The Annotated MAD MEN: TURN-ON, The Show Canceled After 11 Minutes

One of the greatest failures in television history, this bizarre counterculture sketch show infuriated America for one episode.

As Harry Crane is talking to Lloyd*, the guy installing the firm's new computer in The Monolith, he mentions that most Americans only know computers in terms of how they're portrayed on TV - like in a show featuring Tim Conway that was canceled mid-episode. 

Harry's not spinning a yarn here; he's talking about Turn-On, a television disaster that has become legendary. It aired on ABC in February of 1969, and while it was officially canceled after one episode had aired one affiliate yanked the show after the first commercial break while others refused to ever air it at all. Tim Conway was the guest host of the episode, and he later joked that the premiere party served as the cancelation party. 

The show sprang from the minds of Ed Friendly and George Schlatter, who had made TV history the year before with Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. The show started as a special in 1967 but was brought back as a series in 68, and it was hugely popular for NBC - running 140 episodes - and had a profound impact on pop culture. A sketch show, Laugh-In reached back to the old fashioned worlds of Vaudeville and burlesque to create something that tapped into the then-current counterculture. It was fast paced, enormously silly and often pretty safe - safe enough that Richard Nixon, campaigning in 1970, would appear on the show to intone the catchphrase "Sock it to me," something he later said earned him the election. 

NBC wanted more, and Schlatter came up with Turn-On, which would have been a triple entendre at the time, referring to turning on the TV, getting turned on sexually and also turning on by doing drugs, as per Timothy Leary. The half hour show would take the same zany Hellzapoppin business but marry it to more topical, edgy humor. The show would play on the burgeoning fascination with computers by being hosted by and created completely by an IBM super-computer (the same one the agency is having installed) that would spit out the sketches (it was actually a plywood construction dotted with blinking lights). The speed of Laugh-In would be doubled, if not tripled, and the weirdness factor would be through the roof.

NBC turned it down. Bristol-Meyers came on as sponsor and the show was shopped to CBS, who turned it down, saying that the fast cuts and rapid-fire weird comedy had left some people physically disturbed. ABC, then the third place network, took a chance on the show, giving it a 13 episode order. They aired it on Wednesday February 5th at 8:30pm. That almost certainly doomed the show right off the bat - it was replacing the family-friendly, very stodgy Peyton Place. Its lead-in was Here Comes The Bride. A blast from the counterculture was the last thing that ABC's usual Wednesday night viewers expected. 

Those viewers who tuned in (17 million of them!) saw a show without sets, with all the sketches playing against a white backdrop. There was no laugh track or live audience. The entire show was filmed, and it was paced with a speed like no other program of the day - the 30 minute episode had almost 30 sketches (or more accurately, bits). And the sketches were all concerned with sex or drugs; one bit had a guy selling a cereal soaked in mescaline, while another had a big-breasted woman saying stuff like "Richard Nixon is now the TITular head of the Republican Party." The longest bit had guest star Tim Conway and cast member Bonnie Boland staring at each other while the word 'SEX' flashed over their heads. A beautiful woman stands in front of a firing squad and one of the gunmen walks up to her and says, "We know the condemned usually had a last request, but the boys have a last request to make of you...' Tim Conway portrayed the head of the Citizens Action Committee of America (CACA). Someone asks where the capitol of South Vietnam is and they're told it's in a Swiss bank account. Messages scrolled across the screen such as "Israel Uber Alles" and "The Amsterdam Levee Is A Dyke" and "God Save The Queens." Tim Conway played a man in a deodorant commercial, lifting weights, who says "When I'm all through I smell like a woman," and he's revealed in drag. The image above is from a sketch where Superman gets hijacked to Cuba (Don's reading a newspaper whose headline is about recent hijacking, by the way). A woman puts money into a birth control pill vending machine and shakes it when the pill doesn't come out.

That skit is the one that broke Cleveland. WEWS, the local ABC affiliate, refused to come back from the commercial break after that sketch aired and they receieved dozens of complaint calls (ABC logged over 300 complaint calls during the show). The station sent a telegram to ABC HQ: "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 Denver affiliate simply refused to even show the program. While ABC didn't officially cancel the show until a few days later the next morning network execs knew that at least half a dozen affiliates would not run the second episode (which had Robert Culp as a guest host). 

The reviews were dismal as well, with most critics agreeing the show simply didn't work. The New York Times called it “The worst show of this season and most past seasons" and  "a sick, psychedelic spin-off from the successful Laugh-In." TV Guide explained the failure succinctly: "There wasn't any sort of identification with the audience -- just a bunch of strangers up there insulting everything you believe in."

Schlatter and Friendly would recover and have long careers. At least one of the show's writers - Albert Brooks - would go on to make a name for himself. But Turn-On itself seems to be lost to the sands of history; recently Schlatter appeared at Los Angeles' Cinefamily and unveiled some little-seen work of his, like Soul, the black version of Laugh-In and a short-lived Bill Cosby sketch show, but Turn-On didn't (as far as I know) play. If anyone has a lead on a copy of Turn-On, I'd love to get a look at it. 

* While most of the episode references 2001: A Space Odyssey, the presence of Lloyd during Don's battle with alcohol - and the fact that Don sees Lloyd as a dark facilitator - seems to be a sly nod to another Kubrick masterpiece, The Shining