- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 18, 2001

Comic Steve Marmel's dream of hosting his own talk show one day probably did not include a dusty flatbed truck parked behind the show's sofa.
The truck in question lies at the heart of "Pop Across America," TNN's new traveling chat fest that shot its debut shows recently in an expansive gravel lot near Union Station in Northeast. Each week, the flatbed truck leads Mr. Marmel and a coterie of production staffers from one city to the next to showcase the nation in all its comical charms.
Curious visitors filled the hastily prepared seats behind Union Station, a far cry from the slick Burbank, Calif., set where Jay Leno unleashes his nightly monologue for "The Tonight Show."
That's the goal. Set up quickly. Shoot. Move on to the next town. Show producers continually scout ahead, picking up the hot spots of local humor and talent.
Mr. Marmel does the rest.
The show debuts at 8 p.m. Friday on TNN, formerly "The Nashville Network" and now dubbed "The National Network." The network was taken over by MTV last September.
The set in Washington included a sofa bedecked with a 1950s-style fin fender, a speed limit sign and a trailer-park backdrop to keep the Jack Kerouac-style theme alive. Of course, the flatbed truck sat just behind the makeshift set.
Mr. Marmel, clad in a suit and dress shirt sans tie, quickly launched into a funny bit in which audience members had to guess if quotes were uttered by D.C. politicians or DC Comics superheroes.
He also referred to a regular bit on the show in which he switches jobs with a local. For Washington, he substituted for a Chinese takeout chef from Lei Gardens on H Street NW.
His patter leaned heavily on political humor — of the nonpartisan variety. If he was nervous, it didn't show.
Nor were nerves an issue with co-host Rueben Gobah, 23, of the Forest Hills neighborhood in Northwest, who wore a shiny silver suit and could barely contain his enthusiasm as he sat by Mr. Marmel's side.
The opening show did have a godfather watching over it. James Brown, the "godfather of soul," spent a few agreeable minutes on the "Pop" couch before belting out "Killing Is Out, School Is In," a funky, if repetitive ode to ending school violence.
Observers, on hand either to watch the start of something big or witness another casualty in the talk show wars, had mixed reactions to the taping. Some segments weren't available for screening.
"It's different a little comedy, a little talk show," Lizzie Hall of Arlington says.
Carole Redman of Cheverly comments, "It'll be interesting to see what it looks like when it's on the air." As for now, "I'm not impressed. I can't see this is going to be a hit."
"They're trying to roll a bunch of different shows together," says Anya Davis, visiting from Dallas.
The TNN executives gathered for the premiere taping seemed simultaneously anxious and excited during the show's opening moments.
Diane L. Robina, TNN's executive vice president and general manager, promises "Pop" will offer "real people, real stories."
"Letterman is at his best in Chicago, Dallas, wherever," Miss Robina says. "You can find the humor in the towns in between the coasts."
She says Mr. Marmel brings a kinder, gentler dimension to the format.
"He will never make fun of people on the show," she says.
The hosting opportunity is no laughing matter for the road-tested comic, who once penned columns for USA Today's editorial pages and now writes for Nickelodeon's "Fairly Oddparents" cartoon among his side gigs.
"I got into stand-up comedy to do a late-night talk show," says Mr. Marmel during a phone interview a few days before the shoot. "That's 'end of the rainbow' stuff for me."
Although the weekly show doesn't have a late-night time slot, the opportunity still seems sweet to the Los Angeles-based comic.
"I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a little humbling," he says. "Ten years ago, I was thinking, Why isn't this happening now?'"
TNN's programming, from professional wrestling to outdoor fare, caters to Middle America. "Pop" purposely won't be steering its flatbed truck near New York or Los Angeles anytime soon.
"Those are the two cities you always see on talk shows," Mr. Marmel says. "The rest of the country that's where we get to go directly to. Those are the voters the regular people leading regular lives."
As a writer on the show, he'll do some homework before the truck ends up in the next city.
"I'll know as much as I can know without overloading myself," he promises.
Mr. Marmel says "Pop" viewers can expect the occasional celebrity to drop by, but the focus will be more on ties to the town du jour. Each city will provide a co-host for Mr. Marmel to banter with, someone voted on by the studio audience before show time.
"I want to be a good interviewer, bringing people up and letting them be themselves," he says. "Every other talk show out there, the audience comes to them. ['Pop Across America'] is a talk show where the city is the star and I'm the host."
Mr. Marmel says "Pop's" format will force him to be different, and for once the talk isn't just hype.
"It's gonna be impossible to do the same thing predictably there's always different cities," he says.

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