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Vet the latest step in NBC's monkey evolution

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HOLLYWOOD -- So, is it a stroke of casting genius by NBC, convincing a big-screen star to take a role in a TV series, or just a pointless bit of monkey business that won't do anything to improve the chances of a middling sitcom's success?

Viewers will find out Sunday night when the Peacock network uses the coveted post-Olympics time slot to preview the new fall comedy Animal Practice and its fur-faced co-star, Crystal the monkey.

Yes, of course, the series has human stars, too -- most notably Justin Kirk of Weeds fame and JoAnna Garcia Swisher (Gossip Girl) -- but it's Crystal, a diminutive capuchin monkey, who has the most impressive list of credits on her IMDb.com resumé.

Crystal's Hollywood career spans 15 years and includes nearly two dozen screen appearances, including George of the Jungle, American Pie, Night at the Museum, 3:10 to Yuma, The Hangover Part II, We Bought a Zoo and another NBC comedy, Community.

In Animal Practice, a single-camera comedy that focuses on the hijinks at a top New York City veterinary hospital, Crystal plays Dr. Rizzo, the lab-coat-wearing sidekick to enigmatic animal doc George Coleman (Kirk).

"I asked her handler, Tom... 'What's the best way to ingratiate myself to Crystal and bond with her?' Kirk recalled during NBC's portion of the U.S. networks' semi-annual press tour in Los Angeles. "And he says, 'Ignore her. Don't try to grab her,' and I said, 'I've been doing that all my life. So it shouldn't be difficult.'

"She's just super-cool. Like, she's the most famous monkey in Hollywood, so you try to be cool around her. We just presented an award together this weekend at the Teen Choice Awards, so we hang out off-set, too."

It's safe to say that Animal Practice's resident monkey steals every scene she's in.

In fact, Crystal was also the most popular celebrity at NBC's elaborate poolside party -- having her picture taken with TV stars, network officials and assorted TV critics -- until an even bigger curiosity turned up in the person of former U.S. vice-presidential hopeful Sarah Palin, husband to newly minted NBC reality star (in upcoming series Stars Earn Stripes) Todd Palin.

Still, by any measure you might choose to employ, Crystal the monkey was a hit during her press-tour appearance and will play a big part in determining whether Animal Practice is a fall-season survivor or casualty.

It isn't the first time -- not by a long shot, actually -- NBC has relied on primate performers to give its shows added appeal. Consider these earlier examples of monkey-business casting:

-- J. Fred Muggs -- during the early years of NBC's Today Show, viewers stayed away in droves until host Dave Garroway was given a chimpanzee for a sidekick. What was supposed to be a one-off gimmick appearance turned into a four-season continuing gig.

-- B.J. and the Bear -- Greg Evigan was the "star" of this lighthearted late-'70s/early '80s drama, but it was his chimpanzee pal, Bear (who was named after legendary Alabama football coach Bear Bryant), who delivered the laughs.

-- Mr. Smith -- not exactly a stellar link in NBC's evolutionary chain, this 1983 comedy about a talking orangutan (played by the same critter that starred with Clint Eastwood in Every Which Way But Loose) lasted just 13 episodes before being cancelled.

-- The Monkees -- OK, not exactly a show populated by primates. But it was an NBC show (1966-68), and the four faux-Beatles who starred in it were just so darned adorable....

-- Klaus the Sprockets monkey -- the avant-garde art monkey was an integral part of Canuck funnyman Mike Myers' recurring spoof of German TV talk shows. As host Dieter, Myers would often invite the guests to "touch my monkey."

-- Marcel -- during the first season of Friends, lovelorn Ross (David Schwimmer) sought companionship in the form of a capuchin monkey named Marcel. After eight episodes, the show's writers figured that a human hookup would be more appealing to the show's viewers.

NBC hasn't been the only network to monkey around with casting gimmicks -- CBS got three seasons of fun out of Judy the chimp in the '60s African adventure Daktari, and ABC built an early '70s Saturday-morning classic, Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp, with an entire cast of chimps.

But when it comes to prime-time primates, NBC has definitely been the industry leader. And we'll find out very soon whether Crystal, as Dr. Rizzo, will have a lasting impact on the feathery network's furry legacy.

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 9, 2012 D3

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