Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Turning Off 'Turn On'

Did you ever have a blog post that you were SURE you put up but discovered it had disappeared?

In this case, perhaps the post was cancelled. That would have been especially appropriate. The post was about Turn-On.

Countless TV shows have been cancelled. I suspect very, very few have been cancelled before they even aired. Turn-On was. At least where I lived.

Let’s try posting again and look at what Turn-On symbolised.

It was 50 years ago yesterday the show was supposed to air on KOMO-TV in Seattle. I was looking forward to it. The show was kind of like Laugh-In, I had read. Tim Conway was going to be the guest star, and I always liked Tim Conway. But when I turned on Turn-On it wasn’t there. The station was airing something else.

My aging memory may be imagining a post I never wrote but it perfectly remembers what happened in 1969. And it is confirmed by a column in the Vancouver Province on February 7th, two days after the show was to air. Oh, the indignity! The column was written by Lawrence Cluderay, who was generally assigned to cover the symphony, opera and legitimate theatre.
The premiere of a new ABC network show, Turn-On, was not screened on the Seattle outlet, KOMO, Channel 4, this week. The station's management explained that it had decided “certain portions of the program are not in good taste, and that these portions would be objectionable to a substantial and responsible segment of the community.” In future, it stated, the program will be viewed ahead of time to see if its contents are suitable for their viewers. As a result of the KOMO action the program was not available to viewers in the Vancouver area.
Columnist Cluderay then washed his hands of it all and re-published a review from United Press International.
Television in Review

HOLLYWOOD (UPI) – The producers of television's highest-rated series, “Laugh-In,” this week presented a new, weekly ABC half-hour show entitled “Turn-On,” and described as follows:
“A visual, comedic, sensory assault involving all media techniques such as graphics, film animation, tape, stop action, slow motion, electronic distortion, computer graphics and even people.”
The final reference to the fact that “even people” figure in the entertainment may be intended lightly but is, in fact, the crux of advance debate on the show. For this is a serious comedy show that strikes uncomfortably close to the nerve in recognizing a subtle, yet terrifying contemporary theme: people becoming objects, packaged in a huge supermarket atmosphere.
“Turn-On” has, as its host, a computer. While it may be compared with “Laugh-In,” it is actually much more compressed, not merely because it is 30 minutes shorter than the parent series, but, additionally, because it intends to truly assault the senses with bludgeoning speed. It is the most McLuhanesque of all television series to date.
I have no idea whether “Turn-On” will be a hit. I think it depends on the kids around college age. If they turn on to it, it may provide the shot in the arm that will bring on great promotion, which, in turn, could command national attention.
It is certain that the show will be either hated or loved, and if enough of the older generation hates it well, that, too, could provide the spark for youth to latch on to it.
If “Turn-On” fails, it will be, I think, because it is so honest in its attempt to comment on the way we live: I don't mean just the individual sight gags and topical humor, but the adherence to the impersonality it is driving at as an essence of our time. In order to make this overall comment, “Turn-On” is ironically, yet pointedly, using some of the weapons that have contributed to our impersonality: the computer, film, animation, a lack of human hosts.
Thus we can see where “Turn-On” and “Laugh-In” really differ sharply in certain key areas. The presence of Rowan and Martin as the “Laugh-In” hosts lends an air of traditional warmth and even middle-aged respectability—despite the biting humor. There is not even this cushion of tradition on “Turn-On.” As a further example, the so-called musical track that normally accompanies such a show is rebelled against: it sounds like a steady sequence of electronic impulses and garbled tape.
So we have a show of packaged people unlike the “Laugh-In” crew that is projected more personally to the home audience. Make no mistake, however—there are enough wild characters on “Turn-On” to provide just as good newspaper copy as the “Laugh-In” performers. The question is whether the very intelligent, very serious comedy brains behind “Turn-On” have pulled off a major coup in using impersonality to attract an audience (probably a young one), or will be victims of the very impersonality they see so clearly.
Du Brow got what executive producer George Schlatter was trying for in Turn-On. Others didn’t. His February 10th column pointed out stations in Cleveland, Denver and Little Rock cancelled Turn On. Other columnists viciously ripped the show, including a UPI colleague who didn’t spare Du Brow in his criticism (though not by name). Vernon Scott always seemed easy-going over the years he was in print and on radio, but he was really violently offended in this case. This was published on February 13th.
‘Turn-On’ Drops Megaton Bomb

