Regardless of what you think about them, The Three Stooges were gigantic comedy stars for a very long time. But when this pilot was made, things were not going so well for the masters of eye-poking. They had been unceremoniously dropped by Columbia in 1958, after 24 years of making popular theatrical shorts, as audiences had simply lost interest in shorts. So they swallowed their pride, and then maybe their faces turned red and steam shot out of their ears, and then they made a sitcom! Well, it's almost a sitcom! Well, it's definitely a thing!
Curly Joe gets to work while the other two read the scripts and wonder desperately where the jokes are.
The Stooges always consisted of Moe, Larry, and "the third guy," a rotating position not unlike the lead singer of Van Halen, or the various faces transplanted onto Madonna. The third guy succession goes like this: Shemp Howard (briefly), Curly, back to Shemp, Joe Besser, Joe Palma and finally, Curly Joe. Believe it or not, Curly Joe was not related to his predecessors Curly or Joe, just an amazing Hollywood coincidence. He's the one we get for this pilot, which is fitting because everything about it feels slightly off. These men are visibly exhausted. They no longer have the energy to do the kind of slapstick they were known for and the story concept is ... well, let's talk about that story concept.
Shenanigans afoot. Shenanigans afoot!
The low energy, uncomfortable Stooges live together in a crappy apartment where they prepare to go make a television show. That would put the pilot in the realm of meta-showbiz comedies, alongside Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Larry Sanders Show and The Paul Reis- already canceled? Get out, that was like, two episodes. Wow, OK.
Anyway before the Stooges can make their show, they're kicked out of their apartment for cooking, because the landlady doesn't allow that. They go look at another place ... which also doesn't allow cooking. (Apparently this was a major stumbling block for renters of the time.) Finally they wind up at Creepy Manor, owned by Professor Dolottle (does he talk to animals, you ask? No, dumb question.). At first you assume Dolottle, living in a place called Creepy Manor, must be a stock Vincent Price-type "spooky guy" with a haunted house. Wrong! He is more of an arms dealer, having invented his own missile carrier (though the carrier plays no role in the plot and is never brought up again). Oh, and somehow his stance on cooking in the house goes unaddressed. Also, aliens. Wait, didn't these guys need to make a TV show or something?
"This looks like a promising plot development. Now let's never speak of it again."
It may seem unfair, even dumb-assed, to talk about story logic in The Three Stooges. Story was never the focus, but still, this one is supremely nonsensical, and that is amplified to the limit by the fact that they AREN'T EVEN DOING THE THREE STOOGES STUFF. There are some half-hearted stomach jabs and forehead smacks, but mostly they're just three kind of dumb guys wandering from one location to the next. It's pure, unfiltered strange, performed by guys who barely seem interested. We know this makes us terrible role models, but violence really could have saved the day on this one.
"Wwwwhy I oughtta ... retire? Hey guys, maybe we should retire."
The only entry on this list that is intentionally bizarre, Heat Vision and Jack quickly became a legend in cult comedy circles even though (or perhaps because?) it was never aired. A bongwater-soaked parody of 1970s/80s adventure shows like The Six Million Dollar Man, The Incredible Hulk and, obviously, Knight Rider, the pilot is so bent and clever it's hard to believe it was ever intended for network television. Jack Black starred as rogue astronaut Jack Austin, who, it's important to repeat this, was a rogue astronaut played by Jack Black. If you young folks out there only know Jack Black from things like Year One and Gulliver's Travels, you might not know this but, once upon a time, people actually liked Jack Black, back in the days of Mr. Show and Tenacious D. Heat Vision and Jack was born during that time.
These are the eyes of a man who still owns his soul.
According to the Tom-Jones-sung title sequence, Jack Austin's shuttle flew too close to the sun, making his brain rise like cookie dough, and now he has superintelligence whenever the sun is out. His sentient motorbike sidekick, Heat Vision (voiced by Owen Wilson), came to be when an experimental NASA ray merged Jack's deadbeat roommate with his ride. The two of them are on the run from NASA agent Ron Silver -- that is, actor Ron Silver playing the role of himself, actor Ron Silver, a NASA agent. Ron Silver wants to remove Jack's brain. And then it gets weird.
Superhero montage weird.
In the pilot, an alien named Paragon takes over a fry cook played by now-deceased character actor Vincent Schiavelli. One of the pilot's finer moments comes when Paragon calls a truck stop waitress a "worthless monkey whore" then slams her into a jukebox, which kicks right in with the "doot doot doot!" of Third Eye Blind's "Semi-Charmed Life." (Pretty sure nothing like that ever happened on Friends.) The whole thing culminates in a big strip club battle, Paragon is defeated and Jack escapes the clutches of Ron Silver to live another day.
And sadly, we'd never know how this guy would fit into the series.
The show's comedy pedigree was hefty: Ben Stiller, fresh off There's Something About Mary, directed the pilot and brought it to the networks. The script was written by Dan Harmon and Rob Schrab, who went on to found channel101.com and co-create The Sarah Silverman Program. These days they spend a lot of time at NBC, where Dan Harmon runs Community, his creation, and Rob Schrab is a regular director at Parks and Recreation. Ben Stiller in his prime, two soon-to-be-huge comedy writers, Jack Black and Owen Wilson, all working on the same show, and it never made it to the screen. FOX picked it up, but the network changed its tune when it saw the produced episode, and we'll never know why.
"Fat, solar-powered former astronaut fights evil with his talking motorcycle? Sounds suspiciously like originality to us."
We'll also never know what other acid-fueled adventures were in store for this man and his easily-pushed-over machine. A show like this might have flourished as the centerpiece of an Adult Swim lineup, but that stoner showcase wouldn't appear until 2001. This could be a case where the show met its best possible fate -- as a weird, too-clever pilot that never got a chance. A nugget of astronaut Jack Austin's wisdom sums it up nicely: "If fate makes you a motorcycle ... you become a motorcycle."
If fate makes that bike Owen Wilson - eh, roll again.
For more shows that made it past the pilot and then turned nutty, check out 6 TV Shows That Completely Lost Their Shit and Bridalplasty: The New Reality Show That Proves We're Doomed.