Thursday, August 11, 2016

Talking, singing porpoises

With August comes the beginning of this year’s TV pilot season. Networks or enterprises that pass for networks open their doors to writers pitching the next big thing. And every year we scratch our heads when we see some of the notions they sparked to. Every year we say “this is the worst year ever.”

But it’s not. No year is. Because you can pretty much take any pilot season and find your share of bizarre notions.


Author Lee Goldberg has written a wonderful book called UNSOLD TELEVISION PILOTS: 1955-1989. (Yes, you’ll see some of my failures in there too. Thanks for being so damn thorough, Lee.) It’s the perfect bathroom companion.

So for an experiment I decided to just open the book to a random year and see what pilots were commissioned. I chose 1979-1980.

Here are some of the pilots I found. These are actual pilots. I’m not making these up.

ETHEL IS AN ELEPHANT – A guy shares a New York apartment with a baby elephant.

GEORGIA PEACHES – A country-western singer, a mechanic, and a stock car racer team up as secret agents.

LONDON, LONDON, AND LONDON – A brother and sister share a detective agency with the ghost of their dead P.I. father.

AMERICA 2100 – Two nightclub comics are accidentally put into suspended animation and wake up in the year 2100. (I wonder if any of the writers ever saw SLEEPER.)

YOUNG GUY CHRISTIAN – A hero who fights evil with the help of a brilliant scientist, his daughter (Shelley Long no less), and the professor’s bionic creation – a person with a radio in his head and a laser in his finger.

THE CIRCUS IS COMING, THE CIRCUS IS COMING – A divorced clown in a rundown traveling circus and his teenage daughter.

THE DOOLEY BROTHERS – Just as Colonel Sanders franchised chicken, an entrepreneur in the old west franchised “the Dooley Brothers” lawmen.

STARSTRUCK – The misadventures (they ALL have misadventures) of a family operating an orbiting space station restaurant that still makes apple pie.

MCGURK – Actors dressed in dog suits portray dogs. This was from Norman Lear’s company.

SGT. T.K. Yu – A Korean LAPD detective who works part-time as a stand-up comic.



GETTING THERE – An anthology about the misadventures of people who rent cars from a bickering married couple.

and finally...

NOSEY AND THE KID – A talking, singing porpoise befriends a young girl and her family.

And those were just the comedies. Suddenly GALAVANT doesn’t seem so far fetched, does it?

42 comments:

Mike Barer said...

Actually, Mr. Goldberg has written a couple different books on the subject. When you think of some of the shows that did make the cut, you realize it's a fine line.

BA said...

Wasn't 79 the year of PINK LADY AND JEFF? That might actually make it today on Comedy Central's Saturday night comedy block (with Jeff Dunham, Gabriel Iglesias and Daniel Tosh).

Carol said...

I like the ghost PI one.

And Galavant was brilliant, actually. :)

gottacook said...

If I may be allowed to repeat my comment on a 30 May 2009 post giving an equally unlikely list of pilot descriptions...

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.

...anyway, in 2009 this did elicit a comment in reply, giving the original air date in 1972, but what I'd like to be able to do some day is to actually see the thing.

Anonymous said...

McGurk isn't the first or the last TV show with people dressed in dog costumes. I think that might go to Superpup, which was shot on the same sets as The Adventures of Superman. The show features people all dressed up with large dog head costumes. Bark Bent is Superpup and he wears a straight forward Superman suit and fights animal crimes.Except for the fact that everyone was in dog costumes, it was a standard episode of Superman. I believe this was shot after the death of George Reeves to see if they could keep the franchise alive. I once offered an entire nickel to anyone who could sit through the entire show. I never had to pay. -MW

Paul Duca said...

The circus show certainly had the elements to be a solid drama, or comedy with dramatic elements, in an non-traditional setting.

Anonymous said...

It's a pity ETHEL IS AN ELEPHANT didn't make it. If it had, some crew member could truly say, "What? And get out of show business?"

-30-

Joe K said...

The circus is coming, a divorced clown?
I want that one on now
J.K.

Glenn said...

"Georgia Peaches" might have worked in the early 80s, maybe with a slightly tweaked title.

Anonymous said...

