Sunday, October 02, 2016

The pilot you will never see

If you do, I'll have to kill you.

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.


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 2 BROKE GIRLS ever again.


Richard Y said...

Oh this is good. It is not everyone that can really objectively look at and comment on their work like this.
but I would like to see it nun the less.

David Peterson said...

Do you still have your original script? I wouldn't expect you to share it, but it would be interesting to get your thoughts on it.

Steve Bailey said...

I have the feeling you're keeping this gem out of public domain solely to prevent critics from saying it was the best show you ever had your name on.

brian t said...

YouTube is calling out for this ... go on ... you know you want to. History doesn't have to be only the good stuff. We're still talking about the Titanic today, aren't we? DO IT.

B.A. said...

Quit leading me on. As a K Levine fan I should, nay, must! see this pilot. Maybe a bootlegger with a soul will post it on Youtube. Couldn't be worse than KEVIN CAN WAIT.

Melissa C. Banczak said...

Your pilot was just one single horrible half hour. (Rewritten by someone else) Two Brike Girls is endless. Please never stop calling it the crap it is.

Unknown said...

They spell your name right?

Jeff said...

So...would you be willing to share your original, non-stinkburger pilot script with us?

MikeN said...

Tough to criticize the casting decision for a Jew character, after watching FailSafe, the serious Dr Strangelove, and the Jewish Congressman was played very well by

- Boss Hogg!

Still nowhere near as bad as the Rob Lowe roast where one person commented on his dad dying on 9/11. (Get it, he was roasted too! )

emily said...

I'm sure Opening Night went a lot better.

Billy from Florida said...

OMG! Please show us that pilot! Then you can kill me.

Steve said...

"And I will never say another bad thing about 2 BROKE GIRLS ever again."

Yes, you will. And you should.

sean said...

Maybe I'm a dope, but I like the 'chicken in blackface' line.

Matt said...

You will have to have the willpower of ... (somebody with great willpower) not to make fun of 2 Broke Girls.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Ken, after that description YOU HAVE TO SHOW IT TO US.


Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

Share it!

Once upon a time at the radio station later in my career, I dreamed up a small party for the DJ's...and the only requirement was for each jock to bring his or her first aircheck. Kinda like Failure Theater. Funny as hell to hear the lame, affected, pukin' adolescents give radio performing their first (or second) shot. Somewhere I found mine from KLA - (the ucla campus station where I first met Johnny Ken Levine, folks)

So, share this awful, terrible head-on collision with all of us. It'll be sweet. :)

Johnny Walker said...

I think we NEED to see this :) (In all seriousness it's good for struggling beginners to seethat writers don't go from nowhere to perfection. That fact that your first attempts aren't great isn't an indication that you should quit - quite the opposite, probably!)

I bet it's not that bad!

Eric J said...

"I bet it's not that bad"

Are you kidding? We're hoping it's at least that bad. Yes, we NEED to see this :)

Unknown said...

Somebody break it (gently) to MikeN that Sorrell Booke (aka Boss Hogg) was himself Jewish; indeed, for most of his career he rarely played anything else (and we're going back here to the New York-live TV days, late '50s-early '60s).
When Fail-Safe was made in 1963, the prototype for the congressman was obviously Sen. Jacob Javits, whom Booke resembled somewhat.
Dukes Of Hazzard was nearly two decades into the future.

We might also point out that in the Strategic Air Command scenes, a jittery tech sergeant was played, quite seriously, by the then-unknown Dom DeLuise.
You can imagine the reaction that that gets nowadays ...

Toby the Wonder Horse said...

Ken, would you consider showing your pilot on a double bill with THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED?

Steve Lanzi (formerly known as qdpsteve) said...

The above DJ story reminds me...

Ken, don't feel too bad. I think I was the world's worst DJ. In 1982 when I was 16, I joined an Explorer Post (affiliated with the Boy Scouts of America) on radio broadcasting careers, run by the kind people at KLON 88.1fm of California State University Long Beach, now KKJZ and IMHO America's greatest jazz and classic pop station.

One of the group leaders had a regular overnight gig every weekend at UC Irvine's student station, KUCI, which then as now had a reputation as a VERY cutting-edge new music-and-grooves station, and he got permission to bring us kids over so we could broadcast in half-hour segments on a REAL radio station during one of his overnight shows.

Being a pretty sheltered kid, my music was anything but exciting... I played some dull Top 40 stuff of the time, Fleetwood Mac's "Hold Me," "Caught Up In You" by 38 Special... stuff I'm sure did not mesh well with what was probably in KUCI's regular rotation at the time (early-era punk rock, Ramones, Siouxsie & The Banshees, etc). Practically ever other teen there had a more eclectic, exciting set of music to play, it seemed.

