'Good Grief' wastes Howie Mandel's manic talent


September 28, 1990|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

"Good Grief" is bad news.

The new Fox sitcom, which premieres at 9:30 Sunday night on WBFF-TV (Channel 45), is not very funny, has no consistent focus and is likely to offend gays and lesbians with all its low-rent homosexual humor. That about cover it? Not quite.

Like other disappointing Fox pilots this fall, "Good Grief" looked good on paper.

It's about a mortuary business run by brothers-in-law. Warren Pepper (Joel Brooks) is the son of the mortuary's original owner. Warren is conservative and traditional. He believes funerals should be dignified above all else.

But when Warren's father died, the business went to Warren's sister, Debbie (Wendy Schaal), who is married to Ernie Lapidus (Howie Mandel).

Ernie and Warren are direct opposites. Whereas Warren lives for propriety, Ernie is a hustler and conman. Dignity is not a word in Ernie's vocabulary. But Ernie is also supposed to be a lovable conman, who lives life with zest and great vitality. Ernie and Warren run Sincerity Mortuary, with Debbie refereeing.

Sunday's pilot opens with Warren's blood pressure zooming as he watches Ernie in a tasteless television commercial for the mortuary. The dramatic high point is the arrival of the police to question Ernie about a thief he buried with a stolen sports car. More details than that you don't want to know.

What's maddening about this half hour and the second episode -- outside of the constant gay bashing -- is how badly Mandel's talent is served. Mandel is a brilliantly manic stand-up comedian who could have made Ernie Lapidus and "Good Grief" irresistible if his out-of-control comic persona had been given free rein.

But the producers put Mandel in a suit and toned him down to the point that it literally looks like he's wearing a back brace or corset. Physically, he's tentative and tight. Emotionally, he's hopelessly blocked. It is hard to believe such wrong-headed choices could have been made.

It's too early after just two episodes to write off any show with Mandel in it. But if "Good Grief" doesn't get much better real fast, it is going to be good-bye.

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