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Pilot Error: Cinemax Gives Us Chris Elliott and Shadoe Stevens

Last time we looked at an obscure as hell HBO pilot (series)… now lets move to their stepchild with two Cinemax ones.

In 1986 Pay Cable (now called “Premium Cable”) was desperate for original programming as a way to offset losing part of their market (uncut movies all day every day) to the burgeoning video store. HBO had hits like The Hitchhiker, First and 10 and Not Necessarily the News. Showtime was catching up to them with It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and Brothers. The Movie Channel had Drive In Theater with Joe Bob Briggs and Cinemax only had SCTV and the short lived The Original Max Talking Headroom Show.

1986 was the year that birthed the Pay Cable revolution and Cinemax wanted in so they gave way to “The Cinemax Comedy Experiment”. This was a loose banner under which comedians could make a pilot for Cinemax and pretty much do WHATEVER THEY WANTED. This opened the door to just about any mid-level stand up comic there was at the time; and most of these were downright terrible… proving that good stand up does not necessarily translate to good comedy.

I will be looking at two of these such experiments, one that is far more clever than could be contained and another that sounds clever and yet failed in every conceivable way.
Lets start off with Chris Elliott’s Action Family.

A 70’s cop show mixed with an 80’s sitcom.

Chris Elliott played a hard nosed cop on the streets and then when he got home he lived an idealistic sitcom life. The idea being that everything shot outside the home was a parody of a 70’s cop show such as Kojak or Starsky and Hutch while everything inside was straight out the worst most formulaic sitcom crapped out by network hacks.

In theory this is BRILLIANT… in execution this is excruciating.

Not a single joke lands where it should and this entire thing is predicated on 70’s cop shows are dumb and sitcoms are even dumber as a mentality. Seriously, the sitcom scenes are played so over the top even the producers of Small Wonder would be telling Chris Elliott to crank down the canned laughter and absurd situations for something more down to earth and the outside cop scenes are played for laughs in an SNL sketch manner.

This is 22 minutes of some of the most unfunny jokes I have ever sat through to the point that I wonder if that was somehow an obtuse gag that got out of control.

Why is this unique and imaginative idea so bungled up? That would be because it was made by hacks. Chris Elliott can be funny and in truth this was his idea which as I stated is a great one, but he hired Gary Weis to direct this disaster and Sandy Frank (no, not that one) to write this out.

Gary Weis’s claim to fame is being a director for Saturday Night Live and Sandy Frank actually IS a crappy formulaic writer of sitcoms as well as 80’s David Letterman. These were 2 guys who just did NOT understand they had a prime material in front of them when all they wanted to do was make lame gags and poopie jokes. These were the absolute worst people to attempt something this smart and out there.

Honestly I think Action Family is due for a reboot but make sure it has good writers and producers this time. Have the outside cop stuff played completely straight and shot on 16mm and then have the interiors shot on video like a sitcom. The 1986 Action Family was completely shot on video so there was no visual difference between the cop story and the family story. Also have the 2 worlds clash so much even the characters can’t understand why everything keeps changing. You can not play the outside scenes as comedy lest the interior scenes being comedy serve no purpose.

I am seriously pissed off this was screwed up this bad. Lets end then on one of the most astute and subversive pilots ever to go over the heads of it’s potential audience.

shadoeShadoe Stevens might be known for Hollywood Squares and for his awesome voice but in 1986 he also made ShadoeVision for Cinemax.

This one might take some explaining so strap in as I am going to run this through as fast as possible and still miss %70 of it… here goes:

Okay, so all over the world television sets are being interrupted by a signal that warps the minds of viewers and it’s all due to a doofus named Norman Jones who somehow is the key to an intergalactic talk show host losing control of reality all the while a rival network kidnaps Norman’s wife Faith to find out what she knows (she knows nothing as in their relationship as Norman puts it “I do the thinking you do the feeling, okay?”) so she gets shaved and tortured while Norman and the host (Shadoe Stevens) battle sandworms of anxiety in an effort for Norman to close the door to reality and stop said reality from eating itself all the while the channel keeps changing as does reality because the aforementioned intergalactic talk show broadcasts to your specific evolutionary level and no one sees the same thing.

hqdefaultThat only scratches the surface of the “plot” (so to speak) of ShadoeVision as the show was so packed with gags and images and insanity that it literally takes multiple viewings to catch everything… intentionally so.

Shadoe Stevens became famous 30 seconds at a time when he was a pitchman for Federated electronics stores.

He created 3 unique and original commercials for The Federated Group every week for a decade.

These commercials are amazing in their ingenuity and gifted way of selling you something and being psychotic at the same time (not to mention funny) they also need to be seen to be believed.

ShadoeVision is that same concept as a show. Stevens packed the show with 3 second gags with the intention of “while you were laughing at one thing, you missed 3 more”. Imagine in 1986 catching this and missing most of it even though you watched the whole thing.

Now, ShadoeVision actually is more than a pilot though, it had a second episode shot (“The Brainworms Of Bimbo-Limbo”) but this was never aired (it was eventually put on Stevens website though).

ShadoeVision is something I can’t recommend enough as it was undeniably subversive and quite far ahead of it’s time I still think most people won’t get it.

And yes, Shadoe told me that it was kind of conceived on “illegal substances” so that might explain it somewhat.

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