Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The pilot you will never see

This is one of those posts where I will ask you to kindly indulge me. There’s no great point. No major lesson. This is just a chance for me to vent and get something off my chest. When you read why you will surely understand. Thank you for humoring me today.

Okay. Here we go…

I owned one of the first home VCR’s. Bought it in the mid ‘70s. It played 3/4 inch tapes in cartridges that were the size of today’s Mini Coopers. The machine weighed a thousand pounds. You needed two people to lift one. It cost $1500 in 1976. I bought it to tape shows David Isaacs and I wrote. The salesman was showing me all the nifty features. It had a pause button. I could freeze-frame. There was also a slow-motion feature that allowed me to advance the tape frame by frame. Now, I thought this was fine for me. I could freeze-frame my credit, but why on earth would anyone else want these features? The salesman said, “Schmuck, why do you think people buy these damn machines? To watch porno!” The slow-mo suddenly made perfect sense.

A few years later VHS became the standard. The tape was 1/2 inch, would record up to six hours of content, and the cartridge size went from Mini Cooper to Mini Mac. I bought one of those and my 3/4 inch machine became obsolete. I eventually gave it away. Let the Council of Jewish Women figure out what to do with the freakin’ thing.

But I kept the 3/4 inch tapes I had recorded. And of course I haven’t played any of them for years. God knows how much they've deteriorated over time? At best the color would be smeared and washed out. At worst I’d be looking at dust. Recently, during a spring-cleaning project I discovered a box of these clunky relics. Most were MASH episodes. I now had DVD copies that were far superior in quality to those musty cartridges and took up a fraction of the space so I got rid of them.

But there was one tape I kept – the first pilot David and I were ever associated with. We wrote it for NBC through Universal for the 1976/77 season and it didn’t go. Back then networks aired their unsold pilots in the summer. We used to call this programming FAILURE THEATER. On July 20, 1977 our pilot aired on NBC.

A little backstory: During our early freelance period we met a certain producer who took a liking to us. He had a development deal at Universal. He said if we ever had a pilot idea to bring it to him. We were newbies at the time and couldn’t get in to pitch networks ourselves, but if we were under the umbrella of this veteran writer/producer the networks would hear our spiel.

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE had recently premiered and was a huge hit with the younger generation. Our idea was to do a cross between SNL and THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW – a local late night comedy sketch show in San Francisco where the cast also wrote the material. The sensibility of the humor would be very edgy (like SNL).   We were 30 ROCK and STUDIO 60 only 30+ years earlier.

This producer liked it. We took it to NBC and we sold it in five minutes. We came back with an outline that they approved, and a first draft that they loved. Minor notes, a second draft, and based on that script NBC greenlit the pilot. Gee, this pilot stuff was easy! 

At that point we were cut out of the process completely. A producer was brought on board, Bo Kaprall, and he did a page one rewrite, keeping only our premise, basic story structure, and characters. Let’s just say we weren’t thrilled with the results. The casting was terrible. Not that the actors themselves were bad; they were just miscast. (One of the actors we later hired for MASH.)  We had a character who was supposed to be an old Jewish Catskills writer. They hired Pat McCormick. You get the idea.

We were invited to the taping (how nice of them). And I just remember being horribly disappointed with the final result. But that was then. Would time be kind to our first official television pilot?

I have a good friend, Stu Shostak who has the facilities to digitize old tapes. (If you have stuff you want digitized this is your man.) So last week I brought him probably the only remaining copy of THE BAY CITY AMUSEMENT COMPANY and as he made a digital copy I got to screen it again for the first time in 35 years.

OHMYFUCKINGGOD!!!

This was easily the single worst piece of shit I have ever seen. Watching this travesty was like having your wisdom teeth removed without Novocain. And our names were on it. And not just that. Kaprall tried to get shared writing credit and we fought him and won in arbitration. We went to great effort to get our names on this stinkburger. (Why? Because creator credit means royalties for every episode and we didn’t want to surrender any of that, especially to someone who had made the show worse).

