- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 21, 2001

Pedigree means everything when it comes to contestants in a prestigious dog show. In television, though, pedigree can be wildly misleading. Take, for instance, the coterie of talent responsible for the new sketch comedy show "The Downer Channel."
The half-hour series — don't blink before it's canceled — lists among its producers Robert Morton ("Late Night with David Letterman"), Marcy Carsey ("The Cosby Show," "Roseanne") and, gasp, Steve Martin.
Mr. Martin even makes the list of the show's writers. That arrow-through-the-head gag might have caused permanent damage.
The show, which bows Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. on NBC, boasts a suspect premise with seemingly little room for growth. "Downer" casts a persnickety light on our mounting list of pet peeves, from computerized telephone operators that keep us waiting to uncouth romantic partners. Each segment is introduced by man-on-the-street snippets, with average citizens sharing average stories about what drives them buggy.
None of these segments amuses. When taken as a whole, they absorb a surprising amount of airtime. After two episodes, the show's creators already are grasping for filler.
Then we are treated to lightning-quick sketches either based on the people's comments or tangentially related to them.
The cast, a game lot with interchangeable personalities, throws itself into material that should be thrown away immediately.
Of the four leads, Jeff B. Davis and Mary Lynn Rajskub show a flicker of promise. Mr. Davis' Everyman face often blends into the characters he portrays, and Miss Rajskub, too, disappears agreeably into her cavalcade of personae. Diminutive Lance Krall, last seen on the abominable "Cindy Margolis Show," finds himself in yet another stinker without the finesse to rise above the odor. Stand-up comic Wanda Sykes traipses through her routines with her trademark sass too firmly in check.
Miss Sykes' visit to a car impound lot raises some humorous hopes. But she displays a maladroit feel for improvisational chatter with the impound victims, surprising for a comedy-club veteran. Even Comedy Central's "The Man Show," which three-quarters of the time simply panders to young, hormonally addled males, can spin comic gold out of its improvised public bits.
The show's premise proves so untrustworthy that the first two shows slip in "Saturday Night Live"-style sketches with no connection to the main theme. A segment on the second episode, in which a woman discusses her fear of clowns, is so bereft of humor it defies categorization. "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central would have devoured the concept of a clown-phobe confronting her fears. Here, the idea dies on the screen — a slow, lingering death, mind you.
Another bit, focusing on celebrities who don't need to be imitated (Barry Manilow), is equally devoid of entertainment value. One only imagines the barrel-scraping material that might make it to the show's third episode, which mercifully wasn't provided for screening.
The show's quartet doesn't suffer alone. Comic stalwarts Steven Wright, Fred Willard and Teri Garr appear just long enough for their careers to qualify for disaster relief.
A mildly funny moment arrives with "Lassie the Cat," a faux sitcom in which an indifferent feline fails to save its boy master. Another clever bit is the "Relationship Roadshow," a spoof on the PBS antiques series, in which a woman brings in her ne'er-do-well beau for an instant analysis of his "worth."
To be fair, the show's buoyant, Beatlesesque theme song sets the right tone before the first comic low note is struck.
"The Downer Channel" feels like a puree of existing shows. A dash of "Candid Camera," a pinch of "Saturday Night Live" mixed in with "America's Funniest Home Videos," half-baked for 30 excruciating minutes.
The recipe might sound tempting, but the results aren't fit for a hound.
Comedy often stems from observing the minor irritations in our lives — Jerry Seinfeld constructed an entire show around such a theme. The only observation one can make from "The Downer Channel" is that nothing is more painful on television than bad sketch comedy.
"Downer" is as bad as it gets.

*
WHAT: "The Downer Channel"
WHERE: WRC (Channel 4)
WHEN: 8:30 p.m. Tuesday
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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