Saturday, May 30, 2009

Tonight on FAILURE THEATER...

Back in the 70’s and 80’s we had “Failure Theatre” Networks would air their unsold pilots. Here are just a few. Some are included because they’re particularly wacky, others are intriguing, and a few sound downright great.

A DOG’S LIFE – People dressed as dogs. Starring Barney Martin (SEINFELD) and Charles Martin Smith (AMERICAN GRAFFITI). No actors were injured in the making of this pilot.

DUFFY – A dog with human qualities. Dogs were in back then. I guess penguins are the new dogs.

DINER – Barry Levinson who wrote and directed the movie, wrote and directed the pilot as well. With Paul Reiser and James Spader (BOSTON LEGAL).

ETHEL IS AN ELEPHANT – MR. ED with very wide master shots. Starring Todd Sussman who, during that period, starred in fifteen or twenty failed pilots. Ethel’s career never recovered from this project.

THE FESS PARKER SHOW – The man who played Davy Crockett starred in a comedy.

FRANKIE & ANNETTE: SECOND TIME AROUND
– You loved them in the Beach Party movies and wondered how long could they remain a couple before they finally had sex? According to this pilot, twelve years and counting.

FRAUD SQUAD – from Jack Webb productions. Frank Sinatra Jr. as the head of the LAPD Fraud Squad. Not intended to be a comedy but ohhh mannn…

FROM CLEVELAND – Featuring Bob & Ray and the brilliant cast of SCTV.

GHOST OF A CHANCE – Shelley Long, pre-CHEERS, as a zany ghost.

GOOBER & THE TRUCKERS’ PARADISE – The title alone should have warranted a pick-up. This is a spin-off of THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW and marks the very first appearance of Gomer Pyle.

GOOD PENNY – Billed as a comedy about an emotionally disturbed woman (that must’ve been a helluva pitch). Well cast with Rene Taylor in the starring role.

GREAT DAY – another premise chock full of comedic possibilities. Skid row derelicts in Los Angeles. Featured Al Molinaro (HAPPY DAYS) and as “Jabbo “– Spo-De-Odee.

HARRY’S BATTLES – Dick Van Dyke and Connie Stevens did not have the magic of Dick and Mary Tyler Moore, or even Dick and Hope Lange.

HIGH SCHOOL USA – After his “Garden Party-take-me-seriously-as-an-artist” period Rick Nelson starred as the principal in a series that featured a ton of 50’s and 60’s family sitcom cast members including Harriet Nelson, Jerry Mathers, Ken Osmond, Paul Peterson, Dick York, and Barbara Billingsley. Also Crystal Bernard (WINGS) who must’ve been 9 then.

HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING – Adaptation of the Broadway smash. Written by Abe Burrows. NOT directed by James Burrows.

HUMAN FEELINGS – Billy Crystal playing an angel.

IF I LOVED YOU AM I TRAPPED FOREVER? Not only is that a great title, it was written by Larry Gelbart (MASH, TOOTSIE, OH GOD). This is one I’d really like to see.

KANGAROO IN THE KITCHEN – A Greenwich Village apartment overrun with animals. To me the real show would have been the poor people in the apartment directly below.

LOVEBIRDS – Eugene Levy in a sitcom.

ME & MRS. C. – Another comic goldmine premise: A widow living on Social Security. Starred Doris Roberts (EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND).

MR. & MRS. DRACULA – After 618 years of marriage they move to America. Bats out of water. Written by Robert Klane (WHERE’S PAPA, WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S) so it was probably damn funny.

NEWMAN’S DRUGSTORE – A Brooklyn diner during the Depression. God, I’d love to go in to Fox and pitch that today.

OFF CAMPUS – Coed rooming house starring Marilu Henner (TAXI) written by Marshall Brickman (ANNIE HALL, JERSEY BOYS). This is one of about seventy college dorm/sorority/coed rooming house pilots done during that era. Another one featured Michelle Pheiffer.

SITCOM – A spoof of the genre, following the Gooseberry family. Created by Tom Patchett & Jay Tarses (THE BOB NEWHART SHOW, BUFFALO BILL). I read this script. HILARIOUS! And while we’re on the subject of Tom & Jay…

THE CHOPPED LIVER BROTHERS – Patchett & Tarses wrote and starred as two struggling stand-up comics. Add 50 years to them and you have…

THE SUNSHINE BOYS – Neil Simon wrote the pilot from his play, this time starring Red Buttons and Lionel Stander. I wonder if the network gave him notes.

