Slapstick returns in 'Morton and Hayes'


LOS ANGELES -- Persistence finally paid off for Rob Reiner in getting his comedy "Morton and Hayes" a six-episode summer tryout on CBS.

"I've had this idea for 13 years," Reiner said at a press conference here.

"Every time there was a change in administration over at CBS Entertainment, I'd take it in and try to sell it. Finally Sagansky gave us an order," he said, referring to CBS Entertainment president Jeff Sagansky.

It's not surprising that it took a while. "Morton and Hayes," which begins its run tonight at 8:30 on Channel 11 (WBAL), is not exactly your three kids and two parents bickering in the living room kind of sitcom.

Reiner introduces each show, explaining that the films of the classic comedy duo of Morton and Hayes, thought long-lost in a studio fire, were recently unearthed in the safe of film producer Max King.

Each half-hour is one of those old two-reelers by a team that once rivaled Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Costello.

None of that, of course, is true. Morton and Hayes are played by Kevin Pollak, who was the brother Izzy in "Avalon," and Bob Amaral, who was tending bar a few months ago.

But to keep up the facade, the allegedly original parts of "Morton and Hayes" are in black and white.

"I think people will watch black and white on TV," Reiner said of this age of colorization. "There are so many commercials shot in black and white, so much on MTV, it doesn't look that strange to anyone."

Pollak is Chick Morton, the savvy, fast-talking member of the duo, while the pudgy Amaral plays Eddie Hayes, a more gentle soul whose naivete often leads to his comic predicaments. In tonight's opener, they are running a private detective agency and are hired by a wealthy socialite to find out if her husband is having an affair. All of this leads to a Mel Brooks type of scene as the pair try to spy on their quarry.

The comedy is gentle but constant, a barrage of visual and verbal puns, sight gags and out-and-out slapstick.

"All of us were pretty much raised on these films, Abbott anCostello, Three Stooges, stuff like that," Reiner said, indicating that he really didn't have to do much research to put the show together.

"These two know every nuance and subtlety about the genre," Pollak said of Reiner and his fellow executive producer Christopher Guest. "They can tell us anything we need to know."

"I really did grow up watching these groups," Amaral said. "In fact I used to take messages home from school telling my parents not to let me watch the Three Stooges because I thought I was Curly in class. I loved these groups."

Reiner tried a similar pilot for CBS a few seasons back, teaming Pollak with a similarly styled character. He said that despite extensive auditions, he couldn't find the right gentle soul to make up the other half of the team he envisioned.

In re-casting for this new batch, Reiner found Amaral. "He just came in and the chemistry was there," Reiner said.

"That's the way the old teams would do it," Guest said. "These were vaudevillians.

They would get together and try things and see if it worked."

CBS is teaming "Morton and Hayes" with reruns of "Police Squad," which starred Leslie Nielsen in the role currently doing big box office in "The Naked Gun 2 1/2 ."

It's a similar pun-filled, slapstick approach to humor that failed to attract enough audience to survive during a spring run a few years back on ABC.

"If they had left that show on, eventually the audience would have figured out the humor and ABC would have had a big hit instead of the movies getting "Naked Gun,'" Reiner said, all but expressing his doubts that six episodes is enough time to get an audience used to this offbeat show.

"It's not the kind of show that immediately gets an audience," Reiner said. "It is an acquired taste. But I do think the humor has a wide appeal. Kids love this stuff. Anyone who reads Mad magazine or watches 'Saturday Night Live' gets this stuff.

"And older audiences will have a frame of reference of the old shows," he said.

As with the originals, Morton and Hayes will be in different predicaments every week, playing different types of characters. Reiner said that, in part due to low budgets and in part due to verisimilitude, the stunts and special effects are very primitive.

"We actually learned from what people like Laurel and Hardy did," Reiner said. "They would make 20 two-reelers a year working pretty hard. We made six in six weeks."

In the last couple, the audience will meet Morton and Hayes as elderly men, learn their real names and stories of their vaudeville careers in an interview with Reiner.

"Morton and Hayes" is simple fun, perfect for a summer evening, not too taxing but still filled with resonance as it revives a classic style of comedy.

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