Monday, November 14, 2016

Thoughts on ABC's "Turn-On" (1969)

This is a very long rumination about two episodes of “Turn-On” which I viewed at the Paley Center in New York City not long ago. One episode aired (in most ABC television markets) in February 1969 before being cancelled part way through the first and only broadcast. It is thought to be one of the worst television shows ever to make it to air, with public outcry immediately forthcoming, even while the show played.

Although I don’t reveal a lot of jokes from the show here (there’s tons of them, and I wasn’t taking notes), you may not want to read on if you’re planning on viewing the programs yourself and want to be surprised. I was excited to view them, since I’ve known of their existence and their reputation for many years, and there’s no place online that I know of that you can see them. I thought perhaps that since I’ve always wondered more about what the show is actually like, and surprisingly not many people have weighed in online in any detail, that I would share with you my impressions, and also to help ME remember as well!

I doubt anyone clicking on this message doesn’t already know that this is a George Schlatter-Ed Friendly production, and they previously had phenomenal success on NBC with “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.” While the quick blackout-style of jokes of “Turn-On” borrows heavily from the “Laugh-In” format, there are some definite distinctions, most of which I’m thinking contributed to the show’s almost complete rejection by the public.

To my memory, a few clips I had seen of “Turn-On” featured some things that I don’t think were actually in the two episodes I recently saw, and one of them relates to the essential concept of the show. I see a free-standing room-sized computer with the traditional retro blinking lights to reinforce Schlatter’s idea that the show’s content is “programmed by a computer,” but of course, especially today this is a quaint conceit, and obviously,in relation to the 1969 show, untrue. Even with the modernist trappings, this show is acted, directed and assembled by…actual human beings.

What we actually see at the beginning of the first two episodes are two men seated at a command control-type console, pressing buttons to control what we’re going to see. We don’t see their faces, just their backs. One is a black man, one white, and they rattle off a few one liners to each other as they execute their job of setting up the show. It’s kind of cool. They’re sitting in and sharing the same stage as all of the action ostensibly “appears” around them, though the controllers only really serve as links to certain segments and brusque and unheralded cuts to commercial breaks (and here, it’s jarring because you wonder if the commercials are actually part of the show, since I imagine many people nowadays don’t remember Whistle Brand cleaning products or Vote (!) Toothpaste. I believe there was also a “hip” commercial for AT&T. Viewers at the time would have recognized these products, but this just adds another layer of dissonance and confusion for the modern viewer which I found sort of fascinating). Sometimes the controllers identify the topics before the jokes, like “SEX” of “POLITICS,” like they’re categorizing and queueing them up for the viewer.

One of the main things which factor into the feel of the show, and in my opinion one of the creators’ fatal flaws was to take this material and place it against a stark white tableau (like it’s “inside a computer?”). Only white as far as the eye can see, with the actors and spare props placed against it. Ever seen George Lucas’s “THX 1138”? It’s like that (and, hey, “Turn-On” predated that). I’m not sure what the show looked like on color TVs of the late 60s, but the transfers to video/digitization that I saw look grimy. Not a plus.

“Laugh-In” was vibrant, colorful (to cartoonish levels) and upbeat. “Turn-On” is different by design. There’s no laugh track, no audience to bounce off of, and the look is cold and oppressive.  Especially considering the traditional TV tropes of the time, does this scream “comedy” to you?  This is augmented with the “sensory assault” referred to by producer Digby Wolfe, with rapid fire clips of animation, video-tape, stop-action film, electronic distortion, and computer graphics interspersed amongst the live action. Much of it is interesting, if curious at times. And underlying all of it is a primitive electronic music bed, ranging from, again, “Laugh-In” style shuffles to random electronic burps and farts. By and large, I found it very ANNOYING, even if you appreciate those modern musical touches. So, the creators have set clearly set themselves an difficult task to make all of this new material fly.

You can imagine, with only a half-hour format to play with, and the varied cast of actors including guest stars all sharing the space, there isn’t much room to make an impression, and indeed, that is basically the case here.