I’m sorry but I would rather see any of these over the schlock reality shows that are being jammed down our gullets this summer. WIPE OUT???!! Don't the promos alone make you cringe? Bring back “Failure Theatre”!

33 comments:

Gnasche said...

So, why did they stop showing unaired pilots? If the reason was simply "too much trouble for too little profit" then they should start doing it again on HULU or something.

The Kenosha Kid said...

FROM CLEVELAND – Featuring Bob & Ray and the brilliant cast of SCTV.

Someone should liberate this and post it on YouTube

PhilMcC said...

I'm surprised they just haven't started taking the PILOTS to the PEOPLE. The externalization of the Nielsen process.

It'd be the american idol of network television programming. Just air snippets, and vote for the 5 which get produced, watch those 5, and vote for the 1 that get on the air.

Might get higher viewership due to the feeling of ownership by the audience.

RAC said...

"Penguins are the new dogs."

So true!

And "Newman's Drugstore" sounds too much like a Seinfeld spin-off... but it might work for our current depression era - and guest star various characters from sitcoms-past:

Episode 1:
WELCOME BACK MR. SHORT CON

A retired Mr. Kotter (Gabe Kaplan) returns with a wacky scheme to beat shady AIG executives out of their bonuses in a poker tournament. Vinny Barbarino (John Travolta) guest stars with a sub-plot to convert people to Scientology.

Wait a second...

Dave said...

"People dressed as dogs" was the premise of the worst SNL sketch I've ever seen. It was a guy at a dog park with his friend dressed as a dog so he could (apparently) have sex with dogs.

I'd have loved to have heard the pitch for that.

gottacook said...

There must be a way to put some of these online...

This topic immediately brought to mind a pilot that aired in 1972, This Week in Nemtin - I've only read about it, never seen it. I quote from Harlan Ellison's The Other Glass Teat, a collection of his TV columns from 1970-72:

"What Nemtin did with outrageous style and clockwork timing was illuminate the foibles and ineptitudes of all of us, microcomically, within the framework of a nation where the President (played deliciously by Edward Asner) appears on television to deliver the Independence Day message in his bowling shirt, with his wife decked out in her wedding gown and white gym socks. 'Like you,' he said soberly, 'we will be celebrating this special day at home, enjoying the traditional meat loaf and cherry soda, singing catchy tunes.' "

I always laugh imagining Asner saying those lines... Also with Carl Reiner as the "wise old Nemtik" and Alex Dreier as host/commentator. Anyone here ever see this?

A. Buck Short said...

Never just go by the title. I accidentally rented a DVD from Blockbuster called "Defensive Driving." Thought it was another action adventure with Vin Diesel.

Paul Duca said...

Actually, the pilot with Michelle Pfeiffer had a short network run (a small-screen version of ANIMAL HOUSE with several actors from the film and Zero Mostel's son as Blotto, brother of Bluto).

Alice said...

I would watch many of these, I particularly liked Ghost of a Chance and Human Feelings.

Also, the one about the Love and the Trap, there's always a catch, isn't there?

Doug Thompson said...

I was going through some boxes in my basement and came across an old Newsweek dated August 26, 1985 in which there was an article by David Ansen titled "Hollywood's Funny Season". Here's an excerpt of what he wrote about "Volunteers"
"Forget high concept - this is just a damn funny comic premise, a collision of sophisticated cynicism with bright-eyed altruism that a Preston Sturges or Billy Wilder might have pounced on in their heyday. Writers Ken Levine and David Isaacs (veterans of 'M*A*S*H' and 'Cheers') aren't in that august league, but these boys know how to have fun."

benson said...

From IMDB about "If I loved you, am I trapped forever":

Comedy/drama about the adventures of a close-knit group of five teen-aged friends, including a pair of twin girls, a jock, a class brain and a hypochondriac.

Sounds potentially funnier than United States, which was very difficult to watch.

Bob Claster said...

