Every year during TV’s pilot season (it’s happening right now!), each network develops three times as many shows as it actually needs, seeing what works and what doesn’t before deciding which shows to pick up. While most of the rejected shows are turned down for a reason, every once in a while, TV networks let a show slip by that could have turned into something special. Let’s take a look back at 10 TV series that networks passed up, including the shows that spun off Spinal Tap and Between Two Ferns, the community college comedy that’s not Community, and a show that’s been described as “Reno 911! in space.”
1. The T.V. Show (1979, ABC)
Rob Reiner was in charge of this hour-long sketch show pilot for ABC, and he recruited a slew of gifted comedians who would continue to collaborate with him for years to come. The cast was made up of Billy Crystal, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Martin Mull, Harry Shearer, and Reiner himself, with most of them pulling double-duty as writers, as well. The T.V. Show aired as a one-hour special on ABC (also rearing years later on TV Land), but the network opted not to make it into a series. The T.V. Show marked the television debut of Spinal Tap, with Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer debuting their heavy metal rockers for the first time here in a live performance of the song “Rock and Roll Nightmare.” Keep an eye out for singer-songwriter and Judd Apatow regular Loudon Wainwright as Spinal Tap’s keyboardist in this clip:
2. Jake’s Journey (1988, CBS)
Notable for being one of the last projects by Graham Chapman and Hal Ashby, Jake’s Journey is a failed network TV pilot about a boy who’s transported back to medieval times. Although the plot sounds a little hokey, the creative team should assuage any doubts that Jake’s Journey would have made for a funny show. It was written by Graham Chapman, directed by Hal Ashby, and starred Chapman, Peter Cook, and Rick Mayall. CBS passed on it because the network was afraid that US audiences wouldn’t get the British humor. The script to Jake’s Journey was included, along with more of Graham Chapman’s unreleased work, in the book Ojril: The Complete Incomplete Graham Chapman and is one of the funnier pieces in the collection.
3. Life on Mars (1994, HBO)
After Fox canceled the Emmy Award-winning Ben Stiller Show after less than a full season, the show’s supporting cast members (Bob Odenkirk, Janeane Garofalo, and Andy Dick) all starred in this HBO pilot about struggling Hollywood writers. Life on Mars was created by Odenkirk and could have been a great way for these three to continue doing the kind of comedy that Fox deemed too edgy and surreal. On the other hand, though, if Bob Odenkirk had been locked down to star in and write Life on Mars in 1994, he wouldn’t have been able to develop and create Mr. Show, one of the most beloved and revered programs of all-time in comedy circles. Maybe it’s a good thing that HBO passed on Life on Mars.
4. North Hollywood (2001, Fox)
Judd Apatow created this show about a group of down-and-out actors in Los Angeles. North Hollywood starred Amy Poehler as a personal assistant and babysitter for an out-of-work Judge Reinhold (playing himself), Jason Segel as an actor working as Frankenstein at Universal Studios, and Kevin Hart as a stand-up comedian. Seth Rogen, Phil Hendrie, Adam McKay, Jake Kasdan, and Colin Hanks also made appearances in the pilot. Apatow said he made North Hollywood because Fox wouldn’t let him cast Jason Segel as the lead in Undeclared, so this was his opportunity to get Segel a starring role. He developed the project at ABC because, as Apatow explains it, there was a short period of time around 2000-01 when ABC was looking for edgier shows to pattern themselves after Fox. According to Jim became a hit for ABC in 2001 and the network abandoned plans to chase Fox’s young audience with risky programming. Even though North Hollywood would have been a funny series, ABC’s decision to pass on it freed Judd Apatow up to work on Undeclared and allowed for Amy Poehler to join the cast of SNL that same year.
