Never heard these songs before? Be grateful

Chances are, you've never seen anything like the strange, funny, sad and completely spellbinding documentary "Off the Charts: The Song-Poem Story" (9 p.m., PBS, check local listings) on the series "Independent Lens."

What is a song-poem? For decades, magazines and comic books included small ads with headlines like "Songwriters Wanted!" or "Earn Up to $50,000 in Royalties." Wannabe lyricists sent in their "poems" and invariably received a letter praising their talent and offering to professionally produce and record their song for a fee. According to those interviewed for "Off the Charts," no submission, no matter how dreadful, derivative or psychotic, was ever refused. It's estimated that 200,000 song-poems have been produced since 1900. Tens of thousands of these vanity productions were turned into 45 records and even compiled on theme albums. And none of them ever got close to making the hit parade.

"Off the Charts" features songs like "Non-Violent Taekwondo Troopers," an ode to our 39th president called "Jimmy Carter Says Yes!" and a creepy love song to Annie Oakley. If you appreciate American pop culture in all of its quirky permutations, don't dare miss this film. And if you like the music, Bar/None Records is releasing a CD compilation of song-poems in conjunction with "Off the Charts."

  • Readers of this column know that I like "24" (8 p.m., Fox). But last week's plot twist in which Jack's daughter Kim was caught in a trap near a mountain lion's den takes this thriller into absurd new territory. At the risk of repeating myself, "24" is much like an old two-reel thriller or a silent movie. Don't be surprised if Kim gets tied to a railroad track before the day is over. And what is President Palmer doing watching as his NSA director is tortured? Didn't he ever learn to delegate? No matter: his witch of an ex-wife plays him like a violin.

Tonight's other highlights

  • Jess resists Rory's dinner invitation on "Gilmore Girls" (7 p.m., WB).
  • "Diamonds of War" on "National Geographic" (8 p.m., PBS, check local listings) looks at the illegal gem trade that funds bloody civil wars in Africa.
  • Maxine feels the heat on "Judging Amy" (9 p.m., CBS).
  • Miguel ponders a new business plan on "Kingpin" (9 p.m., NBC).
  • Laughlin is indicted for framing Clark on "NYPD Blue" (9 p.m., ABC).

Series notes

Mac defends a friendly-fire suspect on "JAG" (7 p.m., CBS) ... Bob Eubanks hosts "The Most Outrageous Game Show Moments 2" (7 p.m., NBC) ... More auditions on "American Idol" (7 p.m., Fox) ... Bridget sneaks around with her new beau (Nick Carter) on "8 Simple Rules" (7 p.m., ABC) ... Faculty flirtation on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" (7 p.m., UPN).

Cheryl invites Jim's ex (Crystal Bernard) to dinner on "According to Jim" (7:30 p.m., ABC).

A kitchen crisis on "Frasier" (8 p.m., NBC) ... Tony struggles to get his degree on "Life with Bonnie" (8 p.m., ABC) ... Mom (Michelle Phillips) shows her appreciation on "Abby" (8 p.m., UPN) ... Lex plots against his dad on "Smallville" (8 p.m., WB).

A big paycheck tempts Adam on "A.U.S.A" (8:30 p.m., NBC) ... Claude's intimate phone chat on "Less Than Perfect" (8:30 p.m., ABC) ... A mother and child reunion on "Girlfriends" (8:30 p.m., UPN).

Late night

Amy Brenneman appears on "Late Show with David Letterman" (10:35 p.m., CBS) ... Jay Leno hosts Tim Russert on "The Tonight Show" (10:35 p.m., NBC).

Brendan Fraser and Tiffani Thiessen chat on "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" (11:35 p.m., NBC) ... Luke Wilson is booked on "The Late, Late Show with Craig Kilborn" (11:37 p.m., CBS).

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