The direction was atrocious. Everyone was playing so big and burlesque you wanted to crawl under a chair. Mugging, double and triple takes for every clam joke.  Imagine Jerry Lewis at his most insane wacky zany nutty maniacal  – he was Ben Stein compared to how these actors were asked to perform.   The also wore gorilla suits, loud jackets, cowboy outfits, and were pulled around by their neckties.  I guarantee they tested worse than the Manson Family.

And our names were on it. And back in those days there were only three networks so even if the show finished last in the ratings, more people saw it than last week’s AMERICAN IDOL.

I will give you two examples of actual jokes used in this pilot. Our idea was to have the level of humor edgy and hip like the original SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE remember? Instead, these were the types of gags that made it to air.

The owner of the station was a Gene Autry type. When he tells the writer/performers that he has a problem one says to him (and this is verbatim): “Did your horse make doo doo in the house again?”

Our names are on this!

Later at one of the character’s apartment everyone barges in around dinner time. One asks: “Is that a roast?” And another answers: “No, it’s a chicken in blackface.”

Kaprall WANTED his name on this?! Holy shit!

You will never see this pilot. No one will ever see this pilot. I will never see this pilot again. And I will never say another bad thing about WHITNEY ever again.

42 comments:

Garnet said...

Uh oh, now you've got us curious ...

Southern Dan said...

I think you should know that one of your two lines is probably the intellectual property of "Two Broke Girls".

Carol said...

Do you have the original script you wrote before they ruined it? Would you post that?

Greg Ehrbar said...

All I can remember off the top of my head about Bo Kaprall was that he played a policeman on "Laverne and Shirley," and he costarred on a Saturday Morning comedy variety show called "Wacko," which included a giant nose running around on the beach.

Phillip B said...

"The Bay City Amusement Company" still awaits 5 votes on IMDB -

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1710998/combined

Interesting that there are no additional writing credits...

Roger Owen Green said...

Damn, you've made it so I know want to see the thing...

Cleves said...

At least this was a fictional show-within-a-show.... There was a REAL sketch show back then which was just as bad, "The Cleveland Comedy Company." It was hosted mainly by local DJs, and I don't know much else except that it was awful. One episode is On YouTube, hosted by Jay Lawrence (Larry Storch's younger brother)

Tor Hershman said...

A salesman REALLY called you a "Schmuck"!?!?!?

If you didn't see it live, I viewed it on the west coast sooooo a lot of bleeps, the
Doug Kenney on Tom Snyder...now there's something you'll never see.

Tom Snyder & Charlie Manson...that's A-okay.

I still wonder if DK was "Helped"
over the cliff.

Pat Reeder said...

One of my earlier gigs was as head staff writer for a home video company here in DFW. They asked me to write a children's video series. I always loved shows like "Bullwinkle," with humor that worked on two levels, for both kids and adults, so I gave it that kind of sensibility. The message to kids was one my late mother always instilled in me and my brother: use your imagination. And the main character was a wise-cracking fantasy older brother type, loosely inspired by Bruce Willis in "Moonlighting." The producer liked my scripts and even got a pretty big name star to sign on. She stated in interviews that she did it on the strength of the scripts.

Unfortunately, once the scripts were out of my hands, they hired some hack to do a rewrite. He went through and removed all the humor, expanded the exposition to tortuous lengths, and dumbed it down so much that anyone over the age of five would find it excruciating. Only the bare outline and the character coming to life from imagination remained. I tried to fight for my original scripts, but since the producer was the company owner's daughter-in-law, I got fired by mail and had to take them to court to force them to pay my unemployment.

And that's how a certain lobotomized purple dinosaur was born. And no, for all his talk about "sharing," nobody ever offered to share a penny of the billion or so they made off it with me.

Johnny Walker said...

Wow, those are two hideously bad lines. Did they keep ANY of your dialogue?

Tor Hershman said...

Boohoo, Pat.
I'll see your Hitler The Lizard and raise you a Clubber Lane (or was it Lang(?) - one of Superman's girl friends), Thunder Lips, Some Kind Of [deleted joke], Burger King's "Eat A Pita" campaign, the Strategically Dead Icon's Strategic Defense Initiative and who knows how many other and then they build Philip Feldman's (President of Mt. Hood Chemical Co.) [as I understand it - since the big EPA case - Mt. Hood Solutions] corpse an art gallery in praise of plagiarism and
robber-barons.

