USC screens the Lynch/Frost TV series 'On the Air'

"On the Air"

Bozeman Simplex, talking dogs, conjoined twins, an airhead blonde, a weeping puppet, and a dancing woman with no name who is surrounded by shoes. It’s David Lynch. It’s Mark Frost. It’s a television series most of us have never seen. It is NOT “Twin Peaks.” But, you are definitely in for a ride.

Courtenay Blog IconOn Sunday night, USC held a retrospective of the short-lived TV series “On the Air” – co-created by David Lynch and Mark Frost in 1992 for ABC. Lynch and Frost agreed to create two series for ABC. “On the Air” was the second series created after the cult TV classic “Twin Peaks,” which first aired on ABC in 1990. The entire series of “On the Air” was never shown in the United States. Seven episodes, including the pilot, were filmed but only three episodes were shown – episodes 1, 3 and 5.

According to USC’s website, David Lynch came up with the idea for the show while mixing the sound for an episode of the second season of “Twin Peaks.” Lynch was “hit with a sudden inspiration. ‘It just came into my head, the idea of people trying to do something successful and having it all go wrong.’”

Alessandro (Alex) Ago, the director of programming and special projects at USC School of Cinema, thanked filmmaker Josh Eisenstadt for loaning his copy of a Japanese laser disc of “On the Air” for the screening. Ago mentioned he only had a VHS copy, and the show has never been transferred to DVD.

“On the Air” takes place in 1957 at a fictional network called the Zoblotnick Broadcasting Company, or ZBC. The television cast and crew of “The Lester Guy Show” perform a live variety show every week, but antics and hilariousness always interrupt the perfect execution of the show. The main characters include Lester Guy (Ian Buchanan), a washed-up movie star who was discovered drinking vodka out of an orange juice can; Betty Hudson (Marla Rubinoff), the airhead but beautiful blonde, who becomes Lester Guy’s enemy when she wins over America by singing about birds when a live show goes horribly wrong; Bud Budwaller (Miguel Ferrer) who is the stressed-out and high-strung president of the network who dreads calls from the head of ZBC, Mr. Zoblotnick; and Ruth Trueworthy (Nancye Ferguson), the production assistant who never once loses her exuberance and enthusiasm despite everything falling apart around her.

Another list of notably quirky characters include Shorty the Stagehand (Irwin Keyes), who seems to escape every disaster imaginable, including falling on his face; Billy “Blinky” Watts (Tracey Walter), master of sound effects, who suffers from Bozeman’s Simplex – a disorder that allows him to see 25.62 times better than anyone else. He often sees hammers, old-time dolls and oven mitts; the Hurry Up Twins (brothers Raleigh Friend and Raymond Friend), conjoined twins who constantly traverse the set and say “Hurry up! Hurry up!”

These are just a few of the main characters featured in the series, but you really must see it for yourself to believe it.

If you are expecting to see “Twin Peaks” or other Frostian/Lynchian conceptions, be prepared to be disappointed. “On the Air” is a comedy and, specifically, a sitcom. While strange and quirky, it is often quite comical and witty. One of my favorite episodes was episode 5 (one of the few to actually air in the U.S.). Betty’s glamorous movie star sister Sylvia Hudson visits the set. She is told she must perform a show alongside a puppet, Mr. Peanuts. Sylvia refuses to perform with the puppet and humiliates him on the air. The rest of the cast and crew come to his rescue and sing “the Mr. Peanuts Song.”

After screening all 7 episodes, the following guests participated in a panel and Q&A led by Alex Ago. The panel included the following:

1)         IAN BUCHANAN (Actor, “Lester Guy”) 2)         ROBERT ENGELS (Writer, Co-Executive Producer) 3)         NANCYE FERGUSON (Actor, “Ruth Trueworthy”) 4)         IRWIN KEYES (Actor, “Shorty the Stagehand”)

Alex Ago began the discussion by asking what it was like to see “On the Air” with an audience. Ian Buchanan said he saw the pilot in London last weekend. He said the audience did not laugh until the show got to the “live” part. Buchanan said you “have to watch it with an audience” to truly enjoy the comedy of the show. Nancye Ferguson agreed, telling everyone it was so fun to watch it with the USC audience, with “people who get it and love it.”

