5 Lost TV Pilots That Will Make You Question Your Sanity
Not every TV show gets to be E.R. Most don't even get to be Homeboys in Outer Space, a program that failed quickly despite having a clever title that explained who it was about and where they were. Dozens of pilot episodes get produced each year, and only a tiny handful are ever broadcast. Sometimes it's because network executives are talentless morons, and sometimes it's because the shows are impossibly and hilariously shitty.
Here's a few from that second group.
The Orson Welles Show (1978)
Orson Welles is best known for Citizen Kane and the notorious War of the Worlds radio adaptation, but this show comes from a time in his career when he was more likely to be drunkenly flubbing his way through a commercial for Paul Masson champagne than crafting a legendary piece of entertainment. A frequent guest of Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett and others, Orson decided to take a shot at the format himself. The results are mesmerizing.
When the lumbering freak-show giant turns to the camera and croaks, "Welcome to the launching party," you can't help but feel like a deranged carny has just pulled the lever on a ride that will be your last. And the guest list takes the late-70s strangeness even further. First up, none other than Burt Reynolds, oozer of visible slime. Somehow, the two men failed to not wear the exact same clothes.
To be fair, the 70s gave two choices for fashion: flared jeans or the softcore porn look.
Mr. Welles abandoned the standard "softball questions and anecdotes" format for an audience Q&A. This allowed for the kind of uncomfortable moments you don't often get on network television. Most notably, an African-American man asks Burt whether he considers himself a star or a superstar, and gets the response, "Only a black man would ask that question." An inexplicably racist(?) non-sequitur which is met with guffaws from our madman of a host.
"I'd better laugh too, otherwise it'll look like black people have no sense of humor!"
The weirdness keeps on coming with his next guests: Jim Henson and Frank Oz, accompanied by Kermit, Fozzie and Sam the Eagle. Instead of doing fun, harmless, Muppet-related interview questions, Welles turns a conversation with a frog puppet into a desperate defense of why he's now doing television, "the one theater [he's] never really worked in." He's Orson Welles, and he invited Jim Henson onto his show so he could defend himself to a puppet. Is that clear to everyone? That's a thing that happened. The 70s were weird.
He used to be a legitimate actor. Kermit we mean, not Orson Welles.
The final guest is Angie Dickinson, star of hit series Police Woman and a minor sex symbol of the time. You can imagine the show's producer planning the segment. "OK, so we'll trot Angie out for some questions about the show, throw in some mild flirtatious innuendo and call it a day? No, Orson? You'd rather have her do some magic? Well she's not known for that, but ... OK, that could be fun and sexy too, maybe she wears a sparkly little dress and you cut her in half- what's that? Strap yourself into a throne with a blindfold? So you can narrate an ominous game of Russian Roulette that will haunt the kids who tuned in to see Kermit for the remainder of their natural lives? Well, you're the genius!"
His dates typically ended this way, too.
The Adventures of Superpup (1958)
"Look, up in the air! It's a bird! It's a plane! No, it's ... um ... it appears to be a small man with a giant, unblinking dog head and a Superman costume. Get the kids inside, dear, and bring me my rifle."
This ain't no Krypto the Superdog.
By 1958, the successful Adventures of Superman series was nearing the end of its run. Producer Whitney Ellsworth, who seems to have borrowed his name from an old-timey gold prospector, realized there might still be some stories and/or money left in them thar hills. Somehow, that realization led to this.
This scene alone set dog actors back 50 years.
The creators spared every expense, starting with the sets, which were the exact same sets used for the Superman show. Next, they hired a cast made up almost entirely of little people, and gave them oversized dog-face helmets to wear. Now, sure, we expect the special effects of the past to look silly by today's standards. But it's hard to imagine a time anywhere in history when children would not have been horrified by these motionless, dead-eyed monstrosities. Well, "motionless" is a bit of an exaggeration:The mouth flaps do stutter open and close randomly when characters speak. However, do not make the assumption that the performers inside got the privilege of speaking their own dialogue. That task fell to other actors on set, who recorded their speech off-stage in real time while cameras recorded the so-called action. This technique gives the show an even more stilted, disconnected-from-reality feel.
