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Aliens on TV: "3rd Rock from the Sun"

John Lithgow’s ”3rd Rock from the Sun” invades Earth

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Skirt blowing in the breeze, 6’4” John Lithgow sashays down the corridor of a Studio City, Calif., soundstage, smoothing bunched-up nylons and wiping marigold wisps of wig from his face. His thickly glossed lips ease into a self-conscious smirk as he glides past Jane Curtin into a dressing room and closes the door. ”I wouldn’t go in there,” Curtin tells a cluster of onlookers. ”It’s not a pretty sight. Kind of like a butterfly turning back into a caterpillar.”

Curtin’s warning seems superfluous. After all, startling transformations are nothing new here on the set of NBC’s latest hit comedy, 3rd Rock From the Sun, a show whose out-of-the-blue success startled everyone, including its network. ”We weren’t convinced we could go in and own a time period against ABC on Tuesday nights,” says a giddy NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield. ”But in fact, that’s just what we’re doing.”

3rd Rock rocketed out of the gates on Jan. 9, soaring to seventh place in the ratings, and has finished first in its 8:30 time slot ever since. (It also outdraws its competition in key demos, including teens and 18- to 49-year-olds.) Granted, the show has the advantage of great placement — sandwiched between Wings and Frasier. But unlike those other well-situated NBC hits, The Single Guy (which follows Friends) and Caroline in the City (which tails Seinfeld), 3rd Rock builds on its established lead-in rather than jettisoning a few million viewers.

It differs radically in another important way, too. 3rd Rock (in case you’ve been living under a, well, rock) doesn’t deal with the dating habits of twentysomethings, but rather the antics of a quartet of aliens who have assumed human form to study life on Earth: Dr. Dick Solomon (Lithgow), the brash mission leader posing as a physics professor; Sally (Kristen Johnston), the second-in-command, trapped in the body of a six-foot blond bombshell; Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an elderly information officer-turned-14-year-old boy; and Harry (French Stewart), a flake in this world or any other. Curtin plays Dr. Albright, the prim Pendleton University professor Solomon yearns to probe.

An unlikely group to feel passionate about, but America seems to be hooked, and 3rd Rock‘s creators are hard-pressed to explain the allure. ”I don’t know why the reaction to the show is so big,” says Bonnie Turner, who created and executive-produces the Carsey-Werner sitcom with husband Terry. ”But if I could plant a kiss on John Q. Public, it would be a big wet one.”

Well, we have our own little theory. The perfect union between NBC and this otherworldly sitcom seems to share several key elements with a certain wedding-day tradition.

SOMETHING OLD (as in ”nanu nanu”)
An alien sitcom is hardly a novel concept. ”Every 10 years there’s one,” says Littlefield. ”My Favorite Martian in the ’60s, Mork & Mindy in the ’70s, and ALF in the ’80s. The stranger in a strange land is a wonderful, classic notion that works.” And 3rd Rock remains true to the satirical bent of outsider looking in while managing to be sexier than Martian, raunchier than Mork, hipper than ALF, and more sophisticated (by a hair) than Coneheads. The challenge for the creators is to stay fresh; Martian, Mork, and ALF quickly jumped into the top 20 but stumbled after a year or two. ”The aliens can discover something every week, just as we do,” argues 3rd Rock staff writer Christine Zander. ”And eventually they might get in trouble for liking this planet too much.”

SOMETHING NEW (as in ??What, no coffee bar???)
A local TV news crew invades the set during a rehearsal break. ??So is it difficult playing all these different characters??? the interviewer asks Johnston, who informs him that she does only one. Oops. Next. ??When will you return to 3rd Rock??? he quizzes Gordon-Levitt. ??No, no, 3rd Rock is Earth,?? says Gordon-Levitt, ticking off the alignment of the planets: Mercury, Venus, then Earth.

Ah, the perils of high-concept programming. 3rd Rock scores points for venturing outside Manhattan and L.A., into a world devoid of stand-ups and sofas. ??There was a deliberate move not to put a couch on the set,?? says Terry Turner. And the show gets bonus points for celebrating the sexual appetites of over-40s in, gulp, Ohio. How on earth did they sell the idea?

With difficulty. Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner first approached the Turners in March 1994. Carsey and Werner are known for their keen sitcom sense (The Cosby Show, Roseanne, Grace Under Fire, Cybill) — despite some major flops (Chicken Soup) — but even they had a hard time selling a half hour of extraterrestrials on a field trip to our planet. ??We said, ‘Wow. Aliens. Cool. Bye,’?? remembers Bonnie, who, along with Terry, was a cowriter on the big-screen hits Wayne’s World and The Brady Bunch Movie after writing for Saturday Night Live. The producers urged them to think about the project some more. ??They were really persistent,?? says Bonnie.

Two weeks later, the Turners hit upon a formula they could live with that was less about aliens and more about life as we know it. ??It’s about being human,?? says Bonnie. ??But because they’re alien, we can distance ourselves from being human rather than doing a microanalysis of life like Seinfeld.??