There is much gold in the mines of unsold pilots. WHERE'S EVERETT? starred Alan Alda as a science fiction writer who wakes up to find an abandoned infant on his doorstep. But wait... it's an invisible alien baby! Hijinks ensue. Where's Everett? One that was actually quite wonderful was JAKE'S JOURNEY, a half-hour starring Graham Chapman as an imaginary knight who appears to a suburban kid in times of crisis. This one was directed by Hal Ashby, actually. A shame these aren't more widely available.

Pat Reeder said...

Back when they used to air unsold pilots, when I was just a wee lad, I remember seeing one that starred Fred Gwyne as a bumbling scientist who came up with a formula that accidentally turned his nagging mother-in-law (Rita Shaw) into a glass statute. I don't remember the name, but for some reason, I saw that one time about 40 years ago, I believe on NBC, and I still remember it vividly. It's like my version of Mr. Bernstein's girl-with-a-white-parasol story from "Citizen Kane." The mind may be a terrible thing to waste, but sometimes, the mind is just a terrible thing.

BTW, the Goober & the Truckstop show aired in 1978, and Goober was brought in to replace Gomer on the Andy Griffith Show when he "joined the USMC" for his own spinoff in 1964, so it couldn't be the first appearance of Gomer Pyle. It might've been the last appearance of Gomer Pyle, and of a lot of other people unlucky enough to be associated with it. Or is that line a joke that went over my head?

lump516 said...

I remember MR. AND MRS. DRACULA--If I remember, it starred Dick Shawn and Julie Newmar, who were funny even if the script wasn't . . .

Pat Reeder said...

Correction: "glass statute" should be "glass statue." He didn't turn her into a glass tort or ordinance. I recall, however, that he tested it by turning a banana into glass. Why is this still in my brain? And could shock therapy remove it?

Tom Twine said...

Given the choice of "Wipeout" and unsold pilots...Bring on the pilots!

Heidi Germanaus said...

I would love to see "From Cleveland" or "Sitcom". Why the hell don't they still do this?

Maybe because alot of times they just make a few changes and re-pitch the idea with a different cast.

"Ghost of a Chance" sounds a helluva lot like "Jennifer Slept Here".

Of course comparing Ann Jillian to Shelley Long is kinda unfair.

Ann Jillian's likeable.
Shelley Long...eh, not so much.

Lee Goldberg said...

I used to love those failure playhouses, so much so that they inspired me to write (Blatant Self Promotion Alert!!!) a book on unsold pilots, which includes details on all the failures you listed and many, many, many more...

http://tinyurl.com/lucmr4

http://tinyurl.com/lps523

Lee

Vermonter17032 said...

Someone should put these onto a DVD set!

A_Homer said...

What is it about Cleveland and comedy that suggests they go together? Is Cleveland arranged as some ersatz-Canada?

Brian said...

Probably the most famous failed pilot of recent memory was "Dear Diary" with Bebe Neuwirth, written and directed by David Frankel. When the network passed, it won an Oscar for best short film. I have heard that it was shown on the Sundance Channel or IFC, but I have yet to see it.

Another one I wish I could have seen was "This Week in Nemtin", which was a broadcast from the fake land of Nemtin. I read about this in "The Other Glass Teat" by Harlan Ellison. I believe it starred Ed Asner as the head of Nemtin. Their idea of formal dress was a bowling shirt and the national anthem was, "Gimme an N, Gimme an E..."

I cannot remember the name of another failed pilot in the 70's, but I recall that it was shown twice and I recall that one character made an entrance in what was essentially, blackface.

This never made air, but I read about it in the Los Angeles Times and daddy used to say, "If they print it in the Times, it's so". Stand-up comic "Wild" Willy Parsons was to star in a show in which they looked at various crimes and they asked ex-cons how they would have committed them.

Brian said...

My apologies for saying roughly the same thing as "gottacook" about "...Nemtin"

Did anyone see "The Witches of Eastwick" pilot? I was in a test audience for a showing of this, but since it's listed on imdb.com, I was unable to stop it from airing.

WV: evelom - An out-of-print "after hours" LP by Herbert Lom

Brian said...

To Paul Duca:

You are referring to "Delta House", which had a couple of the people from the movie "Animal House" in it. Outside of Dean Wormer chasing someone (maybe Michelle Pfeiffer?) around his desk, the only thing I can recall about this show was Blotto getting angry about someone and knocking over a tree with his fist.

