Skip to main content

Millions of people are watching. Possibly even hundreds of thousands.

On the Air
(1992)

I must have caught the odd episode of On the Air, although there were only ever seven distinctly odd episodes in total, but I had very little recollection of David Lynch’s first post-Twin Peaks TV foray. A comedy based around the weekly production of a variety show, albeit set in the 1950s, you might think it would bear some resemblance to, say, The Larry Sanders Show, which debuted the same year. While that was rightly seen as ground-breaking, On the Air is possibly even more format-busting, a convolution of weirdness that, at its best, feels like a collection of non sequitur outtakes and quirky background incidentals from the auteur’s movies. At its worst, the series is little more than rather plodding, laboured, bad TV comedy. Although, you’re never entirely sure if that’s not the entire point. The only certainty here is that you’ll be mystified On the Air ever made it beyond pilot stage, a sure sign of a network (ABC again) delusional enough to think the idiosyncratic, tarnished gold of Twin Peaks might drip from a tap when Lynch got involved.


One can straightaway see a pattern emerge where Lynch doesn’t have full control of his projects, either unable or unwilling to steer the tiller throughout. The quality drop-off is precipitous. It’s just that On the Air diverges from this model (if you can call it that) far faster than his previous show. It’s no coincidence that the best episodes are the first (The Lester Guy Show, which he co-wrote with Peaks cohort Mark Frost, and also directed) and the final, seventh, which he co-wrote with Peaks veteran Robert Engels.


Mostly On the Air falls into a rhythm of strange and whacky occurrences surrounding whatever special guest is scheduled that week, as Miguel Ferrer’s exec Bud Budwaller (grouchy, irascible – classic Ferrer casting) desperately tries to keep the show above water so as to forestall the ire of network boss Mr Zoblotnick (Sydney Lassick, probably most familiar from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). Bud must cope and deal with preening show host Guy (Ian Buchanan – magnificent as Dick Tremayne in the very variable second season of Twin Peaks, but alas not returning for the 2017 run), and dim-watt (Marilyn Monroe-inspired?) fledging star Betty Hudson (Marla Rubinoff), whose homespun virtues prove a hit with viewers and Zoblotnick but incur the jealousy of Guy and the hatred of Head of Comedy Nicole Thorne (Kim McGuire, formerly of John Waters’ Cry Baby and here perfecting the art of wasp chewing).


The assortment of eccentrics and then some include Zoblotnick’s fellow countryman and director, the incomprehensible Valdja Gochktch (David L Lander, Tim Pinkle in Peaks). This role is the very definition of scene stealing, and hilarious, provide you find silly accents hilarious. Gochktch is also the comedy encapsulation of the weirdly delivered and distracted Lynch staple, On the Air’s equivalent of The Man from Another Place, whose mangled English makes Inspector Clouseau sound RP. Luckily on hand is unflappable assistant, Ruth Trueworthy (Nancye Ferguson) able to interpret his every incoherent utterance.


There’s a sense of perverse indifference to any kind of impulse to appeal to a traditional viewing audience that is immensely winning. I mean, the show doesn’t really work in any kind of qualitative sense, pulling out cartoon comedy sound effects at every opportunity like it’s a dry run for The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer, but that in itself has to count for something. There’s puerile slapstick and bargain-basement laughs, but there’s also something more.


The uncanny and nightmarish don’t actually find tangible form, but they’re on the brink of discovery throughout On the Air; the show is already about the broken reality that is Hollywood and it’s ostensibly a comedy, so the grotesquery that tends to seep through the surface veneer of existence, from wherever it may come, a consistent attribute of all the directors’ work, isn’t quite so persuasively present. Instead, there’s more a wash of frothy derangement. Imperfect as On the Air is, it’s transfixingly so.

OVERALL:

The following may give you an inkling of what to expect, but more likely you’ll be none the wiser than I am having watched it.

Pilot: The Lester Guy Show

The most resonant sight in not just the pilot, but all the episodes, is the opening credits of The Lester Guy Show, in which Lester mimes some dancing, shoe shuffling, hat adjusting business next to a lamppost, accompanied by the uncanny aural output of Angelo Badalamenti (making no concessions for comedy).


Lynch introduces us to regular incidentals, including Tracey Walter (who ended up on the cutting room floor in Wild at Heart, but is the kind of classic Lynchian actor you’d have expected to feature more) as Binky Watts, who suffers from Boseman’s Simplex, meaning he can see 25.62 times what we see (manifesting as a perversely rudimentary overlay of multiple animals, objects or people, usually dancing about), and the Hurry-Up Twins (Raymond and Raleigh Friend), who appear for no more than 30 seconds an episode, are announced, and repeat “Hurry Up” as they walk off studio left.