For the lead, they envisioned and landed former Oscar nominee John Lithgow, 50, who had worked with the writers when he hosted SNL. Filling out the cast took another eight months. Gordon-Levitt, 15, was a veteran of numerous TV shows and the movie Angels in the Outfield. Stewart, 32, was pulled from the L.A. stage. Johnston, 28, was discovered in an Off Broadway play (The Lights) by a Carsey-Werner suit. ??I was ready to settle for the sassy best friend,?? says Johnston. ??Three funny lines each show, filing my nails, talking about my boyfriend.?? Now, playing the only character in prime time who could be accused of sexually harassing herself, Johnston is becoming a breakout star, with NBC featuring her in a series of new promos. ??The natural reaction was ‘Aliens — gotta be a guy show,’?? says Vince Manze, NBC senior VP of promotion. ??But we’re getting more women as Kristen emerges as a leading character.??

SOMETHING BORROWED (as in an ABC pilot)
In a convoluted subplot we find the loser in this scenario: ABC. Carsey-Werner shot the first 3rd Rock pilot for that network in January 1995 as a possible mid-season replacement. ABC opted not to air the series and asked for reshoots. But the rejiggered pilot didn’t make the 1995 fall schedule either. Meanwhile, over at NBC, Jamie McDermott — the 31-year-old exec who helped shepherd Friends and Frasier — had seen the 3rd Rock pilot and was talking it up to Littlefield. Soon after, Carsey-Werner got a call from NBC: Is there any way that we could get involved?

In fact, there was. By passing twice on 3rd Rock, ABC had triggered a standard clause in Lithgow’s contract, giving Carsey-Werner the option to exit the deal. They did. ”[ABC Entertainment president] Ted Harbert wasn’t like, ‘God, this is funny.’ He was more like, ‘Hmmmmm,”’ says Bonnie Turner. ”At NBC, we walked into Warren Littlefield’s office and he said, ‘It’s a riot! I love the stars! Don’t change anything!’ He went crazy.”

3rd Rock steamrolled ABC’s 8:30 competition, Hudson Street. The network counterattacked, replacing Hudson with longtime workhorse Coach. The move managed to stop 3rd Rock‘s growth, but it hasn’t flushed it out of the top 20.

As you can imagine, 3rd Rock is not a popular topic of discussion at ABC, a network that was unseated this season by NBC for the ratings throne and even finished third in the February sweeps. (Harbert — who, it’s rumored, will be bumped upstairs to make way for…Jamie McDermott — declined to be interviewed.) ”It’s an old story. We’ve all moved on,” insists ABC programming VP Alan Sternfeld. But he does defend ABC’s support of 3rd Rock: ”We gave this project life when Tom and Marcy brought it here. We’re the network that not only spent money to produce the pilot but then spent another million dollars to reshoot it. Does that sound like an ambivalent network?”

No, but $20 million sounds a little less ambivalent. With no other mid-season series to worry about, NBC launched 3rd Rock with a promotion campaign including on-air spots, which the network claims were worth $20 million, and $500,000 of print and radio advertising — nearly twice what it usually invests in a replacement show. ”A network that knows how to back its bets and believe in a show — boy, that is so important,” says Carsey.

Thanks to 3rd Rock‘s roll, networks are placing their bets on high-concept comedies. ”You’re definitely going to see more of them,” predicts Fox series VP Bob Greenblatt. ”Everybody was heartened to see that there was a whole other avenue we could go down. ” Back at ABC, a shot at redemption lies in the Henson comedy Aliens in the Family, which debuted March 15. And for Aliens exec producer Andy Borowitz, at least, 3rd Rock‘s success is great news: ”It was good to see that people wanted something a little wackier.”

SOMETHING BLUE (well, it’s kinda dirty)
The cast and staff of 3rd Rock have gathered to do a first read-through of next week’s script, ”I Enjoy Being a Dick,” an episode that finds Dr. Solomon attempting to infiltrate a women-only seminar (hence Lithgow’s above-mentioned drag). The laid-back, 45-minute session offers lots of big laughs, including an exchange between Curtin’s and Lithgow’s characters. Albright wonders whether she has said something sexist, to which Solomon replies, ”No. Sexist would be if you told me that I had a nice ass, then said if I didn’t go to bed with you I’d be fired.” Two script drafts later, ”nice ass” has been changed to ”tight butt.” ”Standards doesn’t like too many asses,” says Zander.

It’s a wobbly tightrope to walk: 3rd Rock thrives on anti-PC comedy (??Wear something that shows off the crack in your breasts,?? Solomon told Albright in one episode), yet its bold sensibilities have drawn the ire of critics, who blast the show for its bathroom humor. ??Body-part jokes were a function of the first few episodes because they were occupying human bodies for the first time,?? Bonnie responds. ??We’ve passed that stage.?? Adds Littlefield, ??There was a concern, and it has been addressed.??

Addressed, perhaps, but, Lithgow hopes, not stamped out. ??I want to be offensive to at least somebody in every episode,?? he says. ??Comedy should outrage as much as it entertains.?? Fair enough. As long as we don’t have to see Lithgow in a thong.