Anyone in the Bay Area who has seen Chris Isaak perform and, over a 15-year career, that's probably half the population knows full well he's got the entire package. The pre-Vegas-Elvis good looks. The burnished-smooth Roy Orbison voice. And, most importantly, the stand-up comic's sense of humor.
It's that last quality that most assuredly caught the attention of Showtime, which plans to launch "The Chris Isaak Show" in December. The new series will be some kind of blurring of fact and fiction potentially like "The Larry Sanders Show" and possibly like "The Monkees." It's hard to know for sure because Isaak, speaking via satellite from Seattle to a roomful of TV critics here, took every question as a jumping off point for impromptu humor.
And if Showtime can catch and bottle even a fraction of what came out of his mouth, they'd make up a lot of ground on HBO real quick. Isaak, whose movie-star good looks have landed him big-screen roles, appearances on "The Larry Sanders Show" and "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," has never been able to fulfill that enormous potential as a rock star. Sure, he sells a fair amount of albums and gets generous radio play, but for whatever reason his lilting songs of love notwithstanding his one major hit, "Wicked Game" have left him with the crooner's dilemma: The songs are pretty but not on everyone's lips. Even when he ratchets up the guitar and gets noisy, it still sounds like retro American music and that has never, ever, been the hip thing.
Maybe the Showtime series, then, will catapult him into superstardom. Isaak has been able to remain a favorite of anyone who sees his concerts primarily because he's such a wonderful showman. His quick wit came pouring through the interview.
On how the idea for the show came about: "Actually, it's probably not like a lot of TV shows. I mean, I've had a band for a lot of years. And we'd never thought about doing a TV show until it was an intervention, actually, when the idea first came up. They came to me and they said, 'Chris, you have relatively little or no talent.' Well, they actually didn't say that, they said, 'You have no talent.' And they said maybe rock 'n' roll wasn't the place for me. Maybe TV was where I'd be better used."
Pressed on how the idea came about: "Is this a district attorney I'm talking to? Christ!"
Isaak said much of the show will be shot in his hometown of San Francisco, but you can't be too sure with him. His idea for a special episode: "We're going to shoot it over maybe two or three weeks in Hawaii, and I don't know the whole story of the idea, I haven't got that hashed out. The writers will work on that. But the gem of the idea is I save a small child. And I'm going to do that in every episode. I'll rescue a small child because I think that it shows the more sensitive side of myself that I don't really have."
On whether the new show will capitalize on TV's reality craze: "No, we're not trying to copy or hop on that bandwagon. Although every week we do vote out one member."
On why nobody can really explain the premise: "For legal reasons, this year for the first time a lot of the old episodes of 'My Mother the Car' became public domain. We've taken those scripts and written ourselves into them. It's going to be huge."
On what it means to have his own show: "Hopefully this will be step one in me leading a productive and useful life in the community. Kind of making up for those pet deaths and fires."
On potential content, since the show is on pay cable: "You know, we're church people. But also we want to make sure we delve into anal sex and bestiality right away."
On how the musical community will respond and if they'll think he's selling out: "The musical community doesn't get cable. And I'm not telling them....
They're musicians, you know. They'll see it and go, 'How are you here? I saw you on TV.' They'll be lucky if they don't take a little hammer and break (the screen) open and try and take us out of the set."
Andrew Schneider is the show's executive producer and writer and he offered a little clarity where Isaak couldn't, or wouldn't: "First of all, it's not a documentary show. It is not following Chris Isaak around with a camera. They're fictional stories, some of them based on incidents in his life. He plays a version of himself. He doesn't really play himself."
Yet with Isaak riffing away, he was already funnier than any sitcom presented this season. And the question was why make it fictional at all? Why not just turn him loose? Isaak, of course, has a good answer: "We wanted to have people that we can kill off every week. Didn't you watch, you know, 'Bonanza'? There's got to be somebody that you care about each week and then they kill them off."
Schneider said outside of Isaak's regular band mates, who will play themselves, Showtime will add a keyboard player (fictional, we assume), Isaak's manager, a hair stylist and others.
Isaak: "Don't forget Skylar. Skylar is a whimsical and kind of lovable hand puppet that I talk to in every show. See, they don't want it, but I'm fighting for it."
Schneider said the show will also focus on Isaak's relationships with women (you can guess there's no small supply of those story lines).
Never mind that, in the end, no one really knew what "The Chris Isaak Show" would be like and, since they haven't started filming, there was nothing to show. Isaak being Isaak is more than good enough.
If Showtime can indeed make a modern version of "The Monkees" (" 'The Monkees,' only filthy," Isaak said), it will have found that elusive breakout original programming hit it needs to stay competitive with HBO.
And Isaak will have found something potentially better than a No. 1 album.
©2000 San Francisco Examiner