Saturday, April 07, 2018

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 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.


Peter said...

C'mon, no fair. Something that awesomely awful should be shown! We all get a kick out of seeing truly terrible shows.

Peter said...

I just looked up the cast on imdb. The only name I recognized is Terry Kiser of Weekend at Bernie's. Looking at his other credits, I saw that coincidentally he was also in Mannequin 2, another thing that you and David hated the finished product! I loved your story about the two sketchy producers of that movie who tried to pay you in big screen TVs instead of money and one of them later wound up in prison. Only in Hollywood.

VP81955 said...

I'm certain Chuck Lorre and other TV notables -- yea, even the sainted Joss Whedon -- have video skeletons in their figurative closets that will never see the light of day. You're in good company, Ken.

Jim Grey said...

Everybody's got to start somewhere!

At least your out-of-the-gate bomb happened before the YouTube years, where it would have been enshrined forever.

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...


tavm said...

I an only assume (and no, I'm not going to use the punchline usually associated with that word) that if Norman Lear and "SNL" hadn't been successful during that period (that the Smothers Brothers and "Laugh-In" basically prepared us for), we probably wouldn't have even more edgy and innovative programming that Steven Bochco and David Chase became further successful at. And we can also thank the president for making current late night-hosts use their prerogative to make fun of him for however long he keeps making inane comments and choices...though I do have to admit if we'll ever go back to the days of Walt Disney and Ed Sullivan when their shows presented "something for everybody"...

Max said...

Don't be so sure that no one will ever see it. After all, the STAR WARS HOLIDAY SPECIAL is all over YouTube.
Why not just send it to Joel Hodgson?

Mark said...

I think I remember seeing this as a 12-year-old. It definitely has a familiar ring to it.

Buttermilk Sky said...

Hey, I rented my first VCR. It was almost as if somebody knew the technology wouldn't last.

CarolMR said...

Ken, are you going to review CHAPPAQUIDDICK?

Rob D said...

Whenever I long for the “classic TV” era of my youth, it’s comforting to be reminded there was a lot of crap back then too. This pilot sounds truly awful and I hope I never see it. There is “so bad it’s funny” but this sounds just painful.

SteveS said...

Sorry, Ken, I gotta disagree. Those 2 jokes would have been the funniest thing to ever appear on an episode of "2 Broke Girls".

VincentS said...

I guess the takeaway from this is sometimes it's better to use a pen name!

VP81955 said...

These failed pilots were a staple of summer TV for years. I recall that in 1964, after "Dobie Gillis" had been canceled, Dwayne Hickman appeared in a sitcom pilot called "Mr. Hannan," where he played an elementary school teacher. (My K-6 school had no male teachers in 1964, and I'm guessing the novelty of one was a planned theme.) I watched it, and it frankly wasn't very good, so I could see why CBS passed. In later years, Dwayne became a comedy executive at that network and probably had to endure scores of dreadful pilots.

My late Facebook friend Francine York appeared in a 1969 TV movie (I believe it aired on ABC) that essentially served as a pilot for a series that never came to be (or it may have been a few episodes jumbled into a movie after the network turned it down). Titled "Pioneer Spirit," it was about three urban couples who relocated to the country (Alaska, I believe). If the concept sounds a bit like "Green Acres" writ large, it's because it was written by Dick Chevillat and Jay Sommers, whose work has been discussed at this site of late. Other cast members included Rich Little and Roy Clark. Never saw it, so I can't say whether it was any good.

Anonymous said...

I have this pilot on my computer. I will upload it to Youtube unless you pay me.

Mark Murphy said...

I remember the Dwayne Hickman pilot. I think they ran it at least twice.

I also vaguely remember "Pioneer Spirit," though the only part I remember is part of the theme, which, as I recall, kept repeating the phrase "Pioneer Spirit!" This didn't endear the show to me.

Remember "Vacation Playhouse," which always seemed to be the summer replacement for Lucille Ball's shows? Took me a while to figure out (hey, I was a kid) that these were busted Desilu pilots. I particularly remember one with Phil Ford and Mimi Hines, and another with Ethel Merman.

Mike Bloodworth said...

In July of '77 I had just graduated from high school. I was smoking so much pot at that time that I may have seen that pilot, but there's no way I could remember it. That's one of the advantages shows of that era had. Stuff just seemed a lot funnier when you were high. But, to get back on topic... Coincidently, this week FAMILY GUY (syndicated) had a plot very similar to your story. Brian writes a pilot. He pitiches it to the network and they love it. They buy it and then ruin it. Just as with you they screw up casting, change plot points, etc. The major difference between F.G. and real life is that Brian was so ashamed that he wanted his name off the show. It would seem that your example is far more common than most people realize. To VP81955, I remember PIONEER SPIRIT. It had a few laughs, mostly that silly kind of humor like on GREEN ACRES. One example: Roy is BBQing outside Rich's apartment. All the smoke is being pulled into Rich's apt. through the air conditioner. Rich comes out and says, "Why can't you BBQ in front of your own air conditioner?" Or something to that effect. I can see what it wasn't picked up. Speaking of SNL, I have the first season on DVD. Some of the sketches hold up. But, a lot of it is crap. Once again, maybe it just SEEMED funnier than it was thanks to marijuana. Who knows? Maybe now that "Mary Jane" is legal in CA I should start smoking again. It might make MOM, THE GOOD PLACE, or that "flight to Vegas?" show seem funny.

