With some TV shows, it's pretty obvious where the idea came from; Seinfeld was basically just a guy transcribing his life and Saved By The Bell was likely the brainchild of someone who got his copy of Ferris Bueller's Day Off stuck in the VHS player. However, some of the inspirations behind your favorite programs aren't obvious at all, and relied much more on their creators connecting the strangest dots possible. For example ...
Rick And Morty is easily the best cartoon on TV right now, and the second-best show to feature a character named "Mr. Poopybutthole" after Mad Men. It's basically Back To The Future with more irreverent jokes and less incest.
Warner Bros. Television
Surprisingly, Rick And Morty began, not as an attempt to reach cartoon greatness, but as a way to fuck with a big movie studio. The characters we now know and love first showed up in the cult screening series Channel 101, made by Rick And Morty co-creator Dan Harmon, in an obvious spoof on Back To The Future.
Upping the ante on Doc's questionable ethics, instead of merely masquerading as a bomb-maker to poach radioactive material, he uses time travel as a way to force Marty to lick his balls -- Doc's balls, that is. Not Marty's own balls, though that would technically be a better use of time travel.
Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon
Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon
According to creator Justin Roiland, the only reason he made the shorts was because he was hoping to get a cease-and-desist letter from Universal. After hilariously receiving one from Bill Cosby's (soon to be overworked) lawyers for House Of Cosbys, he was "just looking to 'troll' a big studio." Sounds about right.
Set in a strange, distant galaxy where theater seating hasn't been invented yet, beloved series Mystery Science Theater 3000 gives both pleasure to millions of movie geeks and unexpected royalty checks to a bunch of out-of-work '70s actors.
Gaiam Vivendi Entertainment
But while it seems like it might have been inspired by a Henson Company employee's peyote-fueled nightmares, MST3K owes its existence to the same dude who gave the world "Rocket Man" and that song about cartoon lions boning: Mr. Elton John.
But how is a pop-rock god and gay icon responsible for a show about snarky college types making fun of old movies? Is there a forgotten verse in "Tiny Dancer" about how shitty Teenagers From Outer Space is? According to creator Joel Hodgson, the spark of the idea began when he was in high school and read the liner notes for John's album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, which contained illustrations for all of the tunes.
Universal Music Group
The drawing for the song "I've Seen That Movie Too" showed a silhouetted couple watching Gone With The Wind, which inspired the aesthetic of MST3K. Luckily Hodgson didn't try to launch a series based on the unfortunate "Jamaica Jerk-Off" drawing:
Universal Music Group
Looking at the drawing, Hodgson thought, "That would be an awesome idea for a TV show. You could use a green screen and have these people sit in silhouette and talk during the movie." Eventually he fused this idea with his hobby of making robot sculptures out of crap from the Salvation Army, and TV history was made.
Breaking Bad was a lot of things: a gritty drama, a 21st-century spaghetti Western, and a solid reminder that most people with goatees are pure evil. But the tale of greed, selfishness, and Smurf-colored meth had a much lighter origin story: a dumb-ass joke.
The show's creator Vince Gilligan got the idea for the series while he and a fellow former X-Files writer were desperately looking for a new gig as their show had ended. Pickings were so slim, Gilligan and his pal joked that they either should become greeters at Wal-mart, or even more unfathomably, that they should travel the country in an RV making crystal meth, which is clearly a silly thing for former X-Files writers to do -- it's much more a former Sliders writers' kind of move.
Sony Pictures Television
The joke got stuck in Gilligan's head, not as a career path, but as an idea for a show. The other key ingredient here is that Gilligan was about to turn 40, and was anticipating a mid-life crisis. But instead of having an affair, or buying a douchebag car with terrible gas mileage, Gilligan instead created a "kindred spirit" called Walter White, who was going through his own mid-life crisis -- only Walter's mid-life crisis was cancer, and he dealt with it through murder and racketeering. Which, to be fair, is still less dumb than dyeing your hair jet black or buying a Ferrari.
Firefly is Joss Whedon's beloved cult series about a future where space travel is the norm and everyone has names like they were picked from the Gwyneth Paltrow's Big Book Of Vegan Baby Names.
While you might expect that Whedon's space western was mostly inspired by Star Wars and the second time he saw Star Wars, the show has a surprisingly highfalutin source of inspiration; the Pulitzer Prize-winning Civil War novel The Killer Angels. As the story goes, Whedon was on vacation, and the book he happened to bring was the acclaimed telling of the Battle of Gettysburg. You know, classic light summer reading. According to Whedon: "The minutia of the Battle of Gettysburg and the lives of the people in it really made Firefly just pop out of my head" -- because nothing says "a battle between brothers" like pew pew spaceships. Though, granted, you can totally see shades of the post-Civil War narrative in the show.
Following this logic, it's hard to ignore that the heroes we root for are the Confederates of their galaxy. Whedon admitted: "Our captain was fighting for, shall we say, the South." Before quickly adding: "Not for slavery".
