By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
And judging from a 10-minute clip, the new pilot was a far sight more sympathetic to Hendrie’s innate gifts than the sitcom pilot he did for NBC in 2003. Titled Phil at the Gate, the half-hour episode was written and produced by Peter Tolan, a veteran of The Larry Sanders Show who segued into film with Analyze Thisand That. In it, Hendrie played a retired policeman working as a uniformed security guard at another gated residential community, this time in Florida. He had a typical sitcom family and rode herd on a menagerie of oddball characters, including Laurie Metcalf as the imperious alpha female and longtime Hendrie character Bobbi Dooley (“I hang my underwear from trees to attract lost dogs”), who was renamed Teddy Duffy in the show for copyright reasons, and 3rd Rock From the Sun’s French Stewart as the nosy neighbor. Although Hendrie performed admirably as an actor, doing his best Jackie Gleason slow burn while contending with such domestic threats as a turd in the pool and “our al Qaeda problem,” the primary structural challenge seemed to be making him the straight man at the center of this imagined insanity, prospectively transforming him from the most progressive figure on radio into one of the most predictable on TV.
Levitan bowed out of the NBC pilot when the network wouldn’t consider making it animated, but revived the pitch when Fox was looking for an animated series (no doubt inspired by the extremely lucrative DVD sales of Family Guy). “When I first met Levitan,” says Hendrie, “he said, ‘I want to take the radio show and pour it into TV without messing with it too much. And the only way to do that is through animation.’”
Asked for his postmortem on why the pilot wasn’t picked up, Levitan aims for the high ground — after a fashion.
“I’m not going to venture a guess into the idiocy of the process,” he says evenly. “We delivered exactly what we promised. I think that Phil is too fresh and edgy and funny and groundbreaking and daring, and that’s probably why he can’t succeed on network television.” (Some are saying that either a revived Family Guy or Seth MacFarlane’s American Dad will likely air on Fox this fall, precluding the animated Hendrie show.)
For his part, Hendrie says he’s done with pilots — at least without a guaranteed number of episodes. “That’s a very wasteful process, and it’s not anything I’m interested in. Our project was absolutely hysterical, and I can understand Fox being afraid of it. In the trades, we were the frontrunner; the buzz around the lot was absolutely positive. Lines from our pilot were being quoted by top executives. I can speculate that once it got up to the big two, Gail Berman and Peter Chernin, that they did what executives do: take a step back and remember that they need to hold onto their jobs more than anything else. That’s what television is best at.
“I’ve been very lucky,” Hendrie adds. “The only two things I’ve done for TV have gone to the pilot stage. But if I allow that to pollute or intrude on my day-to-day living, then I’m a dead man. I just want to concentrate on my radio show.”
A Fucking Genius
“As you see, now these allegations of sexual misconduct have gone off the front page, and I think are going to be forgotten — these priests have been led astray by the same demons which tried to lead our Savior astray. But it’s time to forgive and forget.”
“You don’t seem to understand,” pleads Laura on Line 1. “These people committed crimes!”
“They touched a boy,” says the Father. “Big wow.”
“Oh, man, this guy is unbelievable.”
“Laura, if you’d just pray with me. Our Father, who art in heaven . . .”
“I don’t want to pray with you!” Laura splutters. “I want you to understand that not everybody out there looks at things your way. You want Mel Gibson to be the pope because he made a movie!”
Laura is furious. She is flummoxed. She is beside herself — as if a member of the Flat Earth Society refused to acknowledge the curvature of the Earth simply because it did not impinge on the horizon. Her only recourse is the affable, reasoned host, who remains resolutely sympathetic, even as he gently edges her onward.
“That’s a good point,” Hendrie tells Laura, who has no clue where the host stops and the good Father begins.
Hendrie calls what he does “interactive improv,” or the more user-friendly “Mad magazine of the mind.” He’s often compared to Candid Camera–style prank shows — Crank Yankers, the Jerky Boys, The Jamie Kennedy Experiment, Spy TV, Jackass, Punk’d — but that really doesn’t do him justice. Those shows pick their victims out of a hat — or the phone book, or the National Enquirer, or with Jackass, out of the mirror — while Hendrie historically ropes in the blowhards and puffballs who imagine themselves the conscience of a media hopelessly gone to liberal seed. He more closely resembles renegade hoaxers and media artists of the ’50s and ’60s like Joey Skaggs, who once placed a story on his “Cathouse for Dogs” on ABC News; Alan Abel, who staged a fake green-card wedding for Idi Amin (picked up by UPI) and whose “Society for the Indecency of Naked Animals” was once defended on The Tonight Show (by an unknown Buck Henry, no less); or Bay Area street interviewer Mal Sharpe. Hendrie cites a host of hipster-era influences, from Lenny Bruce, whose stage patter would often employ “realistic fumbling dialogue between two completely insane people,” to fearless conceptualist Andy Kaufman, to surrealist hand-puppeteer Shari Lewis.