Examining the Cable Collaborations of Jablin, Mulholland, and Barrie

A few months back we looked at the unproduced script for Johnny Carson’s comeback special, written by “Johnny’s favorite writers,” Michael Barrie and Jim Mulholland from an idea they co-created with producer/director David Jablin. Over the years, the trio had created a number of innovative comedy projects that Johnny was a big fan of. Today we look back at the impressive, yet little known body of work of Jablin, Barrie and Mulhollond.

In the early 1980s, David Jablin had created, independently financed, and produced a one-hour pilot for a ground-breaking comedy anthology show titled Likely Stories, and with the help of HBO/Cinemax had just received funding for an additional three hours. The series was notable for being one of the first original scripted comedy programs produced for premium cable television as well as featuring the directing debuts of Rob Reiner, Christopher Guest, Danny DeVito, Billy Crystal and Harry Shearer. New to Los Angeles, Jablin met Michael Barrie at a party in the writer’s Los Angeles home. The pair hit it off, eventually got around to discussing their jobs, and after learning about his already long-term Tonight Show gig, Jablin asked if Barrie and his writing partner Jim Mulholland had any interest in writing films. As it turned out, their agent was shopping around a recently completed satire of the IRS entitled Many Happy Returns. Jablin read it, and loved it, and in particular, zoomed in on a bombastic, Chris Christie-like New Jersey politician by the name of Vince D’Angelo. David had just completed a short film with Danny DeVito for his new Likely Stories series and immediately thought he’d be perfect in the role. So he pitched Michael and Jim the idea of doing a “Likely Story” about that single character. Danny agreed to both star and direct and The Selling of Vince D’Angelo was born.

The short adopts a journalistic tone to tell the story of Vince D’Angelo’s rapid rise to power after he announces his independent candidacy to become the next senator of New Jersey. We quickly learn he’s made his money in the “concrete business” and that he’ll also do whatever it takes to ensure a win. His shameless fear-mongering campaign ads use the slogan “Vote for Vince D’Angelo: Before It’s Too Late.” (It was quite prescient: 28 years later Tom Trancredo, running for governor of Colorado in 2010, would be taken to task by the 24 hr. news media for using the exact same incendiary slogan). Vince also had no problem playing dirty with his opponents, producing photographic proof of Democrat Mary Ann Mckensie’s affair with Fidel Castro or having his pollsters ask voters if they would vote for incumbent, Senator Pete Harrison, if they knew he was gay. At a news conference, with his family at his side, Harrison, played by comedian Tim Thomerson, assures voters that he’s not gay. As he attempts to spin his way out of it he follows up, saying “not that there’s anything wrong with that…” 11 years before Seinfeld would turn that expression into a national catchphrase. Vince D’Angelo is darkly funny and reaches some insane twists that are still quite plausible in the world of modern politics.

Also as part of Likely Stories, Mike and Jim pitched another idea, creating one of the first mockumentaries, beating This is Spinal Tap to the punch, about an American B-movie director who becomes regarded as a cinematic genius in France. Mulholland & Barrie provided the script and Jablin cast Howard Hesseman, best known as Johnny Fever from WKRP In Cincinatti, to portray the sleazy director. Howard’s real-life wife (who is actually French) would play the fawning French documentarian and Peter Bonerz, (Jerry the dentist from The Bob Newhart Show) who had been a co-member with Hesseman of the famed improv team “The Committee” would direct, creating perfect chemistry from in front of and behind the cameras.

After seeing the Vince D’Angelo segment of Likely Stories, Peter Chernin, then the head of programming at Showtime, brought in Jablin for a meeting in which he explained that Showtime was moving into the original movie business and suggested that their same group expand “Vince” into a feature-length film for his network. Not wanting to repeat himself, Jablin instead pitched another idea with DeVito in mind: the story of a New Jersey trucking magnate who transplants his family to Hollywood in order to pursue his life-long dream of being a TV producer. After being rejected and in some cases actually ejected from all the networks a dejected, Vic DeSalvo falls in love with a “Jersey girl” who happens to works as an always overlooked statistician for the sacred, national TV ratings service. Spurned by the system, the two devise a plan to rig the ratings and make Danny’s character the hottest name in Hollywood. DeVito would direct and star, his wife, Rhea Perlman, would play the girlfriend, and of course Michael and Jim would write. Chernin loved the story, especially the fact that it was something that could never be done on network television. He named it The Ratings Game on the spot and wanted a script as soon as possible.

Michael and Jim wrote a draft and Chernin immediately greenlit the film making it Showtime’s first original movie as well as Devito’s feature length directing debut. The finished product was a great success featuring not just DeVito and Perlman, but a wonderful comic ensemble which included Jerry Seinfeld, Michael Richards and George Wendt (marking the first time Jerry and “Kramer” appeared in the same project). The critics loved it and in 1984 the Writer’s Guild of America would honor Jim and Michael with a WGA Award for their screenplay.