Because “Twin Peaks” was still airing when Lynch, Frost et al began working on “On the Air” during the production of TP, so many of the tensions with the network during TP made its way into telling the story of OTA. Ian Buchanan pointed out the network executives who sit in the velvet chairs on OTA. The executives who sit in the chairs end up being replaced by (literal) sitting ducks. According to Buchanan, the ABC network execs were not fond of this plot point.

According Nancye Ferguson, David Lynch thought “On the Air” would last forever, mentioning the show “Cheers” as an example. Ferguson said no one really auditioned for David Lynch, but the network executives made the actors come in for a reading, much to Lynch’s disappointment.

David Lynch stopped directing after the first show. Similar to the production of “Twin Peaks,” Lynch and Frost brought on guest directors for each episode, including Betty Thomas, Jack Fisk, and Lesli Linka Glatter.

From left to right: Ian Buchanan, Nancye Ferguson, Irwin Keyes and Robert Engels.

Bob Engels said he recently watched OTA with his teenage son, who asked him, “Were you out of your mind?!” Before production of “On the Air,” Engels and David Lynch met with Bob Iger (currently Chief Executive of Disney) who was head of ABC at the time. Iger wanted to make sure Engels and Lynch would be able to deliver “On the Air” on time and on budget. In the middle of their discussion, Lynch asked Iger, “Did you ever have a dog that could talk?” Lynch said he had a dog that could go to the store, receive candy, and bring it back to him. Iger tried to turn the conversation back to the discussion of OTA, but Lynch began discussing Iger’s Timex watch – again, turning the conversation away from OTA. At one point, Iger turned to Engels, stared him in the eye and told him, “On time. On budget. You got it, right?” Engels nodded. According to Engels, Iger loved David Lynch, but the other network executives and those below them gave Lynch and Frost a hard time. For example, they accused Lynch of mocking blind people because the character Billy “Blinky” Watts (Tracey Walter) was originally blind. When he was discouraged from making Blinky blind, Lynch decided to give him better-than-average sight with the “Bozeman Simplex” disorder. This is one of many ways the show functions as a satire of network TV and illustrates the incredible stifling of creativity by non-creatives in suits and ties. When one of the “lesser execs” gave Lynch some notes in a meeting, Lynch got really mad and told him, “I don’t take notes.” He stormed out of the office with Bob Engels in tow. When they stepped into the elevator, Lynch looked at Engels, smiled, and said, “Pretty good, Bobbers, eh?”

Ian Buchanan discussed the amazing music and sound effects on the show. He said Angelo Badalamenti, who wrote the series music, was working on the opening theme for the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona while they were producing OTA. Buchanan said he came upon Badalamenti playing the Olympic theme on his keyboard, and then he would switch to the show’s music. It was very surreal. Buchanan said his opening dance in “The Lester Guy Show” was choreographed, but “I know I forgot it sometimes.” Because the show took place in 1957 – a time of repression but also an era of rebellion and expression (think Beatniks and hipsters) – the dance and show was “supposed to be an opening up and breaking out of” the repression. Buchanan laughed when he told the story of having to perform the dance on a Japanese show in Tokyo years ago. He went to his dressing room and saw the hat and suit. Then, he walked on stage and spotted the lampstand and a spotlight. Buchanan thought, “What the fuck?!” He said he was horrified because he had to perform the dance. He became even more horrified when the Japanese hosts displayed the show’s ratings after his performance. Not fair.