I had to remind myself that these are pilots, and not just scripts. Real money and time, and the hard work of a lot of people, were spent turning these concepts into actual taped content that at least a few people actually watched. Probably a venerable Hollywood sound stage with an experienced crew was used. Scary.

Wildboy

Eric J said...

I'm with Paul Duca and Joe K. THE CIRCUS IS COMING x 2 has some real possibilities as drama or horror.

Here's one you missed. CHEERS. Assorted barflies in a basement bar owned by an ex-baseball player. Wonder what ever happened to that one?

Stephen Marks said...

I agree with Carol 6 posts up from mine, I think I would have watched the ghost PI one. Actually the title is worse than the premise, "London, London & London?" Horrible. Can you even fit that on an Emmy? Ken? He knows, he's won one.

Anonymous said...

The description I was thinking about for cheers
Mailman, lazy alcoholic accountant, academic, and recovering alcoholic hang out in bar.
Maybe some of these descriptions are equally tweeked to sound bad

Boomska316 said...

"THE CIRCUS IS COMING, THE CIRCUS IS COMING – A divorced clown in a rundown traveling circus and his teenage daughter.' I could see this working with a decent creative team and the right actors. And a better title.

Brian Phillips said...

Lee Goldberg uploaded this TV special:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J7fu7Nn_Tdk

Mike Barer said...

I have a follow up by Mr. Goldberg called "The Best TV Shows That Never Were"

sanford said...

Johnny Carson used the book for a bit on a 1990 show. As Ed said, every pilot is in that book. I couldn't find a you tube video. I just saw it a few weeks ago.

Jeffrey Graebner said...

You just know that somebody complained at some point that "none of these new shows have a purpose!" and some producer misheard it as "porpoise"...

Tammy said...

As others have said, I'd watch the ghost P.I. one. It sounds deliciously 80s.

Also, don't judge a show by its logline. I remember thinking Buffy the Vampire Slayer sounds like a dumb show, and it turned out to be my favorite show ever.

YEKIMI said...

"Ethel Is An Elephant"....hmm, the possibilities are endless. Hilarity ensues as the guy tries to potty train Ethel to take a dump outside or at least squat over the tub. In a moment of excitement over seeing a Planter's Peanut commercial Ethel loses control of her bladder; people several floors below think the fire sprinkler system has malfunctioned. They spend the rest of the series trying to find another apartment to live in and keep trying to fool the landlords by attempting to pass off Ethel as 'a really large Great Dane with some genetic mutations'.

Patrick said...

Friday Question:

With all the amazingly talented writers out there who are trying to make it into the business - how is it that there are still sitcoms out there that are painful to watch? Jokes you can see from a mile away - one liners that hurt to listen to - characters that are stereotypes ect...Is it the network that is looking for the lowest common denominator or is this really the best they can do? I long for the 90s in terms of smart multi camera shows that actually made me laugh out loud...

Astroboy said...

"THE CIRCUS IS COMING, THE CIRCUS IS COMING" I really really want this as a series, but only if the clown is played by David Ogden Steirs. Steirs sitting at a kitchen table with a clown wig and half wiped off clown make-up just popped into my head and it just seemed perfect.

Joe said...

FRIDAY QUESTION: I know when you and your partner were the head writers at "MASH" that Gary Burghoff had cut down on his workload to where he was absent in probably a third of the episodes. Did you tell writers to try to write Radar-less episodes, or would someone submit an idea with an A-story on Hawkeye and a B-story on Charles and you'd say, "OK, we can do this without Radar. Write him out."

iain said...

I think T.K. Yu actually got greenlit as a tv movie?

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Jeffrey Graebner: Oh, now, they just wanted to remake FLIPPER, but the porpoise insisted on a bigger role.

wg

Tom WOlper said...

I know I saw Sgt. TK Yu. Maybe it was during when the networks would show unsold pilots. I remember it starred Johnny Yune, a Korean standup.

Roger Owen Green said...

I BOUGHT that book, maybe from a recommendation from you or one of your readers. GREAT stuff. (OK, not GREAT stuff, because they're FAILED pilots, but...) You know what I mean.

blinky said...

McGurk is Wilfred, right?

Jim said...

AMERICA 2100 ....