Yea, I win.

luciuspaisley said...

I gather those jokes are meant to be terrible, but they came so far from out of nowhere and I hate to admit it, but I laughed...

At both of them.

Mac said...

There's a UK channel called BBC3 who'll buy it off you. Once they strip out the highbrow stuff like jokes about horse doo doo, it should be good to go.

chuckcd said...

Friday question for you Ken:
ZERO HOUR was cancelled after just three episodes by ABC. How many episodes did the network order?
(Or what is the usual number).
What happens to the unaired episodes?

I was enjoying that show (the only one in America it seems).

Anonymous said...

Why no shout-out to Weekend At Bernie's Terry Kaiser?

Ken Levine said...

Those jokes were not meant to be terrible. They were meant to get legitimate laughs. They uh... failed.

I have a copy of our draft but it's buried in a storage bin. Should I have occasion to visit the bin I will try to dig it up.

John said...

In the wake of the success of "Saturday Night Live" and it's various associated successes, like "National Lampoon's Animal House", the networks spent quite a bit of time in the late 1970s and early 80s trying to copy the success of the 'edgier' humor. But while even the non-prime efforts floundered ("Fridays", the horrific Jean Doumanian season of SNL), the worst were those where the networks tried to put the shows on in prime-time, and tried to make them 'prime-time safe' before doing so.

Rancid, rancid, rancid. This was probably the worst -- CBS' 1979 Animal House rip-off "Co-Ed Fever", which managed to get itself canceled for bad ratings after one episode, even though five other shows already were in the can ... which wouldn't be all that unusual nowadays, except that in this case, the lead-in show it couldn't draw viewers from was Super Bowl XIII between the Cowboys and the Steelers.

If you can get yourself cancelled by losing over 100 million viewers in your premiere episode, that's a bad show (though the feisty, foul-mouthed granny role in the show would have been perfect for Betty White nowadays)

Craig Edwards said...

Come on Mr. Levine - load that pilot up for us. You know you want to see our reactions....

Jeff said...

For some reason, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Chapmpaign library has a copy of the script:

http://goo.gl/zIeBz

Jeff said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mike said...

You choked the "blackfaced chicked" joke? The greatest weapon in any writer's arsenal? Here's how it's done:
A roast turkey is carbonised in the oven; reduced to a bird-shaped lump of coal. Someone pokes it suspiciously. "Is this a roast turkey?"
"No. It's a chicken in blackface."

tb said...

There's no way you'll be able to stop mentioning Whitney, that's your go-to abomination

Aaron Hazouri said...

I hate to say this but I, too, laughed at the "chicken in blackface" line. I could see it coming out of, I dunno, Jackie Mason's mouth. Maybe not Kat Dennings's.

john brown said...

The original VCR. I had one. The remote had a cord attached to the VCR. It had knobs for changing the channel. And you are right about how damn heavy they were.

Clubber Lang said...

Correction to John's post:
The 1979 Super Bowl was played on January 21. "Co-Ed Fever" actually debuted (and concluded) two weeks later, on the heels of a top-rated February 4 airing of "Rocky."

So it probably only lost ten million viewers. Sir, you have wantonly profaned the good name of "Co-Ed Fever"!

Anonymous said...

Come on, Ken! Youtube was invented for this very purpose!

John said...

Clubber:

I deeply apologize to the shows creators for multiplying their loss of viewers by a factor of 10. Although I don't know if they ever apologized to the viewers of "Rocky" for what they put them through (and while I don't remember watching before seeing one-and-only airing of CEdF. But I do remember the horror. The horror...)

RCP said...

If you do get the chance to go "into the storage bin" it would be interesting to read some excerpts from your original draft. What a shame they ruined it.

Guess there's no need to freeze-frame THOSE credits...

Mac said...

I don't want to alarm anyone but I know for a fact that "Shedding Pounds & Doubts" is actually run by psychopathic maniacs who saw off your arms and legs. This is how they get you to "shed pounds."

