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Listeners demand that NPR drop its Pants

Originally published in Current, Jan. , 2003
By Mike Janssen

NPR meant well, but its ballyhooed effort last month to revive radio comedy within its most popular news show tested the patience of station execs and listeners alike.

The network serialized the ensemble comedy I’d Rather Eat Pants amid Morning Edition’s typically sober news fare Monday through Friday of the week before Christmas. Written by Peter Ackerman, co-writer of the animated movie Ice Age, it recounted the cross-country trip of Abe and Mabel Pepperstein, two elderly New York grocers who escape to Hollywood to become stars. Along the way, they meet a passel of oddballs, and their adventures build to a far-fetched climax.

On its surface, Pants held promise. Starring television veterans Ed Asner and Anne Meara as the Peppersteins and featuring Dan Castellaneta, the voice of Homer Simpson, in a prominent role, it didn’t lack for talent.

But it appears that even big names couldn’t lend zip to a script that most listeners found flat as a pressed pair of trousers. More than 1,000 wrote NPR to urge a premature end to Pants.

“How much do I have to pledge to keep you from doing anything like this ever again?” wrote one.

The flop also resounded through the national media, with several big newspapers piling on. “My car was quieter than a Trent Lott testimonial as I drove in to the office each day last week, listening to the ostensibly humorous I’d Rather Eat Pants,” wrote Baltimore Sun media reporter David Folkenflik.

The reaction disappointed Ellen McDonnell, Morning Edition’s e.p., who drew on money set aside for radio drama to commission Pants. She hoped to offer listeners a holiday bonbon, leaven the weight of the depressing news deluge, and, with the comedy’s westward thrust, commemorate the opening of NPR’s new Los Angeles production studio. In fact, Pants was taped at the Museum of Television and Radio in Los Angeles the same week NPR West opened.

“The idea was genuine, and I believed in the idea,” she says. “But that’s not enough.”

Comedy has flown before on Morning Edition, which often features offbeat commentators such as Baxter Black and helped make David Sedaris a star by airing his monologues. But McDonnell admits that Pants had flaws.

Serialization robbed it of momentum, which helped it go over better with the studio audience at its taping, she says. “It really was too long. It needed to be more of a show-ender.”

Public radio professionals who spoke up in Internet forums, though mostly unimpressed by Pants, were more forgiving. Recent conferences have been brimming with producers urging each other to take more risks, and, in that spirit, NPR got an A for effort.

Some even liked it. Brian Bull, news director at South Dakota Public Radio, welcomed it after a harrowing year of drought, elections, sniper shootings and the standoff with Iraq. “You need some brain candy,” he says. “You just need a little irreverence to help put other things in perspective.”

Others who were amused by Pants took issue with its placement. “As a nice little piece of radio comedy, it was fine,” says Doug Sweet, station manager of KMHD in Portland, Ore. But “dropping it into the morning news, I thought, was a little odd. The morning is when you’re really learning what’s going on out there — at least on the West Coast. I probably wouldn’t encourage NPR to do it much anymore.”

“Now my only concern is that we go back and do it again in a different way with what we learned, because we learned so much,” McDonnell says. Radio comedy might find a cozier fit on other NPR newsmags, she says, and might benefit from a more topical spin. Could the Peppersteins have a future in President Bush’s Cabinet?

Web page posted Dec. 11, 2006
Copyright 2006 by Current Publishing Committee

LATER ARTICLES

With 11 Central Ave., Boston producer and a Chicago station give another try to serial fiction in Morning Edition, 2006.

Asner comes back in a Scopes monkey trial docudrama by L.A. Theatre Works, 2005.

LINK

You can still catch Pants episodes on NPR.org, along with photos of the cast at work and links to other radio dramatizing.

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