As a TV critic, you know you're in trouble when the running joke in a sitcom pilot revolves around cheese. When did cheese become funny? And is a giant cheese sculpture of Norm Macdonald's head laugh-out-loud hilarious?
The creators of Fox's new sitcom A Minute With Stan Hooper apparently think so. For viewers, Stan Hooper's minute -- 22 of them actually -- is best left doing something else. Like scrubbing your toilet.
The show focuses on a big-city newscaster (played by Saturday Night Live veteran Macdonald), who's created the most popular minute on TV as an Andy Rooney-styled gadfly on "Newsline." In his wholesome, 60-second vignettes, Hooper shares the stories of everyday people living their ordinary lives.
After years of reporting on places where folks enjoy the simple pleasures, Hooper decides to chuck his Manhattan digs and head to a town where no one's ever heard of cappuccino.
So he's off to Waterford Falls, Wisconsin, a sleepy town he and his wife drove through on their honeymoon 15 years ago. In Waterford Falls, the cheese capital of the world (cue the laugh track), Stan hopes to find the simplicity of everyday life in the heartland.
Of course, that's the last thing Stan and Molly (Penelope Ann Miller) discover. Instead, they encounter a cast of misfits -- a slightly deranged cheese mogul, his goofy son, the bubbly blonde girlfriend and the gay couple who own the local diner. Fox Entertainment Publicity would love for me to describe these "lovable lunkheads" as "whacky and zany." They're actually boring and clichéd. And definitely not funny.
Here's the part of the review where I'd insert some funny dialogue that made me giggle enough to pause the VHS and write down what was said. But that didn't happen. In fact, I found myself watching the counter on my VCR, willing the magic numerals 22:00:00 to appear. Then I'd be finished and could switch back to Nightline.
I think I get the idea behind Stan Hooper. The clash of urban vs. rural. The obvious futility of wishing for times gone by. The modern sensibility foisted upon small-town America. To be sure, those can be the staples of a hit comedy. But Stan Hooper fails to deliver in a major way. The characters, rather than quirky and endearing, are annoying and shallow. When Stan and Molly rent a house (deserted by the town rich guy, who's serving 5 to 10 in the state pen), they inherit his humorless, weird butler, Gary, who reminds me of those similarly humorless and weird Daryl brothers from Newhart. Not surprisingly, Stan Hooper springs from the imagination of Newhart creator Barry Kemp.
The enormously talented and often wonderful Fred Willard plays the cheese mogul, but the script is so ill-inspired and lifeless that he's forced into playing a caricature of himself.
Eric Lively, who plays the mogul's goofball son, and Reagan Dale Neis, who plays his bimbo girlfriend, give overacting a bad name, their hyped-up performances straight out of the "There's No Such Thing as Too Much" acting school.
The one moment of levity in Stan Hooper comes at the very end of the pilot (Note to Fox execs: People have remote controls and use them). In a live segment for "Newsline," Stan interviews Pete and Lou, the fellows who own the diner. Except Stan doesn't know they're gay -- he thinks they're brothers -- and, well, I won't spoil the fun for you. But it's mildly amusing. Or maybe it wasn't, and I just needed to laugh at something, and by then the writers had mercifully run out of cheese jokes.