February 27, 1989: The CBS network airs “What’s Alan Watching?”, a bizarre sixty minute sitcom pilot in which a pre-“Parker Lewis Can’t Lose” Corin Nemec stars as a television-obsessed teen named Alan Hoffstetter. Young Alan’s family is mired in a swamp of typical sitcom problems—his sister is dating a balding loser, his car salesman brother is on his way to becoming a balding loser—but our hero barely notices the chaos thanks to his psychotic love affair with the boob tube. Alan watches so much TV the characters on the screen actually talk back to him, advising him about his life, occasionally mocking him, and generally sucking the willing shrimp into a weird, satiating void where life’s problems don’t matter.
The most notable of the back-talking stars on Alan’s TV is Eddie Murphy, who also produced “What’s Alan Watching?” in an attempt to fill the Fran Drescher-less void in our pop culture lives at the time (Drescher plays Nemec’s aforementioned sister, Gail). Murphy spends the majority of his scant “Alan” screen time recycling his James Brown impression from “Saturday Night Live” in a fake TV movie-of-the-week called “Soul’d On The Rocks.” Eddie was still pretty electric in ’89, and while his bits certainly stand out, they’re not as savory as some of the other weirdness emanating from the Hoffstetter’s set. Submitted for your approval: Frogs lifting weights, a shockingly political “Mr. Ed” documentary, and über-sexy commercials for industrial flanges.
Unfortunately, the long stretches that center on the rote Hoffstetter family drama drag “What’s Alan Watching?” down, and it’s easy to see why CBS ultimately passed on turning this strange concept into a full-on series. Six months later, “Weird Al” Yankovic’s UHF hit theaters, a TV-skewering tale so deft and funny it became the gold standard for idiot box mockery. Though UHF may have flunked at the box office, it successfully buried “What’s Alan Watching?” as cherished cult (in a strange coincidence, Fran Drescher also appeared in UHF, portraying “Weird Al’s” frazzled secretary Pamela Finklestein).
Some of “Alan’s” failure could be attributed to the presence of Pauly Shore as the vapid fool dating the titular character’s untouchable love interest, but hey, it’s Sunday, you’ve got nothing else to do—why don’t you watch the whole damn thing and judge for yourself? If you end up feeling truly burned by the experience, write a firm letter to Eddie Murphy Productions expressing your discontent. Who knows, maybe Ed’ll comp you with an autographed copy of Nutty Professor 2!
I checked this awesome book out of the library last year called Unsold TV Pilots by Lee Goldberg. It’s a little encyclopedia of television shows that networks killed after producing their pilot episodes (most never even aired). I don’t mind sharing with you now some of the more hilarious entries from this book (I’m paraphrasing Mr. Goldberg below, of course, and adding some of my own thoughts):
“Dracula” (NBC, 1979) – When not teaching history at a night school in San Francisco, Dracula looks for love around town and a “cure” for his vampirism. Spun off from segments featured on a weekly serial called “Cliffhangers.” Michael Nouri of Flashdance fame played Dracula. Intended to be an hour-long drama. All plausible except for the “cure” part. Who would want to cure immortality? Well, I guess if all the rampant killing on account of your psycho bloodlust really bothered you…
“905-WILD” (NBC, 1975) – Mark Harmon and Albert Popwell were set to star as L.A. Animal Control officers, capturing the wild skunks and rowdy seals that disrupt people’s lives in southern California. Those quick to dub this show “‘CHiPs’ with animals” should realize this pilot predates Erik Estrada’s money train by two years.
“Shooting Stars” (ABC, 1983) – Two actors fired from a TV detective show attempt real-life detective work in this two hour pilot movie. The two actors playing the two actors in question? Billy Dee Williams and Parker Stevenson. That’s right; Lando Calrissian and one of the Hardy Boys. You know who else was going to be on this show? Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. Holy fucking shit.
“Weekend Nun” (ABC, 1972) – The adventures of a nun/probation officer. Apparently based on a real person.
“Captain Ahab” (CBS, 1965) – Two female cousins inherit their rich uncle’s talking parrot, Captain Ahab, and for some reason they must live with it. Obviously a sitcom. Jaye P. Morgan played one of the cousins.
“13 Thirteenth Avenue” (CBS, 1983) – A young Wil Wheaton and his widower dad move into a NY apartment building populated by monsters, including a werewolf C.P.A. and a troll landlord. Another sitcom. Clive Revill, the original voice of the Emperor in The Empire Strikes Back, played the resident psychiatrist. I actually e-mailed Wil about this chunk of his acting history once; he has yet to reply.
“Freeman” (ABC, 1976) – White family buys mansion haunted by black ghost. Neither party leaves; hilarity ensues. Paul Mooney worked on this show. This seems like a throwaway gag in one of the Scary Movie movies.
“I ain’t leavin’, honky!”
“Well, we’re certainly not leaving, either!”
“Well then, yo’ white asses better get used to The BLACK PHANTOM! BOOOOO!!!!”
There are actually three versions of Unsold TV Pilots floating around out there – the original (subtitled The Greatest Shows You Never Saw), a “1955-1976” edition, and a “1977-1985” edition. I know this because when I originally posted this entry on my Myspace blog, Lee Goldberg himself left a comment there pimping his extra TV Pilot tomes. Whaddya, sit around GOOGLIN’ yerself all day, Lee?
I’m just teasin’. I was glad Lee left me a comment. What I want to know is where the hell Unsold TV Pilots Vol. 4 is, covering the past twenty-two years of shitty programming nobody wanted to air. Guess that motherfucker’s too busy writing “Monk” novels to get down on that. Tony Shalhoub, FTW!!