“Turn-On”: The irreverent 1969 comedy skit show that was canceled after just one episode

By on August 28, 2015

Legendary TV producer George Schlatter was so successful with TV shows like “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” that you would think he’d have success with any show of his that got on the air, but on Wednesday, February 5, 1969, at 8:30pm Eastern, a Schlatter-produced irreverent psychedelic comedy skit show called “Turn-On” aired exactly one episode before it was canceled.

One affiliate in Cleveland, Ohio hated “Turn-On” so much that a representative interrupted the first episode after the first 11-minutes had aired. He came on live after the first commercial break to say that the show would not ever air again, starting right then: the remainder of the time slot was filled with a black screen, and accompanied by live organ music, an emergency procedure that hadn’t been used in over 20 years.

Only a very few brief scenes from the show’s second (unaired) episode seem to exist online; they were featured as part of a documentary for BBC Channel-4 in the UK. Have a look at that clip and you’ll see a little just a snippet of what “Turn-On” was all about.

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The first episode’s risqué humor led to outraged viewer responses, which then led to a Senate Communications Subcommittee questioning ABC executives about the program’s propriety. ABC had received 369 calls of complaint during the show, compared to twenty who called supporting it. Seventy-five ABC affiliates — including WEWS, KBTV, and KATV — refused to air any further episodes, and WEWS Cleveland’s station manager Don Perris was so angry that he sent ABC network president Elton Rule a telegram that said: “If your naughty little boys have to write dirty words on the walls, please don’t use our walls. ‘Turn-On is turned off, as far as WEWS is concerned.”

The show was financially-sponsored by the conservative Bristol-Myers company, and they presented it to ABC, who picked up the show and gave it a projected 13-week run after both NBC and CBS had rejected it flat out. A CBS official had confessed, “It was so fast with the cuts and chops that some of our people actually got physically disturbed by it.”

Just after the aborted first episode, Bristol-Myers later ordered Schlatter and Friendly to end production of the show (only one additional episode had been completed of the thirteen by that point), and the ABC network eventually replaced “Turn-On” with a revival of “The King Family Show.”

TV Guide later called it “The biggest bomb of the season,” but “Turn-On” may have actually been an even more atomic bomb, and has even been called the shortest-running U.S. TV series ever.

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“Turn-On” had been created by Ed Friendly and George Schlatter, the co-producers of “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” and the show’s cast featured both Teresa Graves (who would join the “Laugh-In” cast that autumn) and longtime children’s show host, character actor and voice artist Chuck McCann.

The cast also featured Hamilton Camp, Carol Wayne, Maura McGiveney, and Mel Stuart.

Digby Wolfe — who produced the first episode of “Turn-On,” and he was also a TV writer for “Laugh In,” as well as “The Monkees,” “Bewitched,” “I Dream of Jeannie,” “The Munsters” and other 60s TV shows — described “Turn-On” as a “visual, comedic, sensory assault involving animation, videotape, stop-action film, electronic distortion, computer graphics — even people.”

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The writing staff included a young Albert Brooks, who probably was at least partially responsible for the double entendres and hidden meanings.

Here is an example: a beautiful woman is about to be executed by a firing squad, and the squad leader approaches the woman and instead of saying the usual “Do you have a last request?” says: “I know this may seem a little awkward miss, but in this case the firing squad has one last request.”

The longest segment of the episode featured the word “SEX” flashing on the screen while guest host Tim Conway and cast regular Bonnie Boland both made faces at the camera just under the sign, as if flaunting the program’s blatant sexual wallowing.

Another skit featured a woman desperately trying to get her chosen item out of a candy vending machine. The product she so desperately wanted, displayed alongside the Hershey Bars and Milk Duds, was labeled “The Pill.”

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The guest host for the first — and only — episode was Tim Conway, who in 2008 said that “Turn-On” was “way ahead of its time. I’m not sure even if you saw it today that maybe that time has also passed.” Have a look at the interview with Conway (at the link).

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“Turn-On”‘s premise was that it was produced by a computer (who acted as the show’s emcee), and it was filmed, not taped on videotape in front of an audience, which was the common practice for most comedy shows. Unlike Schlatter’s “Laugh-In,” “Turn-On””focused almost exclusively on sex as a comedic subject,” using various rapid-fire jokes and risqué skits but no laugh track (the show pioneered the use of a Moog synthesizer, instead of taping in front of a live audience).

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In this interview, Mr. Schlatter describes how the show “happened inside a white ball, of shadowless light, infinity” and how “the whole thing was programmed in a computer, which people didn’t understand.”

According to a TV Guide entry for March 12th, France Nuyen and then-husband Robert Culp were listed as hosts for the un-aired second episode. Peter Tork of the Monkees had also filmed a guest segment which was scheduled to be broadcast.

Night Flight was so curious about this TV show and the fact that we could find very little video evidence of it even having existed that we reached out to Mr. Schlatter’s L.A.-based production office, but we were told the following via e-mail: “‘Turn-On is not accessible to us, there were legal matters involved with that show, so Mr. Schlatter has informed us that it cannot be released.”

Here’s an interview with Mr. Schlatter where he talks about the show:

The Paley Center in New York and Los Angeles both have this show in their collection.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.
  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    I remember this from grade school. The hype about Turn-On, missing the broadcast because of a Boy Scout meeting, figuring I could catch next week’s episode.

    Only to get to school next day and hear “TURN ON GOT TURNED OFF”.

  • Alan Smithee

    This HAS to be released on DVD!

  • altfactor@hotmail.com

    Wasn’t that the headline in the New York Daily News the day after the show got formally cancelled?

  • altfactor@hotmail.com

    Are you sure that WEWS Cleveland pulled the plug midway through the show?

    The story I heard was that WEWS did show the first episode in full but that the station manager appeared live on the station just before the local 11 P.M. newscast to announce the station wouldn’t show “Turn-On” again, and asked ABC to pull the plug.