Sadly, after its initial run on Showtime and its sister network The Movie Channel the film basically disappeared. But luckily The Shout! Factory hopes to release the film on Blu-Ray for its 30th anniversary. Until then, here’s a taste to hold you over.

When, Steven Hewitt, the HBO programming executive who championed Likely Stories took over the reins from Chernin at Showtime he signed Jablin to an overall deal at the network with a mandate to do more “high concept” comedies. Not done skewering television yet, David, Michael, and Jim created Public Enemy #2: the story of a timid actor who finally manages to get cast, acting in a series of reenactments of the grizzly murders of a real-life serial killer (that he happens to look an awful lot like). When the murderer sees how poorly the wimp is playing him, the killer tracks him down and pushes him off a cliff. The real killer assumes the actor’s identity and begins to play himself in the reenactments, climbs the ladder of success, and eventually wins an Emmy for “Best Actor in a News Show or News Related Series.” However, the story decides to mistake a few more identities: it turns out the actor didn’t die, and when a nurse sees the now-amnesiac actor, she has him arrested as the killer! Jablin stepped behind the camera and directed the show this time and cast SCTV’s Dave Thomas as both the actor and the killer Curtis Armstrong, Mary Gross, Ryan Stiles, Dom Irrera and Joan Rivers fill out the ensemble cast. Look close and you’ll even see a young Paul Feig as a horny teenager being brutally murdered by Dave Thomas in one of the reenactments). Public Enemy #2 was lauded by critics for its many laugh out loud moments,Thomas’ hysterical turn in the dual role and razor sharp satire. In a publicity breakthrough for Showtime the program made that year’s Time magazine “Best Of Television” list (a first for the network) and also received multiple CableAce nomimations and awards.

At this point, Showtime was interested in doing a series with these talented satirists. In 1992, television was filled to the brim with competing prime-time network news magazine shows as well as a host of tawdry “tabloid” programs like Hard Copy, A Current Affair, and Inside Edition to name a few. Jablin felt this programming trend could be great comedy fodder for the pay-network as well as the perfect vehicle for the trio to continue skewer current events. That Time of the Month was to be Showtime’s satirical, monthly version of all these shows. Looking an awful lot like The Daily Show (which would not premiere for another four years) the pilot episode, directed by Jablin, was a look at “Sex, Shock, and Censorship in the 90s.” It featured a stellar cast headed by Shelley Long as bold and bitchy anchorwoman Faye Sommerfeld. She serves as our opinionated guide through a wide-ranging number of sketches and parodies filled with such diverse comic talent as Martin Mull, Kenneth Mars, Nora Dunn, Alex Winter, and Prof. Irwin Corey.

The critics thoroughly enjoyed That Time of the Month and it too was nominated for multiple Cable Ace awards.  But unfortunately, by then a new regime at Showtime was less interested in TV series and more interested in making original films. Unfortunately, it would be a pass for the network on the monthly program. In support of their push into original films, Showtime made a deal with the National Lampoon to use their name to brand a series of original comedy movies and asked Jablin to run the franchise offering him a multi-picture commitment. Jablin adapted an earlier project he was already developing there for a Likely Stories-like anthology show inspired by the seven deadly sins. Unable to fit all seven into a 90 minute package he was instructed to just pick his favorites. Now cut down to three, the film premiered as a trilogy entitled National Lampoon’s Favorite Deadly Sins. Barrie and Mullholland’s contribution to the project, also directed by Jablin, was for the sin of greed and entitled “The Cinderella Killer.” The noir-ish story told of a Hollywood producer with the perfectly LA name of Frank Musso who was the king of the then hugely popular trashy, but now nearly extinct, TV-movie-biopic usually based on some headline grabbing infamous person’s misfortune. Joe Mantegna played the lead with Cassidy Rae as the manipulative Femme Fatale. For authenticity the cast also featured a number of well know news personalities portraying themselves including David Letterman and Conan O’Brien who perform monologue jokes about The Cinderella Killer on their talk show sets. The “Sins” were yet another big hit with the critics and The Cinderella Killer was often singled out as the centerpiece of the film, saying the film’s biting satire was a return to the hey-day of the National Lampoon’s best early work. Here’s a few selected scenes from The Cinderella Killer’s set up.

Showtime afforded this trio a supportive environment with tremendous creative freedom and the network head Steve Hewitt championed their work. Unfortunately it took place at a time when Showtime was a very distant second to HBO, with no real budget or resources to promote anything outside its own eco-system. As the network’s administrations changed over the years these comedy gems were rarely rerun and basically just forgotten about. The good news is that this may soon be changing as several streaming services have expressed interest in resurrecting their old work as well a doing new originals. With a remarkable level of talent behind and in front of the camera, the collaborative works of Barrie, Mulholland, and Jablin are comedies that smartly skewer, and thoroughly entertain.

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, podcaster and a guy on Twitter. His webseries “Ramsey Has a Time Machine” just launched a second season featuring Chris Elliott!

Examining the Cable Collaborations of Jablin, […]