Irwin Keyes said his favorite performance was the Mr. Peanuts’ theme song, in which the entire cast and crew participated. According to Engels, he and director Lesli Linka Glatter traveled to the house of puppeteer and actor Chuck McCann (who played Wally Walters and Mr. Peanuts the puppet) to find out what puppet to use for the show. McCann took Engels and Glatter into a room filled with more than 100 puppets. They picked three puppets, and Glatter had to read with them. Ian Buchanan interjected – “Did the puppets have to go to network?” Engels confirmed that they did. When Engels and Glatter decided what puppet to use, McCann told them not to discuss it in front of the two rejected puppets. They left the room. Then McCann told Glatter to return to the other two puppets and explain to them why they didn’t get the part. Frustrated, Glatter left. Therefore, Engels had to explain to the other puppets why they didn’t get the part. (If only I were a fly on that wall.)

From left to right: Ian Buchanan, Nancye Ferguson and Irwin Keyes.

Ian Buchanan talked about the scene in the pilot in which he is hanging upside down and being catapulted across the set. Lynch came to his dressing room and said, “Lester, we are going to hang you upside down and swing you through the windows, and it’s gonna be good.” Buchanan thought he was kidding because surely they had stunt people to do that. When he was hanging upside down and the Hessian knot was unraveling while his face was smack on the floor, Lynch asked him, “Lester, you copacetic?” but Buchanan thought he called him pathetic. He said it was a horrible day. Everyone in the audience laughed.

Nancye Ferguson said it was her choice to have her character Ruth act incredibly enthusiastic no matter what was falling apart around her. Ferguson said Ruth really “believed in the show. It was her job to make everything work.”

Irwin Keyes said he was not actually hired as a principle for the show, since the show could only afford 15 actors as principles. However, David Lynch needed a stagehand, so they hired Keyes. Keyes said he had a few lines, but “did a lot of physical jokes.”

Quirky characters like Shorty the Stagehand and Blinky abound on the show. Bob Engels said he was responsible for creating the Hurry Up Twins. Since the show was a variety show set in the 1950s, they wanted to give it a vaudeville feel. Conjoined twins and other twins would often perform gymnastics in vaudeville. The Hurry Up Twins could actually perform acrobatics, but they never got the chance to perform them on OTA. Engels said he was fascinated with live TV in the 1950s and how live acts would often mess up their performances. Ian Buchanan joked, “Like the ‘Sound of Music’!,” which recently aired on NBC as a live performance featuring Carrie Underwood.

“On the Air” was produced next door to “Seinfeld” at the time. Bob Engels said Jerry Seinfeld ran into him one day and asked, “You’re the Lynch show, right? Ah, you guys are gonna be on forever! You guys had a 7 episode order, we’ve only got three.”

Nancye Ferguson remembers George Clooney trying to get on set since he was a fan of Lynch. Because he’s the cousin of Miguel Ferrer, who played the president of the network on “On the Air,” Ferguson begrudgingly went to meet him. She laughs about it now.

“The Woman With No Name” played by Bellina Logan, who was also in other Lynch works such as “Twin Peaks,” “Wild at Heart,” and “Inland Empire,” was a topic in the Q&A. Her hipster dance in the show mirrored the “breaking out” of Lester Guy’s dance. There are aspects of the show that seem quite Lynchian. Her performance is one of them.

The panelists all agreed that the show was fun to make and life changing. Bob Engels said it changed his life completely because he went from being a screenwriter to an executive producer. Nancye Ferguson said it changed her life because her dream was to work with David Lynch, and her dream came true. Irwin Keyes said, “For me, it was a benchmark…. To say you worked with David Lynch – that’s all you have to say.” Ian Buchanan said, “My life has never been the same. David Lynch sort of invited me to step out of where I was and into this space I could play around in. I thought he would be with me, but he left me there. I like it out there. I wouldn’t know how to find my way back, though.” None of us would – or would want to.

Thank you to Alex Ago, USC and the panel members for the discussion and the screening of such a rare but entertaining television series. Thank you also to Josh Eisenstadt for loaning his laser disc copy of “On the Air.” Until next time, my friends, remember:  “Blinky Watts is not blind. He suffers from Bozeman Simplex. He actually sees 25.62 times as much as we do. If we were to see what Blinky is seeing right now, it would look something like this …”

Here is our Podcast interview with Alex and Courtenay about the Twin Peaks Screenings at USC

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