Twin Peaks -- it's either an inspired examination of the dark underbelly of the American dream, or David Lynch just got a great deal on red curtains and strobe-lights at a garage sale and was trying to figure out a use for them. The show follows an investigation into the murder of the teenaged Laura Palmer, who turns out to have been the victim of evil demons that live in the town's woods. Yet everyone seems cool to keep living there because ... the coffee and pie are pretty good?
So where did the idea come from? While your grandmother probably only ever gave you broken shards of hard candy covered in cat hair, Twin Peaks co-creator Mark Frost's nana gave him the idea for a hit show. Frost spent his childhood summer vacations in Taborton, NY, where his grandmother would tell him creepy-ass local stories, including the 1908 murder of young Hazel Irene Drew, which was never solved. She told these stories as a sort of "cautionary ghost story" with the moral being "don't go out in the woods at night" -- which we're pretty sure is emblazoned on the Twin Peaks welcome signs.
Sand Lake Historian, CBS Television Distribution
When he and Lynch began writing the show, Frost went to the small-town city hall to research the murder. Everything about the case fascinated him. Like the fictional Laura Palmer, Hazel had a number of secret romances that were uncovered during the investigation. "It was the notion of this girl's body being found on the edge of the water, the mystery remaining unsolved, the multiple suspects ... It really struck my fancy," he later admitted. For Frost, it was the perfect crime -- to write a surreal '90s TV show about.
And what was Lynch doing while Frost meticulously researched real murders to craft the story? He was busy building the supernatural component of the show using errant set decorators and slumping against a stranger's overheated car. So, y'know, pretty boring normal stuff for Lynch.
Alias was J.J. Abrams' popular show where Jennifer Garner plays a young woman who goes to college, gets recruited as a spy by a secret government agency, becomes a double agent when she realizes they're actually evil, and eventually transforms into a Smoke Monster. Right? This is a J.J. Abrams show we're talking about.
But that entire storyline (minus the Smoke Monster stuff) wasn't originally meant to start a new show, but as a messed-up way to end one that was already running. When he first pitched the idea, Abrams was working on Felicity, that show about a plucky young college student whose haircut almost destroyed America.
Disney–ABC Domestic Television
After getting frustrated that his show about a scrappy college-aged girl wasn't providing any opportunities to grapple with "crime" or "vampires" or all the other fun stuff Joss Whedon got to do, J.J. came up with a bold idea. "You know what would just rock?" Abrams asked his writers at a time when that wasn't a super-lame thing to say. "If Felicity was recruited by the CIA because she'd have to go on these missions internationally and be in these incredibly high-stakes, life-and-death situations."
While this twist would have been like the 90210 gang forming a squad of ninja assassins, he was presumably talked out of it, but eventually recycled the idea as Alias -- paving the way for Felicity's far more sensible time-travel season.
Larry David's long-running (and occasionally life-saving) comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm has been lauded as a game-changing TV comedy and the study of the effect of intense awkwardness on television sets. It began, however, not as a conventional TV pilot, but as a Larry David HBO stand-up special.
Like his stand-up (one of his bits was dismissively walking off the stage after seeing the audience), David wanted his special to be unconventional. It was made-up as a fake documentary about David's return to stand-up, a behind-the-scenes look at preparing for the HBO special. But because Larry David is crazy, he concocted all kinds of fictional elements for his "documentary" life, casting actors to play his wife and agent.
By the time we get to the filming of the special, which you have to imagine viewers of HBO at the time would have assumed was the main attraction, Larry freaks out and bails.
So the project became kind of an anti-standup special, but ended up paving the way for Curb Your Enthusiasm -- which even retained Larry's agent and wife. This origin story also explains why Curb is styled the way it is; the original special was intended to be a fake documentary, with handheld cameras and improvised dialogue. The show continued that approach, inadvertently setting a trend for TV comedy -- so pretty, pretty, pretty good job Larry David.
The TV series Westworld was inspired by a lot of things, like the video games Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto, plus the general dogshit nature of humanity. But we're pretty sure its primary source of inspiration was the 1973 movie with, get this, the same name.
Michael Crichton's movie/neverending parade of mustaches and giant collars was way ahead of its time, showing a glimpse of the moral issues behind simulated experiences. So where did Crichton get the idea for a (non-dinosaur-filled) theme park that goes haywire? Like millions of soul-destroying family vacations, it all goes back to Disneyland.
As Crichton was enjoying The Pirates Of The Caribbean ride, his mind wandered to Chaos Theory -- which is exactly the kind of deep thought that those distracting Johnny Depp cameos ruin. He wondered what would happen if the robots attacked the guests, what people actually would want to do with lifelike robots, and what the best location would be for a giant bunker full of spare genitals.
In fact, Crichton's original idea was so indebted to this one ride, the original story was to be called Pirate World, and only changed it to a cowboy theme because he was "concerned that Disney might sue." Crichton's other bit of inspiration was decidedly weirder, and came after visiting the Kennedy Space Center. He noted that the astronauts in training were being trained to the point of being machines, "working very hard to make their responses, and even their heartbeats, as machine-like and predictable as possible."
He became fascinated with "the idea of playing with a situation in which the usual distinctions between person and machine -- between a car and the driver of the car -- become blurred." Which you have to admit, would sound goddamned profound coming out of the mouth of Sir Anthony Hopkins.
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