Thursday, August 3, 2023

The most infamously cancelled comedy show, now on YouTube!

Chuck McCann and
Mel Stewart as cops 
doing an ad for mace.
[UPDATE: This piece has been updated to now link to the official, authorized postings of these episodes by producer George Schlatter. Unfortunately, these videos are "stretched" to a rectangular image when they were shot in classic TV (1:33) "square" ratio. So they induce a bit of wincing on that level, but now they're legal....]

Back when I wrote about the great Robert Staats, I mentioned the infamous comedy series “Turn-On,” which was the only show to be cancelled as it traveled across the country, from East Coast primetime to West Coast primetime on Feb. 5, 1969. 

The show wasn’t as awful as that bit of TV history implies — it was actually way ahead of its time. A far hipper version of “Laugh-In,” it was conceived of by the same production company, Schlatter-Friendly Productions, for ABC. It had no laugh track (which was very unusual for TV comedy in 1969), contained even more complicated edits than “Laugh-In,” and was willing to lose some laughs to get across certain points.

Since both existing episodes of the series are now on YouTube — watch them before they get pulled! – it’s worthwhile to contextualize the series. First, it’s important to note that “Turn-On” showed up several months before Norman Lear’s sitcoms (starting in January 1971) and National Lampoon (starting in April 1970) opened up the floodgates to what is now considered “incorrect” humor but was then considered liberated humor, since it cast a wide net and made fun of absolutely everyone.

Secondly, the show featured plenty of ridiculous jokes, but it didn’t talk down to viewers, and assumed they could take the jumps from situation to situation, gag to gag. It was conceived of as "the first computerized TV show."

It actually resembles a sci-fi series or a live-action cartoon in its approach: a solid white background is seen behind the performers (two years before THX-1138), the credits continue to appear throughout the length of the show, and an electronic score is used throughout the first episode.

It is truly wonderful that both existing episodes are now readily available (Staats noted to me that material was prepared for a half-season of shows), as the second show (with guest host Robert Culp) is far better than the first (with guest host Tim Conway), and it never aired at all, because the series was indeed canceled as the first ep was traveling West. It is "calmer" in its approach, since, presumably, Tim Conway signaled "kooky comedy" and Culp signaled "mellow sexuality," so the latter approach is taken in the second show (down to the soundtrack having a light jazz score instead of constant electronic bleeps and blops).

One of the quick onscreen
lines that jolts a modern-day
The take-no-prisoners approach to humor on the show meant that it ran the gamut from flagrantly silly blackout material (a la “Laugh-In” and, later on, “Hee-Haw”) to smarter humor to very quick-and-dark jokes. Two of these occur in Episode 1 when you see a series of desks at which the Paris Peace talks (“as dictated by General Ky”) took place — the desks are arranged in a swastika pattern. Also, as we see a court sketch, the phrase “Israel Uber Alles” floats by on the bottom of the screen.

“Turn-On” thus mocked hot-button issues (and “tasteless” premises) in a way that “Laugh-In” never would have and which later became the norm for later shows like “Fernwood 2-Night” and, much later, for “Adult Swim” cartoons and live-action series. 

The last element that must be mentioned about “Turn-On” is its cast. A bunch of newcomers were featured, but some of the cast were old pros. Mel Stewart and Hamilton Camp were very familiar faces on TV, while Chuck McCann was the nearest to a star “name” the show had (thus the guest hosts). Robert Staats did his “E. Eddie Edwards” pitchman character on the program (plus a more bizarre drag character called “Modren [sic] Bride”). 

Robert Staats (credited here as "Bob")
as pitchman E. Eddie Edwards.
That character is best known from The Projectionist, but that film’s release was several months off when the series was shot; Schlatter would’ve seen Staats in a very popular industrial film called “Safety Shoes” (1965). The advertising firm that Staats worked for, Stars and Stripes Productions, is in the credits for “Turn-On” as having supplied segments, most likely animated ones.

Teresa Graves.
It will be noted that the women in the cast participate in all the sketches and some serve as “dancing girls,” a la “Laugh-In.” In fact, the only cast member both shows shared was Teresa Graves, who gets to both do jokes and dance here. 

 Another familiar name flies by in the list of scripters. Albert Brooks, who at this time was just beginning in show business as a standup, is listed alphabetically among the writers. Also on the second episode, a Ban deodorant ad features a young Ms. Madeline Kahn. (The ads are quite fascinating, since some of them look like the show  white backgrounds, silly behavior  but some are "documentary-style" as in one with Mary Quant promoting AT&T).

Here is the first episode, with guest host Tim Conway. [The embeds below are for the authorized versions posted by producer George Schlatter -- I wish they weren't "stretched" into a rectangular ratio! But now they are fully legal...]


Here is the second show, never aired, with guest host Robert Culp.

Note: Thanks to YouTube poster Andrewgtv05 for their posting of the shows, and friend Jon W. for his pointing them out to me.