags get on the air.

Written by: Pat Sellers


Zone's resident zanies: (rear row, l to r)  pregnant Lange,
Randolph, Linn-Baker, and Gunton; (front) bespectacled
Neenan and football-helmeted Mantenga.

I'm staring at a TV monitor showing five punkers dying of radiation after the bomb.  They're cajoled into singing "Finiculi, Finicula" by a woman in a pink party gown with sparkles in her hair.

John Manulis is the creator of this madness, which he describes as "serious comedy."  When the 27-year-old Harvard graduate came up with a concept a year and a half ago for The Comedy Zone, which was to focus on "comedy of the heart, comedy of the ideas," there were doubts it would ever air.  "It was too frightening," he says, "or maybe too good."  After he had corralled the most prestigious group of writers since the Golden Age of Television, he was turned down by a cable network.  And then, surprisingly, CBS bought it as an experiment.  The show is running on five Sundays from August to September.  Its ratings will then be reviewed and CBS will decide whether to pick it up as a regular fall series.

Among the previous TV holdouts Manulis "lassoed kicking and screaming" into his core group of seven writers and playwrights are Jules Feiffer (Grown-Ups), Wendy Wasserstein (Isn't It Romantic), John Ford Noonan (A Coupla White Chicks Sitting Around Talking), and Christopher Durang (Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You.)   Neil Simon and Herb Gardner are among the guest contributors, and Manulis says the "good energy" about the show is such that Garson Kanin, a renowned scriptwriter, asked why he hadn't yet been asked to contribute.

The six actors who are regulars on the show are experienced theatrical performers.  "We wanted dramatic actors who could perform comedy, not stand-up comedians," says Manulis.  The slight fellow in the big punk topknot, for instance, is Mark Linn-Baker, who starred in Doonesbury on Broadway and in the 1982 film My Favorite Year.  Serious and reserved, Linn-Baker says he's shied away from television until now, but became interested in the project because "they've amassed a rather awesome list of writers."

By contrast, Joe Mantegna, wearing a punk wig that someone suggests makes him look like Jane Russell, had a lot of experience in episodic TV (Soap, Archie Bunker's Place, Simon & Simon) before winning a Tony this year for his performance in the Broadway hit Glengarry Glen Ross.  Throughout the six weeks of taping, he would be doing double duty on the TV comedy and the stage play, but remained unruffled about sprinting to the theatre.  "I don't take it that seriously, this business.  It takes me about 45 seconds to get into each character."

Audrie J. Neenan, in the pink party gown, has done Broadway and films as well as appearing on HBO's Not Necessarily the News this past year.  She relocated, on a week's notice, from Los Angeles to New York to join the cast of The Comedy Zone.  "As actors, we couldn't have written a better ticket for ourselves: working in New York with theater actors, theater writers and theater directors, on an hour-long television show that's right after 60 Minutes.  Yeah, it's a dream ticket."

But for writer Durang, whose bizarre vision resulted in the doomsday sketch, this dream ticket may turn instead into a trip to The Twilight Zone.

"At first we were excited about our time slot, because it follows 60 Minutes.  But we suddenly realized about three weeks ago, while talking to people at Standards and Practices, that 8 o'clock is what is called the family hour, which means there are all sorts of things we can't write about -- basically, sex and religion."

Durang's Sister Mary was about sex and religion.  He concedes that those are his strong suits, along with "writing about crazy people."  One skit he's written about VD that, he says, "would get on Saturday Night Live in a minute," has become a test case.  And a scene from his much-acclaimed play, Beyond Therapy, will probably never make it on the air because one character tells another, "You have lovely breasts."

"Apparently you can't say the word 'breasts' at 8 o'clock," Durang says.  "You can maybe say it at 10.  Isn't that silly?"

Producer Joe Cates, who has produced comedy shows starring Alan King, Robert Klein, Madeline Khan and Steve Martin and takes credit for introducing Jackie Gleason to Art Carney, says being scheduled in the family hour is a mistake.  "We're dealing with material that's awfully grown-up, and I don't know how much of what we're filming they're going to permit.  When the censors looked at the material, they screamed, 'Have mercy on us all!  Put it on the air and we'll lose 50 stations.'  But we're without shame," Cates jokes, modifying it with, "I am the king of compromise."

Manulis, too, may often find himself in a conciliatory role with writers who are protected contractually from having to rewrite endlessly after they have produced their required ten minutes of script per week.  Not all of the material, of course, is chosen.  How do you tell a writer of the caliber of Feiffer that his stuff is not up to snuff?

"Subtly," Manulis says, wincing.  "Or you blame it on the network; they make great scapegoats."

Also according to their contracts, the writers work individually.  An attempt to have them write a piece each week as an ensemble "met a gory death.  You've never heard a longer silence than in that room filled with ten people.  It wasn't that they were apathetic.  It was just that these men and women who usually sit down alone with a typewriter were suddenly faced with other people who were going to judge their idea before it got the chance to be put into a neat fashion."

Manulis concedes that dealing with all his writers individually is sometime akin to "trying to juggle eight lovers at the same time."

Still, when the going gets rough, either with the staff or the network, he can reflect back on the advice of his father, Martin Manulis, who produced Playhouse 90, the most golden show of television's Golden Age.  The senior Manulis' words of wisdom: "It isn't worth the ulcers"; and "whatever happened to pre-med?"