'Ben Stiller Show' may become best-kept secret on TV


Ben Stiller seems to be doing OK for a 26-year-old who couldn't get into film school at USC.

It isn't, after all, every guy in his mid-20s who can say he is co-producing, co-writing and starring in his own network prime-time television series -- and one that's named after him, no less.

Who needs college? Mr. Stiller has "The Ben Stiller Show," a new Fox sketch comedy series airing Sunday nights.

The critics have been split on the show. Roughly half of them raved about the its clever collection of whimsical short films and parody sketches. The other half questioned Mr. Stiller's right to exist.

Pretty typical, Mr. Stiller figures.

"I understood the reviewers who went after me in a really mean way, because they had to wonder who . . . is Ben Stiller to get his name on a show," acknowledges Mr. Stiller, son of the famed husband-and-wife comedy team of Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara.

"Here no one knows me from Adam, really, and I've got a show. Some people are going to wonder why I deserve it."

As for the public, well, the odds are pretty good it doesn't know who Ben Stiller is, either. He's just a kid with a bunch of funny friends, a camera and a biting wit whom Fox has turned loose in a time period where the television universe is tuned to "60 Minutes."

It's no great shock that a small percentage of the TV homes in America tuned to "The Ben Stiller Show" for its premiere Sept. 27. It ranked 95th of 98 shows in the Nielsen ratings last week. In case you're wondering, that isn't real good.

Until it gets moved or yanked, the show is probably destined to be the best-kept secret on the dial.

Yet that doesn't bother young Mr. Stiller, who is simply ecstatic ,, to be on the air at all with a show that was in development for more than two years.

Nobody knows we're here yet, but Fox seems to be behind the show," said Mr. Stiller, whose series has a nine-episode order. "All I can hope for is good word of mouth. Either it will work out or it won't."

Mind you, most folks who have seen Mr. Stiller's show arrooting for it to somehow hit, since it engenders an inspired, fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants sense of satire that recalls the early days of "SCTV" and the best of "Saturday Night Live's" short films.

The joke in the show is that Mr. Stiller and his cohorts are struggling to produce a homespun variety show featuring short films -- which is, of course, actually what they're doing.

We see them in free-form segment "wrap-arounds" trying to figure just where it is they want this thing to go. Of course, they don't really know, either.

The Sept. 27 premiere included a "Cape Fear" takeoff called "Cape Munster," a look at the rock band U2's early days playing a bar mitzvah, and a cereal commercial with subliminal messages such as "Buy What You're Told."

Indeed, there are no sacred cows on "The Ben Stiller Show." Mr. Stiller will send up Fox shows as often as he does anything else, all with a breezy feeling of experimentation that points to genius.

Mr. Stiller says he is simply glad for the opportunity.

"Fox is really giving us the freedom to do what we want to do,he says. Now, if we only had more time, and our budget were a little bigger . . ."

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