Of course, real dogs drive automatics.
The characters of Superman's world were assigned new dog-appropriate names. Clark Kent became "Bark Bent," tough-as-nails newspaper editor Perry White was now "Terry Bite" and the iconic Lois Lane was naturally re-dubbed ... "Pamela Poodle." Because finding a name that resembled hers at all (like, say, Doris Dane) was less important than reminding everyone that poodles are the girl dogs. Jimmy Olsen's role was filled by a nameless, cheeky mouse living in Bark Bent's desk, obviously.
A piece of advice that the show's creators should have taken to heart.
The episode's story centers on the escape of Professor Sheepdip and his plan to destroy the Daily Bugle building with the help of his idiot henchman, Wolfingham. If you're wondering whether the name "Professor Sheepdip" is a play on the moniker of any famous Superman villain, then you haven't been paying enough attention. That question becomes less important when you see Professor Sheepdip test his new invention: a liquid that explodes with the force of a nuclear bomb.
You're never going to grow up, kids!
Yes, a mere 13 years after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the creative team behind The Adventures of Superpup felt it appropriate to show their whimsical villain setting off a mushroom-cloud explosion. And where is our hero in all of this? Alarmingly absent for the most part. Superpup doesn't even appear until more than halfway into the episode; prior to that we just get Bark Bent whining to his desk-mouse about how he doesn't know what to do. Which is odd, because he is well aware of the villains' last known location, and could totally fly there and get them. After all, the opening sequence informs us that he's "able to fly around the world faster than you can say Superpup!" Of course, it's hard to imagine why anyone would say, "Superpup," except perhaps in the sentence, "What is this awful Superpup pilot you've produced -- no of course we can't show it on television."
By 1964, the comic book world of Riverdale high-schoolers Archie, Jughead, Betty had been around for over 20 years, and was well-established in the popular consciousness. So, obviously, the time was right for television to get all of it completely wrong with a creepy, half-baked sitcom!
"... and the rights to this show are SOLD to the scary man-child in the front row!"
Remember how in the comics Archie would ignore Betty and Veronica so he could come on to the school secretary in a really slimy fashion? No? You don't? Well, to hell with your stupid treasured childhood memories! Television's take on Archie was that of a scheming, slick fellow with palpable levels of smarm, like Eddie Haskell, except ... no. The sexual tension is a little too real and aggressive for the wholesome 1960s teen sitcom backdrop -- it gives the show an unsettling, date-rapey feel. If this Archie were operating in today's world, he'd make a coke-fueled sex tape with Betty, Veronica and Moose, then sell it to Vivid for a tidy profit.
"Of course you'll get 20 percent if you get Jughead involved."
The strangest piece of this sweaty pie is the characterization of Principal Weatherbee. A full four minutes of the pilot episode is devoted to him, sitting alone in his office, having an argument with his own disembodied voice. Yes, the well-meaning Weatherbee of the comics is reborn as a depressed schizophrenic! He opens the show alternating between questioning his own life's worth and openly acknowledging his disturbing obsession with Archie. Despite all this, his internal monologue reassures him, "Here you are, a successful, important man. A high school principal with 800 young minds to mold." Weatherbee's response? A defeated "... Yeah." But it must be funny, because the laugh-track eats it up! As the episode unfolds we learn that Weatherbee is involved in his own love triangle, featuring aging-and-desperate teacher Miss Grundy and his own secretary. Yes, the same secretary that Archie wants to bang. These are the depraved, twisted scenarios that erotic fan fiction are made of. So, in that sense at least, Archie was well ahead of its time!
Principal Weatherbee prays for just one day that he doesn't feel like pulling the trigger.
The Three Stooges Scrapbook (1960)
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."
Heat Vision and Jack (1999)
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.