Monday, June 18, 2007

FAILURE THEATRE

Welcome to all the new visitors. I somehow seem to be the Blogspot pick site of the day. This is an entertainment/humor oriented blog with little or no social relevance. Check out the archives. Among popular favorite posts are If the Sopranos were on a real network and porn star karaoke.

I miss “Failure Theatre”.

Years ago, to recoup the money laid out for pilots, networks would air them during the summer. They gave the feature a fancy name like “Summer Showcase” but we all called it “Failure Theatre”. And it was fascinating. Sometimes you’d question why a certain show didn’t get on the schedule. And other times you’d wonder what they were smoking when they made this stinkburger. But it gave the audience an insight into the process. You could judge for yourself whether a show was worthy or not. And I suppose that’s exactly why the networks no longer air their rejected laundry.

The first pilot my partner and I ever wrote that got produced was called THE BAY CITY AMUSEMENT COMPANY for NBC. It was billed as SNL meets THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW. A behind-the-scenes look at a local Saturday Night Live type show. Sound familiar? In our version the performers were also the actors. We just wrote it but didn’t produce it or have any say in…well, in anything. We had a part for a grizzled old Jewish Catskills comic. We pictured Jack Carter or Jack E. Leonard. They selected Pat McCormick. And he was the least mis-cast actor in the pilot. Ohmygod, what a mess! It aired on July 28,1977. In no show we’ve ever working on – before or since – was our names on the screen longer. We were yelling at the television, “TAKE IT OFF ALREADY!! PLEASE!!” But it aired. And with only three networks, even in the summer, it got a higher rating than an original episode of DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES gets today.

Our next failed pilot was called CHARACTERS, also for NBC. The premise here was a Nicols & May type comedy team and the improv group they worked with (a la Second City). It was HARRY MET SALLY before HARRY MET SALLY. Can a man and woman work together as friends without having a sexual relationship? This time we produced it. Casting was a problem but not the big one. In this case, it was the crew. We made the pilot for 20th Century Fox and they had never done a multi-camera show before. It was like re-inventing the wheel. There’s one master shot that’s framed so badly that you can actually see the grip sitting on the catwalk above the stage, taking a smoke break. It was one of the first shows to transfer from film to tape to do the editing and post production. One NBC executive said (rightly) that we somehow managed to merge film with tape and get the worst elements of both. CHARACTERS aired on October 26, 1980… at 11:30 PM on a Sunday night. For a year afterwards people were coming up to me saying they saw my pilot. Even at that hour.

Sure, both shows were deeply flawed. But that’s what made watching them fun. A lot more fun than this summer when in an attempt to avoid reruns networks will throw on all kinds of schlock reality shows. Marla Maples will give advice to recently divorced women in EX-WIVES CLUB, William Shatner will drive around a racetrack and host FAST CARS & SUPERSTARS, and my personal favorite, SHAQ’S BIG CHALLENGE starring Shaquille O’Neill. This is what he’s doing this summer instead of practicing free throws. Also on tap is PIRATE MASTER (which is a SURVIVOR clone but contestants have peg legs or something, I dunno), and a dating show called the AGE OF LOVE hosted by some tennis star.

Jesus. Even THE BAY CITY AMUSEMENT COMPANY was better than that. I say bring back “Failure Theatre”. Who knows? One of these shows might strike a chord and suddenly the network has a hit show they never expected. And in today’s landscape, take ‘em anyway you can get ‘em.

Tomorrow: some actual failed pilots that aired, featuring the talents of Larry Gelbart, Neil Simon, Billy Crystal, and Ethel the Elephant.

Oh...and a brief word from our sponsor -- Me. A spot may open in my writing seminar in July. If you're interested, check out the website here. Thanks.

25 comments:

Zak said...

Did any of the failure theatre shows become hits? Maybe the OC can be considered one?

Ken, how far away do you think we are from having a "democratic" pilot season? Where the development execs do their job, then release the pilots onto the internet for people to vote on what they want to watch in the coming season?

ZAK

Bill said...

It just seems silly to spend so much on the production of so many pilots to just let them go unseen.

Ken Levine said...

Zak,

To answer your question: never. Networks will never give up control to the audience. Plus, decisions are made that have nothing to do with the quality of shows. Putting on shows the network owns over ones they don't, putting shows on as a condition to negotiating something else. There are all kinds of reasons shows are on the schedule. Quality is not the first reason... or even the third or fourth.

Vince said...

A few busted pilots have turned up on YouTube -- "Heat Vision and Jack," from Ben Stiller and Jack Black, "Lookwell" from Conan O'Brien. I guess big names help there, too.

The Crutnacker said...

In college we saw a pilot for an ALF clone (years AFTER Alf) that was so unbelievably bad it looked like the video tape was trying to shed molecules to keep it from being seen. I wish I could remember the name, but perhaps I'm just hallucinating its existance.

The sad thing was the guy who showed it to us seemed very proud of it.

Mona said...

