On the Air
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.
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 thirty 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.