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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.
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