Old 'SNL' guys go to great lenghts -- and to Iceland -- for new comedy

Here's a good general rule for comedy fans: If Seth Meyers, Fred Armisen or Bill Hader are involved, give it a try; from "Weekend Update" to "Portlandia," they've brought some big laughs. Now all three are combining for "Documentary Now," which debuts Thursday (Aug. 20) on cable's IFC. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

TV-comedy landscape used to seem limited. It had sketches and sitcoms
and stand-up and such, all done in a studio.

But a new generation
often prefers a cinematic approach. “Documentary Now” -- debuting
Thursday (Aug. 20) on the IFC cable channel -- continues a trend that

-- Latenight. Jimmy
Fallon and James Corden – actors, not stand-up comedians – show a
fondness for filmed bits; Stephen Colbert says he'll do the same when
he starts in September.

-- “Saturday Night
Live.” Filmed bits – rare, for a while – are now common and

-- And fresh
projects from “SNL” alumni. “There are so many more places that
are doing comedy,” Seth Meyers said. “IFC has been such a great
home for this from the beginning.”

Even while he was on
“SNL,” Fred Armisen raced west each summer to make “Portlandia.”
It became a staple for IFC (formerly Independent Film Channel), with
“Maron,” “Comedy Bang Bang” and more,

Other “SNL”
people, led by Will Ferrell, have made two mock miniseries on IFC.
And now four “SNL alumni – Meyers, Armisen, Bill Hader and
director Rhys Thomas – have “Documentary Now.”

The show offers mock
documentries, a comic tradition since Rob Reiner made “This is
Spinal Tap,” 31 years ago. “It's one of the greatest movies
ever,” Armisen said.

So “Documentary
Now” will include a film about a fictional band, the Blue Jean
Committee. It will also have variation on “Grey Gardens,” “Nanuck
of the North” and one of Meyers' favorites:

“Growing up,
watching 'Siskel & Ebert' was a big deal,” he said. “And they
were real champions of 'The Thin Blue Line' .... I worked at a video
store and that was one of the first documentaries I remember

That film told of
the rush to convict a murder suspect, pitting a skilled prosecutor
against a clumsy, about-to-retire defense attorney. In contrast,
“Grey Gardens” met a mother and daughter in the decay of a
once-grand house; in this version, they're played by Armisen and

Budgets were tight,
but “Documentary Now” shot two of its films in Iceland.

“It's the most
beautiful place,” said Armisen, who starred there in the “Nanuck”
take-off. “We fell in love with it; it's gorgeous. So we just did
this (second) episode.”

That one, Meyers
said, is based on something Armisen has talked about: “Fred has
long made the observation that when you go to Europe, what they love
about America is slightly off. You'll see T-shirts that say, 'Long
Island Baseball Club.'”

So they imagined an
Al Capone festival in Iceland, with gangster hats and pizza. Armisen
savored the experience, Meyers flew in for three days, Hader stayed
home, filming some narrator scenes.

“I said, 'How do I
get out of going to Iceland?'” Hader said. “And they said, 'You
gotta play the old guy and be in prosthetics for five hours.' And I
was like, 'Done.'”

His reluctance to
travel is logical, Meyers said. “Bill has three children and Fred
and I don't.”

Still, it's
remarkable that any of them have time for this. Meyers has his talk
show (12:35 a.m. weekdays on NBC), with Armisen as the bandleader and
sidekick, when he's not doing something else.

Still, the former
“SNL” colleagues find time to make odd films. “This project is
one that I really love being a part ot,” Meyers said. “I love
that we figured out a way to keep working together.”

-- “Documentary
Now,” 10 p.m. Thursdays, starting Aug. 20, rerunning at 1 a.m.

-- Opener, a “Grey
Gardens” take-off called “Sandy Passage,” also reruns at 12:30
p.m. Saturday, 11 p.m. Sunday and 5:30 a.m. Monday.

-- Also, subject to
change: “Dronez: The Hunt for El Chingon,” Aug. 27; “Kunuk
Uncovered,” Sept. 3; “The Eye Doesn't Lie,” Sept. 10; “A
Town, a Gangster, a Festival,” Sept. 17; Gentle and Soft: The Story
of the Blue Jean Committee,” Sept. 24.


