Turn-On’s Turning Point

The infamous cancelled-during-the-first-episode show, a lost-media legend, is on YouTube, which makes it the perfect time to analyze its legacy.

By Ernie Smith

Today in Tedium: There will likely never be a show quite like Turn-On ever again. It was built at the peak of a willfully weird era, and it was willfully weird and designed to upset the existing systems of television. When it recently appeared on YouTube 54 years after its auspicious premiere—including the rarely seen second episode—it was a big deal in some circles. The ultimate lost media discovery had resurfaced once again. It doesn’t matter whether it’s good (it’s not, but it’s better than you’d expect), but its cultural precedent is fascinating, and it honestly teaches us something about the world we live in today. So, with all that in mind, let’s consider Turn-On, one of the great examples of a noble failure in television’s long history. Even if you don’t like it, you have to appreciate what it represents. — Ernie @ Tedium

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“If your naughty little boys have to write dirty words on the walls, please don’t use our walls.”

— Donald Perris, the station manager of Cleveland’s WEWS, in announcing his decision to remove Turn-On from the air in the middle of its first episode in a letter to the ABC network. Perris played a pivotal role in the decision to kill Turn-On before it even had a chance to show a second episode.

Understanding the context that brought us a show as weird as Turn-On

Broadcast television in the 1960s reflected something of a culture war, with many hugely popular shows targeting a rural audience, because that’s where many of the viewers were—despite the fact that, well, that’s not where the creators were. By the early 1970s, in a hunt for better demographics for marketing purposes, the big TV networks would remove these shows from their lineups.

Peyton Place, a 30-minute prime-time soap opera that aired multiple times per week, was a great example of a show built around a small-town setting.

It was one of the few truly big hits of the hit-starved ABC. Built around an ensemble cast that included future film stars like Ryan O’Neal and Mia Farrow, it wasn’t a true target of the Rural Purge—it declined the more traditional way, with many of its original cast members leaving and being replaced, and the show struggling to keep pace with the quickly changing times. ABC had already cancelled it well before the time CBS and NBC started ditching “everything with a tree in it,” as the 2016 social science book Culture War put it.

But the decision to cut back on Peyton Place, and to attempt to replace it with Turn-On, was clearly a preview of what’s coming—a more traditional show getting replaced by something experimental. ABC, an also-ran network during this period, wanted a hip equivalent to Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, a variety show that premiered in 1968 and was known for its quick-cut jokes. The network signed on for a copycat of sorts by that show’s original producers, George Schlatter and Ed Friendly.

“The whole idea was to arrest the viewer’s attention without really having them comfortable in a place,” Schlatter said in a 2010 YouTube interview. “They were just there.”

The show they built was effectively an avant-garde version of Laugh-In, which eschewed the laugh track and sets in favor of basically nothing, in both cases.

The show was so avant-garde that, rather than airing the standard credits at the start and end of the show, said credits are peppered throughout.

Episode 1, with an intro from creator George Schlatter.

It did share some similarities with its predecessor, however. Dancing was a key feature of the show, which aimed to surface emerging comedic actors, and there was some political commentary in the mix.

But in many ways, Turn-On went further. While Laugh-In was one of the earliest shows to feature diversity in its ensemble cast (notably introducing audiences to Flip Wilson), Turn-On attempted to push the envelope a bit further on the front, including Asian-American and Hispanic actors as well as multiple black cast members.

Turn On Intro

Despite his appearance, Bob Staats did not make it into the new Barbie movie.

While Laugh-In had jokes about sex, Turn-On turned it into something of a pet topic, approaching it from multiple directions. (One of the most infamous sketches, starring the very cartoonish character actor Robert Staats in his E. Eddie Edwards persona, features the character talking foot fetishes.)

Laugh-In touched on political humor, at one point bringing Richard Nixon on the air in a way not dissimilar to how Saturday Night Live allowed Donald Trump to hit its stage. Turn-On seemed to push the political jokes a little further—in one case, guest host Tim Conway (who feels very at home in this) plays the governor of New Jersey talking about how he’s fighting corruption, only to have a gangster-like figure come up to him and kiss his forehead.

And the framing of the show seemed to go a lot further, too. The whole concept of the show was framed as a show programmed by computer, with all the weirdness that came with that framing. And the music—it was one of the first to embrace the synthesizer, coming just four months after Wendy Carlos’ Switched-On Bach created a popular context for electronic music—was destined to turn people off. It was so early to the synth that electronic-music weirdos like Silver Apples had barely even made an imprint on popular culture.

