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The Loose Screw

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In the beginning, television was rife with creative possibilities because no rules had been written and practically nothing was out of bounds. But since then, TV genres have become so deeply entrenched that even the slightest variation from the template is seen as an incredible risk that no sane person would take -- which helps explain why so much tube fodder is so dull. Although the late comedian Ernie Kovacs remarked in 1955 that TV was called a medium because it was neither rare nor well done, the joke couldn't be more timely if it had first been told yesterday.

So it's hardly surprising that Channel 2's morning show, WB2day, an unhinged attempt to give the predictable a.m. formula a jolt, came in for a merciless ripping when it debuted in January, earning arguably the worst press for a locally produced program since Channel 7's "Real Life, Real News" debacle in 1996. As a result, Channel 2 News Director Steve Grund began pulling WB2day back from the edge. Now, at the end of the last "sweeps," or ratings, period prior to its first anniversary, the program offers relatively standard morning fare: headlines of the day and sports updates delivered by anchors Jeff Peterson and Laura Thornquist and a blizzard of weather predictions courtesy of Amy Freeze, plus regular traffic reports and soft-news interviews with national or local performers and personalities.

However, there's one exception -- Dan Daru, the daffiest area TV presence since Channel 2 pulled the plug on Blinky the Clown. Indeed, Daru's emergence as something of a Denver celebrity has got to be one of the most unexpected media stories of this no-longer-young year. Even he is taken aback by the turn of events. "People recognize me all the time now, and I've been getting a lot of positive feedback," he says. "I mean, so far nobody's come up and hit me."

It's only a matter of time: Daru's antics inspire extreme reactions, largely because they're so extreme to begin with. Earlier this month, for instance, in just two days he oversaw a sword fight while clad in a suit of armor and officiated at a karaoke contest whose judges included a fella dressed in a turkey suit. The winner walked away with a pair of lousy Broncos tickets. "You'd better bring some oxygen," Daru warned, "because these are nosebleed seats."

The route Daru took to this bizarre gig was suitably twisted. A Detroit native, he moved with his parents to Denver in 1968, eventually emerging from Metropolitan State College with a communications degree. His first TV job, as a photographer at an outlet in South Carolina, led to a five-year stint at a station in Bakersfield, California -- and during his off-hours, he commuted to West Hollywood to study with the Groundlings, a comedy troupe whose alums include Paul Reubens, aka Pee-wee Herman. Daru spent a year taking Groundlings classes, and one of his teachers, current Mad TV regular Mike McDonald, encouraged him to stick with it. But in the end Daru decided to return to Denver "because my parents were getting older, and I wanted to spend some time with them before they took a dirt nap." He spent longer than he'd like to admit living in their basement and working as a "cable monkey" before being hired as a photographer at Channel 2, where he was regularly paired with reporter Wendy Brockman. "When reporters and photographers work together, three things can happen," he says. "They wind up really liking each other, really hating each other or having sex with each other. And we hit two out of three."

Shortly after she married Daru, Brockman was promoted to weeknight anchor at Channel 2, prompting a rise in the program's ratings. To celebrate, the couple, along with Brockman's co-anchor Ernie Bjorkman and his spouse, were taken to dinner by their higher ups, and Daru used the occasion as an excuse to do some improv, portraying, he says without the slightest apparent embarrassment, "a drunken, gay weatherman." The shtick must have been funny, because he was invited to put together an audition tape for WB2day, then in the planning stages -- and to the profound shock of just about everyone involved, it was good enough to win him a job in front of the camera, not behind it.

Things at the show were rough early on. Peterson, a veteran sportscaster with a pronounced wacky side, was outfitted in self-consciously hip garb and given a ridiculous "messy-look" hairdo; Freeze often fell victim to over-exuberance; and Thornquist, who has more of a straight-news background than most of her fellows, spent too much of her time wearing the pasted-on smile of someone wishing she was anywhere else. There were also frequent transition problems, with Daru's weirder bits crashing against the more traditional elements of the broadcast -- and, even worse, the audience seemed non-existent. In one especially agonizing moment, Thornquist drew a name for a station contest that had apparently been chosen at least once before, prompting her to comment that the one thing she knew about the guy who'd sent in the card was that he didn't watch WB2day.

Over subsequent months, many of these issues were addressed: Peterson began dressing like a TV newsman, not David McCallum in The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and he stopped trying to out-zany Daru; Freeze and Thornquist were encouraged to focus on their specialties and leave the hilarity to others; and the amorphous structure was tightened up considerably so that stabs at substance wouldn't seem so out of place.

"We've gone back to a lot of fundamentals -- watching the clock, hitting the necessary elements that morning viewers need," notes Grund. "We're more disciplined in what we do." Adds Peterson, "When we first went on the air, our show was entertainment first and news second. But we've refocused, and now we're news first and entertainment second." That's a relief to Thornquist, who says, "The way the show has evolved, we've become more serious than we were -- and that's what I'm comfortable with."

The new mix is hardly a ratings blockbuster: "We're in last place -- and that's where we expected to be," Grund says. Still, he insists that the numbers are growing steadily, if slowly, and he pronounces himself every bit as pleased with WB2day's progress as he is with the accomplishments of Brockman's 9 p.m. evening newscast, which is more than holding its own against the heavily hyped Ron Zappolo-Libby Weaver program that debuted on Channel 31 in July.

Grund touts the Brockman-Bjorkman newscast as a paragon of journalistic integrity compared with Fox's flashier, gaudier model, and if he recognizes the irony of doing so while in the same breath praising Daru -- "He's got a lot of talent; he's our wild card" -- he doesn't let on. But he remains solidly behind Big Dan, whom Channel 2 is marketing as WB2day's chief attraction. On billboards all over the city, Peterson, Thornquist and Freeze are seen in the usual buttoned-down news pose while Daru leers over them, a mad glint in his eye.

As this image suggests, Daru seems unfazed by the chidings he's received from Denver TV critics. "They say there's no such thing as bad press as long as you spell my name right," he allows before conceding, "but that probably wouldn't be true if I was caught in an East Colfax motel with five Boy Scouts and a donkey. That might be bad press." Likewise, he admits that he's occasionally gone too far on the air -- such as the time when he was milking a cow and sprayed a teatful of liquid at the camera lens: "When I saw it later on the tape, it looked like a money shot in a porno film," he says. But thus far, he insists that his bosses have never ordered him to be less spunky.

"None of this was planned," he declares. "No one said, 'Let's make Daru the nutty one.' They just told me to be myself, and that's what I do every day. Scary, huh?"

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