{ television }

WHILE WE WERE STARTING Spy, I was also creating a pilot for NBC News called After Hours. A decade before The Daily Show premiered, it was The Daily Show if The Daily Show had actual network broadcast journalists as its deadpan anchors and correspondents. The anchors were Stephen Frazier (now of CNN) and Deborah Norville (now of MSNBC). There was something mesmerizing – and disconcerting — about such straight-ahead newsreaders delivering, for instance, the week’s body counts in real wars around the world as if they were sports scores. Among the pieces (written and produced by Graydon Carter) was a profile of the singer and dancer Charo by the distinguished economics correspondent Irving R. Levine.

I was also an executive producer of (and on-air “talent” for) a late-night ABC pilot called Zero Hour. A few years before Politically Incorrect premiered, it was Politically Incorrect if Politically Incorrect had been hosted by a giant Australian with a panel that included Richard Belzer, Jane Curtin, Penn Jillette, and Ron Silver. We produced four shows on each of four evenings that were broadcast on the ABC affiliate in New Haven.

Once Spy was successful, the president of NBC, Brandon Tartikoff, asked us to produce primetime comedy specials for NBC. The first was a deconstruction of celebrity called How to Be Famous, and starred Jerry Seinfeld just before Seinfeld became a hit. In one experiment for the show, we called various machers, alternately claiming to be a) Sylverster Stallone and b) Joey Bishop, in order to see how long it would take to have the call returned, and in another we tested the relative appeal of Ricardo Montalban and catered food. We also produced a cartoon about Donald Trump. The second Spy special , a 1992 year-in-review countdown show, was called Hit List, starred Julia Louis-Dreyfus. It included a Brady Bunch parody about Woody Allen and Mia Farrow, a faux duet featuring Janis Joplin and the actual Wayne Newton, and a tendentiously dubbed version of Pat Buchannan’s “culture war” speech to that summer’s Republican National Convention that I’m still shocked the NBC censors allowed.

spy tvAnd in 1992, we also produced a pilot for NBC called Spy Pranks, hosted by Kevin Nealon of Saturday Night Live. One of our pranks involved sending a clown to deliver balloons to John Gotti at his mafia social club; for another we pretended to set up a rabbit-meat-based fast food chain called Bunny Burgers; and for a third, called “My Kid Could Do That,” we commissioned small children to create abstract paintings that we exhibited at a SoHo gallery as if they were works by adults. (It also included a cartoon about Dan Quayle, who was, at the time, vice-president of the United States.) Nine years later, the unconnected but uncannily similar-sounding and possibly trademark-infringing reality series Spy TV (“hidden-camera reality series that features comical pranks on real people”) premiered on NBC. (The logo at left is from the opening of Spy Pranks .)

From 2008 through 2011 I developed a half-hour comedy series for HBO with my co-writer Lawrence O’Donnell, and the producers Stu Smiley and Carolyn Straus.

In 2001, when Barry Diller was running  USA Networks, he hired me as an adviser to help shape the company’s programming, which I continued to do under the company’s two subequent corporate owners. The Trio channel (including series such as Brilliant But Cancelled) was the most important result of that collaboration.

Sometimes I appear on TV, such as Charlie Rose and Morning Joe. For about a year in the 90s I was the weekly cultural commentator on VH1’s Top Ten Countdown. During 2002 and 2003 I hosted an interview program called Face Time on Trio. The shows still occasionally pop up in reruns, and a few of the interviews are online (but not, alas, my conversation with Triumph the Insult Comic Dog). And for BBC4, I was the “presenter” of a documentary called How Brit Trash Conquered America.