Ken Tucker
November 30, 1999 AT 05:00 AM EST

A fine new chat show premieres this week

You know Ben Stein from Comedy Central’s game show ”Win Ben Stein’s Money” (a.k.a. ”Who Wants to Be a Hundredaire”) and as poker-faced teacher in ”Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and ”The Wonder Years.” On Thursday, obey the title command of ”Turn Ben Stein On” (Comedy Central, 10:30-11 p.m.) and you’ll watch the Great Sonorous Stone-face become a chatty, affable talk-show host.

Stein gives each episode a theme. In the premiere, Carl Reiner and Katie Wagner (daughter of Robert) discuss showbiz nepotism (only the host has the guts to say it exists, and that in his opinion, it’s a good thing). In the second show, reporter Carl Bernstein and ”Election” director Alexander Payne ponder high school life: character builder or horror show?

The striking thing about Stein as a host is that he has a point of view. Unlike Jay, Dave, Conan, Craig, Maher, and Jon Stewart, Stein actually articulates his worldview as he converses. The fact that this worldview emanates from a former Nixon speechwriter who has found nirvana in decadent Hollywood only makes his beliefs more quirky and unpredictable. In any case, just the fact that he possesses a set of political beliefs and argues them with smiling conviction makes him an instant standout in the talk-show crowd. Agree or disagree with him, Stein is immediately a more engaging host for speaking his mind.

The chat is swift, and roaming the set freely is Stein’s dog Lucy (whom he calls with sickening sweetness ”Puppy-Wuppy” — oh well, better that he vent his mushiness on his pet than on his guests). The two-man band is hipper than any other talk show’s. Plus, Ben sings his own grunge theme song. Dennis Miller and Chris Rock, watch your backs.

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