Sunday, June 13, 2010

Bring back FAILURE THEATER!!!

Back in the 70’s and 80’s when 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. Bring back “Failure Theatre”!

40 comments:

Nat G said...

I never knew which was more painful on Failure Theater - the really bad things which got made and shown (and those were plentiful), or the (rare) really good ones that you never got to see more of. I'd still love to find a season of Curse of the Corn People (about young folks making a low-budget horror film in middle America) on some dusty shelf.

David said...

Frankie and Annette even made it back to the big (kind of) screen a decade later, with Back to the Beach http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0092608/ It's surprisingly good fun...

bjdwsm said...

Whenabouts did Failure Theatre stop? I remember they were doing this as late as 1995.

Ivan said...

BEANPOLE! This was about a cute, but almost 6-foot tall 14-year-old girl and her trials and tribulations. From 1990, says IMDB, although I could have sworn it was shown earlier.... Be that as it may, I remember it was a 3-camera sitcom set-up, but never crass, and actually witty. No wonder it was doomed.

Thanks for reviving these memories, Ken!
--Ivan

ShouldHaveBeen said...

One of the best "never to be a series" pilots...Joan Cusack's TV debut...
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1290051/

Anonymous said...

"From Cleveland" -- what? That sounds already too good to be true. Bob and Ray AND SCTV?

James said...

I saw A DOG'S LIFE when it ran (one episode on ABC). Surreal.

There's an issue of Penthouse Magazine (don't recall which) which ran a very interesting article about the development of that show; how they slowly talked themselves into making this show, particularly the debate about whether to use actors in dog suits or try to go with real dogs. Wish I'd kept it.

kerrikp said...

I used to love when this happened. Didn't CBS run theirs in August? I used to drink in every single one and vote - either "Oh yes, they're right, that sucks" or "Idiots, that could have worked."

ajm said...

-- The HOW TO SUCCEED... sitcom sounds interesting -- would Frank Loesser have written a new song for every episode or something And would Bob Fosse have directed it?

-- HIGH SCHOOL USA was originally supposed to be a vehicle for Joel Hodgson (as one of the students), who instead went to Minneapolis and created MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000.

-- One of the many "wacky" college coed rooming house pilots starred Dr. Ruth as the house mother.

benson said...

Wasn't there a cable/satellite channel (I think owned by NBC) a few years back that had something named "Brilliant but Cancelled". The channel was itself "repurposed".

Nevermind, I just looked it up. The channel was Trio and the show was the above.

A. Buck Shot said...

And yet sometimes…sometimes…dreams do come true. Your Bilko post the other day, with that interloper Stanley Sawicki as company cook, reminded me of a time in the late 50’s, when, although just a lad, I could not seem to lose the chant coursing my brain, “WE WANT RUPERT RITZIK! WE WANT RUPERT RITZIK!” And before I knew it, there was a holdup in the Bronx, Brooklyn had broken out in fights, there was a traffic jam in Harlem backed up all the way to Jackson Heights. And all I could say to myself was, “Oooh, oooh, oooh! Isn’t life grand again.” BTW, wasn’t there a Bilko bit player named something “Alda” who later got his own military sitcom?

And speaking of failure theater, sorry a little late with this comedy test response, but before its legs are completely amputated, I’ve been trying to finish a piece in which Israeli helicopter commandos encounter a PR nightmare after boarding Noah’s Ark limping back to Mt. Ararat in Turkey, Sgt. Pepper’s squad attempts to stop the yellow submarine’s subsurface blockade running, and 16 yr.-old Abby Sunderland finds herself in a flotilla megillah after it’s discovered the alleged medical supplies she’s been transporting were actually RPS’s – rocket propelled suppositories. Film at 11.

amyp3 said...

"ETHEL IS AN ELEPHANT: MR. ED with very wide master shots."

Never read Mr. Levine's blog with mouthful of soda pop.

Bob Summers said...

It was the show "Brilliant but Cancelled" on Trio where I learned that a number of pilots had been pitched about a plane crash and all the passengers who were forced to set up their own society. (a la "Lost")

"High School USA" actually found a life on cable. The pilot movie aired with Tony Dow (Gee, Wally) as the principal of the school. It featured Michael J. Fox, Todd and Dana from "Diff'rent Strokes", and Anthony Edwards. Bob Denver and Dwayne Hickman also starred.

Seems funny NBC would make this as a pilot. Fox, Plato, and Bridges were otherwise engaged at the time, Maybe if that took off they would dump the other shows?

Kirk Jusko said...

