Saturday, August 5, 2023


“Turn-On” is an American TV comedy show known for having been seen by hardly anyone. Portrayed as “the first computerised TV show” as a cover for its lightning-quick pace and counter-culture subject matter, it hoped to build on the recent success of another sketch comedy show, “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In”, while also deliberately trying to unsettle its audience. Broadcast only once as a replacement for the soap opera “Peyton Place”, on Wednesday 5th February 1969 at 8.30pm, one ABC station in Ohio pulled it half-way through, its manager sending a telegram to the network saying, “if your naughty little boys have to write dirty words on the walls, please don't use our walls.” Other stations declined to air it later that evening, and what was to have been a sixteen-episode series was cancelled five days later, accused of being lewd, vulgar and, most interestingly, confusing and alienating.

I first heard about this show at least twenty years ago, and aside from a few still images and descriptions of what it was like, I had no idea what caused so much uproar. With Spike Milligan’s near-Dadaist show “Q5” having begun in March 1969, and “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” that October, breaking boundaries in TV comedy really was something in the air – the story goes that the Pythons were dismayed at “Q5” being the kind of show they wanted to do, until realising they could use Terry Gilliam’s animation to stitch the sketches together. All could have the American shows like the zany and quick-paced “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” on BBC Two from September 1968, but there would be no way to see why “Turn-On” had been an evolutionary dead-end.

Fortunately, someone managed to turn up “Turn-On”, both the offending first episode, and a second that was completed but went un-aired. Immediately, I started watching. The past is now and, said Tim Conway, appearing as guest host in the only sop to the idea of identifying with the audience, “welcome to Peyton Re-Place”.

...and it was as disorientating and as hard to watch as I had hoped. Produced by the creators of “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In”, the blackout gags that peppered that show are now the main event: no sketch seems to last more than thirty seconds, and some are one-line jokes that can be missed, like “I tell you I was so damned upset when I found out my kids were popping pills, I went out and got drunk”. Sets appear and disappear from the white (and occasionally black) void in which every sketch plays, and only enough to suggest a setting. Every sketch is set against a pervading, popping synthesiser soundtrack, substituting for the laugh of a studio audience, and making things hard to hear. Cartoon people walk across the bottom of the screen while other sketches are in progress, holding placards saying, “God Save the Queens”, “Make Love Not Wine” and “Stamp Out Mass Production”. The first shot of some sketches will pull out to show four boxes, the next line appearing in the next box until your screen is filled like a comic book page. Spirograph-like animated flashes appear between sketches to underline the computer-generated motif. Production credits are peppered at random throughout the duration of the show. Some sketches are just downright strange, but disappear before you can make sense of them, like one police officer holding evidence saying to another, “would you like to take some of this pornography home tonight?”, and upon the answer “I don’t even have a pornograph”, says “pity...” and bites a page out of one magazine, eating it.

There was no way this show could possibly have worked on a mass-market TV network in 1969, no matter how much the prevailing culture would have been in their favour. The style and pace of “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” would have provided an indicator for how much further you could push the idea of a TV sketch show, but “Laugh-In” was an hour-long show leavened with longer, vaudeville-like sketches, giving the audience time to breathe as well as laugh. But even at thirty minutes, and with only ad breaks and sponsorship notices to break the breakneck flow, “Turn-On” feels too long. I watched the first episode with my parents, both having grown up when “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”, telling them I gave them ten minutes before they would probably stop watching, feeling it to be a more natural running time for the show – they stopped at ten minutes and thirteen seconds.

Assuming the first episode acted as the series’ pilot, I expected the second, un-broadcast episode of “Turn-On”, this time hosted by actor Robert Culp and then-wife France Nuyen, to make some changes. One sketch was filmed on location, instead of nowhere, where a highway patrol officer’s motorcycle won’t start, leading him to cry at missing a speeding car, and the synthesiser music being reduced in the sound mix, or eliminated altogether, allowing gags to be more easily heard. However, this latter change now makes more obvious the use of a musical sting at the end of each sketch as a signifier that the sketch has ended, and this is where you now laugh, a cliché used even by Morecambe & Wise and The Two Ronnies.

Even if the show had somehow continued, and if audiences had found their peace with it, I don’t know how this format could have sustained itself for a whole series. Reportedly four further episodes were in production when “Turn-On” was cancelled, one of which guest-starred The Monkees, an appropriate fit for this kind of show, but for a show shooting dozens of sketches, each requiring their own camera set-up and rehearsal no matter how little set there is, and with multiple animated studios, special effects providers and editors working on film, all to make it look like it had been generated by a computer, this is a show that could have burned itself out. Ironically, using a computer would have made the show easier to make.

For all the avant-garde weirdness of the style used by “Turn-On”, the grammar of a standard TV show is clear to see, despite its being deployed in a different way. The use of animation throughout “Turn-On” reminded me of “Sesame Street”, which used similar stylistic motifs, and more specifically the grammar of TV advertisements, as an educational tool when it launched in November 1969. The nearest I think there has been since to the fast pace of “Turn-On” was the BBC’s “The Fast Show” from 1994, advertised as guaranteeing up to thirty sketches an episode, while also answered the aversion to punchlines in “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” by only using punchlines.

I think “Turn-On” could work now – its choppy editing style and bare sets is very easy to copy, and a modern-day analogue to its edgy counter-culture humour can be easily found, although I would put it on television later in the evening than 8.30pm. While the six-second limit to videos on the late social media service Vine (2013-17) encouraged a style like the blackout sketches on “Turn-On”, you could argue that “asdfmovie”, the YouTube-based animated show made by Thomas “TomSka” Ridgewell, is the nearest in spirit and style, but with its two-to-three-minute running time making it easier to take.

Unfortunately for “Turn-On”, the gag I found funniest was provided by its sponsor, the pharmaceutical company Bristol-Meyers, reminding its discombobulated viewers that you can buy Bufferin, their brand of aspirin.

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