"Wife Swap" turns Tommy Davidson into the quiet, normal one

Onstage, Tommy Davidson has sometimes been a whirl of activity. But now he's the quiet-normal-traditional guy ... at least when paired with Corey Feldman on "Celebrity Wife Swap." That episode, the season-finale, airs Sunday (Aug. 19); here's the story I sent to papers:

(Fun TV story about
Tommy Davidson and the “Celebrity Wife Swap” season-finale,

By Mike Hughes

Tommy Davidson is no
expert on traditional-style families.

He was found in the
trash (literally) and raised amid chaos. His grown-up years have been

But now the
“Celebrity Wife Swap” season-finale pegs him as the normal guy.

-- Sent Amanda Moore
– then Davidson's fiance, now his wife – to the home of actor
Corey Feldman. He shares it with three women, she said: “There's a
'main angel' and 'angels in training.'”

-- Sent Courtney --
that main angel -- to Davidson's house, where she found a different

Courtney, who eats
only fruit, was greeted by Davidson making a hardy meat barbecue.
Moore, a businesswoman, was greeted by a suggestion that she change
into some lingerie.

None of this was his
idea, he said. Davidson, 51, doesn't watch reality shows, but Moore
does and thought he'd be ideal. “People don't know him as a family
man and as a really good father.”

Anything like that
would be an accomplishment, when you consider the early odds against

When he was 18
months old, Davidson has been told, he was found in the trash in
Mississippi. He was adopted by a well-meaning couple and whisked to
Colorado, Wyoming (yes, his adoptive family tree includes a cowboy)
and Oregon.

He was 5 when the
family reached Washington, D.C., a week after Martin Luther King was
killed. A black kid with white parents, he had been unaware of racial
rage; now he was surrounded by it.

Davidson was raised
mainly by his mother, who was busy as a housing-union presoident. “I
was a latchkey kid,” he said. “She was a single mom in the '70s,
working hard.”

He did various jobs,
eventually becoming an assistant chef. Then friends nudged him to try
an open mike at a D.C. strip club. Comedy came easily, he said. “It's
something that's in me.”

Soon, he was opening
for music stars – Patti La Belle, Luther Vandross, Anita Baker and
Al Jarreau; just three years into his career, he was hired by Keenen
Ivory Wayans for the “In Living Color” show.

“The hyperactive
talents of Tommy Davidson (had) the versatility to mimic” M.C,
Hammer and Spike Lee, Nelson George wrote in the show's companion
book (Warner Books, 1991).

This was an all-star
line-up, including Jim Carrey, Damon Wayans and David Alan Grier .
“Keenan was very professional,” Davidson said. “He had people
who did stand-up, impressions, acting.”

And Davidson could
tackle anyting, including music. “He seems like he's a reserve, but
he's actually an important part of the ensemble,” Wayans told
George. “He's the guy who comes on in the clutch.”

Davidson went on to
do stand-up tours, co-host Magic Johnson's talk show, guest on
comedies and be a voice-cast regular on “The Proud Family” and,
currently, “Black Dynamite.”

His personal life
has been scattered, but in recent years he's been with Moore, an
opposite force.

She's tall
(5-foot-7-and-a-half) and blonde; he's not. Her parents were together
45 years; his weren't.

And personality?
“I'm creative, more of a free spirit,” he said. “She's
organized, very task-oriented.”

A single mom with a
pre-school son, she created a store (Lil Posh Resale) in Costa Mesa,
in California's Orange County. Davidson describes their home as

That's not how
Feldman describes his world. He has the Corey's Angels talent agency,
managing women and booking them for lingerie parties.

Soon, Moore was in
lingerie and Courtney was at a barbecue. Wife swaps can be

-- “Celebrity Wife
Swap” season-finale

-- 10 p.m.
Wednesday (Aug. 19), ABC



They spend their lives telling crime stories

There are a lot of true-crime stories out there, some of them tacky and some not. Now Chris Hansen (of "Predator" fame) opens a show, alongside some others with crime-tale pros. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

in America, it's not easy to fill an entire network with classy crime

So the Investigation
Discovery channel has included plenty of what its president, Henry
Schleiff, calls “entertaining, but, candidly, over-the-top

It has Roseanne Barr
hosting “Momsters” and soon (Oct. 9) will have Wendy Williams
with “Death by Gossip.” It has “Tabloid” and “Who-the-bleep”
and, of course, “Sex Sent Me to the Slammer.”

But beyond all the
quirks, Schleiff says he wants shows with “credible experts who
bring context.”