You said GOOBER AND THE TRUCKER'S PARADISE marked the very first appearance of Gomer Pyle. If that was meant as a joke, it went waaay over my head. Gomer Pyle's first appearance was on ANDY GRIFFITH proper. When Gomer got his own show, Goober took his place.

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

And these are the losers? The mind boggles.

Chip Keyes said...

In a 500+ channel universe, couldn't just ONE be devoted to busted pilots? I'D tune in.

Charles H. Bryan said...

Take some pilots that are sort of 'on the bubble' in the spring, broadcast them in one night, and let the viewers vote a la American Idol. (Viewer voting is also how I think Simon's replacement should be selected. It's only fair.) Put 'em on Hulu and Youtube and iTunes, too.

It'd be a big publicity stunt; the network could use some time to air promos for shows already selected for the fall schedule. Popular opinion will determine their fate anyway.

I think I'll now just go over to the parking spot and paint my name over Jeff Zucker's. Or not.

Gmajor said...

I'm surprised there isn't a cable channel for failed pilots. "The Pilot Channel"!

As an aspiring writer, it'd be an invaluable teaching tool, both in what works but wasn't bought, and what doesn't work and why.

I've read a few pilot scripts which had promise, but as far as I know were never shot too. I suppose you could have a website for the channel with downloadables there.

I'd certainly sign up for it. Maybe some day someone will, and we can catch up on the Failure Theatre we've missed in the past.

carmanah said...

I'm all for an American Idol style show that picks what pilot gets made ... even though I'd be ineligible to vote lol.

Mark Murphy said...

In the early 1970s CBS aired an unsold pilot called "My Wives Jane," a comedy about a soap opera, featuring Janet Leigh and Barry Nelson, with John Dehner and McLean Stevenson and, perhaps best of all, written by Larry Gelbart. I remember thinking it was very funny and wishing it had been picked up. Wouldn't mind seeing it again, either.

Roger Owen Green said...

I do miss these shows. It seemed that they would be better if not cheaper than the network fare during the summer. The four and a half broadcast nets seemed to cede the summer to cable (Mad Men, The Closer, et al.)

benson said...

I jumped on here tonight to check the comments and so help me the
WV is:

bombleno

So many punchlines, so little time

D. McEwan said...

A. Buck, yes, the Alan Alda episode of BILKO is on the BILKO BEST OF DVD set.

Joe E. Ross really gets you going, doesn't he? 30 years ago, when I was employed full-time at The Comedy Store, after work we often went to Cantor's restaurant, simply because it was one of the few places still open at 2 AM. Joe E. Ross was ALWAYS there. I literally never went into Cantor's back then without seeing Ross. We all suspected he lived there.

Bob Claster said...

One of my favorite unsold pilots was WHERE'S EVERETT, starring a pre-M*A*S*H Alan Alda as a science fiction writer who wakes up one morning to find... yes, an invisible alien baby on his doorstep. Hence the title. There's also a really great one created by Graham Chapman called JAKE'S JOURNEY which was directed by Hal Ashby. I think that if Chapman hadn't gotten sick, this one would have gone.

alan0825 said...

Ken.
Since you brought up Dick Van Dyke and Hope Lange. why haven't the repeats of the New Dick Van Dyke Show ever seen the light of day, either in syndication or TV Land or somewhere?

YEKIMI said...

I think I'll now just go over to the parking spot and paint my name over Jeff Zucker's. Or not.


Better look carefully. I heard someone painted over the "Z" in his name and changed it to an "F". But that might be the grade he got for his "alleged" programming of NBC.

Pat Reeder said...

Joe E. Ross cut a cash-in novelty record based on his "Car 54" character. It's called "Ooh! Ooh!" In our book, "Hollywood Hi-Fi," we crowned it as the most irritating celebrity record ever, and remember, we're talking about a field of endeavor that includes Buddy Hackett singing "Itsy-Bitsy, Teenie-Weenie, Yellow Polka Dot Bikini." It's such a full scale, peg-the-needle aural assault, like William Hung produced by Gary U.S. Bonds, that we hunted down the rights just so we could rerelease it on the HH-F CD.

BTW, I also miss unsold pilot summer. I've mentioned this before on here, but one I still remember from when I was a kid was a pilot with Fred "Herman Munster" Gwynne as an inventor who accidentally turns his nasty mother-in-law (Rita Shaw, of course) into a glass statue using a formula he developed to turn bananas into glass. I don't know why that's stuck in my head for decades, but I would love to know what would have happened on episode #2.

I also think that any TV executive who'd put on a reality show when he could have Bob & Ray and the SCTV cast should be nailed to an anthill with stakes made from frozen syrup.

l.a.guy said...

