Originally created 10/13/03

David Frost is back on PBS with a global comedy special



NEW YORK -- In this age of cable news, viewers around the world can watch the same TV coverage of breaking events. Now maybe it's time for topical satire with similar global reach, so everyone who follows the news can also laugh at it together.

At least, that's the thinking behind "The Strategic Humor Initiative," a multinational effort in lampooning politics, culture and celebrity wherever they might rear their ugly heads. In an increasingly globalized society, this "Initiative" means to strike a blow for globalizing comedy. Its message: Mockery need heed no nation's borders.

The half-hour special will originate jointly from England, Canada and the United States, and be seen in those countries, too, with PBS airing it 9 p.m. EDT Tuesday (check local listings).

Jimmy Tingle, the political humorist and former "60 Minutes II" commentator, will hold forth from Boston. Satirist-performer Mary Walsh - a star of Canadian television's weekly news parody, "This Hour Has 22 Minutes" - presides from Toronto.

And tying together the whole affair from London, who better than David Frost - a pioneer of television satire, not to mention a trans-Atlantic TV presence for 40 years?

Taping next Monday, the special (a pilot for a series that could start as soon as spring) will feature "topical satire," Frost explains, "plus contemporary material that we think, we HOPE, is funny. We'll look at America, Britain and the world."

Deploying a sort of comedy coalition, the program will introduce performers from each country to a wider audience, adds Frost. He mentions British comic Jimmy Carr and impressionist Rory Bremner, who appears with him occasionally on his Sunday morning BBC talk show, "Breakfast With Frost."

"They used to say Britain and America are two countries divided by a common language," chuckles Frost. "But more and more, I think we're linked by a common sense of humor."

If so, Frost, now 64, has played a part in the cross-pollination. He is generally recognized as the first broadcaster to leapfrog between, and sometimes coexist on, British and American television.

And as a troupe member of "That Was the Week That Was," he was among the necessary troublemakers who introduced political satire to TV.

Premiering live the night of Jan. 10, 1964, from NBC's Studio 8-H (where "Saturday Night Live" took residence a decade later), "TW3" was a satirically driven revue that featured sketches, songs and "reports" in a cabaretlike setting.

Even viewers who recall the show fondly may be surprised to learn its writing team included Calvin Trillin and Gloria Steinem. But they will never forget players like Phyllis Newman, Alan Alda and Buck Henry, or "TW3 Girl" Nancy Ames belting out the theme song: "That was the week that was! It's over, let it go!"

And they never forgot their first exposure to the smart, cheeky British lad named David Frost.

Then a 24-year-old Cambridge University grad with a bent for standup comedy, he was fresh from the original British version of "TW3," which had just been canceled after a brief but rollicking run.

The U.S. edition of "TW3" gave him "my first opportunity to come to New York and work here," says Frost. "Across the corridor, Jack Paar was doing his Friday night show, and Johnny Carson was two floors down doing 'The Tonight Show.' What a fantastic buzz in the building!"

During the 1964-65 season, Frost continued on "TW3" while also showing up an ocean away for "Not So Much a Programme, More a Way of Life." This comedy and sketch series aired live from London every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, whereupon Frost would jet back to New York for "TW3," which aired Tuesdays.

"That was the start of my more insane commuting," says Frost, who eventually would look upon the Concorde the way suburbanites regard the family car.

Though it was often funny, sometimes mercilessly so, "That Was the Week That Was" failed to draw a big audience for NBC. Having made an indelible mark in TV history, it aired its last in May 1965.

Undaunted, Frost was soon back on British television with "The Frost Report," a single-topic public-affairs series that, integrating humor into the mix, drew upon a writing staff including future members of Monty Python.

Frost has never been off the air since, though his emphasis evolved into more serious talk and interview fare. Such stateside series ranged from the daily "David Frost Show," which bowed in 1969, to PBS' monthly "Talking with David Frost" in the '90s.

Less sassy these days than charming and urbane (and, since 1993, a knight!), Frost now is keen to return to his comedy roots.

"The existence of water between locations is incredibly daunting to some people," he muses, summing up his footloose career. "But it's all in the mind."

As "The Strategic Humor Initiative" hopes to demonstrate, Frost might just as well be talking about comedy.