The “plot” finds Berry plucked from obscurity and winning the hearts of viewers, in spite, or because, of her homespun charm (“She’s no dim bulb, she’s a blown-out fuse”). Twin Peaks’, and Lynch’s generally, marriage of the innocent and cynical is in full force here, a juxtaposition that meets its most archly twee-sinister as she salvages a decimated show by singing about how “The bird in the tree is singing for me” to the strains of a dinky music box. From anyone but Lynch it would be insipid, but it’s strange (that word comes up a lot), odd and haunting.


Lester is required to sell dog food in the form of a word from his sponsors, but a series of slapstick mishaps find him ejected from a kitchen set during a preceding sketch (“Mr Guy’s gone out the window”) and lead to him advertising the pedigree chow suspended upside down, with the camera already knocked on its side, as viewers struggle to adjust their sets. Exasperated Bud (“Can it pea brain. We’re six hours to air”), meanwhile, is resigned to receiving calls from Zoblotnick’s hotline, which in this case is expelling flames (in others water).


That makes it sound possibly more coherent than it is. The episode is marbled by the director’s distinctive narrative lack of focus, such that incidentals become the point and the plot is tangential. It’s kind of brilliant, and the show won’t quite hit this level of relaxed absurdity again until the last episode.


1.2

Written by Mark Frost and directed by Lesli Linka Glatter, this is an exception to the rule in straying from the confines of the studio, as Betty is summoned to dinner with Zoblotnick, while the scheming Lester, Nicole and Bud attempt to arrange things so she meets with disfavour. Which involves Lester posing as a waiter (Betty, being thick, doesn’t recognise him; when she is told he will send a car to her apartment she responds “But I live on the seventh floor”). Bud reels off some great lines (“Betty Hudson is a mistake on every level, including genetic”) worthy of Peaks’ Albert, there’s a very Lynchian obsession with ducks (which we’ll be seeing more of) and Betty becomes distracted by Zoblotnick’s hairpiece, imagining it to be a wolverine.


1.3

 Written by Robert Engels and Jack Fisk, this finds Lester presenting an approximation of the The 64,000-Dollar Question, fixed of course, but that doesn’t stop Betty (“Millions of people are watching. Possibly even 100s of 1000s”) from winning it in concert with Mr McGonigle (Marvin Kaplan, who appeared in Wild at Heart), who has perked right up after being medicined by a veterinarian (“Thank you, woof”). McGonigle’s dog Snaps takes some of the medicine, and ends up talking, which somehow shouldn’t be at all surprising, and there’s another appearance by a duck.


1.4

More Peaks veterans, director Jonathan Sanger and writer Scott Frost, deliver an episode in which Doodles the Duck appears on The Lester Guy Show, and some Mexican musicians, and Lester, appear in “An Almost Innocent Man” (a reference to Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man?) with acting legend Stan Tailings (Freddie Jones, of The Elephant Man). The accumulation of slapstick, weird noir-ish elements, duck, and slapstick sound effects make for a heady brew indeed, one that includes a man with a duck’s head, Lester getting hit by injurious objects again, “Take that casserole out of the oven this instant”, and two hippopotami. 


Oh, and right near the end, that Snaps, accompanied by flickering lights as a clock spins round of its own accord; it’s like finding Laura Palmer in the Black Lodge.


1.5

You can’t really go wrong with a sinister puppet (scratch sinister, Mr Peanuts is horrifying), and here we have Mr Peanuts, being especially insulting to Bud. And Betty’s sister Sylvia (Ann Bloom) making Mr Peanuts miserable after he poses as her when she refuses to appear on stage with him. And Nicole being bitten on the arse by the resident pooch. It culminates in Sylvia leading a rendition of the Mr Peanuts Song (from the popular kids’ TV show); “He can take a frown, and turn it upside down”). Even Bud, brought to tears, joins in.


1.6

The Great Presidio (I M Hobson), at the behest of Zoblotnick, is booked on the show, but he has lost his bearings and abilities. Betty Thomas directs (the same year she’d transition to big screen comedies) and Engels writes. Engels conjures a suitably Lynchian landscape, as the Presidio is filled with dread and Dali-esque utterances (“My teeth are covered with spiders”), before recognising Snaps (“I dreamed of a dog like that, He was wearing a hat and smoking a cigar” – you can guess where this is leading).


