On The Air – The “Other” Lynch-Frost Television Show

In the aftermath of the Twin Peaks Season 3 finale, I was a bit.. um, devastated?  Maybe that’s a bit too strong a word.  Disappointed, probably captures the feeling best.  To put it bluntly, I needed my faith in Lynch-Frost restored, and it was going to be two months before The Final Dossier would be released.  I didn’t really feel like a rewatch of anything Twin Peaks just yet, so where could I turn?

I had always heard about the “other” Lynch-Frost TV show, On The Air, but somehow missed it when it originally played, and I had been so firmly warned against it since that I just never gave it a chance.  Searching for “On The Air” on the r/twinpeaks Reddit page, a place as full of diehard Lynch fans as you’ll ever find, yields comments like “pretty bad”, “very silly” and “disaster”.

Then someone posted a link to a YouTube video of the pilot episode [16].  And it looked like the entire series, all 7 episodes of it, were there as well.  Hmm, well, what the heck, right?

Now, was I swept off my feet and amazed by this masterpiece that I had somehow overlooked all these years?  Well, no.  But was it the all kinds of awful I had always been told it was?  No, not really.  I mean, I can understand why ABC cancelled it.  In fact, I’m amazed they green lit the project to begin with.  But it’s not all that bad.  In fact, in hind sight now that I’ve watched the entire series, it’s exactly what we should expect from a Lynch-Frost sitcom.  It has its painful moments, but it also has moments of pure comedy glory.

In a recent BBC interview [11], Mark Frost said that part of the reason they worked so well together as a creative team is that he and David Lynch had similar senses of humor.  You might think you understand that sense of humor from watching the original Twin Peaks, but you would be very wrong.  You have to watch this show to truly understand.

On The Air is set in 1957 and follows the cast and crew of “The Lester Guy Show”, a weekly variety show that is televised live each week.  Preparations and rehearsals mostly go well, but when they go “on the air”, generally everything that can go wrong does go wrong.  Lester Guy, the star of the show, is a washed up movie star who became famous during WWII, when every other able-bodied man was off fighting the war.  His co-star, Betty Hudson, is a “very dim bulb” and completely inexperienced, yet always seems to outshine Lester.  Bud Budwaller is the president of the network, a constant presence on set, yelling at everyone and taking charge when things fall apart.

The show is full of overplayed running gags, slapstick humor, and goofy sound effects.  All but Episode 2 follow a single episode of the Lester Guy show from start to finish.  Each week, a new guest or a new skit is brought in with the promise of making the show a big hit, and most episodes also see Lester scheming to get rid of Betty and ending up the victim of his own schemes when they inevitably fail.

In modern terms, one of the best descriptions of On The Air is probably that it is “a bit like David Lynch doing 30 Rock” [8].  The parallels to 30 Rock are obvious: a show with a disastrous premier that somehow ends up successful, shifting from the original star to another star, zany cast and crew, and meddling network executives.  Having beat them to the punch by nearly 15 years, you have to wonder if On The Air was an inspiration.

Here is what Frost and Lynch themselves have said about the origins of On The Air:

Mark Frost [3]: “My father used to work in live television and told us stories about it, and when I talked to David about the subject he just loved the idea of all this backstage chaos, and really took the lead with it. I wrote a lot of the material with particular actors from Twin Peaks in mind – we built up a sort of repertory company – and the humor grew out of the funny parts of Twin Peaks, which are really the parts I’m most pleased with.”

David Lynch [10]: “It just came into my head, the idea of people trying to do something successful and having it all go wrong.”

On The Air was filming as Twin Peaks season 2 was still playing on air.  The conflicts Frost and Lynch were having with the network carried over into this other effort.  Nancye Ferguson tells a story of how the network insisted on holding auditions for the actors that Lynch had already hand-picked, much to David’s obvious displeasure (and of course, they still confirmed all of his picks) [5][9].  Robert Engels explains that the “Bozeman Simplex” disorder originated because network executives accused Lynch of making fun of blind people [5].  The Blinky Watts character was initially going to be blind, but in reaction to the network complaints, Lynch turned it around and gave him this condition in which “he actually sees 25.62 times as much as we do”.  Though this still makes him effectively blind.

