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Wednesday, March 4, 2015

"Know" More Pop-Culture - What Happened With 'Turn-On'?

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Turn-On's TV Title Card (ABC Television; 1969)
In February of 1969, a notorious TV pilot would air that would shock many and become notorious as one of the biggest television disasters in history.  I mean, the events of that fateful night make the trainwreck that was Joanie Loves Chachi look like Cheers by comparison.  So, what happened?

ABC led up to Turn-On with a lot of promotional hype.  It was the brainchild of the previous year’s big hit Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In’s executive producer George Schlatter, and the network was ready to set it up for a full twelve-episode first season before the pilot even aired.  Turn-On premiered on February 5th, 1969 at the 8:30pm time slot.  All seemed innocuous enough on the surface and with popular McHale’s Navy-star Tim Conway guest-hosting, people tuned in to see what ABC had been selling them for months.

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Turn-On Promo;
TV Guide Clipping
Reactions to the show were immediate and visceral.  The Cleveland, OH ABC affiliate refused to continue airing the show after the first commercial break and Denver’s local producers refused to air the show at all after the network screening.  The show was described as “crass” and “blue”, bombarding the sensitive 1969 American audience with fast and not-so-subtle sex jokes.  A second episode was recorded in full, but was never released, with only a few very brief scenes clipped in as part of a documentary for BBC Channel-4 in the UK.  It is incredibly difficult to find footage of this show, but the few scenes I have seen indicate this show’s cancellation was not a tragic loss by any stretch.

Most of the show had slapdash sketches and quick stingers filmed in front of a blank white stage backdrop.  There would be props and some set dressing for certain sketches, but it was all actually pretty plain.  This was likely an artistic choice as the very funny piece of TV psychedelia that was Laugh-In came from the same producers and it had more quality in its production design.  Some complained that the show was unwatchable due to the hyper-kinetic editing which, mixed with the white background, reportedly caused some viewers to become “physically ill”, though, I do not know how true this actually is.  In reality, Turn-On was likely just too much for the audiences of its time.  The sex references and the very direct jabs at public figures like Richard M. Nixon really put people off of the show.  A number of affiliates issued complaints their local customers made, and the show was killed for good a few days after its debut.  

The notorious pilot didn’t do much for the cast, either.  The lovely Teresa Graves would go on to join Laugh-In that year, but only for one season.  She would then appear in a few blaxploitation films (most notably the Fred Williamson vehicle That Man Bolt) and would get her own short-lived show Get Christie Love! in the mid 70’s.  She then would retire from acting shortly thereafter and would focus primarily on philanthropy.  Tim Conway kept doing his thing, and remained successful in-spite of this disaster.  He later spoke about it, not really showing any regrets.  In-fact, he was in good spirits about it, but Conway was already a TV veteran by 1969, so he’d seen the worst come and go.

By most accounts, Turn-On was simply ahead of its time.  It was too much for the period in which it aired and it would be more than six years before SNL would piss off half the country in 1975, but it just did it a lot better.  A large factor that arguably led to the show’s abrupt end was that it just wasn’t that funny.  It was all edge and no wit.  Carol Burnett put TV comedy over the edge in the 60’s and 70’s but inspite of all of her controversies in her time, she was a well-loved and respected woman, but most of all she was just very, very talented.  Not to discount Tim Conway in any respect, but even his chops weren’t enough to keep Turn-On… Turned on… (Sorry I couldn’t resist… it was too easy)

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