And I just didn't have the rapport for DJing. I was so nervous, I even had trouble remembering to speak into the #@!% microphone; our leader, a great guy named Mat Kaplan, had to remind me the *mic was the audience* and never to turn away from it. I also once muttered 'scratch that' when I whiffed a simple song intro.

I have the cassettes but am still too embarrassed to listen to them 34 years later. I'd bet if KUCI ever has 'blooper shows,' new generations of college students are still hearing my half-hour DJ debut and laughing heartily.

michael said...

Bay City Amusement Company is listed at IMDb and (for some reason) TCM database (where it waits its first review). It also featured one of my favorite comedy actress, Barrie Youngfellow.

Jim Grey said...

Hey, if you have any more of the old 3/4 inch tapes, don't destroy 'em, digitize 'em and share 'em on YouTube. There's a whole bunch of us out there who watch that sort of thing just to see the network stuff: IDs, promos, newsbreaks, etc. And stuff from before the 1/2 inch tape era is gold, because there's so little of it.

Anonymous said...

JOHNNY LIZARD?!?!? Oh, that's RICH.....and we now have a registered nom de plume that you will NEVER escape from.....Johnny.

And to assuage your pilot grief, and to celebrate your opening, here's how wonderfully the (dreaded) SF Giants treated our man Vin today:

Also gave him a standing O during "Take Me Out To The Ballgame", waving "Thanks Vin" signs; and Willie Mays visited the booth to present Vin with a plaque that will hang in their clubhouse commemorating the day. And finally this wonderful trib from all the Giants announcers:

This has been so much fun.....gotta talk him into ONE MORE YEAR! ;^)

PS: It's DrBOP, Google pass through not working right now, and I gotta run.

KoHoSo said...

I know I watched this show as I clearly remember the title and premise plus Pat McCormick being involved. I just can't remember whether I liked it or not as I was 10 when it ran and obviously got no memory reinforcement from reruns. I'd probably feel the same as you if it was truly that bad but, by saying something, you only got my curiosity up.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, Ken. You're gonna have to kill me. I've seen it. Remember it well. Here's the story. Back in the 90's, I became friends with a guy named Jim (Last name withheld) who had been an actor back in the 70s, working under the name of Jim Scott. I asked him what he had done and he mentioned a pilot called THE BAY CITY AMUSEMENT COMPANY. So I did some digging, came up with the name of the Executive Producer, called him and asked if he had a copy of the pilot. He did and he let me borrow it long enough to make a copy, which I gave to my friend as a gift. You are very brave to let people know your names are on this, Ken. What was my friend's reaction? Well, he was very grateful to have a copy of it and said, "It's not nearly as bad as I remember it." So there you go. Someone liked it.

Unknown said...

Sorry, Ken. You're gonna have to kill me. I've seen it. Remember it well. Back in the 90s, I had a friend who had worked as an actor in the 70s under the name of Jim Scott. I once asked him what he had done and he told about this pilot called THE BAY CITY AMUSEMENT COMPANY. So I did some digging, found the name of the Executive Producer, called him and asked if he had a copy of it. He did and he loaned it to me so that I could make a copy for my friend. You and David were very brave to not only leave your names on it, but to fight to do so. And you are brave to write about it today. As for my friend, his reaction was, "You know, it wasn't as bad as I remembered it." So there. Someone liked it.

Pat Reeder said...

Don't feel too bad. Writers often have very little to do with the final results. I haven't worked at the network level like you have, but I was once hired to write comedy bits for a local TV station to run as buffers between commercials and segments of a movie special. They had to be silent. Perfect; I'm a lifelong silent movie buff.

Using Keaton as my model, I think I came up with some really funny bits and explained in the script that the guy doing them had to remain completely deadpan. Instead, the producer said, no, silent comedy has to "BE BIG!" He made the guy wildly overplay everything until he was mugging and flailing so outrageously, he was knocking over the scenery. Viewers didn't even notice the gags being pulled. Someone who worked on that show and didn't know I had written it later mentioned how painfully awful those bits were. I was too embarrassed to say anything, but I wanted to scream, "Believe it or not, they were funny when they came out of my typewriter!"

MikeN said...

Mike I had no idea. So his great acting job was actually Boss Hogg. The cast of that show is underrated. Just how seriously they own the roles. Will Ferrell in Elf is another example that so many would ruin.