"GOOBER & THE TRUCKERS’ PARADISE"
What a gold mine Mayberry turned out to be; Andy Griffith, Gomer Pyle USMC and Mayberry RFD. The world we lived in back then seems like an alien civilization compared to today.

I'm so old I still think of her as Dolores Roberts from Remington Steele, which went off the air 23 years ago.

emily said...

Joe E. Ross died of a heart attack on August 13, 1982. He was stricken while performing in the clubhouse of his apartment building in Van Nuys. His final words, as he clutched his chest, "Ooh! Ooh!"

Sorry.

ajm said...

Harlan Ellison in a 1970s TV column (in one of his GLASS TEAT collections) positively rhapsodized over a failed pilot titled "This Week in Nemtin," a comedy spoofing a mythical country -- basically, it was full of Polish jokes, only with "Nemtin" substituted for "Poland." The performers included Ed Asner and Carl Reiner. Would love to track that one down.

Anonymous said...

Yeah... the Goober and the Truckers' Paradise show was made in 1978. Gomer was no where near this. Just saying.

Abie the Fish Peddler said...

alan0825: THE NEW DICK VAN DYKE SHOW was run on TNT fifteen or twenty years ago. One reason why you missed it may have been that it never had a regular time slot; TNT used it to fill gaps between the movies that were its main programming then.

Jay Leno's memoir LEADING WITH MY CHIN contains a great account of Joe E. Ross's funeral. It was attended mainly by two groups: the young comedians whom Ross had befriended, and the not-so-young prostitutes whom he had frequently employed.

I actually saw FROM CLEVELAND. It was run on CBS late one summer night in the early 1980s--if memory serves, before SCTV began its run on NBC, but after its syndicated run. The show alternated between scenes of Bob and Ray in a radio station, performing dialogues in their classic style, and skits featuring the SCTV crew (minus, I think, Rick Moranis and John Candy) playing a batch of new characters (two teenage girls flirting with a hood, the regulars at a seedy bar, etc.). The two teams went their separate ways, except in that each did a bit about a street gang called the Buzzards.

I like SCTV, and I venerate Bob and Ray above all others, but I remember thinking this a disappointment. The problem was that the night-time setting was over-emphasized. Every scene was dimly lit; there was a lot of location shooting, with the cameras pulled back to let us see the empty streets; in the Bob and Ray bits, the camera occasionally pulled away from them, to let us know that there was no one else in the station but one drowsy engineer. This all created a gloomy atmosphere that wore against the comedy.

Craig M said...

I believe the buzzards in the "From Cleveland" sketch were a reference to WMMS, a Cleveland FM radio station that ruled the airwaves back then. (Not so much today.)

I recall watching one childhood-scarring episode of "The New Dick Van Dyke Show" that dealt with a relative's ashes, which Dick mistakenly used for some odd purpose. Dick had strange dreams because of it, and so did I.

Anonymous said...

How about "Evil Roy Slade" with John Astin playing the baddest bad guy in the West?

Michael said...

I do have vague recollections of "Mr. & Mrs. Dracula" which I recall as not being all that funny.

However, that was back in my phase in the late 70s when I was recording (with my portable tape recorder and cheap mic) themes to various TV shows, and I managed to record the theme to this one. I've got it on cassette somewhere in my closet.

Rob said...

ME & MRS C was an actual show in 1986; Doris Roberts was not involved with it - a bunch of nobodies were. Very amateurish writing, acting and production values.

doug denoff said...

Ken

Doug "Son of Sam" Denoff here. Just happened upon your blog as I am watching the pilot of "The Sunshine Boys". It's a VHS dub that was in dad's office that I'm transferring to digital. Red Buttons and Lionel Stander are wonderful as is the entire cast. A few 'brilliant but cancelled' on dad's shelf, including "The Funny Side" (hosted by Gene Kelly and including a pre-Laverne & Shirley Cindy Williams), "Lotsa Luck" & "Good Morning World" (the last two now out on DVD) and "The Boys". Thankfully, more hits, though, like "That Girl" and "The Dick Van Dyke Show" will endure. But the others certainly deserve their airtime.

gmjambear said...

One failure that became a success.

I remember a pilot which was first rejected by the network, aired the pilot in late August, and then picked up as a mid-season replacement. The pilot was titled "The Life and Times of Barney Miller," which became "Barney Miller."

nubndigger said...

While Doris Roberts was not in the 1986 series ME AND MRS. C, she was indeed "Mrs. C." in the 1984 pilot episode. In the series, the role was played by Peg Murray.

Anonymous said...

"The New Dick Van Dyke Show" used come the American Life channel until a couple years ago. They still show "The Color Honeymooners" though.