The Bootleg Files: Turn-On

BOOTLEG FILES 840: “Turn-On” (1969 television series that was cancelled after one episode).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: No perceived reissue value.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It would be a great subject for a straight-to-DVD documentary, but a standalone release is unlikely.

Referring to any creative output as “the worst” is the ultimate exercise in futility. For starters, it is impossible for anyone to declare a single endeavor as “the worst” unless you have experienced every work within that school of creativity. Seriously, how can anyone say “Plan 9 from Outer Space” is the worst film of all time – have you seen every film and concluded that the Ed Wood anti-classic is truly to bottom of the barrel?

Also, criticism is highly subjective – and no matter how loud or clever your arguments might be, you will never get everyone to agree with you. For example, I don’t know anyone who agreed with the snarky Medved Brothers when they smeared “Plan 9 from Outer Space” as the world’s worst film in their book “The Golden Turkey Awards.” If anything, “Plan 9 from Outer Space” is a goofy but endlessly entertaining film – I could crash your bandwidth listing films that are much more painful to endure than Wood’s little sci-fi romp.

And that leads me to the subject of this week’s column: the 1969 comedy series “Turn-On,” which is often cited as being the worst television program of all time. Granted, the series has a lamentable history – it was canceled after a single episode was broadcast on February 5, 1969, and in one market it was taken off the air before the first half of the show was completed. But in watching the supposedly notorious episode and a second episode that was shot but never aired, it becomes obvious that “Turn-On” was not the worst television program of all time. Yes, it had problems – but its demise might have been a result of sabotage.

In the late 1960s, American television began to tiptoe away from safe, benign and slightly dull situational comedy and take on social and political commentary with a sharp comic tinge. “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” on CBS and “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” on NBC offered pointed barbs at the hot button issues of the day including the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, the women’s liberation movement and the drug culture. ABC, however, had nothing similar to offer. In fact, ABC had a reputation of planting new shows that pleased no one. Indeed, Milton Berle once wisecracked, “They’re going to put the Vietnam War on ABC, and it’ll be cancelled in 13 weeks.”

In order to catch up with the other networks, which were generating huge ratings with their edgy shows, ABC agreed to air “Turn-On,” which was co-created by George Schlatter, who was one of the minds behind “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.” In some ways, “Turn-On” seemed like a facsimile of “Laugh-In” with a cast of young and mostly unknown performers doing fast skits that took sharp aim at current events and trends.

But unlike “Laugh-In” or the Smothers Brothers’ show, “Turn-On” was strictly sharp humor – the other programs included old-favorite guest stars and skits aimed at middle-aged (and supposedly nonpolitical) audiences. The Smothers Brothers also had musical guests on their show – some were politically focused, like Harry Belafonte and Pete Seeger (in a blacklist-breaking appearance), but others were non-threatening entertainment like Liberace and Jack Benny.

Even more peculiar, “Turn-On” had no audience for its taping, nor did it rely on canned laughter. Instead, it had a disconcerting noise on its soundtrack that was made by a Moog Synthesizer – this was because the concept of “Turn-On” relied on the insistence that the show was created by a computer and not comedy writers. The opening of the show presented a pair of computer technicians at a huge console who were supposedly fiddling with dials to create their comedy.

To its credit, “Turn-On” went further than its competitors with the severity of its humor. One gag had a Black man and a White man standing face-to-face, with the Black man sourly complaining, “Mom always did like you best.” (That was supposed to be a takeoff of a Smothers Brothers punchline.) Gay humor, a rarity for that era, turned up with an animated figure of an effeminate man carrying a sign that said “God Save the Queens” and guest star Tim Conway as the unlikely figure of a mock-commercial for exotic eye make-up. One gag involved a woman trying to buy birth control pills from a vending machine, only to have her product stuck in the machine after she paid for it.

Maybe the most cutting joke involved two men studying a large globe. One man asks for the location of the capital of South Vietnam and the other points to Europe and says, “Over here, mostly in Swiss bank accounts.”

Unlike the ensembles of “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” and “Laugh-In,” the ensemble on “Turn-On” didn’t get a chance to develop personalities that could resonate with audiences. There were several sexy young women in mini-skirts who did go-go dancing between jokes, but they were mostly interchangeable – one, Teresa Graves, later appeared as a regular on “Laugh-In” and would later have her own series “Get Christie Love.” Chuck McCann turned up in skits as a dumb cop and Bob Staats in his was a sleazy pitchman for mock-commercials, but neither were laugh-out-loud funny. Carlos Manteca could have been a breakout star in his politically incorrect (but nonetheless amusing) characterizations of a Mexican bandito and a Cuban hijacker.

One person who was not laughing was Donald Perris, the general manager of WEWS-TV in Cleveland. Schlatter would claim that Perris was furious that ABC cancelled its prime-time soap opera “Peyton Place” in favor of “Turn-On” and lobbied to have the new show removed – going so far as to yank it from the air after its first commercial break and insist his station’s switchboard was flooded with calls from angry viewers – Schlatter pointed out the “switchboard” consisted of a single phone with two lines that was answered by a young woman who was not overwhelmed the night the show aired. Schlatter also claimed Perris tried to encourage other stations to jettison “Turn-On,” adding that Perris sent a telegram to ABC President Elton Rule that said, “If your naughty little boys have to write dirty words on the walls, please don’t use our walls. Turn-On is turned off, as far as WEWS is concerned.”

A few stations on the West Coast opted not to air the show’s first episode, citing their discomfort with the adult nature of some of the humor. The television critics unanimously hated “Turn-On,” and ABC abruptly axed the show despite having a contract with Schlatter for a 13-week run. A second episode with Robert Culp as a guest was produced but was never broadcast.

Mercifully, the two “Turn-On” episodes are on YouTube, thus enabling people to come up with their own opinions on this ill-fated endeavor’s merits. I would invite you to watch them and share your comments on whether you feel this is the worst program of all time.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

Listen to Phil Hall’s award-winning podcast “The Online Movie Show with Phil Hall” on SoundCloud and his radio show “Nutmeg Chatter” on WAPJ-FM in Torrington, Connecticut, with a new episode every Sunday. His new book “100 Years of Wall Street Crooks” is now in release through Bicep Books.