Having watched every half hour thus far broadcast of Cursed, The Michael Richards Show, and Normal, Ohio, I am here to report that I laughed during a single one of these shows exactly once. It occurred during the Nov. 16 episode of Cursed. Chris Elliott plays the supporting role of a doctor on this show, which stars Wings' Steven Weber as a perennial bad-luck magnet. It's the start of a scene; Weber will enter soon with some dialogue that will further this evening's banal plot, but before he does, Elliott is sitting on the edge of a hospital bed. He has pulled up a corner of his green hospital-scrub shirt to expose a bit of pink, paunchy stomach. Utterly self-absorbed, he picks at a patch of his tummy skin and says to himself in an angry, panicked screech, ''What is that?''
That was it. Weber's Jack entered, there was some idiocy about Jack having two sprained thumbs and needing Elliott's character to help him because it's essential that Jack give the thumbs-up sign to his boss at a crucial business meeting, and oh, it doesn't matter. It was just the sight of Elliott, the great, demented former writer-performer for David Letterman's talk shows and the star of his own ridiculous 1990-92 Fox cult series, Get a Life, being willing to bare his spare tire for the sake of a blithe non sequitur that made me laugh with surprise, and a gratefulness bordering on tears.
Because, oh lordy, these are bad shows. In the pilot of Cursed, Weber's Jack was hexed by a date who was angry with him, but beyond being demoted at his job and having a rainstorm appear over his head in the opening credits, the premise is irrelevant to the series, which tries for Seinfeld-style absurdity, and does it badly, and which features Seinfeld's Mr. Peterman John O'Hurley playing exactly the same sort of boss for Weber. O'Hurley delivers lines like ''You go get 'em, you go-getter, you!,'' the soundtrack erupts with laughter, and Weber as a person, not as an actor looks embarrassed by the entire enterprise. Beyond providing the difficult-to-package talent of Chris Elliott with a regular showcase, there's no reason for Cursed to exist.
In The Michael Richards Show, by contrast, we find a former Seinfeld star straining to avoid comparison with his previous success. In theory this is admirable, but in practice, it serves only to inform us that, before Seinfeld, Michael Richards was not a very funny man, a fact that anyone old enough to remember his excruciating slapstick on the 1980-82 Saturday Night Live rip-off Fridays already knew.
Richards plays private investigator Vic Nardozza; most of the (in)action occurs at the detective agency that employs him, where recognizable faces like Knots Landing's William Devane and Saturday Night Live's Tim Meadows stand around listening to Richards deliver stunningly poorly constructed lines such as, ''I'm no spring chicken, but like a well-seasoned chicken, I get better with age.'' Simply repeating the word chicken like that is a lesson in how not to write a funny line, in how to kill a joke. In the Oct. 24 episode, Meadows' character exits a room, and he trips over something we can't see. There's no laugh from the studio audience this is clearly not a bit of physical business meant to elicit one yet the producers let what was obviously an actor's accident remain in the final edit. The Michael Richards Show isn't merely unamusing; it's shockingly incompetent.
As for Normal, Ohio well, if Michael Richards looks as if he's working way too hard, John Goodman gives the impression of someone nonchalantly sauntering through a mess he didn't make. Goodman plays a gay man named Butch who has come out to his family and recently moved in with his single-mom sister (Ellen's Joely Fisher). Like Steven Weber, Goodman has no real character to inhabit, just a residual persona from his biggest success playing the husband on Roseanne.
Goodman was frequently superlative on Roseanne; working with a nonactress on what was by all accounts a tense set, he helped his costar achieve extraordinary moments of comedy and truth. On Normal, Ohio, nothing is at stake, artistically there is no one involved in this show who has Roseanne's passion to make a point, or a joke. Normal settles for a constant barrage of homosexual ridicule. Orson Bean, playing Goodman's father, refers to his son as a ''fruit basket,'' a ''piccolo player.'' Bean's Bill is a hateful man; Fisher's Pamela is presented as a pathetic, man-hungry trollop invariably dressed in humiliating low-cut blouses and miniskirts. The series seems to despise its own characters.
Watching each of these three situation comedies, you may feel annoyed or repelled, but most of all perplexed, like someone staring at the Wright brothers' aviation contraption, wondering: How did this concept ever get off the ground? Cursed: D The Michael Richards Show: D- Normal, Ohio: D-