Banks: Mitchell Gerber/Corbis
Ken Tucker
November 15, 2000 AT 05:00 AM EST

ABC needs to cut ”Millionaire” back to once a week

The fact that Alec Baldwin and Jon Stewart were so funny on Sunday’s opening night ”celebrity edition” of ”Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” reminded me how amusing this game show, whose structure allows for ad libs and embarrassment, could be. The fact that Regis Philbin called Baldwin ”Alex” and told Stewart that ”everyone is talking” about his Comedy Central show — something even Stewart scoffed at — reminded me why this game show has become a big, heaving bore.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a solid Philbin fan. He’s a throwback to an earlier generation of TV personalities with shtick (in his case, the cranky man who regularly explodes) and an urgent need to entertain his audience. In this sense, few TV stars are less cool than Regis, but his strenuous commitment to spontaneous combustion make him a star in what Marshall McLuhan called the cool medium. That said, Philbin’s prime time outlet has become for many viewers last ditch programming — something you tune in for a segment or two after you’ve figured out where all the jokes are going in this week’s ”Just Shoot Me.”

This week’s sweeps stunt ”Millionaire,” featuring millionaires like Drew Carey and Sean ”Puffy” Combs playing for charities, only emphasizes this fact. Though Tyra Banks plays a recurring role on the WB’s ”Felicity,” other networks pulled their stars from appearing on the ABC ratings machine. I was dismayed that the usually honorable Conan O’Brien apparently caved in to NBC’s requests that he pull out of ”Millionaire.” But then I thought — hey, it’s just ”Millionaire.” In ”Late Night,” Conan’s got an invaluable franchise he’s obliged to protect.

Last year, it was said that the celebrity version of ”Millionaire” was more dumbed down than the ordinary citizen version, but by now, the initial questions are uniformly idiotic, while the high end stumpers aren’t engaging — they’re the sort of impossible obscurities that only savants or wild guessers can snag. Watching Jon Stewart make fun of the system (he asked for a ”Lifeline” when Regis had merely asked how his life was these days) just confirmed that the show is a joke that should be pulled back to once a week.

ABC has built nearly all of its fall 2000 schedule around ”Millionaire,” introducing only four new shows, including unwatchable junk like ”The Trouble With Normal” and ”The Geena Davis Show.” I can get my Regis fix by watching his morning talk show. What the network needs to do is stop relying on a tired game show and at least make an attempt to put some entertainment into production.

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