Hi Ken - new reader here. Just found you by surfing some other pop culture blogs. I'm not sure if you've ever answered this question as I have not had time to go through your archives yet - and feel free to point me in the direction of where you might have talked about this if you already have - but on the topic of pilots -- do you think that the advent of the digital age - where people are downloading TV to their hand-helds and watching TV right on their computers - is going to change the scope of the types of pilots produced? Maybe something that might not have been picked up on the fall schedule might be given the chance to live in a digital way?

Looking forward to being a regular reader of your blog. I shall peruse more during down time at work.

Graham said...

Why stop at Failure Theater? Why not create some new categories?

Maybe "Clip Show Theater", rerunning the greatest clip shows from years past. Or "Failed Spin-off Theater", with episodes that set up spin-offs that never got made, like "Gary 7" from Star Trek or the new mod-squad episode from Miami Vice?

NYLouOC said...

Actually, the original pilot of BARNEY MILLER, the one with Abby Dalton as Mrs. Miller, aired on ABC the summer of 74. If it spurred BM to get on ABC as a mid-season replacement in the middle of the 74-75 season is unknown.

And how about the unique way STAR TREK used its original pilot, THE CAGE, as a two-part 'flashback' episode -one that is one of the very best of the series? Actually, the first Trek piot was never 'officially' called 'THE CAGE. The book written by Desilu exec Herb Solo and TREK producer/icon Robert Justman makes it perfectly clear that the name 'The Cage' was never intended to be the title - only as a working title by Roddenberry. The 'official' title was pretty much always 'The Menagerie' -which was then used for the title of the Trek two-parter. It pilot only became 'officially' 'The Cage', when it came time for video sales...

Mary Stella said...

According to the commercials, Age of Love is hosted by Kelly Ripa's husband Mark Consuelos and features washed-up tennis star Mark Phillipousis (Or however that's spelled) with large groups of 20-something year olds and 40-something year olds. I hate the dating shows like The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, whatever and refuse to watch this show.

Since the creators don't hold back from calling women over the age of 40 "cougars", I hope they don't mind when we call them a**holes. *g*

Karl said...

Some networks are doing a varation of that where they show leftover episodes of canceled series - Fox is showing leftovers of The Loop and Standoff, and NBC is showing leftover Studio 60...

Will H said...

I participate in research and surveys for products. Twice I have received video tapes of failed pilots to watch that had the commercials that they were testing within the program. This would appear to be a creative use of these failed pilots to help recoup some of the costs.
(I don't remember the names of the shows or the actors in them, but they were familiar TV faces.)

Webs said...

Ken,

Do you own copies of your pilots, be they failures or successes? More to the point, could you own copies if you wanted to?

I suppose that would be easier today with DVDs....

Oberon said...

.......i like candy......everybody likes candy.

XRD1 said...

Those of us who know of Pat McCormick, saw him as a comedic/comic genius who sometimes appeared on (the late) Johnny Carson's Tonight Show.

Chris said...

There's a DVD of pilots that includes one I loved as a kid -- Jay Ward's Nuthouse. Why it includes Dobie Gillis, I can't figure.

http://www.earthstation1.com/Merchant/merchant.mv?Screen=PROD&Store_Code=E&Product_Code=LTPOTT5DS&Category_Code=OTTP

R2K said...

: )

Hypnosis said...

What a fascinating article! As to your question however, never.

www.smokeveil.blogspot.com

Anonymous said...

nice to see a fun site !

Jack Ruttan said...

In Canada, we produce our pilots, no matter what! None of this kamikaze stuff. The failed pilot I still remember hearing about, and is kind of the gold standard for this sort of thing, was the dog family dressed as people. I forget the title.

Michael Jones said...

Unless I'm mistaken, without "Failure Theater", we'd be deprived of Seinfeld, a Summer Replacement series.
And, Jack Ruttan, one wonders how "The Trouble with Tracy" ever make it past the pilot stage...

Dwacon said...

Congrats on being featured!

Dwacon said...

Oh, by the way... since the last CAPTCHA was so easy, I thought I'd come back and ask if you remember the pilot for "Inside OUT" with Bill Daily and Farrah Fawcett?

How could that one miss?

Paul Duca said...

I think I may have seen that one...I remember back in the 80s, when CBS was showing movies and reruns in late night, they once aired something strung together from three Screen Gems/Columbia pilots, and I think "Inside OUT" was one of them. I can't remember the second, but the other was the pilot for something that actually got on the air..."The Good Life", which ran on NBC in 1971 (Larry Hagman and Donna Mills as a couple who escape the middle class rat race by becoming butler and maid to a wealthy family).


Oh, Tallulah...do you have any pilots tucked away somewhere?

Tallulah Morehead said...

Thanks for asking, Paul darling.

The closest I ever came to doing a failed pilot was a romantic afternoon with dear Francis Gary Powers, although that was BEFORE he failed to get all the way across the USSR.

However, I DID host a game show for 13 weeks back in 1958, titled BLOTTO. You can read all about it, it's spectacular burn-out, and the drastic personal consequences for me in Chapter 27, MOREHEAD FROM COAST TO COAST, of my award-eligible autobiography, MY LUSH LIFE. I'm not giving ALL of it away on the net.

Cheers darling.

lvuback1 said...

Sadly, all I have to offer is that I among the relatively small group who knows that in Ken's case, Levine is pronounced with a long "i."