If you want another really great suspended animation comedy, check out the 1984 Polish comedy Sex Mission. Two male scientists are put into suspended animation, supposedly for a couple of years just to test the procedure, but during those couple of years a nuclear war breaks out on earth. They don't get woken until over fifty years later, and come into a world where teh earth's surface is a wasteland and civilisation lives underground. Not only that, but all men have been wiped out too, and the women have formed a political structure fairly similar to what existed in Poland of the time. There are are some pretty sharp and barbed digs at that government, but any time the film-makers think they might have got a bit too close to the bone they find a quick excuse for one of the lead women to take her top off. Much like The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, it's one that you wonder how it ever got past the censors.

Jeff Maxwell said...

As a young fellow, I had the pleasure of auditioning for the pilot of ETHEL IS AN ELEPHANT. Pretty sure the director was John Astin - a very nice guy. He brought me back a couple of times to read. Somebody else got the part, but I'm good with animals. The part would have been mine if I'd read with Ethel.

The only pilot on the list I've ever seen is MCGURK. Very strange. Courageous...I guess, but weird. Might work today on Animal Planet.

Ray said...

I remember Carson riffing on one year's proposed pilots in the mid-70s. He just sat there reading the pitches off straight, and letting his facial reactions and Ed's guffaws produce most of the comedy.

Can't remember a one of them except a dumb-sounding pilot about a space alien coming to live on earth with a single girl:

"Mork and Mindy."

sanford said...

Ray he used the book for a bit in 1990

Andy Rose said...

Interesting how many "terrible" sitcoms were actually made by very talented writers. My Mother the Car is, of course, the pro-example... created by Allan Burns and Chris Heyward. When "smart" sitcoms like United States and Buffalo Bill started struggling mightily in the early 80s, a lot of talented folks jumped on the cheap premise bandwagon. Stan Daniels and Ed. Weinberger created Mr. Smith, a short-lived sitcom about a talking orangutan.

A few years ago I read an essay where the author tried to figure out why bad sitcoms run by "smart" guys in the 80s almost always failed, while cheesy sitcoms by less cerebral guys like Garry Marshall and Miller-Boyett had much more success. I wish I could remember who wrote it... maybe Kliph Nesteroff? Anyway, his hypothesis was that the Garry Marshalls of the world didn't feel like they were slumming it to do simple comedy. They figured out what their audience wanted and delivered a genuine product. Whereas the "smart" guys had contempt for the low-class audience they were forced to attract, and it showed. Kind of like when Donald Trump speaks to evangelical audiences... he often sounds very patronizing because he's trying to fit in, but he clearly doesn't get them at all.

James said...

I remember Young Guy Christian. I think it was ABC. Love, American Style was off the air so they couldn't recycle their pilots as episodes anymore, so they sometimes just ran them once in a two or three-hour block during a dead time in the summer.

Rashad Khan said...

"The Circus Is Coming" might have worked as an episode of "The Waltons" or "Little House on the Prairie," but as the premise for a weekly sitcom?

Donald Benson said...

Likewise. Very odd, seemed to throw a lot of random gag elements together (bionic guy, Saturday Night Fever, comic book villains, etc.) without a core. Was it a "Get Smart" sitcom about incompetent heroes and villains? A "Batman" deal that got laughs from playing absurdity straight? A satire of some movie or genre I never heard of?

Old enough to remember summer "showcases" of failed pilots, including series versions of "Cat Ballou" and "The Flim Flam Man". There was also a sitcommish anthology series with Bob Hope's name on it; what I remember of it felt like pilots.

crackblind said...

I miss the days when they would burn off these pilots during the summer under some "special presentation" umbrella. Too bad I was too young to do drugs back then to really enjoy them.

crackblind said...

I miss the days when they would burn off these pilots during the summer under some "special presentation" umbrella. Too bad I was too young to do drugs back then to really enjoy them.

Andrea said...

London, London and London doesn't sound a million miles away from Randall and Hopkirk (deceased)

Andrea said...

London, London and London doesn't sound a million miles away from Randall and Hopkirk deceased.

D. McEwan said...

I'd like to see the fifth season of Ethel the Elephant.

The one about the divorced clown I'd watch.

Smilodon said...

I think they must have made at least a pilot for America 2100 because I remember seeing that exact set up on tv in the summer of 79 and never saw or heard anything of it again.