Townsend hopes to recapture variety show's luster TURNED ON IN L.A. -- Fall Preview

July 13, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

LOS ANGELES -- Are you ready for "Rodney King, the Musical"?

How about "6 Minutes," featuring ace investigative reporter Ike Wallace?

Or what about a remake of "The Godfather," with an African-American cast led by Bill Cosby playing the godfather?

You'll see all of the above this fall on "Townsend Television," the new Fox variety show starring filmmaker Robert ('Hollywood Shuffle") Townsend.

You'll also see Whitney Houston singing Aretha Franklin's "Call Me," Gladys Knight doing songs by Eric Clapton, and Sinbad as a space mutant in a parody of "Star Trek, the First Generation," Townsend said in an interview here yesterday.

"I love the old-fashioned magic of the shows that I watched on TV when I was growing up," Townsend said. "And that's what I want to bring back to television."

Townsend might need a bit of magic for his new show to make it in the ratings this fall. First, there hasn't been a successful prime-time variety show on network TV in more than a decade. And to make matters worse, Fox has scheduled "Townsend Television" at 7 p.m. Sundays opposite "60 Minutes," one of the five most-watched shows on TV. The time slot has become the graveyard of too many shows to count over the years.

"I know all that," Townsend said. "But as long as I break the format, we have a chance. We'll break the format with remakes, like "The Godfather," or in having artists, like Whitney Houston, singing songs of other artists they admire instead of their own hits . . . The idea is that when you tune us in you see things you can only see by watching us."

Townsend does have a rare and brilliant comic perspective that you won't see elsewhere in prime time this fall: He seems to be able to see situations through vastly different cultural perspectives.

One recurring character in the new show, Nigel Spider, for example, is a hip, streetwise, African-American detective who speaks with an upper-class English accent. And, during yesterday's session, when Townsend sang a bit of "Rodney King, the Musical," what you heard was the male, tenor voice and sensibility of "Oklahoma" commenting on the urban street scene played over and over on videotape.

"I grew up on the West Side of Chicago, in a terrible neighborhood," Townsend said. "But I learned about other views and worlds by watching TV.

"I love watching Andy Griffith teach those little lessons to Opie . . . I watched the Royal Shakespeare Company do 'Hamlet' on TV, and read it just like they did when I was called on in class. . .

"When I was a kid, they called me 'TV Guide,' because I knew everything that was on TV and I could do all the voices. . . . That's all part of what I want 'Townsend Television' to be for the people who watch us this fall."

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