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FEAR FACTOR PHOBIAS BRING SOME ORIGINAL - AND HUMAN - QUIRKINESS TO USA'S SURPRISE HIT 'MONK'.

Byline: David Kronke Television Writer

As shooting begins on the second season of ``Monk,'' USA Network's acclaimed mystery-comedy, the cast is assembled in a faux clock tower constructed in the parking lot of a La Canada hilltop private school. The tower allows a gorgeous view overlooking Montrose and most of Glendale, which the brilliant yet everything-a-phobic Adrian Monk (Tony Shalhoub) can scarcely appreciate.

Stranded up here in a location reachable only via a stepladder and rickety spiral staircase, the cast - Shalhoub, Bitty Schram as his nurse and confidante Sharona, Ted Levine as stern Capt. Stottlemeyer and Jason Gray-Stanford as likably nebbishy Lt. Disher - shoot take after take as Monk deconstructs a crime scene. This despite heavy winds that, through the sound man's headset, seem to approximate gale-force. Schram, whose ordinarily frizzy mane soon looks like her head had been jammed into an out-of-control cotton-candy machine, will later admit, ``I couldn't hear what anyone was saying.''

It's actually an appropriate site to catch up with ``Monk.'' The show indeed seems to be on top of the world, emerging as an instant hit and winning Shalhoub a Golden Globe, with its breezy wit and essentially sweet nature.

Shalhoub stars as a former San Francisco police detective who, after his wife's murder, left the force because of a crippling case of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Having recently returned to society with Sharona's aid, he hopes to get his old job back but must first convince Stottlemeyer that he has sufficiently beaten back his demons. Which, of course, he hasn't. Which, naturally, leads to comic misadventures whenever he serves as a consultant on murder cases.

The OCD link

``Monk,'' a deft blend of comedy, poignancy and mystery, was conceived by executive producer David Hoberman - a film producer best-known for his hits ``Bringing Down the House,'' ``George of the Jungle'' and ``The Negotiator'' - who suffered from OCD as a child.

``I was overcome by it at age 12 - I couldn't walk on cracks, I had to touch poles,'' he remembers. ``But the capper was, every night I had to add something to my prayers, to the point where they got to be an hour long. Finally, I said, 'I have to go cold turkey,' and I did. I still have little things I can't get rid of. But the obsessive-compulsive stuff I got rid of because I had to - otherwise, I'd never get any sleep.''

Hoberman contacted former ``Saturday Night Live'' scribe and screenwriter (``Rat Race'') Andy Breckman to flesh out the idea. The project sat at ABC for years, uncast (``I don't know why they didn't come to me,'' Shalhoub opines with a wry smile), before the USA Network acquired it.

``When you have a diamond, it's a rare find, and you do everything you can to give it the best setting,'' says Jeff Wachtel, executive vice president of USA programming. ``My goal was to do absolutely everything possible to make the quality choice every step of the way.

``It was important to bring Tony into the mix, but he wasn't that eager to jump into a series at USA; we hadn't proven ourselves yet,'' Wachtel admits (``I knew they had some wrestling,'' Shalhoub says of the cable channel).

The result was USA's first hit show and, thanks to reruns on ABC - which made ``Monk'' the first series to move from cable to a broadcast network, where it routinely earned better ratings than most ABC programming - one that Wachtel boasts ``came pretty close to profitability in its first season, which is virtually unheard of.''

Unconventional partners

Much of ``Monk's'' comedy comes courtesy of the chemistry between Shalhoub and Schram. Despite her eternal exasperation, Sharona believes in Adrian more than he himself does, and vice versa. But all on the show agree that involving them romantically would be the kiss of death. As Schram notes, ``He's like a child to her - why would you want to have a relationship with your child?''

The show's appeal also derives from its ability to use Monk's malady for both comedy and emotional resonance. ``It's not nasty - I like its tone,'' Levine says while lunching in his trailer. ``This is kind of brainy - a kid can watch with his grandma.''

Levine jokes that the show strikes that balance because ``the writers are very good - and there's a bunch of them who are very Monk-like.''

David Breckman, Andy's brother and a staff writer (Andy's clout allows him to work on the show from his home in New Jersey), does not dispute Levine's assessment. ``I'm a Jewish writer, which is a way of saying I relate to Monk. I think everyone can on some level. It's touched this chord because everyone, to various degrees, has apprehensions, and you have a character who's so manifestly neurotic, there's a catharsis involved.''

Maintaining ``Monk's'' wistfully comic tone, Breckman says, is ``crucifyingly difficult. The comedy is far easier for us - we all have comedy backgrounds. It's the mystery stuff that's so difficult, because our stories are so particular. They're not police procedurals. We're not interested in whodunit, we're interested in how or why the crime was done. Presenting a tantalizing, seemingly impossible crime and furnishing a solution that's logical and satisfying - that's the hardest thing.''

Quite a character

Breckman credits Shalhoub with helping deliver that proper tone, for creating what the show's staff calls ``Monk moments,'' where Adrian has an unfortunate but hilarious interaction with his vexing environment. ``Tony is great at finding those,'' Breckman says. ``He'll embellish whatever is in the script and add something. He'll find something in the room. We consider the milieu and how he would react to what's around him.''

``Doing this character is a constant state of discovery,'' says Shalhoub, who does seem to manage Monk moments instinctively - earlier in the day, while returning to the set, he negotiated a track used for camera dollies, skipping through it by placing each step perfectly in the center of each square.

``Whatever room Monk walks into, inevitably there's going to be something we can find while rehearsing. Some of the Monkisms are written into the script, and some of them might come from something the set decorator put in and may or may not have thought would provoke a gag.''

Sitting in his trailer, Shalhoub considers how Monk might react to the surroundings: ``Just the fact that it's on wheels would be unsettling,'' he says, smiling.

He, too, says that finding the proper tone for the show is ``torture. It's not impossible. You're flipping back and forth between comedy and drama, and you kind of have to free yourself up so that you're not accountable for what might have just passed in a previous moment. You fully drop into a moment, let that go, move on to the next moment, let that go - and this allows you do the comedy in a way that it doesn't undercut the drama and vice versa. It's tricky. And sometimes it just doesn't work. We have to be really careful.''

Today, Shalhoub has brought his 9-year-old daughter, Sophie, to the set with him, and she presents him with a horse she has fashioned out of tissues. ``That is so beautiful,'' he praises her. ``Does it have a name?'' He suggests names off the tissue box - the brand name certainly won't do; ``Extra Soft - no ... How about Quality? Quality's a good name for a horse.''

A good description for ``Monk,'' as well.

David Kronke, (818) 713-3638

david.kronke(at)dailynews.com

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In USA Network's ``Monk,'' Tony Shalhoub plays a former detective afflicted with obsessive-compulsive disorder and a raft of accompanying phobias - including fear of heights.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jun 18, 2003
Words:1271
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