I’ve waited a long time for this.
In 1969, producers George Schlatter and Ed Friendly wanted to create another monster comedy hit like they had with Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, a chaotic barrage of lightly structured sketches and jokes. How could they outdo it?
The original title of their idea was “Section 8”, then later “Kockamamie”, when finally they found their answer:
The legend of Turn-On goes goes like this. The show was so outrageously far beyond what people were willing to tolerate comedically in 1969 that many stations stopped airing the show half way through the first episode — and the second episode never aired at all.
I’ll let Tim Conway tell the story:
After its disastrous debut, ABC was turned off. They gave Schlatter and Friendly one big condition: they’d get a complete payout for the never-made 16-episode season only if the footage from the two finished episodes was buried, never to be seen again. Turn-On was quickly relegated to “biggest TV disasters” and “worst TV shows ever” specials, a punch-line born of punch lines.
For 54 years, Turn-On was erased from existence.
I’ve always wondered what it was like.
Until a month ago.
Ahead Of Its Spacetime
As Tim Conway noted, Turn-On “was way ahead of its time, and I’m not sure if you saw it today if that time has also [yet] passed.”
I think, in 2023, we might be ready. Turn-On actually maybe actually works now.
There are a lot of ways in which Turn-On was truly a revolutionary creation:
- The conceit is that the show is being written by a giant mainframe computer!! (…or should I say, AI?)
- Stark white, shadowless backgrounds feel hyper-modern
- Super quick cuts and relentless pacing remind me more of YouTube-paced content
- Secondary animated jokes layered on top of other, different jokes reminds me of TikTok view stacking
- The awkward tone of the comedy almost at times feels like prototype Adult Swim content
- Credits interspersed throughout the entire production means the show literally never slows down
- Wall-to-wall music and computer processing sounds were all created on a brand-new invention: Moog synthesizer!
- The Moog also acts as laugh-track/audience reactions
- It employs an amazing four-panel joke format, with each panel filmed separately and the actors holding their poses at the end of their lines. It’s delightful
Also, as a special bonus, Turn-On produced a (seemingly never-aired) first-ever piece of motion-captured computer dance animation!? This was done on the analog Scanimate, using an ANIMAC system. It’s so goofy:
And Ahead Of Its Audience
First, an important content warning: Turn-On contains 1969 material that rightfully feels wrong in 2023, especially when it comes to racism and sexism. You will likely cringe a few times, but maybe that’s good: we’ve come a long way.
In general, Turn-On was offensive, relentless, exhausting, and it pushed a lot of 1969 boundaries. It’s also both funny and… well, sometimes corny/not-funny. I wasn’t always ROFL’ing my AO. But when it hits, it hits.
While some of the jokes take time to work out (a woman singing “I’ve Got Rhythm” while knitting baby socks was probably a “rhythm method” joke, right? Maybe?), there’s a surprising number of jokes that feel awfully… today.
Two businessmen: “We’ve got to do something about your son. He’s coming in late, taking three hour lunches, and he’s fooling around with the girls in the office.” “Well, boys will be boys!” “Yeah, but he’s asking everybody how come we don’t have a union!” “Get rid of him.”
A Black man on the phone: “Absolutely not. We should never put an unqualified man in high office just because he is white!” (Ouch.)
A salesman: “Girls, I want to be a friend to your feet! Your hot feet, your tried feet. Yes, it’s the FFA, the fabulous Foot Fans of America, with an exciting line of literature you can receive in the privacy of your own home, and what you do there is nobody’s business but your own.” (Did Turn-On invent Wikifeet?)
Finally, according to Schlatter, a sketch where a woman tries to get “The Pill” from a vending machine, then gets increasingly angry when it fails to dispense, drew huge complaints from the network, angry that the sketch depicted a woman actively interested in sex.
There’s just so much more packed into these two shows, truly products of their time while still pushing buttons.
(Also, I couldn’t help but notice at least one famous writer in the credits…)
Why Now? How?
After 54 years, where did these episodes come from?!
Well, in June, they suddenly showed up on… YouTube.
I spoke with someone I know only as “Philroc”, the person who finally gave the world Turn-On. They told me that the episodes were captured from a media library where they were available to the public for research purposes. Philroc was in the area for a family visit, and had hoped to finally button up the Turn-On page at the Lost Media Wiki. So, basically: Turn-On was sprung from a vault.
This move raises a lot of questions about copyright and public domain and archives and the gradual disappearance of important work from the public eye, complexities far above my “I’m bloggin’ it!” pay-grade. But I do wonder, is there a single person at ABC today that knows what Turn-On is? And when time has passed and monetary value is no longer an issue, is it ok that great works can rot in vaults and basements until they are forgotten dust?
So, Here We Go, Good Luck
Here’s the full Turn-On Episode 1, starring Tim Conway.
(also on IA)
And here’s the never-aired full Turn-On Episode 2, starring Robert Culp and France Nguyen.
(also on IA)
Best of all, they’ve got all the original ads.
I hope you enjoy them (?), let me know if you can decipher any interesting jokes, thanks to Philroc for closing this mental loop, and may you also find peace knowing that some lost things can eventually be found, good or bad.
PS: Oh, and that story about the network pulling the plug? Well, to hear George Schlatter tell it, it was actually just one guy who waged a campaign against Turn-On, livid that it bumped off his beloved show, Peyton Place:
And yes, that’s explains the first joke of the show: “Welcome to Peyton Re-place”, lol.
PPS: George Schlatter has just released an autobiography — at the age of 93! — and if you enjoy short, punchy, classic-Hollywood anecdotes, you should check it out.