Needless to say this wasn't the ONLY frat comedy around at the time. "Brothers and Sisters" was a show that tried to ride the wave that never arose and this featured a scene that showed one fellow trying to show another one that a woman was well-endowed by holding a phone receiver, facing outward, up to his chest.

WV: obationa - Hearty reception for a speech during the President's Italian tour.

danrydell said...

Wipeout is a tremendous guilty pleasure. I never tire of watching people getting knocked off of perches. I think it's a Three Stooges thing.

Lee Goldberg said...

I can't find any record of the Willy Parsons pilot in my book...but I can give you more info on THIS WEEK IN NEMTIN. It aired on 4/14/72 on CBS and was directed by Bill Foster and written & produced by Saul Turteltaub and Bernie Orenstein, Sam Bobrick and Ron Clark. But the information I have doesn't show Ed Asner as being involved (not to say that he wasn't). I described it as "an attempt to satirize our society by looking at events of the day in the fictional land of Nemtim, as seen through the reports of newscaster Alex Dreier and "wiseman" Carl Reiner.

Garrett Strunk said...

One of the funniest unsold pilots I ever saw was one that aired in the late '70s called THE UGILY FAMILY. It starred Al Molinaro as the head of an none-too-attractive Italian-American family who is transferred from New Jersey to Southern California, where he finds himself living next to a good-looking and relentlessly cheerful couple played by Lyle Waggoner and Elaine Joyce. Best line, Al to his daughter: "Me and your mother will never have blond children!"

Mike B. said...

A TV guide listing I found for Nemtic not only includes Edward Asner as part of the cast, but McLean Stevenson as well.

Anonymous said...

There's also a subcategory of pilots that were shoehorned into successful shows but never got picked up. However, they live on as part of the parent series' syndication run.

Three that stick out to me:
1. Donnelly Rhodes as a widowed father of an Italian-American family who happened to be related to Jo from "The Facts of Life."

2. Ken Berry as a Brady neighbor who adopts a boy with his wife only to have the boy insist that they adopt his two (Asian and African-American) buddies as well.

3. Tony Orlando as the director of a community center where the Huxtables volunteered. In the Tony Orlando "Behind the Music," he said he was wracked with guilt for years because he felt he had let down Bill Cosby who had given him the best launching pad imaginable.

Mr. Peel said...

So help me, I'm certain that I've seen SITCOM. Didn't HBO run it at some point way back in the 80s? Does this ring a bell with anyone?

zilberhere said...

This may not technically qualify for inclusion on a list of unsold, unaired pilots, inasmuch as it may have actually aired once in '89 or '90 -- and it kills me that I might have missed the one-and-only chance to see this! -- but I recall with much amusement how David Steinberg once regaled talk show host Tom Snyder with the quaalude-driven back story of his failed pilot "Dad's A Dog." (As per IMDB: A struggling single father's kids are ashamed of him for taking a job as the voice of the title character on a new sitcom called Dad's a Dog. In the show within the show, the father had been struck by a bus and reincarnated as a dog. The dog would give the TV family advice with the actor behind the couch.)

te said...

A little late for this, but I've been working on a Rick Nelson project and the existance of "High School U.S.A." came as quite a surprise to me -- particularly when IMDB didn't list it among Rick's many TV and film credits.

Turns out it was a TV movie (though evidently with a series in mind), and the "Nelson" in the case was Rick's older brother, David.

What a cast, though!

http://www.hollywoodteenmovies.com/HighSchoolUSA.html

wv: tinunper -- archaic term; today's unpers are generally made of aluminon.

ajm said...

HIGH SCHOOL USA was done as a NBC TV-movie in the early 1980s with a lot of its teen sitcom stars in it including Michael J. Fox and Nancy McKeon. Also with Bob Denver and Crispin Glover as his son.

Apparently NBC wanted a young Joel Hodgson to star in it, but he turned them down in order to develop what became Mystery Science Theater 3000...

Chuck Collins said...

I am amazed at how many of these pilots I have seen. Most of them, charitably, were not that good and the fact that money was spent on them indicates that people really WERE doing a lot of drugs back in the 70's!

Remember when CBS had their Summer Playhouse with all the pilots and there was a 900 number you could vote on which one would be turned into a series?