"Shedding doubts" is done by strapping you to a chair and lobotomizing you; removing the part of your brain that deals with doubt.

Don't let that put you off contacting them, just be aware of it because they never tell you that in their adverts.

radiodan said...

That is not fair, Ken! You know us TV sitcom lovers will be salivating for this now.

How about just a few minutes on youtube?

Ed in Cleveland said...

A FRIDAY QUESTION -- As long as you brought it up... 30 Rock and Studio 60 debut at the same time. "30" became a hit and "60" died, even though "60" was a terrific, high quality show. What's your assessment of what happened? Did audiences/critics/suits think "60" was supposed to be a comedy?

Anonymous said...

If the producer changd the s riot so much, didn't he deserve a credit?

Anonymous said...

There is a certain fascination that comes with plowing through the imdb connections after reading this story.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1710998/fullcredits?ref_=tt_cl_sm#cast

How did the producer merit the job? He didn't have much of a track record.

Chris said...

As far as I know you can't get a "created by" credit unless you contributed to the story in the pilot, was that why he lost in arbitration?

YEKIMI said...

Wow! That damn VCR pic brought back memories. I was an A/V geek [but one of those rare breeds that also was on sports teams] in high school during early to mid 70s and they decide to wire the high school for video and have a central spot where videos could just be shown from one spot and fed off to various classrooms. Since the A/V teacher's level of technological knowledge was stuck in the age of film strips, he basically just turned the operation of it over to me and a couple of other guys. That is the exact same VCR system they installed in our high school but we had 3 or 4 of them to play with. Being a budding demented DJ wanna-be [and just starting to write jokes for some morning DJs] we had great fun writing and dubbing in our own dialogue for some of these mundane films that were shown....but we never let our versions get shown by accident. Luckily we even had a cool English Lit teacher who was just as crazy and he joined in the fun with us. And you're right about the VCR tapes, I think we ended up using some of the worn out ones to play shuffleboard with, tried strapping them on our feet and using them as snowshoes [fail!], among other uses we could devise. Even after I graduated they were asking me back to help fix, run, teach others how to use the system until the early 80s. Found out that they were still around locked up in storage and they finally got rid of them when they tore down my old high school last year. We also ended up with one of the first Betamax VCRs that we were testing out for some company that was deciding whether to sell them or not...another story in itself.

Jim said...

I suspect we will never convince Ken to post it to YouTube, but any obsolete format specialist worth his salt makes backup copies. Let's call Stu!

ChicagoJohn said...

One of the greatest gifts in life is to look back on a failure... and to realize that in reality, it was a huge fucking gift that you failed.

Tor Hershman said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Patrick said...

Um, yeah, I probably shouldn't admit this, but I laughed at the "chicken in blackface" joke. But then, I still laugh at the "why the long face?" joke in Shrek 2 so I'm probably not the best judge here.

Donald said...

I kinda liked "chicken in blackface."

Jennie90291 said...

Ken, because my partner and I were also called in to rewrite your pilot, a job we were happy to get, since we were newbies, you have my sympathy for another item you might not know. (And we didn't write either of the jokes you mentioned, by the way. I'm very clear on that.) Casting the lead, a writer on the SNL-type show, took many auditions. I used to act, too, so I did the wife part for the auditions. One guy came in and was hilarious, spoke Swedish backwards, stood on his head (on the chair, no less) and made all the execs laugh in the room. No small task, you'll agree. However, those same execs turned him down. Not Dick Van Dyke material.The Exec Producer, Norman Steinberg, fought hard for him, so did we all, but nah....not Dick Van Dyke. So they passed on Robin Williams. Unfortunately, you know the rest. Oh, and I had the distinct pleasure of hearing Pat McCormick look down on short me and say, "If you're very good, I'll let you climb me." That kind of made the experience for me. Sorry that you had a markedly different one.

Ken Levine said...

Jennie,

Curious as to who you are. Email me at bossjock@dslextreme.com. Why am I not surprised they passed on Robin Williams for Dennis Howard?