It’s to be argued that Schlatter and Friendly, given full creative control over their work, went to the outer reaches of what Hollywood would allow out of television production at the time.

“Actually, ‘Turn-On’ is closer to the original concept for ‘Laugh-In’ than ‘Laugh-In’ is now, but we couldn’t do what we’re doing if we hadn’t learned so much from ‘Laugh-In,’” Schlatter said in an interview just before the show aired in 1969.

Despite the edginess, some critics absolutely got what Schlatter and Friendly were going for—it was a sharp commentary on an increasingly direct and impersonal culture, one that didn’t even have time to offer pleasantries. A UPI critic reviewing the show upon its release had this to say:

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-age 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.

Now, if there was a home for this kind of content to live—say, if something like Adult Swim existed in 1969—it could have found its home. I mean, similarly edge-pushing shows to this, like Monty Python’s Flying Circus, successfully emerged during this period. The problem was, those shows were more obviously funny. Turn-On’s jokes, whether by design or circumstance, didn’t land. They were designed to make you ponder or challenge your beliefs, not make you laugh, which is not a lane a lot of mainstream humor worked in around 1969.

The fact that this was the show replacing one of the airings of Peyton Place sent a message—ABC is pulling your TV set into the future, whether you liked it or not.

And many, of course, did not.

“A [station] guy in Cleveland wanted to keep ‘Peyton Place’ on the air. He started calling stations. Starting in New York, stations started cancelling it, and by the time it aired in Los Angeles, it had been canceled. But the show was magnificent. It was my proudest moment.”

— George Schlatter, the creator of Laugh-In and Turn-On, discussing why the show was cancelled in a recent interview on RogerEbert.com. (Schlatter, still kicking at age 93, just released a memoir.) Essentially, he’s accusing Perris of simply preferring Peyton Place and being upset it was moved. Schlatter, ultimately, says he’s proud of the thing he created.

This motion capture dance may be the most ambitious thing Turn-On gave us.

Five interesting facts about Turn-On

  1. One of the most ambitious ideas was its split-screen design. The show utilized a four-frame visual setup for some of its jokes, which seems quaint now, but was apparently technically ambitious and edgy for television, according to Schlatter. “The audience has gotten accustomed to it, but at that point, the network was very uncomfortable with having more than one thing on the screen,” he said in a 2010 interview.
  2. The most famous cast member isn’t known for their acting. While the show included actors that had lengthy careers, the most notable cast member today is Debbie Macomber, a prolific author of romance novels since the ’80s whose works are frequently turned into Hallmark channel programming like Cedar Cove. (She was mostly a dancer in Turn-On.)
  3. Another cast member was a prolific voice actor. Chuck McCann, a puppeteer who worked in children’s television in the years before his appearance on Turn-On, spent his latter years voicing numerous popular cartoons, most notably the butler Duckworth on the original DuckTales. He died in 2018.
  4. At least one part of Turn-On won an award … its technology. While the show itself struggled to make an imprint with the public, it was one of the first high-profile uses of motion-capture technology. As I wrote for Vice back in 2017, that technology, called Scanimate, looked fake—the motion-capture doodads, worn by Macomber, were held in place by Tinkertoys—but was actually real, and in 1972, it won a National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences award.
  5. There was an attempt at a very similar show 30 years later. The Comedy Central pilot Limboland, created by visual artists Lol Creme and Lexi Godfrey in 1994, used the exact same white-background format as Turn-On. Just like Turn-On, video of the series is rare, but someone did throw a promo for the show on YouTube Shorts recently. It’s evidence that perhaps there was a moment when the idea could have worked.

Turn On Cast

The Turn-On ensemble cast, looking up.

Was the response to Turn-On an early example of the monoculture losing?

If I was a TV producer who got away with something really edgy, odds are I would see if I could do it again, and see how far I could push it.

Laugh-In was a great example of television edginess that went beyond accepted norms in the industry at the time. Reliant on quick edits and off-the-wall zaniness, it felt like a show without precedent, or at least without precedent few were familiar with. (The groundbreaking work of Ernie Kovacs might be the closest example.)

Episode 2, which never saw public release.

Turn-On, though, pushed the Laugh-In approach to its absolute extremes, removing all the rudders. And that meant that, at times, it went too far. In the second episode, for example, there is a crude joke that could be read today as antisemitic, which I won’t repeat here.

The era of the edgy variety show would ultimately be short-lived. ‌The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, a show that premiered before Laugh-In but carried much of the same spirit, was cancelled midseason because the show’s creators, Tom and Dick Smothers, were all too willing to dive into social commentary in ways that both the network and local affiliates were unwilling to accept.

