Bill Leff, the immensely talented Chicago broadcaster, stand-up comic and improv actor, gets top billing as the amiable host of “Toon In With Me.” But the real star of the show may turn out to be a wise-cracking fish puppet with oversized ambitions.
Toony the Tuna, who calls himself “your soon-to-be-famous saltwater sidekick,” will join Leff and a cast of wacky characters both live and inanimate when “Toon In With Me” debuts January 4 on MeTV, the Chicago-based network for nostalgic television.
Airing from 6 to 7 a.m. Monday through Friday, the show will feature live-action comedy sketches wrapped around the best of the Warner Bros. Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes animated classics, including Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Tweety and Road Runner.
If Neal Sabin, the show’s creator and executive producer, has his way, come next Christmastime “there’ll be a Toony under every tree.”
With several weeks of episodes already in the can, Sabin said he’s thrilled at how his vision is coming to life, thanks to the work of more than a dozen staffers at Weigel Broadcasting, led by show runner Mike Schmiedeler and head writer Robert Rodi.
Leff’s initial castmates are performers Kevin Fleming (who’s the voice of Toony) and Leila Gorstein, with more to come when COVID restrictions are lifted and additional players can appear on the set.
“I’m just amazed that the people we hired have even more talents than we thought they did,” said Sabin, vice chairman of Weigel Broadcasting and the creative genius behind MeTV. “We didn’t know that Bill Leff can do a hundred different voices of characters. Every voice we give him to do he comes back amazing us. Kevin and Leila are incredible too. I can’t believe how lucky we were in our initial casting.”
Although billed as a show for the whole family, Sabin acknowledged that “Toon In With Me” is aimed primarily at Boomers — “from 35 to 64-plus” — the target audience of the MeTV Network.
“The twist on it is this is the kind of format that we all watched as kids, and it’s as if the show aged with us in terms of the content,” he said. “The cartoons may bring in some people who haven’t watched MeTV before, but the whole design of this was to produce content that the typical Me-TV viewer would enjoy.”
All of which makes Leff, the eternally youthful pop culture fan who grew up in Oak Forest and now lives in Evanston, the perfect choice to channel the spirits of Ray Rayner, Bill Jackson and other legendary Chicago children’s show hosts.
“As a child I was late for school every morning because I could not stop watching Ray Rayner’s show,” Leff told me when he was hired in October. “I felt like he was talking directly to me. Then after school, the brilliance that was Bill Jackson’s ‘Cartoon Town’ was just so influential to who I would eventually become.
“‘Toon In With Me’ pays tribute to both. It’s part Ray Rayner, part ‘Cartoon Town,’ part ‘Pee Wee’s Playhouse,’ and part ‘Sea Hunt.’ It’s something for everybody.”
Coinciding with the new show’s launch, MeTV also will debut “Saturday Morning Cartoons,” a three-hour block of cartoons with no studio host, from 6 to 9 a.m. Saturdays, starting January 2.
MeTV, which debuted here in 2003 and became a full-fledged national network in 2010, now ranks among the top five cable nets in the country, reaching 77 million households, according to Nielsen.
A personal note: I’ll be on vacation and off the grid for a few days. See you back here next week. Until then, happy holidays and wear a mask!