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Local Letterman?

Is Vermont happening enough for late-night television?


Published October 3, 2006 at 9:09 p.m.

It's 11:30 p.m. on Saturday and you've flipped on the television to catch the season premiere of "Saturday Night Live." You see what looks like the famous introductory sequence, set to a jamming beat. A camera zooms in on city lights, which blur and leave trails across your screen. It zooms out to catch another landmark . . . wait, is that Nectar's, the venerable Burlington venue? Where's the Empire State Building? "Live, from the Champlain College campus," says the voice-over. Have you stumbled into some alternate universe where Burlington has its own late-night comedy sketch show?

You have - sort of. You're on Burlington's CBS-affiliate WCAX, not NBC, and you're watching a new weekly half-hour show called "Late Night Saturday." Like its almost-namesake, SNL, LNS is shot in front of a live studio audience. But the place is Champlain College's Alumni Auditorium, and the crowd and the guests are resolutely homegrown.

LNS launched just over two weeks ago. It's created and hosted by local actor Tim Kavanagh, who has a day job as an account executive at WCAX. His guests on the two episodes so far have included comedian Rusty Dewees, Vermont's "Survivor" finalist Kathy O'Brien, and The Starline Rhythm Boys. The multigenerational audience filling the auditorium has been vociferous in a way that suggests local loyalties might be in play. Then there's the excitement of being on live TV.

A few minutes into the September 23 pilot, Kavanagh poked fun at the show's first-ever status. "It is official," said the baritone host, whose shaved dome and slightly unctuous congeniality are reminiscent of Evan Handler on "Sex and the City." "'Late Night Saturday' is now the longest-running locally produced late-night talk show in the history of Channel 3."

Despite modeling its name and credit sequence after the anarchic sketch-comedy giant, LNS is actually a compressed version of a late-night talk show, like Letterman's or Leno's. Kavanagh even delivers his patter against a shimmery backdrop of the Burlington skyline. There are sit-down conversations with the guests, quizzings of audience members, occasional brief taped sequences, and musical performances. Kavanagh doesn't do a Top 10 list or toss pencils at the backdrop, but give him time.

A talk show lives or dies by the jokes in its opening monologue. By that standard, the LNS premiere didn't fare too well. Kavanagh's cracks about Pluto's demotion and Rich Tarrant's attack ads were pretty tepid, and his normally professional delivery was compromised by some problems reading cue cards. All the same, the audience's enthusiasm picked up the slack.

From there, Kavanagh launched into a weekly segment in which Lois the Hot Dog Lady, a fixture on Burlington's Church Street, does her best to stump an audience member with a "Word of the Week." The taped montage and theme song introducing Lois were speedy, slick and fun. ("Will it make you feel smart? Bet your wiener!")

But the audience interaction wasn't exactly spontaneous - the guy Kavanagh plucked from his seat to define "comatose" was Jason Lorber, a comedian and Vermont state rep who also just happens to be one of LNS' writers. Asked to use the word in a sentence, he proclaimed, "I loved the show so much I wasn't even comatose."

At that point, LNS morphed briefly into a game show. Kavanagh commanded cocktail-dress-clad Jen-Jen Wilcox, otherwise known as "the lovely Miss Jen-Jen," to spin a wheel that would assign Lorber a prize from a local sponsor. He got a Vermont Teddy Bear. The following week, a young woman won a $200 watch from Perriwinkle's Fine Jewelry for defining "convivial." Nice deal - but as comedy, the sequence leaves something to be desired.

On the 23rd, LNS ran long, and its credits were unceremoniously pre-empted by a rerun of "CSI." On the 30th, Kavanagh was back with his game face on and better jokes in his monologue. He delivered a zinger involving Alzheimer's disease, breast implants and Viagra, then pointed out that, like Kathie Lee Gifford, LNS gets "child labor for free" - a reference to the Champlain College students who work on the show for course credit. The audience groaned. But the student who wandered across the stage and called the host "Grampa" was a nice touch.

Kavanagh also seemed to hit his stride with the guests last Saturday. While the pilot episode featured Rusty Dewees' rock-hard abs, the Logger and the host never really developed a rapport. Kavanagh seemed to be having more fun with O'Brien, the realtor and reality-show star, who found various ways to adorn his head with her official "Survivor" head gear. "These are my stinky buffs; I never washed 'em," O'Brien warned, wrapping the hapless host in a do-rag - a style she said was favored by the "good-looking guys" on "Survivor." "Why're you putting it on me?" Kavanagh growled.

If you want envelope-pushing humor, SNL is probably a better bet. Still, the show's pilot episode did feature a risqué sketch of sorts: a taped segment in which a gardening guru named Miss Bunny Warren, wearing cat-eye glasses and a Tricia Nixon wig, answered a letter from a woman asking for advice about whether to trim her shrubbery. (Nudge nudge, wink wink.) The correspondent also sought guidelines for tidying her husband's "twig and berries." Miss Bunny is clearly a true lady, not a male actor in drag with an uncanny resemblance to one of the Kids in the Hall comedy troupe, and one can only hope LNS features her again.

Last Saturday the Reverend Nathan Brady Crain, yet another of the show's many credited writers, supplied the quirky-comedy quotient with a gangly, Napoleon Dynamite-like presence and a song that was an extended riff on being a loser in love.

Both episodes were rounded out by excellent performances from local musicians. On the 23rd, Jennifer Hartswick, a trumpeter and singer who has performed with Trey Anastasio, heated up the auditorium with a smoky jazz standard. On the 30th, the raucous rockabilly of The Starline Rhythm Boys got an extra boost from a young couple who dipped and twirled onstage, 1950s-style.

So far, LNS is something of a hodgepodge. It doesn't have SNL's big-city sensibility and the club-style humor that comes with it. While its camera work is smooth and professional, its writing isn't up to "Late Night" standards. (LNS' writers have less time to hone their witticisms than do Dave's, given that they toil by day for employers ranging from the Vermont Teddy Bear Company to the Burlington Police Depart- ment.) It also remains to be seen whether LNS can continue to attract good guests. Last Saturday's episode invited viewers to email the show about any "special talents" that might qualify them to sit on Kavanagh's couch.

One thing the show is missing, given its local focus, is a smart, satirical approach to Vermont politics and issues. Maybe as the election season heats up, LNS will find a way to make the House and Senate races funny. Maybe not. But as long as it can continue to mine local veins of comedy and musical talent, Kavanagh's brainchild will be a good reason to tape the first 30 minutes of that other Saturday-night show.