SHOW: THE BEN STILLER SHOW
TIME: SUNDAYS, 7:30 P.M. EDT, FOX
THE BOTTOM LINE: A love-hate fascination with the media and pop culture sparks the season's sharpest new sketch comedy.
SATIRE ON TELEVISION, CONTRARY to George S. Kaufman's famous dictum, is what opens on Saturday night. After a week of slogging through the sitcom swamp, by the weekend TV seems increasingly ready to kick back, relax and make snide fun of itself. Saturday Night Live is still flourishing after 17 years on the air, while In Living Color is a highly rated fixture on Fox's Sunday-night schedule. Two more sketch-comedy shows have, with little fanfare, sneaked onto the Fox schedule this fall. One, The Edge, is a fitfully amusing but rather juvenile SNL knock-off that needs more seasoning to be ready for the big leagues. The other, The Ben Stiller Show, is already the front runner for rookie of the year.
Nothing unusual about the format: half an hour's worth of satirical sketches linked by little more than the writers' love-hate fascination with popular culture. But instead of the usual everyone-is-equal ensemble cast, the show boasts an unabashed star. Stiller, 26, the son of comedians Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, plays the lead in nearly every sketch and provides linking - commentary in supposedly ad-lib back-lot conversations with fellow cast members. What's more, rather than performing live or on tape in front of a studio audience, Stiller works mostly on film, which gives the show more polish and pace.
And also more laughs. Stiller is capable of turning out a dead-on TV or movie parody, like his takeoff on Cape Fear, with a grownup Eddie Munster as the De Niro-esque psycho. But he rarely settles for the frisson of a good impersonation; his sketches usually give the satiric knife an extra twist or two. In "Amish Studs," the leering host coaxes double entendres out of every innocent comment from chaperoned contestants ("I was impressed with his incredible plowing ability"). In "Legends of Springsteen," a New Jersey rock fan recalls the time when the Boss made a surprise appearance at a bar, played all night and even stayed around to mop the floor and refill the catsup bottles.
Yet Stiller's most brilliant creation may be Michael Pheret, a smarmy Hollywood agent who in a recurring bit is seen giving insipid career advice to real-life celebrities like Roseanne Arnold and the rap group Run-D.M.C. In his compulsive blabbering -- a cascade of fawning hyperbole and whatever-you-want- to-hear insincerity -- Stiller rises above simple media parody. He gets at the heart of the whole phony, pathetic show-business ethos.