On The Air - Executives

The fictional ZBC network is an obvious take on their real world network, ABC.  The only audience for The Lester Guy Show is a set of network executives who sit in a section of seats cordoned off with red velvet ropes, sometimes sleeping, sometimes replaced by ducks.  As the story goes, the ABC network executives were not amused [5].

In the United States, On The Air only aired three episodes in the summer of 1992: the pilot, episode 3 (featuring Professor Answer) and episode 5 (featuring Mr. Peanuts) [4].  As they did with Twin Peaks Season 2, ABC killed the show by burying it in a 9:30pm Saturday timeslot beginning June 20th [7].  The third and final episode actually aired at 9:30pm on July 4th.  Just let that sink in.  In later years, the full seven episodes aired in several foreign markets, including the UK, Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, Poland, France and Australia [4], and it’s rumored to have been a big hit in Japan [1].  A 1997 TV Guide list of “The 100 Greatest TV episodes of all time” actually puts the pilot episode of On The Air at #57 [14].

In interviews, the actors from the show consistently talk about how much fun they had on the set [1][5][9].  They also truly believed the show was going to be a hit and run for many seasons [7].  When talking with them, David Lynch would tell them “Well, you know what happened with Cheers!” [7].  (It may be hard to believe looking back on a show that was in the top ten 8 of its 11 seasons, but the rating for Cheers’ premier placed it at 74 of 77 shows and it was nearly cancelled [13].)  On The Air was produced next door to Seinfeld at the time.  Robert Engels tells the story of how 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 seven episode order, we’ve only got three” [5].

Lynch and Frost carried over several actors from Twin Peaks into the show.  Ian Buchanan (Dick Tremayne on TP and Lester Guy on OTA) and Miguel Ferrer (Albert Rosenfield on TP and Bud Budwaller on OTA) are both pretty much playing the same characters, just in different settings.  Bud, like Albert, even has a secret soft side that shines through in the Mr. Peanuts episode (“Now that’s what I call… <sniff>… entertainment”).  While Marla Rubinoff, the actress playing Betty Hudson, was not in Twin Peaks, her character is obviously from the same template as Lucy Brennan.  In episode 7, Betty even has the same type of problem understanding lip syncing a pre-recorded song performance that Lucy has towards cell phones (“I’ll be in two places at once?” she asks).  David Lander, who only played a bit part as Tim Pinkle in Twin Peaks, really gets to shine in On The Air as Valdja Gochktch, the director of the Lester Guy show and nephew to the network’s owner.

Along with actors, Lynch-Frost also brought in directors (Lesli Linka Glatter and Jonathan Sanger) and writers (Robert Engels and Scott Frost) they had worked with on Twin Peaks [4].  And of course, the music is once again written by Angelo Balalamenti.  The theme song for On The Air is really quite good.  It starts out with a nice long soulful sax note, building up and then gently stair-casing down into to a pause – that is punctuated by a raspberry “pfft”.  Other than the raspberries though, the theme song is very reminiscent of the theme to the classic noir TV show Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer [15].  Impressively, Angelo was actually working on the opening theme for the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona while On The Air was in production [5].

Like its predecessor Twin Peaks, On The Air also broke new ground in television, this time for sitcoms instead of nighttime soaps.  It was not “taped in front of a live studio audience”, as so many sitcoms of the era proudly boasted at the beginning of each episode.  Neither did it include a laugh track [7].  The audience was respected enough to figure out for themselves when and where they were supposed to laugh.  Ian Buchanan also tells the following story [7]: “There’s an episode that came in slightly long, and rather than trim it or cut it I think it was just sped up a little bit, which I think is just very, very funny and a great way to handle it.”

Many, probably even most, reviewers site the pilot episode, the only one directed by David Lynch personally, as the best episode of the series, and claim it was all downhill after that.  But I would have to respectfully disagree.  I could watch the final episode again and again, and be brought to tears laughing every time.  She might be a little bit hard to recognize under that makeup, but the Woman With No Name was played by Bellina Logan, who played Great Northern concierge Louie ‘Birdsong’ Budway in the original Twin Peaks [10] and returned to play the doctor who clears Good Cooper’s release in the Las Vegas hospital.  Incidentally, her dance at the end of Episode 7 is intended to mirror the “breaking out” dance that Lester Guy performs under the lamppost at the beginning of each show [5].