John H said...

That's much better than "2 Broke Girls."

VP81955 said...

Jay Sommers also produced "Pioneer Spirit."

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

Ken, if it helps... (and apologies in advance for the LONG comment below)..

As I think I've shared here before, I was involved with public access TV in Lakewood, CA from 1987 to about 1998, when it was shut down because the city didn't want to pay for it anymore (sadly).

Anyway it's interesting... I've always had dreams of being a filmmaker and I admit I wanted to use their pro video equipment and experience from producing shows there, to make a film of my own. Ironically, the *very first* show I was involved with, was a movie two *other* young producers were making; they wanted to break into Hollywood as well. The movie was a Sixteen Candles ripoff.

These producers ended up using *so much* equipment, for so many check-out dates, for so many days, the city finally put their foot down and made up a whole new set of rules that made checking out equipment so time-constrained, nobody would ever have the ability to try and make a "feature film" with their toys again. On top of that, because of the new rules, the film I helped work on was completed, so no one ever got to see it. It was literally the Heaven's Gate of public access television.

In the meantime, I continued with public access... but all I could do was based on the new limits of availability. So I made talk shows, 15-minute documentaries, stuff like that. I was okay with it, but still wanted to make my movie.

As mentioned above... 1998 came and the announcement was made that the city wouldn't take care of us anymore. But the studio itself was run by people who knew me and other producers for years, and they felt bad for us. So long story longer... they "looked the other way" and I got to bend the rules, to do something creative.

I decided not to overreach, just make a half-hour show sketch comedy show of television spoofs I had written over the last couple years. Title: TV ROTS YOUR BRAIN.

Well, it took me six months... I worked hard... hired actual talent kind enough to answer my ad in Drama-Logue... and finally got the thing on the air, about a month before the official end of our channel.

But... by the time I got to the editing booth (and this was pre-digital editing; you had to use special equipment tied between two 3/4-inch Ken-style VCRs, to dub specific frames from a source tape to a master), city equipment was just old and not working great, causing problems with the final mix.

Everyone was patient, but I knew the clock was ticking.. so I threw everything together, the best I could.

FINALLY WRAPPING UP... I got to finish and air, my "dream program." And it's SO icky/crappy, despite the best efforts of the actors I hired, crew who worked, my own sweat, and everything else... I can't bear to view it. It really does rot your brain to watch the thing.

So Ken, I can understand 100% about wanting to bury something you've done. It happens even to us no-budget guys at the bottom of the totem pole. :-)

Frank Beans said...

Ken, you can't do this to us-- if it's so atrocious as you say, it's gotta be so bad that it's fucking good. Please share the video!

Pat Reeder said...

I remember as a little kid watching some of those failed pilots as summer time "special events" (I grew up in rural Texas, and when school was out in the summer, there was nothing much to do except watch whatever the Dallas TV stations served up from 60 miles away.) The only one I remember involved Fred Gwynne as a henpecked scientist who invented a formula to preserve things, like bananas, by turning them into glass. He inadvertently turns his nasty mother-in-law (Rita Shaw) into a glass statue, but manages to get her back to normal before the end credits. I have no idea why, out of all the things I saw on TV as a kid, that stuck like epoxy in my memory, right down to the casting.

John Mazur said...

..... doo doo in the house again?
Try poo poo next time. Might work.
Also, my guess is U bought your 1st
home VCR in the mid ‘70’s at the woefully inadequate Good Guys at the Beverly Connection.

Greg Ehrbar said...

@Pat Reeder That Fred Gwynne pilot never left my head either. Child actor Pamelyn Ferdin played the daughter and has posted about the pilot on her FB page. It was called "Mad, Mad Scientist" and had the same writers as The Munsters.

Perhaps only Mel Brooks could brew comedy magic from effluent jokes -- as in the speech scene he did in "High Anxiety" and Gene Wilder's sharp retort to Danny Goldman about his grandfather's work in "Young Frankenstein." The man could paint with words.

I remember Bo Kaprall as the policeman who dated Shirley (or was it Laverne?), and as also one of the stars of a CBS Saturday Morning kid's variety show called "Wacko," in which a giant nose frolicked on the beach.

Again, funny what sticks in one's brain.

Curt Alliaume said...

How about a press photo from the pilot?

Albert Giesbrecht said...

Don't sweat it Ken. Canada produced the worst sitcom of all time, The Trouble With Tracy. The premise was basic romcom sitcom, but the hook was that it aired daily. That meant no re-takes. The stars never acted again.

Roger Owen Green said...

Someone suggested I write my autobiography; don't know if the life is worth one, but that's another matter.
But I have a whole bunch of diaries/journals from the 1970s/early 1980s that I could use. The problem is that I'd have to actually READ them, and I'm sure it would be mortifying.

Artie in Sin City said...

Really, worst than "Poochinski"?

5w30 said...

Still have a 3/4 inch 1st generation SONY machine in my storeroom from NBC. It was a machine that was NABET-ized into a screening-only machine (the red record button was de-activated). A museum piece now.

Checkersspeech said...

Pat Reeder -- I remember Fred Gwynne's wacky inventor pilot! Remember the "coming attractions", where a tiny Gwynne was trying to make a call on a giant rotary phone (or as they were called back then, "telephone")? Also: I was in Texas too (though not the Dallas area), and was probably about the same age as you at the time.