Bonnie Boland and Ken Greenwald play everyman and everywoman roles, attractive, guy and girl next door. Ditto for songwriter, musician and actor Hamilton Camp (He doesn't sing here). Chuck McCann does tough guy/authority/cop stuff, and his Oliver Hardy-type impressions are also utilized.

Everyone else, unfortunately, doesn’t get much of a chance to get past their originally created “type.” Teresa Graves (who soon after this joined the regular cast of “Laugh-In”), Debbie (Debe) Macomber, Cecile Ozorio, and Maura McGiveney are all attractive young women who aren’t really given that much to do, unfortunately. I don’t think Maxine Greene (who reminds me a bit of Mama Cass Elliot) even gets one line. She blows a horn wildly out of tune, and blurts out some insane laughter in spots. Odd for odd’s sake. That’s the main impression I got. What a career-making show, yes?

Robert Staats plays "E. Eddie Edwards," a stereotypical tough New Yawker brand of con man, with slicked-down hair and ill-fitting ugly suit to match. He addresses the camera and pontificates on giving people "The Big One." That's his shtick for the show. Carlos Manteca and Mel Stewart fill what was probably seen at the time as a “minority” type of representation, and their material, as you might imagine, leans heavily on exploiting the color of their skin. Of the cast, only Graves (“Laugh-In, “Get Christie Love!”), Stewart (“Julia,” “All in the Family,” many other TV shows and movies) and McCann really went on to continue significant careers in the media.

Of the writers, Les Pine is listed up front and alone in the credits, so I’m assuming he was the head writer. Looking at IMDB, I can’t say I see anything that would point to a natural progression to a modern, cutting-edge comedy show. The most curious surprise is that amongst the small crew of writers is Albert Brooks. ALBERT BROOKS! (Wonder what he was responsible for?). Director is Mark Warren, who appears to have been a well-respected young African American director.

The content: Yes, there are sex jokes here, some of which are so leaden and uninspired that you wonder why they bothered (the firing squad ‘last request’ comes to mind, and we’re still in the era when Americans associated homosexuality with men putting on makeup, putting on women’s clothing and mincing about. There’s those kinds of sight gags here, too). “The Body Politic” segment gets repeated, featuring McGiveney lounging on a couch and being made to verbalize dumb puns into which writers have awkwardly shoehorned buzzwords like “titular” and “cleavages.” Various attractive women (Graves and…Debbie Macomber, I think) dance around like Goldie Hawn, albeit with more clothing and no tattoos. There’s the scene where a woman attempts to buy “The Pill” (in big fanciful letters) from a vending machine, and is angered when they aren’t delivered.

The longest and probably most “huh?” moment of the sex-oriented material is the Tim Conway-Bonnie Boland scene with the big word “SEX” on display as their floating heads move around it. It’s not random mugging for the camera, as some places have intuited. They’re pantomiming a scene where Conway is trying to convince Boland to sleep with him, but there are no words spoken, it’s all facial expression and reaction, and not executed very well so people get the point, and then it fizzles out and ends after an seemingly interminable (in this context) 1 to 2 minute stretch.

If, during the late 60s, just mentioning or presenting the fact that homosexuality exists, or the shocking truth that men want sex, or that attractive women are fetishized is offensive, then yes, this is offensive material. But mostly, what is of offense is that many of these jokes are stupid and lazy. I can only assume that the producers and writers figured there would be some clinkers, but the format would be fast enough to breeze past them. But here, they tend to accumulate and fester.

Which is a shame, because there does happen to be some really smart and witty stuff throughout, politics, racism, gender, religion, and relationship stuff that makes you say, “that’s a smart joke,” and you can still be impressed that they managed to convey such sophisticated sociological stuff and still put it across in the span of a 7-second joke. This is where “Turn-On” really strives and occasionally evolves the “Laugh-In” model, because the writers employed here, although limited in their success with this project, did come at this show with a somewhat different, more sophisticated mindset, and I applaud them for that.

