Turn-On is an American television series from 1969. Only one episode was shown and it is considered one of the most infamous flops in TV history.
The show was created by Ed Friendly and George Schlatter, the producers of Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, and picked up by ABC after NBC and CBS rejected it; a CBS official confessed, "It was so fast with the cuts and chops that some of our people actually got physically disturbed by it." Production executive Digby Wolfe described it as a "visual, comedic, sensory assault involving animation, videotape, stop-action film, electronic distortion, computer graphics—even people." The Bristol-Myers company bought advertising for a projected 13-week run .
The show's premise was that it was produced by a computer, though this was not the case. Distinguishing characteristics of the show were its synthesized music and lack of sets, except for a white backdrop. The show consisted of various rapid-fire jokes and risqué skits but no laugh track. The program was also filmed instead of presented live or on videotape. Also, the production credits of the episode appeared after each commercial break, instead of conventionally at the beginning or end (Monty Python's Flying Circus similarly played around with presenting the credits).
Turn-On's sole episode was shown on Wednesday, February 5, 1969, at 8:30 p.m. Eastern and 7:30 p.m. in other markets. Among the cast were Teresa Graves (who would later join the Laugh-In cast that autumn) and Chuck McCann (longtime kiddie show host, character actor and voice artist). The guest host for the first and only episode was Tim Conway, best known for his long run on The Carol Burnett Show. Conway was dogged for years by the story that he was the "host" of the show - he was not, he was merely the highest profile guest star on the first show - and there was no second show. The writing staff included a young Albert Brooks.
Bits aired on the program
- Two policemen saying, "Let us spray," before spraying cans of mace.
- A firing squad prepares to shoot an attractive woman when the squad leader says, "Excuse me, miss, but in this case we are the ones with one final request." (As perhaps a sign of changing times, this exact routine was recycled in Schlatter's revival of Laugh-In in 1978, with nary a complaint.)
- 'The Body Politic', shown three times during the episode, featured a buxom, reclining blonde saying things like "Mr. Nixon as President now becomes the titular head of the Republican Party" (a pun on the word tit).
- Conway wonders if a blonde is a "pot-smoking, jaded, wild-eyed, radical dropout." When she says she is, he replies, "I love you!"
- A sleazy TV pitchman promotes a breakfast careal "soaked in mescaline." The same pitchman appears in a second spoof commercial selling women's shoes, though he is gradually revealed to be a foot fetishist.
- A diagram of a swastika is displayed as a narrator says, "You are now looking at the table at the Paris peace accords agreed to by General Ky."
- Several gay-themed messages scrolling across the screen, including "God Save the Queens", "Free Oscar Wilde" and most notoriously, "The Amsterdam Levee is a dike" (a pun on the word dyke).
- A pregnant woman singing I Got Rhythm (alluding to the rhythm method of birth control).
- A vending machine dispensing the birth control pill, with an anxious young woman putting coins into it and then feverishly shaking the broken machine.
- A figure of a draft-dodger holding a sign reading Sweden.
- Conway, dressed in a samurai outfit and speaking mock Japanese, is revealed to be university president/politician S.I. Hayakawa.
- A black man, face-to-face with a white man, says, "Mom always did like you best!" (an allusion to a popular catchphrase of The Smothers Brothers)
- One cop asks a second, "You want to take some of this pornographic literature home with you tonight?" The colleague replies, "I don't even have a pornograph!" The first cop then rips up a skin magazine and begins to chew the pieces.
- A commercial spoof shows Conway touting a masculine deodorant while lifting weights and working out. "When I'm all through, I smell like a lady," he concludes and is shown in drag.
- In another commercial parody, Conway is shown wearing a tuxedo, and massive eye mascara.
- A sequence (the show's longest) with the word sex flashing on and off in pulsating colors while Conway and actress Bonnie Boland leer at each other. Various stock photographs are displayed during the sequence, including one of Pope Paul VI.
- Conway as spokesman for "Citizens Action Commitee of America," a group with the acronym CACA.
- The black programmer shown programming the computer supposedly generating the show says he dreamed he was a duck in Lester Maddox's bathtub. "I migrated," he said.
- A young woman in cap and gown is shown lobbing a hand grenade.
- Two men are standing at a globe. "Tell me," one says to the other, "where is the capital of South Vietnam?" The second man spins the globe and points, "Mostly over here, in Swiss bank accounts."
- A Catholic nun asks a priest, "Father, can I have the car tonight?" The priest replies, "Just as long as you don't get in the habit."
- Conway tells Graves, "I was so damned angry when I found out my kids were popping pills, I went out and got drunk."
- One message scrolled across the screen: ISRAEL UBER ALLES.
- A recurring series of skits with Conway as a marriage counselor in session with an African American husband and an Asian wife — a hot-button topic in 1969, only two years after the last state laws against interracial marriages were struck down. (In 1968, NBC debated whether to cut out of a Petula Clark variety special a shot of Clark merely touching guest Harry Belafonte on the arm.)
- Two men in Stetson hats defend the principle of Southern womanhood. One then says to the other, "Come on, big beauty," and they hold hands and walk out effeminately.
- A white Southern hotel guest phones the main desk about the Gideon Bible which states "'Moses married an Ethopian woman' ... in the Atlanta Hilton!?!"
- A puppet snake says, "Remember, folks, I could have given Eve the apple and the Pill!"
Conway has often joked that Turn-On
was canceled midway through its lone episode; actually, the show was not officially cancelled for several days, but it is
true that two affiliates of the network, Denver
, and WEWS
, failed to return to the program after the first commercial break. The general manager of WEWS sent ABC network management an angry telegram: "If you naughty little boys have to write dirty words on the walls, please don't use our
walls." Other stations in time zones behind Eastern and Central which had some forewarning, such as KATU
, never showed the program at all, while many others made the decision not to show it again as soon as the episode was over.
Many viewers and critics considered Turn-On too extreme for America's tastes at the time. The show featured rapid-fire gags with sexual innuendos, pastiche film clip sequences in questionable taste and bizarre non sequiturs that baffled viewers. Many assumed the show's title was itself an implicit reference to Timothy Leary's pro-drug maxim, "Turn on, tune in, drop out". In fact, rumors spread among people who never actually saw the show that it contained full frontal nudity, something that no over-the-air TV network in the United States is willing to attempt even today, almost forty years later.
Bart Andrews, in his 1980 book The Worst TV Shows Ever, stated that Turn-On was actually quite close to the original concept for Laugh-In. "It wasn't that it was a bad show, it was that it was an awkward show," concluded Harlan Ellison, a fan of counter-cultural comedy and a TV critic for the Los Angeles Free Press in 1969.
The following week's TV Guide published a listing for the scheduled February 12 episode, which would have starred Robert Culp and then-wife France Nuyen as hosts. However, at 8:30PM on February 12, the ABC Wednesday Night Movie (The Oscar, itself a notorious flop), started 30 minutes ahead of schedule. Taking no chances, the network eventually replaced Turn On with the wholesome musical variety of The King Family.
The idea of setless white background sketch comedy would be revisited in 1994 on the Comedy Central series Limboland.