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It's a Family Affair

The broadcast nets may be willing to risk their reputations on lowbrow reality shows, but they won't go for that same devil-may-care attitude in their comedy development for fall. Instead, they're playing it safe with sitcoms like Delta Burke's turn as a Southern mom in The WB's ''Sweet Potato Queens'' (based on the series of best-selling books), John Larroquette as a would-be empty nester in NBC's ''Happy Family,'' and Monica Potter as a widowed mother in CBS' ''The Lunchbox Chronicles.'' ''The networks feel like they've taken all the chances they need on realities, so the scripted stuff is really down the middle,'' says Pete Aronson of Regency TV, producer of ''Malcolm in the Middle.'' ''There's hardly anything adventurous about the stuff out there.'' Even NBC's exec VP of development Karey Burke agrees that she and her competitors have become quite risk-averse. (Need more proof? How about remakes of ''Mr. Ed'' for Fox and ''The Courtship of Eddie's Father'' on The WB?) Still, she's quick to tout her new Cheech Marin sitcom, ''The Ortegas,'' as an exception. ''This is about a Mexican-American talk show [that's staged] in a backyard!'' says Burke. ''I don't know how much different we can get than that.'' You could make it funny -- that'd be a nice change.

Bigger, Longer & Lear

Cartman, meet...Archie Bunker? All in the Family creator Norman Lear, 80, has forged an unholy comedic alliance with ''South Park'' overlords Matt Stone and Trey Parker. Noting that ''I love outrage, and they're all about outrage,'' the TV legend became friendly with the pair after several encounters, including a panel discussion at last year's U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen (''We had a fun time ganging up on Oliver Stone and telling him to f -- - off on stage,'' shares Matt Stone). Last month, Lear attended a ''South Park'' writers' retreat and helped brainstorm ideas for the upcoming season. ''We're always interrupting each other, but when Norman talked, it was like, 'Shhhh...you don't want to miss a word,''' says Stone. Lear is now collaborating on at least one episode (which involves a comatose Cartman meeting the Founding Fathers). Would he do more with the duo? ''Oh, sure,'' he says. ''Maybe I'll go to work for South Park -- another career.'' Sweet!

AND SO ON... E! was so encouraged by the March 2 launch of ''The Michael Essany Show'' (which drew 1.1 million viewers) that it might extend its 6-week, behind-the-scenes look at the 20-year-old public-access talk-show host from Valparaiso, Ind. Meanwhile, talent agencies are clamoring to represent Essany, while two major publicity firms have granted him access to their top-level stars. ''They were once ruthless and brutal to me when I tried to book guests, and now they're acting like we are long-lost friends!'' says a surprised Essany. Obviously, he's got a lot to learn about Hollywood.

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Originally posted Mar 21, 2003 Published in issue #701 Mar 21, 2003 Order article reprints