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Fall 2000: "Normal, Ohio"

Watching the Game Show Network at a friend's house not long ago I found myself in front of what I can only imagine must have been some kind of Orson Bean retrospective. He was on back-to-back episodes of Match Game and To Tell the Truth and some other gameshow, back at the tail end of what I must assume was Orson Bean's heyday of 1978 or so. It was so very sad, seeing him nearing the bottom of his downwardly spiralling career, one that had reached the heights of The Twilight Zone and the voice of Bilbo Baggins in the Rankin-Bass adaptation of The Hobbit. I found myself wishing for my own time machine to parallel that of the Game Show Network, so I could go back and pluck poor Orson Bean from under the banal gaze of Gene Rayburn and put him someplace where his comic timing and straight-faced humor could be put to good use.

Somewhere like, say, the film "Being John Malkovich."

Orson Bean's seemingly dead career, I thought, was coming back to life. Good for him! Then I heard he was going to be on Normal, Ohio with John Goodman. How excellent for ol' Orson!

Then I saw Normal, Ohio.

Expect to see Orson Bean on Match Game Aughty-One next year.

In Normal, Ohio, the beleaguered Bean plays Bill Gamble, father to John Goodman's character, William "Butch" Gamble, and Joely Fisher's Pamela. The elder Gamble is given no funny lines, no interesting characterization -- nothing, in fact, beyond the gag-writer's premise: He doesn't understand how his son turned out to be gay. This allows him to say things about homosexuality in a crusty and addled way and generate many non-laughs.

Not that you'd notice the odd clinker issuing from Orson amidst the rattling and clanking of all the other non-jokes from all the other actors. And the jokes aren't the worst part, either. No one, as they say, gets out alive.

Take Joely Fisher, for example.

Another Orson -- Welles -- once observed that the actual sex act can't be shown in a regular film because it is so arresting, nothing else in the film can compete. The audience's interest in the story, in the characters, in the whole movie as movie, collapses.

And so it is with Joely Fisher's breasts. As soon as they come onscreen -- and they do, oh, how they do -- Normal, Ohio comes to a screeching halt. Actually, though, no, it doesn't, but it might as well, because it is that completely and thoroughly impossible to pay even the vaguest token amount of attention to the dialogue while those fabulous funbags are bouncing around. And bounce they do. And hang out. Fisher spends at least half of her screen time bending over like a Hooters waitress with your seventh mai tai on a tray, only with fewer clothes on.

It's not like these are the most glorious mammaries to grace the small screen. It's just that they're there, and they're not going away, and they're waving at you, and calling your name, and whistling and jumping up and down -- "Look at me! Look at me! Hey, down here! Look at me!"

I can only therefore assume Joely was given the same lousy, telegraphed, obvious, lame, pathetic, laugh-track riddled jokes as the rest of the cast. I couldn't tell for sure. I'm not certain if this qualifies as a blessing or not. I'm guessing it is.

And then, if you look off beyond the boobies, there's John Goodman. Poor John Goodman.

Goodman's character Butch is the center of the show. The idea is that he is gay. Isn't that funny? A gay man who isn't young and in shape and well-dressed? Just a regular good ole boy homosexual?

That's not funny all by itself?

Okay, well, he's not just gay. He has also decided to move back to his small hometown of Normal -- which is pretty funny all by itself, right? -- Ohio, stay with his sister, get back in touch with his son, and learn to deal with being gay in the Midwest. Funny yet?


But it's John Goodman!

And, no, it still isn't funny. And it doesn't get funny. It doesn't even approach funny. It isn't even in the Oort Cloud of funny.

Poor John is trying his manly best to work with the material he's given, which is exactly nothing. As a result, he appears to be reprising his role from Roseanne, only with more gay jokes. This impression isn't helped by the fact that the sets all appear to have been recycled from Goodman's former show. It looks almost as if Dan Conner kicked out his wife, slapped on a paint job and some new furniture, and came out of the closet. It looks like that but it doesn't sound like that, because this show is missing one thing that made Roseanne great: humor.

Oh, how the humor is missing from this show. There isn't even a humor-shaped hole where it ought to be. It's just never been there. At no point anywhere in the development of Normal, Ohio was there even the slightest wisp of amusement.

Dad wants to meet Butch for a drink. Butch suggests a place. They meet there and Dad loves it. "They have two men's rooms!" he chortles. The punchline is: Dad doesn't know it's a gay bar!

Is there, somewhere, a universe in which this is funny? If so, I hope no crazed military scientist ever discovers it, because otherwise we'll be overrun by a race of people who make Peter Jennings look like John Belushi. The ability to smile will be bred out of the human race and we'll all stand around with that "Who farted?" look like we're in an NYPD Blue cast photo. Forever.

What Normal, Ohio needs, really, is a big John Goodman-shaped hole, and a smaller Orson Bean-shaped hole, because neither of them deserve to have this crime against humanity eternally darkening their resumes. Joely Fisher's funbags, however, can remain with the rest of her, preferably someplace where they won't scare -- or hopelessly envelop -- the children.

Maybe Orson and John could get on a game show or two. That wouldn't be so bad.


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