Of course, for every Mel Stewart bit that considers the double standard in white vs. black lives, you have Carlos Manteca doing some Latino stereotype, or we go back to looking down Maura McGiveney’s dress. Bob Staats’ “E. Eddie Edwards” character seems to exist as a one-note caricature. He’s fun to watch, but he doesn’t have much more to say than to deliver variations on his “the big one” line (a la “I gave her The Big One, and she said it was wonderful.” This being a coarser, male-centered version of Judy Carne’s “Sock it to Me,” which no doubt raised eyebrows with its own sexual connotation).

The style: Fast, jittery, anxious, and contrary to their intentions, fairly clunky. Stitching all of these disparate elements together is a tricky thing. Writer George Burditt says they had hoped to better “Laugh-In” by making it faster and funnier, and he said, “Well, it was faster.”

A few of the comic dialogues are presented in a four-panel comic strip layout, popping up sequentially in squares as the joke progressed, which I found clever. You can also see the seeds of recurring jokes being planted early on, not only the Eddie Edwards stuff, but the wannabe catchphrase “That’s not wonderful…” and a weakly worried “Help!” being verbalized or animated, popping up willy-nilly.

Cameras zoom out on isolated, odd images, disappearing into the white oblivion. Some scenes are linked with overlaid ghost-like images of reactions from other actors. Sight gags, funny, unfunny, or just plain odd are inserted all over the place. (Ken Greenwald is punched and gets a black eye. Mel Stewart gets punched and gets a white eye, for instance. Or a close up of a belly button is the basis for things about to disappear into it). Little groaner puns are delivered sort of retro-handmade style across the top of bottom of a screen, pulled along an invisible wire. Hand puppets occasionally come into view (a scruffy matted yellow cat with beady eyes, and a large fuzzy hippo) silently turn around and face the viewing audience, “commenting” on the action. Are you starting to get the idea of what a self-consciously odd show this is? Some of it reminded me of dream images, and not pleasant ones, but off-kilter and patently weird.

I watched both episodes with my wife, with the intent of measuring just HOW bad the show actually was. I knew pretty much what to expect, but even I was kind of surprised at how this managed to make it to air in this form. I told her, plainly, as we watched the first episode featuring guest host Tim Conway, “This is AWFUL.” And Conway unfortunately doesn’t get very good material to work with. Aside from the “SEX” skit, he has a recurring skit that’s pretty lame related to a prisoner’s one phone call, which of course he wastes on asinine requests. There’s a dull batch of physicality where he plays a dancer who keeps stumbling into a row of ballerinas. And there’s other forgettable bits that involve him as well. Despite the prominent impression that all the humor was salacious, it wasn’t.

But a funny thing happened when we started to watch the second episode with Robert Culp and his then-wife France Nguyen (and I thought, wow, these are beautiful people, too). I asked my wife, “Am I nuts, or is this not nearly as bad as the first episode?” And she agreed. The jokes were better, it flowed more naturally, the aggressive music seemed toned down throughout. This is odd, because if in fact five or six episodes were filmed, was the Conway episode felt to be the BEST of the lot to start the series run? Amazing. And I felt sad for the people involved with the show, because had it been allowed to improve and hone its unique and strange humor, it could have made its mark in some other special way, instead of its dubious honor of being one of the country’s worst television shows ever.

I was really glad I was able to see these two episodes, and I’d love to see the rest, if they exist. I’d love to own them, actually, because they’re so unique. But I don’t see that on the horizon any time soon.

If I’m wrong, though, would you please let me know? And I’d love to hear from anyone else involved with the show, or anyone who wants to share their impressions of the show as well, especially if you know anything about the produced episodes which next to no one has seen.

Please contact Marc (that’s me!) at

And if you're even the slightest bit interested in the time period, or great moments where television really goes gonzo, I highly recommend you stop in at the Paley Center in NYC or LA and view these programs. To me, they are fascinating.

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