On The Air - Beatnik Dance

So far, On The Air has only been released on VHS and a Japanese LaserDisc [6].  Mark has said in many recent interviews that there are talks of finally releasing it on DVD.  On the Twin Peaks Unwrapped podcast [12], Mark said he hopes to hear something on the DVD release in the next 6 months, which would place it around May 2018.  However, if you’re not an ardent video-phile, you can just look for it on YouTube and ignore the Japanese subtitles, like I did.

In many respects, On The Air was ahead of its time.  As Nancye Ferguson puts it, “The networks at the time really didn’t know what to do with an artist.  Today a show like On The Air could be nurtured by a Showtime or an HBO – a small audience can be plenty for a subscription network, which can really let things exist for people to discover [7].”  Ian Buchanan quips, “It would be an interesting world 25 years later [1].”  When asked if there has been any discussion of re-launching On The Air in the same manner that Twin Peaks has, Mark replied “Not… even for one second” [2].

Yeah, maybe that’s for the better.


Notes / References:

  1. “My Interview With Ian Buchanan” (25 Years Later Site, 8/14/17): https://25yearslatersite.com/2017/08/14/my-interview-with-ian-buchanan/
  2. “Mark Frost on ‘Twin Peaks,’ Realistic Endings, and David Lynch’s Consciousness” (The Film Stage, 7 Nov 2017): https://thefilmstage.com/features/mark-frost-on-twin-peaks-realistic-endings-and-david-lynchs-consciousness/
  3. “Higher peaks in view: The man who wrote Twin Peaks has plans to get weirder. Mark Frost talked to Kevin Jackson about Sherlock and warlocks” (Independent, 21 Aug 1992): http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/higher-peaks-in-view-the-man-who-wrote-twin-peaks-has-plans-to-get-weirder-mark-frost-talked-to-1541807.html
  4. “On the Air (TV series)” (Wikipedia): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_the_Air_(TV_series)
  5. “USC screens the Lynch/Frost TV series ‘On the Air’” (Red Room Podcast, 9 Dec 2013): https://www.redroompodcast.com/rrjournal/archives/3882
  6. “On the Air (1992) [ASLF-5021]” (LaserDisc Database): https://www.lddb.com/laserdisc/11096/ASLF-5021/On-the-Air-(1992)
  7. “Remembering On the Air – David Lynch and Mark Frost’s doomed ’90s sitcom” (Little White Lies, 14 Jun 2017): http://lwlies.com/articles/on-the-air-david-lynch-mark-frost-twin-peaks/
  8. “David Lynch and Mark Frost’s ‘On the Air’ Is Like a Dream Chronicle of Making ‘Twin Peaks’” (/Film, 3 Jan 2014): http://www.slashfilm.com/david-lynch-and-mark-frosts-on-the-air-is-like-a-dream-chronicle-of-making-twin-peaks-video/
  9. “Exclusive Nancye Ferguson Interview!” (Twin Peaks Archive, July 2008): http://twinpeaksarchive.blogspot.com/2008/07/exclusive-nancye-ferguson-interview.html
  10. “Exclusive Bellina Logan Interview!” (Twin Peaks Archive, Oct 2009): http://twinpeaksarchive.blogspot.com/2009/10/exclusive-bellina-logan-interview.html
  11. “With Mark Frost” (BBC Radio 6, Mary Anne Hobbs, 5 Nov 2017): http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09clppc
  12. “Twin Peaks Unwrapped 128: Interview with Mark Frost on The Final Dossier” (Twin Peaks Unwrapped, 6 Nov 2017): http://twinpeaksunwrapped.podbean.com/e/twin-peaks-unwrapped-128-interview-with-mark-frost-on-the-final-dossier
  13. “Cheers” (Wikipedia): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cheers
  14. “The 100 Greatest TV episodes of all time! as chosen by the staff of TV Guide and Nick at Night TV Land …as of as of 6/25/97” (Web Archive): https://web.archive.org/web/20071028140448/http://members.aol.com/speaker606/jim/tv.html
  15. “”Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer” TV Intro (1984)” (YouTube): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vkal2bNKZe4
  16. “One The Air – Episode 1” (YouTube): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xg2kpCFEMZc

 


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