This led to contentious relations that came to a head in the middle of 1969, just a few months after Turn-On went off the air.

The Smothers Brothers got replaced by, of all shows, Hee-Haw.

CBS chose to breach its contract with the brothers, rather than let the show continue.

While ABC got plenty of complaints about Turn-On (336, according to some estimates), the problem was really the local affiliates. They were the ones who ultimately pulled the plug, and enough of them did that it no longer made it viable to present future episodes.

Sock It To Me

This headline did not age well. (The Liverpool Daily Post)

It was so sudden that newspaper features about the show ran despite the show getting axed. In England, The Liverpool Daily Post ran an article with the headline “The Sock-it-to-Me Style is Here to Stay,” in a piece discussing “the most talked-about show of the week.”

In comments to The San Francisco Examiner from April 1969, two months after the cancellation, Schlatter laid the blame at the feet of affiliates who didn’t like the loss of Peyton Place:

I don’t blame ABC or Elton Rule, its president. They did try it. Three completed shows were accepted. Four more scripts were read. Nine shows were in production. The show really was killed by the station managers in Cleveland and Denver, strongholds for “Peyton Place.” They hit the phones and rallied other affiliates. Each affiliate is like a company store. ABC started to lose its stores. A panic was on. We were canceled.

He did admit in the same interview, however, that they might have pulled people into the experimental new show, replacing a very conservative format, a bit cold: “At the top of the show in a normal setting, I should have explained it was highly experimental, with new style, new concept—a disturbing show with built-in irritants designed to stimulate you.”

(If Schlatter seems blasé about the whole thing, it might be because he got paid for the whole season despite only producing a couple of episodes.)

In many ways, the stations that complained about Turn-On were pushing back against the idea that the networks could do whatever, and they would accept it. It’s rare—the last example I can think of is NBC trying to shove Jay Leno in the 10pm slot—but when it does happen, it can leave a mark.

It’s possible the reason Turn-On failed as a work of cultural art was simple. It was the work of overconfident creators who thought they could do no wrong because they created a massive hit.

In a book on Laugh-In published three years after his passing, Turn-On writer Digby Wolfe was quoted as blaming big-head syndrome for some of the artistic decisions in Turn-On:

It was much colder and more remote than we’d hoped for. The technology of Turn-On was much too complicated … and concentrated the efforts of everyone involved more in “how to shoot” than “what to shoot.” What we were trying to do was find an electronic means of anchoring the program rather than the obligatory emcee(s). Our own overconfidence in the wake of Laugh-In, plus, it must be said, the inevitable swing of the critical pendulum after such a huge hit in the opposite direction, allowed us to believe we would find a more forgiving response than we did. I must add that George’s affection for risque humor (without having Rowan and Martin to blame for it) was another booby trap that exploded in our faces. The worst one could say about it, however, was that we tried too much, too differently, too soon in the wake of Laugh-In.

(Wolfe also cited Limboland, which is the show all the lost-media nerds will need to look up next.)

But you know, here’s the thing. Even if that was the case, at a time when the entertainment industry seems to not want much out of its creatives—after all, there are a pair of strikes going on—that kind of ambition is often missed from modern television.

Experimental programs often give us new colors that we can work with when watching interesting shows. One of the reasons Ernie Kovacs was able to find his footing as a creative force, for example, was because he was very early to the medium—his shows appeared in the 1950s, at a time when television hadn’t gone totally mainstream yet. But by the late 1960s, TV was the thing—and that meant the standards were far higher. That left out experimenters, who didn’t really find a home again until the 1980s and 1990s, when cable television created more room for options.

You can see shades of what George Schlatter and Ed Friendly tried to do in later comedic work. Eric André’s most anarchic moments evoke some of the unrestrained weirdness of Turn-On, while creators like Joe Pera and Nathan Fielder have tried mining for more subtle humor tones than are usually allowed in traditional comedy programs. The fact that Turn-On had to distribute its show with such a blunt tool—a broad prime-time audience on a major television network—meant that it had no choice but to aim broad, which honestly did the show a huge disservice.

Turn-On was given less than an episode to make an impact with the broadest possible audience, and it failed at that task. Had it gotten more than an episode, or if it had been able to narrow down its sensibility, maybe it would have found its way. Or maybe not.

Ultimately, for all its failings, for all the Middle America station owners it ended up pissing off, is an all-too-rare thing: The TV show that aired on the most mainstream of networks with 100% creative freedom that was not afraid to bring new ideas to the medium.

That it failed was besides the point.


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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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