'Louie' has personal problems TV review: 'Newhart' wannabe tries to mix standard humor with stand-up pathos in sitcom psychologist's office.

January 31, 1996|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Louie Anderson's "The Louie Show" wants to be the "Bob Newhart Show," set in Duluth and updated for the 1990s.

It has a talented star in Anderson, great producers in Diane English and Joel Shukovsky of "Murphy Brown" fame, and a decent tryout time period at 8:30 Wednesday nights after "Dave's World" on CBS.

But despite good intentions and lots of talent, the pieces of this new sitcom about a psychologist at an HMO in Duluth simply do not mesh -- at least not in the pilot, which airs at 8:30 tonight on WJZ (Channel 13). As a result, you are left feeling little for Anderson's Louie Lundgren character and, worse, wondering if Anderson and the producers ever figured out for themselves how they want you to feel about him.

The first aspect of the show that's going to strike many viewers tonight is the opening -- Anderson standing in front of an audience with a microphone in his hand, telling jokes. While it will remind some of Jerry Seinfeld in the prologue of "Seinfeld," there is a difference. Anderson is standing in front of the studio audience for a videotaping of "Louie," as opposed to Seinfeld's nightclub audience.

Sitcoms that are taped before an audience almost always have someone come out and "warm up" the audience. Often it's an unknown comic, rarely the star. Either way, it is never shown to the audience watching at home except in such productions as Showtime's "It's Garry Shandling's Show," which was premised on breaking the fourth wall and reminding the television audience of the artifice of the sitcom world.

What's of interest in this opening is Anderson telling the studio audience, "I've always been misunderstood as a fat person, but I think what's important is that we're all human beings."

It connects later with an exchange in the sitcom when his Lundgren character says, "People look at me and see a fat person. But when I look at myself, I see a person who happens to be fat."

In both, Anderson is asking -- maybe even begging -- the audience to love him. While the begging works for his stand-up persona, it makes for confusion with his sitcom character, who is otherwise cranky, childish, peevish and self-indulgent. It's a fundamental mistake that I fear could sink a series otherwise marked by some clever and funny writing.

The series is premised on Lundgren, who lives alone in a big house in Duluth, needing to take in a roommate so that he can VTC afford $10,000 in repairs to a leaky roof. Lundgren winds up not only with a kooky, free-spirited woman who just blew in from Los Angeles (Kate Hodge), but also his best friend from grade school, a tightly wrapped Duluth police officer (Bryan Cranston) whose wife just left him. In that sense, it's the odd couple plus one.

But the big laughs are supposed to come in Lundgren's psychologist's office, which is where the problems with the sitcom are at their most obvious.

From his first encounter with an angry, abusive patient reminiscent of Elliot Carlin (Jack Riley) in "The Bob Newhart Show," you know the producers are packaging Anderson as a new, improved version of Bob Hartley, the Chicago psychologist Newhart played in his 1970s sitcom.

But Newhart's Hartley was a comfortable fit with his sitcom persona -- the last sane man commenting on the craziness around him. Viewers were never asked to like Hartley, but merely to enjoy his reactions to and observations on what walked through his office door.

The Lundgren character works fine when he's the psychologist as spoiled child, telling his patient to sit down and then snapping, "not the couch, I get that." He's better yet when he's hip-shooting at the hang-ups of other characters for laughs.

But just when you start enjoying that Lundgren, Anderson's stand-up persona pops through, begging for empathy, understanding and love.

Figure it out, Louie. Do you want laughs or love, a funny sitcom or sympathy?

I= I like Louie Anderson, but Louie Lundgren leaves me cold.

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