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Falling on Deaf Ears
Over the last few years, television comedy has tried hard to replace divorce as the number one reason for the demise of the nuclear family. Sadly, if the sitcom weren’t already dead, something like Listen Up would definitely kill it. This new example of biology as a brand of shame is really nothing more than a 30-minute psychological battle royale between interrelated individuals who have no connection outside of their mutual hatred.
Based on the writings of Washington Post columnist and Pardon the Interruption co-host Tony Kornheiser, Listen Up drags us into the hell with a homestead exception, otherwise known as the life of fat, balding nebbish Tony Kleinman. At his job, Tony co-anchors a sports chat show called Listen Up, with an ex-jock named Bernie Widmer (Malcolm-Jamal Warner, most memorable so far for his braids). The two are apparently friends, though they also share an unspoken competition. Kleinman thinks ex-athletes make lousy journalists. Widmer believes… well, no one knows? Over the course of the first two episodes of this stinker, Bernie has been pretty much cemented in the background, allowed a couple of uber-hip quips per scene.
At home, things are worse. Kleinman’s spouse Dana (Wendy Makkena) stands back during the daily family melees with a smug look on her face. She knows the kids rule the roost and gave up a long time ago. The offspring arrive directly from the Gen-X version of Central Casting: daughter Megan (Daniella Monet) is an ersatz sex kitten, at once too smart for her age and too trendy; her brother (Will Rothhaar) is a stoner without the drugs, given to incomprehensible bon mots.
As on most sitcoms today, problems in the Kleinman household usually revolve around the parent/child power struggle (Megan wants a new piercing, daddy goes batshit at the suggestion), but Listen Up cheats. Though he excels at work, Kleinman is a lost cause as a father. A spineless old coot, he’s locked in a primeval mindset revolving around respect, guidance, and discipline, in essence, “moral values.” His family, by contrast, has evolved beyond such needs. Their worlds revolve around each and every one of them individually, and Dad is just a dim-witted satellite, slowly losing its orbit.
CBS, a network known for such classic situation comedies as All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and The Bob Newhart Show should know better. Maybe it does. Listen Up is sandwiched into the Monday primetime lineup, referred to as “Men are Idiots Night,” along with other testosterone in free-fall farces like Still Standing, Two and a Half Men, and Everybody Loves Raymond. This makes for a two-hour block of paternalism as perplexing punishment. Ever since The Cosby Show reimagined parents as pillars of wisdom and compassion, networks have taken an opposite approach, undermining any possibility of respecting these erstwhile authority figures.
The focus of Listen Up‘s belittling is Tony, and Alexander can’t begin to hold up under the pressure. A multitude of fans will always remember him fondly as George Costanza, but since Seinfeld shuffled off into near continuous reruns, Alexander has squandered that good will on serial poor career choices. Indeed, the entire cast of the show has been assigned a curse, citing their lack of solo success. Listen Up threatens to create its own special brand of black magic.
Alexander never passes as a sportswriter (and as of the pilot, he has been “promoted” to “lifestyle” columnist). The first episode has him singing a song about how much he hates soccer: do we really need a production number in a sitcom? He evinces discomfort with the entire “athletics” subject. Alexander can’t inhabit this character, and as a result, everything about Tony’s job, from his friendship with Bernie to the on-air banter, seems forced and phony.
Yet this is not the show’s most pressing problem: Listen Up is just not funny. Kornheiser is a notoriously slipshod wit at best, the majority of his material recycled from old burlesque routines, Borscht Belt comics, and tendency toward the easy target. He’s the kind of humorist who thinks that Madonna jokes are still the height of hilarity. On Pardon the Interruption, his crotchety mannerisms are braced by Michael Wilbon’s swagger. But Listen Up offers no balance to Kleinman’s blathering. Bernie and Tony talk at each other, their exchanges measured out in zingers. This means that the jokes are almost always based in anger, rather than character or circumstance. When the only genuine laugh in the pilot comes from a spit take (or, actually, a sloppy dribbling of milk back into the glass), you know Listen Up is desperate.
By its second episode, Listen Up lightened up, but it’s still floundering: the family is falling into the background (good), while Tony endures clichéd show-business backstage-iness (focus groups, program “notes”). But the damage is already done. Even as the second week’s show tries to temper Megan, making her less of a miserable mallrat and more an intelligent, misunderstood sprite, we still see a father and daughter unable to talk to each other. You’d think that with a title like Listen Up, the characters occasionally would. Sadly, everyone here is chattering away aimlessly, but no one is paying attention. Not even the audience.