Turn On, the legendary experimental sketch comedy series that was cancelled after its initial 1969 airing, is coming to YouTube after being unavailable to watch for over five decades.
Producer George Schlatter has announced that both the show’s first episode and the planned second, previously unaired episode, will be premiering on the Clown Jewels YouTube vintage comedy channel next Monday, October 9.
Turn On was something of an experiment for Schlatter. It was in some ways a faster-paced version than his already fairly fast series Laugh In. The conceit of the show is that it was all being programmed by a computer and taking place in a sterile white void. There were minimal sets upon which the short blackout sketches were performed, each one lasting less than a minute. Some experimental editing helped move the program along, while the music was provided by a Moog synthesizer, a relatively unheard by the general public instrument at the time. The rapid-fire jokes covered such topics as the war in Vietnam, police brutality, crooked politicians, drugs and, yes, sex. The cast included comic actor Chuck McCann, Theresa Graves (who would go on to the cast of Schlatter’s Laugh-In after this) and Mel Stewart of the LA improv group The Committee. Albert Brooks was among the show’s writing staff. Tim Conway was the first episode’s guest host and Robert Culp performed those duties for the second episode.
But the show was a bit too much for some folks, particularly the station manager at ABC’s affiliate in Cleveland, Ohio, station WEWS, whose actions appear to have led to the show’s cancellation after just the one episode aired. The station manager was reportedly upset that the show was pre-empting the night time soap Peyton Place which usually aired in that Wednesday evening timeslot that ABC had placed Turn On. The official story from WEWS is that the station manager was so outraged by the show’s content that he dropped the network feed at the first commercial break and promptly sent a telegram to ABC President Elton Rule stating “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.” Later, the station claimed that it received numerous complaint calls during the ten minutes that the show was airing, although the ABC affiliate in nearby Akron, Ohio stated that they received no complaints after they aired the show in its entirety.
A number of other stations in more western time zones apparently saw the eastern timezone network feed and made the last minute decision to not air the show locally, although unsubstantiated stories have claimed that the WEWS station manager was lobbying other local affiliates to not air Turn On in the days before it even aired.
(It should be noted that ABC had a “Standards and Practices” division, i.e., censors, at the time who would have cut material that they deemed too racy for the series before each episode would have aired.)
No matter the reason that led to the decisions that kept Turn On off the air in a number of markets, it was enough that ABC cancelled the show as it was in production on its third episode. The premier episode and its second completed-but-unaired episode have not been seen legitimately since then, though bootleg copies have been in circulation.
Tangentially, the network reportedly became so risk adverse in the aftermath of Turn On that it rejected a pilot script it had commissioned from writer Norman Lear titled Justice For All for its lead character being too vulgar. Lear took that pilot to CBS, who bought the show and had a big hit with under a new title, All In The Family.
A few months ago, I had the opportunity to watch the two completed episodes of Turn On and was absolutely fascinated by them. The “comedy show as programmed by a computer” is an interesting conceit, and in today’s algorithm-driven streaming service options it feels more than a little prescient. The whole minimalist visual aesthetic is interesting, and allows the show to play with some other ideas, like dividing a segment into a four-panel split screen, resembling a newspaper daily cartoon strip or having an animated cartoon character walk across the bottom of the screen. The editing was indeed faster than the usual pace for the time, and at times doesn’t quite allow for the audience to process the joke.
But for all the highly stylized production value in terms of its visual look, the two episodes do show the usual signs most new shows have in trying to find their creative footing. Lots of things are being thrown at the wall and most of them are sticking. Schlatter and company were well on their way to finding their groove when the network pulled the plug. Turn On was definitely ahead of its time and had it been allowed to full come into its own, it could very well have been an influential force on the comedy scene of 1970s and beyond.