Snaps is duly dressed as the Dog of Transformation (“I will remember all, when the dog appears”), leading to the Presidio regaining his – truly – magical abilities, and so confounding Lester and Nicol’s plans to win plaudits through the former’s own terrible magic act. The duo are diminished, reduced, and transported. The climax is awash with daft effects without really being funny, to frantic without being sufficiently antic (he’s sent to Akron, Ohio, she ends up with the head of a lizard), but the dog business is good fun.


1.7

A marvellous Lynch-inspired closer, directed by Jack Fisk, in which Lester, for once rightly impressed, has demanded a guest appearance by down town beatnik The Woman With No Name (Bellina Logan who appeared in Twin Peaks as a desk clerk and returns as same next year), and her group The Voids. Gotchktch is instantly taken with her, possibly because her speech is as unintelligible as his, but also because beatnik translates as bootmaker where he comes from (“You have such beautiful shoes. Mine are so plain… Tell me of your other boots”).


Lynch obviously loves Gotchktch as much as I do, because this is his funniest showing. He also includes a really odd subplot in which Betty can’t remember her mother’s name, until, on being prompted with it, she announces on air, in unfailingly facile but moving manner “Everyone should always remember their mother’s name. I think everyone in America should call their mother right now”.


The Machiavellian machinations of Lester and Nicole see them attempt to use a voice disintegrator on Betty (who is unable to understand the concept of miming to her own voice – “I’ll be in two places at once?” – leading to even Gotchktch raising his in frustration). Naturally, it all goes wrong for the schemers, and Lester’s voice is affected instead. Weirdly distorted, it makes the perfect accompaniment to the beat performance. Of which, Logan is hilariously unhinged in her dance, with Gotchktch joining in. And then so does everyone else, with shoes on their hands. The episode also involves dogs watching TV, and one playing the bongos.



















Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Mondo bizarro. No offence man, but you’re in way over your head.

The X-Files 8.7: Via Negativa I wasn’t as down on the last couple of seasons of The X-Files as most seemed to be. For me, the mythology arc walked off a cliff somewhere around the first movie, with only the occasional glimmer of something worthwhile after that. So the fact that the show was tripping over itself with super soldiers and Mulder’s abduction/his and Scully’s baby (although we all now know it wasn’t, sheesh ), anything to stretch itself beyond breaking point in the vain hope viewers would carry on dangling, didn’t really make much odds. Of course, it finally snapped with the wretched main arc when the show returned, although the writing was truly on the wall with Season 9 finale The Truth . For the most part, though, I found 8 and 9 more watchable than, say 5 or 7. They came up with their fair share of engaging standalones, one of which I remembered to be Via Negativa .

Isn’t it true, it’s easier to be a holy man on the top of a mountain?

The Razor’s Edge (1984) (SPOILERS) I’d hadn’t so much a hankering as an idle interest in finally getting round to seeing Bill Murray’s passion project. Partly because it seemed like such an odd fit. And partly because passion isn’t something you tend to associate with any Murray movie project, involving as it usually does laidback deadpan. Murray, at nigh-on peak fame – only cemented by the movie he agreed to make to make this movie – embarks on a serious-acting-chops dramatic project, an adaptation of W Somerset Maugham’s story of one man’s journey of spiritual self-discovery. It should at least be interesting, shouldn’t it? A real curio? Alas, not. The Razor’s Edge is desperately turgid.

You have done well to keep so much hair, when so many’s after it.

Jeremiah Johnson (1972) (SPOILERS) Hitherto, I was most familiar with Jeremiah Johnson in the form of a popular animated gif of beardy Robert Redford smiling and nodding in slow zoom close up (a moment that is every bit as cheesy in the film as it is in the gif). For whatever reason, I hadn’t mustered the enthusiasm to check out the 1970s’ The Revenant until now (well, beard-wise, at any rate). It’s easy to distinguish the different personalities at work in the movie. The John Milius one – the (mythic) man against the mythic landscape; the likeably accentuated, semi-poetic dialogue – versus the more naturalistic approach favoured by director Sydney Pollack and star Redford. The fusion of the two makes for a very watchable, if undeniably languorous picture. It was evidently an influence on Dances with Wolves in some respects, although that Best Picture Oscar winner is at greater pains to summon a more sensitive portrayal of Native Americans (and thus, perversely, at times a more patr

Schnell, you stinkers! Come on, raus!