The latest addition
is Chris Hansen, whose 20 years at NBC included the controversial “To
Catch a Predator.” His “Killer Instinct” debuts Monday, on a
network that already has ex-cop Joe Kenda (“Homicide Hunter”) and
former FBI profiler Candice DeLong (“Deadly Women”)..

These people don't
necessarily agree on approach. For instance:

-- After digging
deeply into a case – and the series-opener is a nasty one –
Hansen expects to toss it aside. “I'm able to separate it,
compartmentalize it .... It's what I've always done.”

-- Kenda can't do
that. “It's burned into your brain with a laser knife,” he said.
“It never goes away.”

Kenda sees endless
possibilities. “Humans are capable of anything; humans are violent
by nature.”

And DeLong tries to
figure out why. She was a psychiatric nurse, sometimes working with
prisoners who were in for 30 days of observation. “A lot of the
nurses would run away from those people,” she said. “But I was
drawn to them. I wanted to know what made them tick.”

That led to work at
the FBI and its Behavioral Science Unit. She was even portrayed by
Jean Smart in a 2003 TV movie, “Killer Instinct.”

That title always
seems to work; now it's used by Hansen, whom Schleiff calls “truly
one of the country's best crime reporters.”

His interest started
when he was a 10-year-old in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., riding his bike
to watch the search for Jimmy Hoffa. Much later, Hansen would be a TV
reporter in Detroit.

The key, he said, is
learning to deal with police, with victims ... and even with
criminals. “I give them respect. And I get inside their heads and
understand the way they think.”

Hansen was hired by
“Dateline” in 1993, focusing on breaking stories. A decade later,
he linked with an activist group to create “To Catch a Predator”
segments. Volunteers posed as kids Online; then cameras caught those
who responded.

The result produced
strong ratings and strong attacks. Critics accused the show of
entrapment and of profiting from misfortune. That peaked when a
target committed suicide.

By 2009, “Predator”
had ended. When Hansen left NBC four years later, many people
attributed it to fallout from “Predator” and from his
extramarital affair, which had gone public. Hansen, 55, insists his
departure “was very amicable.”

Now he's working on
several projects, including a Kickstarter push to fund “Hansen vs.

First is “Killer
Instinct,” which opens by revisiting a Cleveland area where 11
women disappeared, mostly in 2008. Hansen interviewed neighbors,
relatives of the victims and one key figure.

“Vanessa Gay ...
was kidnapped, tortured, and – for whatever reason – he allowed
her to escape,” he said. “And as she's going to the bathroom
before he lets her go, she sees a headless corpse of a woman wrapped
in plastic .... It is the most compelling victim interview that I've
ever done.”

-- “Killer
Instinct,” 10 p.m. Mondays, Investigation Discovery, debuting Aug.

-- “Homicide
Hunter,” 10 p.m. Tuesdays; the Aug. 18 episode is preceded by
reruns from 4-8 p.m.

-- “DeadlyWomen,”
10 p.m. Fridays, preceded by reruns at 8 and 9; also, DeLong's
“Facing Evil” has reruns from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Aug, 25.


"Downton" says a slow goodbye to an elegant era

The "Downton Abbey" years have been splendid -- high standards and high ratings, precision and politeness and the occasional jolting death. Now the last scenes will be shot Saturday (Aug.15), for a final season that starts in January. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

British studio Saturday, an elegant era will end. “Downton Abbey”
films its final scenes.

Chances are, there
will be tears. There already were, when filming wrapped in key spots.

“We've started
ticking off the locations,” Hugh Bonneville said, when the actors
made a recent stateside visit. That included the final scenes to be
shot in Highclere Castle, which served as his family's mansion. “That
was ... full of memories and emotions.”

After filming there,
the actresses who played his daughters lingered. “We didn't want to
leave,” said Michelle Dockery, who plays Lady Mary. “Laura
(Carmichael, who's Lady Edith) and I wandered around for the last
time and suddenly, we didn't want to go home.”

Instead, they sat
and had either “a big cry” (Carmichael's version) or “a bit of
a cry” (Dockery's).

Viewers won't need
any immediate tears. The show doesn't return until January and then
has a full sixth season. The year is 1925; Edith is running a
newspaper, Mary is managing the estate, Bates and his wife still face
suspicion in the death of her attacker and, “Masterpiece Theatre”
chief Rebecca Eaton said, “Thomas is up to no good.”

Also, Carson and
Mrs. Hughes are engaged now, but don't expect them to get all gushy.
At work – which is most of the time -- they still call each other
by their last names.