UPI Hollywood Correspondent
HOLLYWOOD (UPI)— ABC-TV should have held the debut of “Turn-On” on Bikini atoll or maybe the underground atomic test site at Pahute Mesa, Nev. The show, styled somewhat after “The Rowan and Martin Laugh-In,” was a bomb of unequaled megatons.
It did, in fact, blow itself right off the air.
Some critics who find serious, albeit self-inflating, merit in anything television spews forth, searched their souls and predicted “Turn-On” might ignite the younger set, beginning a new trend.
What it did was turn off a couple of million viewers, the sponsor and a number of video stations affiliated with ABC, according to one source.
A Cleveland station wrote the network saying: “If your naughty little, boys have to write dirty words on the walls, please don't use our walls.”
And the flap was on. Contracts, time and money are involved.
All Parties Silent
None of the parties wanted to speak out. Not ABC. Not producers George Schlatter and Ed Friendly (who also produce “Laugh-In”). Not the ad agency. Not the sponsor. It is almost a certainty that “Turn-On's” debut was also its swan song. Praise be. It was an abomination. The show had no stars, horrible sounds that weren't music, bad jokes, poor taste and no redeeming artistic attributes.
Victim of the disaster is a jolly Englishman, executive producer Digby Wolfe, formerly associated with “Laugh-In.”
He had hoped the frenzied lunacy and pace of “Turn-On” would break new ground. It did. It broke right through the earth's crust.
Before the bomb exploded last week Wolfe said: “We'll deal with a broader base of satirical targets and more social satire than ‘Laugh-In.’
Sees Advantage
“We have an advantage over that show because we're on film instead of tape, allowing us to integrate cartoons, still shots, multiple images, undercranking and over cranking.”
Wolfe had high hopes for his brain child. But he more or less put the whammy on the show with his next statement.
“Our pace is really an assault on the senses,” he said. “Three or four things will be going on at the same time.”
The viewers' senses were not so much assaulted as raped.
A rival network executive said the show had only a 17 per cent share of the audience the night it was still-born, a wretched showing for the debut of a new, well-advertised series.
Instead of conventional music the sounds were provided by a moog synthesizer, an electronic device that beeped and bopped along like the wheezing of an asthmatic caliope.
Perhaps Wolfe's biggest error was replacing a living human being as host with a computer. God knows machines have replaced individuals to a ridiculous degree already. But as a television host. No way!
“Turn-On” is off. And good riddance.
What did executive producer George Schlatter have to say about the criticism and unprecedented sudden cancellation? Schlatter was never at a loss for words. This story appeared in papers on February 13th as well.
TV Networks Worried Over New Versions of ‘Sex Humor’

AP Television-Radio Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — A question frequently asked about shows like “The Smothers Brothers” and “Laugh-In” is just how far can television go with sex humor.
Since television began its flirtation with blue material in prime time some sort of collision seemed inevitable. It is the natural inclination of showmen to push for greater freedom—and the duty of the networks to see that freedom doesn't become license. This week an answer of sorts was provided.
ABC's “Turn On”—amid charges that it was “dirty” and “vulgar”—was canceled after its premier performance on Feb. 5.
Did “Turn On” step over the thin line between humor and bad taste?
George Schlatter, executive producer of Rowan and Martin's “Laugh-In” and “Turn On,” says, “ ‘Turn On’ was adult, sophisticated, loaded with double entendres. But dirty? No.”
Perhaps “Turn On's” sin wasn't that it was so dirty—just that it wasn't very funny.
In one vignette a girl pulled frantically on the lever of a pill-vending machine. A sign on the machine said it was “the pill.” In another quick vignette called the “Body Politic,” the show indulged in a double-meaning many viewers thought questionable.
“Let’s face it, creatively ‘Turn On’ didn't work,” said a high ABC official who asked not to be identified.
“Dean Martin is absolutely beyond belief. He can be awfully blue, but he's funny as hell. So is ‘Laugh-In’ and ‘The Smothers Brothers.’ Some of the things they get away with are incredible. But you don't bear anybody complaining—they're funny.
“And another thing,” he said. “These shows are earning very high ratings.” You let one of them slip in the ratings and you’ll see how fast people suddenly start discovering they’re dirty.”
The comedian and the network censor are natural adversaries, and their battles as far back as Jack Paar’s water closet joke have been fought in public. The story that caused NBC to censor Paar and Paar to walk off the show would seem tame today.
“I don't think standards are lower, but it's a sense of evolving—I'm talking about the whole United States—perhaps not so much toward permissiveness as toward candor. America is growing up and becoming less prudish,” says Ernest Lee Jahncke, NBC's vice president for broadcasting standards.
Schlatter, reached in Burbank, Calif., by telephone during a taping of “Laugh-In,” said, “I think that humor and satire can be as healthy as some documentaries I've seen. You can have a contemporary outlook on contemporary subjects. The way young people react to the pill shouldn't be just confined to the area of statistics.”
Asked why “Turn On” didn’t succeed, Schlatter said, “This kind of show—it's a startling change—is bound to ruffle a few feathers. ‘Turn On’ was no more outrageous or in bad taste than anything that's ever been on ‘Laugh-In’ or Dean Martin. It was the form that was distracting.
“The people were new, it had a new look, new sound. It was offbeat. All that contributed to a sense of uneasiness and disorientation. They didn't know that it was provocation, so they said, aha, bad taste!”
An ABC spokesman said the network had a contract for 18 shows and that a settlement would be made with Schlatter and his partner, Ed Friendly.
He said he was unable to say now what the replacement would be in the 8:30-9 p.m. slot on Wednesdays, but that it probably would be a taped game or variety show.
The Counterculture 50 years ago rejected the old and wanted the new. The establishment rejected any change from the status quo as being an attack on, ultimately, themselves and their values. In its 30-minute lifespan, Turn-On crystalised and symbolised the 1960s.


  1. I think I remember seeing it as a high school kid. If memory serves, I believe our ABC affiliate bumped it from prime time but did air it buried in a weekend afternoon slot... which, ironically, guaranteed that most of the tiny audience watching would be kids.

  2. Our affiliate ran one episode. That was it. I remember Tim Conway and Teresa Graves.

  3. It truly was awful, and reminded me of the G-rated version of some of the uncensored stuff I'd see on premium cable and public access TV in New York in the 1970s, where the new sense of liberation on what could be shown on the air made the people running things think just showing the edgier stuff in itself was entertainment. Just the fact the joke/sight gag had never been shown on TV before was supposed to make it successful, actually making the joke/sight gag funny was of secondary importance.

  4. I believe that in one of Harlan Ellison's 'Glass Teat' columns, he wrote about this show. I may be wrong, and my Ellison books are packed away right now.

  5. I remember it, just about ten., don't recall if I actually SAW it...:) not for the kiddies..

  6. You know, most of what "Turn On" had back then wouldn't be out of place on Adult Swim's shows or Seth MacFarlane's cartoons. Does this mean what we find funny has fallen over the years?