Ask someone to name the perfect sitcom and you’re bound to get a myriad of conflicting answers. Everything from the earliest examples of the television comedy genre (I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners) to post-modern deconstructions of the format (Seinfeld, The Simpsons) will be cited. Some will argue for their favorite across the pond entities (Absolutely Fabulous, anything Blackadder) or long forgotten failures (Holmes and Yo-Yo, anyone?).
But turn the question around, and ask for an example of a flawless non-sitcom (or “noncom”), and you’re bound to get more than a few puzzled looks. Aside from the arcane classification, few people think in such unusual, esoteric terms. Luckily for those of us drawn to the weird and bizarre, with On the Air, David Lynch created one of the best, more wrongly overlooked entries in the anti-three camera cavalcade that the medium ever produced. Not surprisingly, it didn’t last.
But there was great anticipation when ABC—the network then benefiting from the movie director’s demented vision with the cult classic Twin Peaks —announced that Lynch and creative co-conspirator Mark Frost were planning on perverting the hoary old broadcast standard funny business. As filtered through their revisionist mindset, and with the critical acclaim they’d accumulated, they were being rewarded with a half hour of primetime real estate to, essentially, do anything they wanted. The plan was to have something that resembled a 30-minute laugh-a-thon, the normal situational contrivances leading the perfectly timed punchlines and acerbic pop culture critiques. What they got, instead, was anarchy posing as programming.
Lynch had long wanted to tackle comedy. While his films frequently contained bits of humor, his only true connection to the satiric up to that moment came as the creator of the syndicated panel comic The Angriest Dog in the World. The premise for this pen and ink masterpiece was deceptively simple (as is best described in Lynch’s own words): “The dog who is so angry he cannot move. He cannot eat. He cannot sleep. He can just barely growl. Bound so tightly with tension and anger, he approaches the state of rigor mortis.”
Visually, the director drew a strange, cigar shaped animal laying supine on a monochrome suburban lawn. Tied to a post, and with lease line taut, the pissed off pup appeared inert, a cartoon dialogue bubble offering the only sound the cur could make – a low, guttural snarl. The levity itself derived from the other conversations going on in the background, usually occurring between unseen characters Bill, Sylvia, Pete, or Billy Jr. Typically consisting of nothing more than an oddly out of place non-sequitor (“Green wood shrinks”) the juxtaposition of emotions and circumstances was viewed by Lynch as a logical way of looking at life. In an interview, he suggested his entire oeuvre was the illustration of the grand within the grotesque, and the good/bad buried in the bad/good.
The newly christened On the Air would definitely follow this format. A big fan of ‘50s nostalgia (Lynch finds the more innocent and conservative time a hotbed of potential subject matter), the new series’ storyline would follow the madcap misadventures of a failing fictional network, ZBC, named for its owner (the Zoblotnick Broadcasting Company). Every week, a bizarre production team featuring conjoined twins, a visually impaired sound technician (Tracey Walter as Binky Watts), and a foreign director (Laverne and Shirley’s David L. “Squiggly” Landers) who can barely speak English, attempted to get through a staging of the live variety hour The Lester Guy Show. A former movie star, Guy (Peaks alumnus Ian Buchanan) hoped to revamp his sagging fortunes via the small screen.
Unfortunately, a bubbly bimbo named Betty Hudson (Marla Rubinoff) started stealing his thunder. Audiences seemingly responded to her dim bulb blondness, driving both Guy and network liaison Bud Budwaller (Peaks player Miguel Ferrer) crazy. Part of each episode featured the disastrous rehearsal process. The other section would focus on the actual broadcast, with on-air commercials and silly skits always ending in failure and bitter defeat. In between, tiny throwaway moments of purposeful obtuseness meshed effortlessly with disgruntled character clashes to force turn the sitcom concept into a surreal shadow of its former self. While a current perspective suggests that Lynch was looking to capture old school slapstick within a post-modern early ‘90s media mindset commentary, the results became something far more extraordinary.
In fact, while watching On the Air (it only lasting three episodes before ABC yanked it), one sensed something great was brewing in the milieu. Unlike your typical TV show, which laid out all of its personal particulars right up front so that audiences could easily identify the clichéd stereotypes (the bossy wife, the wiseacre kids, the goofy neighbor, the battle axe mother-in-law), Lynch’s approach was unapologetic. We landed, head first, into his crazed environ, a world where individuals suffer from Bozeman Simplex (an imaginary malady that allows them to see 25.62 times better than the normal human) or where telephones shot fire from their earpieces. None of this was ever explained, no rationale offered or implied. Like his cinematic experiments in dream logic and imagery, Lynch was looking to move comedy out of the mundane and into the realm of amusement possibilities.
Like any avant-garde archivist hoping to mine the entire history of mirth for its inherent giggles, On the Air combined Neanderthal level gags with seemingly alien ideas of rib-tickling. Lander’s director character (Vadja Gochktch), an immigrant from an unidentified Easter Bloc country, speaks with an accent so outrageous and indecipherable that fellow language manglers Perini Scleroso (from SCTV) and Balki Bartokomous (from Perfect Strangers) seem linguistically coherent. It’s the kind of cheap shot spoofing that typically represents a type of intellectual laziness. But then Lynch would add a jarring moment of meaninglessness, as when the Hurry Up Twins, joined at the side, would stumble onto the set, their only lines of dialogue the insistent mantra to “Hurry up! Hurry up!” (thus, the nickname). Trying to find the connection between da-da and the dopey became part of each installments raison d’etra.
