- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Henson’s tailored ‘Project’

The next John Henson project following his run on E!’s “Talk Soup” was supposed to be a prime-time series at ABC. Then, the plan was to pen Adam Sandler’s next film. Neither that gig nor a subsequent shot at a late-night show to call his own ever materialized.

“They creatively weren’t the right match,” Mr. Henson says diplomatically.

Mr. Henson, he of the self-effacing delivery and skunk-style splotch of white in his hair, finally found his next assignment with “The John Henson Project” for Spike TV.

The show, which airs at 10 Sunday nights, finds Mr. Henson mixing sketch comedy, news segments and other gags aimed at the male viewer.

Some shtick carries the Maxim-ized flavor in which the network marinates its programming. Other sketches, like having children re-enact a famous rant by ex-L.A. Dodgers skipper Tommy Lasorda, proved inspired.

“We try to be more of a thinking man’s show,” says Mr. Henson, a bit defensively, “as opposed to a beer and broads angle.”

Like many a television performer before him, Mr. Henson began his career on the improv circuit.

“It’s a great route to so many different ways to perform,” Mr. Henson says. “You’re writing, directing, producing and performing your own show on a nightly basis. You learn this incredible set of skills. It instills you with a sense of confidence and point of view.”

He says the new show gives him the same kind of “hand and glove” fit he had with “Talk Soup.” Mr. Henson took over the hosting duties for “Soup,” an irreverent look at the talk show landscape, from Greg Kinnear back in 1995.

He began that show as a skinny, awkward presence and quickly blossomed into a confident comic with his own fresh style, like a college buddy who laughed at his own jokes when others missed the punch line.

Cable television, then and now, has been good to Mr. Henson.

“I don’t think 10 years ago a show like mine would have had a chance,” says Mr. Henson, who credits Bill Cosby records for teaching him his comic timing. “It’s taken the advent of all these cable networks and the division of viewership, to create all these niches.”

For now, his new “Project’s” focus is trying to re-create the same vibe found on a children’s playground.

“It’s just a matter of entertaining ourselves … and hope it’ll translate to the audience at home,” he says.

Stallone’s reality knockout

Sylvester Stallone is getting back into the boxing business for a new reality show venture.

NBC has clinched a deal for a boxing reality series developed by “Survivor” creator Mark Burnett, DreamWorks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg and the “Rocky” star, the Reuters News Agency reports.

A spokesman for Mark Burnett Prods. told Reuters that after shopping the project, titled “The Contender,” to all the major networks this week, “we ultimately made a deal with NBC.”

Sources close to the bidding said NBC agreed to pay $2 million an episode for the 16-part series, a higher license fee than many first-year scripted dramas and sitcoms fetch, but that the deal was structured to allow the network to recover much of its outlay.

The Burnett Prods. spokesman said the series, planned for a debut sometime next season, would begin casting on Monday for several aspiring pugilists to compete on the show. Those chosen as contestants will slug their way through training and qualifying bouts to a big-time title shot.

Mr. Stallone’s “Rocky,” which spawned four sequels, captured the rise of a small-time fighter who got a chance at the heavyweight belt.

He plans to play a central role in “The Contender” as a kind of mentor to the young boxers.

He also will serve as executive producer with Mr. Katzenberg and Mr. Burnett, whose impressive reality show resume includes “Survivor” and “The Apprentice.”

The Burnett Prods. spokesman said the series is envisioned as an unscripted drama that chronicles the struggle of real-life boxers to make a name for themselves rather than as an athletic competition.

Crane versus Crane

“Frasier” visits a new time slot this weekend for an episode pitting father against son for the heart of a new lady.

“The Babysitter” episode finds Frasier and Martin meeting and falling for the same woman (“Just Shoot Me’s” Wendie Malick), who used to baby-sit for the Crane boys. Meanwhile, Niles (David Hyde Pierce) is getting even more skittish than usual, which could be due to his impending daddy status. Star Kelsey Grammer directs the episode, which airs at 9 p.m. tomorrow on NBC.

Compiled by Christian Toto from staff and wire reports.

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