Private’s Progress (1956) (SPOILERS) Truth be told, there’s good reason sequel I’m Alright Jack reaps the raves – it is, after all, razor sharp and entirely focussed in its satire – but Private’s Progress is no slouch either. In some respects, it makes for an easy bedfellow with such wartime larks as Norman Wisdom’s The Square Peg (one of the slapstick funny man’s better vehicles). But it’s also, typically of the Boulting Brothers’ unsentimental disposition, utterly remorseless in rebuffing any notions of romantic wartime heroism, nobility and fighting the good fight. Everyone in the British Army is entirely cynical, or terrified, or an idiot.

My Doggett would have called that crazy.

The X-Files 9.4: 4-D I get the impression no one much liked Agent Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish), but I felt, for all the sub-Counsellor Troi, empath twiddling that dogged her characterisation, she was a mostly positive addition to the series’ last two years (of its main run). Undoubtedly, pairing her with Doggett, in anticipation of Gillian Anderson exiting just as David Duchovny had – you rewatch these seasons and you wonder where her head was at in hanging on – made for aggressively facile gender-swapped conflict positions on any given assignment. And generally, I’d have been more interested in seeing how two individuals sympathetic to the cause – her and Mulder – might have got on. Nevertheless, in an episode like 4-D you get her character, and Doggett’s, at probably their best mutual showing.

It’s not as if she were a… maniac, a raving thing.

Psycho (1960) (SPOILERS) One of cinema’s most feted and most studied texts, and for good reason. Even if the worthier and more literate psycho movie of that year is Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom . One effectively ended a prolific director’s career and the other made its maker more in demand than ever, even if he too would discover he had peaked with his populist fear flick. Pretty much all the criticism and praise of Psycho is entirely valid. It remains a marvellously effective low-budget shocker, one peppered with superb performances and masterful staging. It’s also fairly rudimentary in tone, character and psychology. But those negative elements remain irrelevant to its overall power.

You’re a disgrace, sir... Weren’t you at Harrow?

Our Man in Marrakesh aka Bang! Bang! You’re Dead (1966) (SPOILERS) I hadn’t seen this one in more than three decades, and I had in mind that it was a decent spy spoof, well populated with a selection of stalwart British character actors in supporting roles. Well, I had the last bit right. I wasn’t aware this came from the stable of producer Harry Alan Towers, less still of his pedigree, or lack thereof, as a sort of British Roger Corman (he tried his hand at Star Wars with The Shape of Things to Come and Conan the Barbarian with Gor , for example). More legitimately, if you wish to call it that, he was responsible for the Christopher Lee Fu Manchu flicks. Our Man in Marrakesh – riffing overtly on Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana in title – seems to have in mind the then popular spy genre and its burgeoning spoofs, but it’s unsure which it is; too lightweight to work as a thriller and too light on laughs to elicit a chuckle.

I tell you, it saw me! The hanged man’s asphyx saw me!

The Asphyx (1972) (SPOILERS) There was such a welter of British horror from the mid 60s to mid 70s, even leaving aside the Hammers and Amicuses, that it’s easy to lose track of them in the shuffle. This one, the sole directorial effort of Peter Newbrook (a cameraman for David Lean, then a cinematographer), has a strong premise and a decent cast, but it stumbles somewhat when it comes to taking that premise any place interesting. On the plus side, it largely eschews the grue. On the minus, directing clearly wasn’t Newbrook’s forte, and even aided by industry stalwart cinematographer Freddie Young (also a go-to for Lean), The Aspyhx is stylistically rather flat.

The best thing in the world for the inside of a man or a woman is the outside of a horse.

Marnie (1964) (SPOILERS) Hitch in a creative ditch. If you’ve read my Vertigo review, you’ll know I admired rather than really liked the picture many fete as his greatest work. Marnie is, in many ways, a redux, in the way De Palma kept repeating himself in the early 80s only significantly less delirious and… well, compelling. While Marnie succeeds in commanding the attention fitfully, it’s usually for the wrong reasons. And Hitch, digging his heels in as he strives to fashion a star against public disinterest – he failed to persuade Grace Kelly out of retirement for Marnie Rutland – comes entirely adrift with his leads.

You know what I sometimes wish? I sometimes wish I were ordinary like you. Ordinary and dead like all the others.

Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964) (SPOILERS) Bryan Forbes’ adaptation of Mark McShane’s 1961’s novel has been much acclaimed. It boasts a distinctive storyline and effective performances from its leads, accompanied by effective black-and-white cinematography from Gerry Turpin and a suitably atmospheric score from John Barry. I’m not sure Forbes makes the most of the material, however, as he underlines Séance on a Wet Afternoon ’s inherently theatrical qualities at the expense of its filmic potential.