As the network's
all-time ratings leader, “Downton” has been a big plus for PBS
during pledge drives (one of which is going on now) and budget
hearings. Still, there was the realization that it would end.

“I think these
shows have a life expectancy, when they're really successful, (of)
six, seven, eight years,” said producer Gareth Neame. “Maybe we
could have gone to a Season 7 or a Season 8, but the ... best thing I
can hear is for you to say, 'I don't want the show to end.'”

The actors insist
they didn't want an end, for reasons practical -- “I'll miss being
in a hit TV show,” said Elizabeth McGovern, who plays Bonneville's
wife – and emotional.

There were the last
scenes in Bampton, the town (population 2,500) where village scenes
were filmed. And the last ones in Highclere, the mansion that was
built in 1839, on the foundation of a Medieval palace. “It felt
like in a split second, it wasn't our home anymore,” Carmichael

Now the final weeks
are being shot on a film set. Some actors talk fondly of swiping a
prop or two, but McGovern says she'd like to steal the elegant mood.

“I miss the peace
of it,” she said. “We're so inundated with information all the
time and with stuff we don't really need to know .... I think that's
part of the appeal of escaping to this world.”


HBO shows us a hero and a seething controversy

Every now and then, HBO tackles something that that the other networks don't even try -- a massive movie or mini-series, with texture and complexity. The lates is "Show Me a Hero," which debuts Aug. 16 and continues for two more Sundays; here's the story I sen t to papers:

By Mike Hughes

in 1999, “Show Me a Hero” presented real-life urban politics as
an epic battleground.

The non-fiction book
stepped back a decade, to a court order requiring public housing in
Yonkers. Passionate people raged; colorful characters emerrged.

This was, said HBO's
Kary Antholis, a “tale of race, politics and redemption.” And it
was ideal for David Simon, the former Baltimore newsman who had
launched “Homicide” and “The Corner.”

Simon wanted to do
“Hero” for TV, but other projects -- “The Wire,” “Generation
Kill,” “Treme” -- intervened. Now, 16 years later, he's finally
produced and co-written a six-hour HBO mini-series.

“The great irony
is that (near Yonkers), the same fight, with the same rhetoric ... is
going on right now,” Simon said.

housing was once considered a splendid idea, said LaTanya Richardson,
who plays one of the new residents. “It was built to help people
who came back from the war.”

Then it became
something else, Simon said, “basically stacking the poor and
hyper-segregating the poor in massive housing projects,” often in
areas where jobs had vanished.

By the '80s, that
“stacking” approach had changed; scattered housing was proposed.
Still, the old image – giant towers of crime and despair –

So Nick Wasicsko,
who had been a cop and a city councilman, campaigned against public
housing. In 1988, at 28, he became the nation's youngest big-city

The government,
Simon said, was “wholly white, (with) no outlet for black political
action or Latino political action in Yonkers.”

Emotions seethed,
the courts stayed firm ... and Wasicsko began to lean toward
compromise and compliance. “Learning about the real Nick Wasicsko,
I fell in love with him and I really wanted to understand who he
was,” said Oscar Isaac, who plays him.

This is a giant,
Shakespearean story – but in the Lear/Romeo/Macbeth sense of
darkness. Wasicsko took some heroic steps; for the title of her book,
Lisa Belkin adapted the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote: “Show me a hero,
and I'll write you a tragedy.”

There were powerful
forces pushing in that direction, including Hank Spallone, another
cop and councilman. “He was very charismatic,” said Alfred
Molina, who plays him. “He would walk into a room and kind of suck
up all the energy.”

He died in 2009, but
Simon did have one chance to meet him. “David told a great story
about Hank meeting them in a diner,” Molina said, “arriving 45
minutes late and then saying, 'No, I can't sit. I can't sit. I can't
stay' .... And then spoke for about a half-an-hour.”

These men were
surrounded by swarms of angry people. “We did have to embrace
chaos” to make the mini-series, director Paul Haggis said.

Using the actual
locations, when possible, he had 400 speaking roles. He had a giant
story of a time for heroics and for tragedy.

-- “Show Me a
Hero,” 8-10 p.m. on three Sundays, beginning Aug. 16, HBO.

-- Opener reruns
that night at 1:05 a.m.; also 5 p.m. Tuesday, 9 p.m. Wednesday, 11:30
p.m. Saturday (Aug. 22), 4:30 p.m. Aug. 23; more on other HBO