There was also an odd level of implied ethnic humor. Not specifically geared toward any one nationality, the character of station owner Mr. Zoblotnick was clearly styled after the genre staple, the goofy foreign fellow. Since he was not hobbled by a lack of language (unlike Gochktch), culture and tradition came to the fore. And since we were dealing with a manufactured frame of heritage, this allowed Lynch and Frost to extrapolate off the premise and create recognizable if reinvented traditions. Of course, the majority of the inventiveness was cast upon capturing the look and feel of the once removed from vaudeville variety show. Iconic elements like magicians and ventriloquists were placed alongside up and coming counterculture subversion (one episode even featured a beatnik – Shock! Horror!) while varying formats (a goofy game show) were utilized to expand the show’s available avenues of exploration.
As for the storylines, most revolved around Guy’s hatred of Betty, his frequent collaborations with Budwaller to orchestrate her downfall, and the duo’s eventual comeuppance. The pilot was premised on a kitchen sink scene truism, while the only other aired episodes featured the aforementioned quiz program and the arrival of Betty’s famous movie star sister. When it was cancelled, On the Air still had an installment focusing on Mr. Zoblotnick’s favorite gypsy prestidigitator, a tragic accident involving a duck, Betty’s dinner with the boss, and that downtown “dancer” with the Jack Kerouac attitude. Unlike the typical sitcom that used recognizable everyday dilemmas as the basis for its humor, Lynch and Frost fell directly into the insiders trap. Having experienced the mechanics of making television, they wanted the viewership in on the farce. Their take was so insular, however, that many felt lost.
Besides, this was a noncom, a show that wanted to avoid each and every element of the format’s 60-year existence. As far back as radio shows, husbands and wives were bickering over bills, complaining about the kids, wondering about the people next door, and trying to please the bacon-providing boss. Even when a series would stumble outside the domestic (The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show), family and friends took precedent over backstage work antics. But in a true 180-degree opposing manner, On the Air dealt with the procedural first, the personal second. We got a cinematic level of behind the scenes attention and very little social byplay. Some have even suggested that the show’s lack of success could be pinpointed to a dearth of recognizable, identifiable, or likeable characters. For Lynch and Frost, you needed to buy into the backdrop first. Eventually, the personalities would all fall into place.
Of course, the show never got a chance to catch on. With cable breathing down their backs and viewership fading faster than original ideas, the networks at this time had incredibly itchy trigger fingers when it came to pulling shows. Some barely managed an introductory episode before the overnight Nielsens sealed their fate. On the Air managed three installments before the plug was pulled. While lack of instant success appears to be the realistic rationale for the series’ sudden departure, 15 years of additional perspective offers perhaps the best conclusion – this was a show that would never work. It took audiences a couple years, and more than a little patience on the part of NBC, before the now beloved Seinfeld became a Must-See smash, and even then, it wasn’t as aggressively non-conformist as On the Air. Even worse, Lynch and company were purposefully violating the terms of TV’s agreement with its devotees.
First was the kind of wittiness presented. Lynch is a dedicated man of the Midwest, his sensibilities so corny and cracked wheat that he should really be a breakfast cereal. Anyone whose seen his self-produced animation experiment Dumbland knows that he can frequently lapse into retarded toilet humor, but his basic foundation in funny is the lame pun, the overworked quip, and the dinosaur age adage. In some ways, On the Air seemed to be an uneasy alliance between the banal and the baffling, such as Frost and his famous desire for quirk running head-on into the man who still thought chickens crossing roads are funny. Like dandelion fluff cast into the wind, this was a show that scattered its sensibilities all over the narrative. Viewers unwilling to piece together the created cleverness simply abandoned the show.
Then there was the Twin Peaks backlash. Already headed toward cancellation when On the Air became a possibility, the series’ less than successful second season (which many complained was just too bizarre and unruly for its own sake) was leaving a bad taste in many new Lynch fans’ mouths. The resolution of the Laura Palmer mystery, the aimlessness of some of the storylines, the impossible to decipher mysteries and clues all resulted in people piling off the director’s bandwagon. So when he struck up the orchestra for On the Air, he was playing to a small if dedicated crowd already in tune with what his mad hatter heart was preaching. The inability to expand beyond that inconsequential throng was a one way ticket to a premature demise.
None of this really mattered to Lynch, however, He had concocted one of his frequently baffling brainstorms and was now totally focused on bringing a prequel of Twin Peaks to the big screen. Centering on the last days in Laura Palmer’s life, and using the expanded canvas (and lack of standards and practices) of cinema, reports speculated that there was little or no support for On the Air from the filmmaker’s camp. Though he contributed scripts (along with Frost and Twin Peaks pals Robert Engels and Scott Frost) and directed the pilot, many saw the show as an inconvenience toward his greater goals. Indeed, Lynch used the whole experience as a springboard to some of his greatest motion picture achievements: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Lost Highway, The Straight Story, and the sublime Mullholland Dr. Ironically enough, this last film was also a TV project. When ABC balked at picking it up as a regular drama, he rewrote it and turned it into a feature. It remains one of Lynch’s dedicated masterpieces.
On the Air deserves similar consideration. It ranks right up there with other shows that shunned the mechanical mandates of TV comedy to try for something different and discernible. It walked a fine line between indulgent and enlightened, strategically avoiding anything remotely familiar while fully embracing the expectations of the audience (if only to shatter them). It was purposeful dichotomies as dementia, a lunatic’s love letter to a format that Lynch never fully understood. And it was everything a sitcom shouldn’t be: dense, cyclical, unapologetic, closed off, and crazy.
Even viewed today (via DVD bootlegs of an obscure Japanese laserdisc, the character calligraphy subtitles providing an additional element of insanity to an already unhinged show), it remains earnestly enigmatic. Like trying to change the world with performance art, On the Air had little lasting impact on the medium. It may not be a favorite, but for those lucky enough to have seen it, it’s unforgettable.