5. Slice o’ Life (2003, ABC)
In a recent appearance on Marc Maron’s podcast, WTF, Rainn Wilson discussed with Maron a sitcom pilot they were both attached to that never made it into production. The show, Slice o’ Life, was to star Janeane Garofalo as the producer of a human interest segment for a news magazine show, with Rainn Wilson as a goofy sound guy and Marc Maron as an ex-Wall Street lawyer who quit his job to work as Garofalo’s assistant. Bob Odenkirk was also in the cast. During the WTF interview, Maron remembered the table read for the pilot going well, but Wilson recalled things differently:
“It was terrible… I’ll never forget it. She [Garofalo] came in – bless her, she’s such a major talent and the sweetest person in the world - but she came in wearing a T-shirt, her arms covered in sleeve tattoos and like spiky jewelry all up and down… totally punk rock… playing like a pleasant news journalist lead of a show that they kind of wanted to be a modern Mary Tyler Moore, for ABC executives. That’s so stupid.”
6. The Right Now! Show (2007, Fox)
Scott Aukerman and BJ Porter, the comedy duo best known for writing and acting on Mr. Show and for running the wildly-popular L.A.-based alt-comedy showcase Comedy Death-Ray (now Comedy Bang Bang), were hired by Fox to create their own sketch show in 2007. Aukerman and Porter recruited an amazing team of comedians as writers and performers, and many of them have gone on to greater fame since. The Right Now! Show’s cast consisted of James Adomian, Maria Bamford, Ian Edwards, Natasha Leggero, Mike O’Connell, Paul Rust, and Casey Wilson, with Aukerman, Porter, Rust, Brett Gelman, Jon Daly, and Dave Anthony on the writing staff and Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) directing. The gang filmed an hour-long pilot, consisting of sketches performed in front of a live audience, filmed sketches, short films, animated segments, and stand-up, but Fox later decided they no longer wanted a new sketch show and passed on this promising series.
The most notable thing about The Right Now! Show pilot is that it’s where Zach Galifianakis’s Between Two Ferns comes from. The original Between Two Ferns video (with Michael Cera) was plucked directly from the Fox pilot and uploaded online, becoming a massive viral hit and serving as proof that Scott Aukerman and BJ Porter had created a show that would have been very popular with audiences.
7. The New Big Ball with Neil Hamburger (2008, Adult Swim)
Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim produced this 15-minute game show for Gregg Turkington to star in as his weezing, hacky stand-up comic persona Neil Hamburger. The show, “a mix between weird Japanese game shows and The Price is Right” sounds pretty amazing and typical to the surreal comedy that Tim and Eric, Neil Hamburger, and Adult Swim are known for, but the network passed on the pilot. Regardless, I can’t think of anyone I’d want to see host a game show more than Neil Hamburger.
8. Off Duty (2009, NBC)
Jason Mantzoukas created this mismatched partners cop comedy for NBC, but the network unfortunately passed on it. The show starred Romany Malco as a rookie police officer who is paired up with veteran cop Glenn Falcon (played by Bradley Whitford), a degenerate, alcoholic mess. Ken Jeong also starred, but when Off Duty wasn’t picked up, he jumped to the show that took Off Duty’s spot on NBC’s primetime grid that year: Community. Mantzoukas’s script was well-liked in comedy circles, as Nick Offerman mentioned in a recent appearance on Comedy Bang Bang, but it apparently didn’t please NBC enough to earn a spot on the schedule.
9. 13th Grade (2010, FX)
Derek Waters (Derek and Simon, Funny or Die’s Drunk History) starred in and wrote the short film 13th Grade, which he was developing into a full series at FX in 2010. Waters signed on to write the show, along with Michael Cera, Emily Kapnek, and Paige Gullivan. Waters would have starred in the show, with Cera appearing as a guest star. 13th Grade follows a slacker 18 year old as he navigates the world of community college after just being dumped by his Maroon 5-loving girlfriend, but it seems like NBC’s Community making it to air right before might have killed this project. While 13th Grade and Community are wildly different in tone, they cover the same subject matter and might have been deemed too similar by audiences. Unlike Community, 13th Grade is a more realistic and grounded depiction of an American community college but still very funny in its own right, as the short that spun off the project proves:
10. U.S.S. Alabama (2010, FX)
After Comedy Central canceled Reno 911!, Thomas Lennon and Ben Garant created this show for FX that was described as “Reno 911! in space.” U.S.S Alabama followed the crew of the United Nations peacekeeping spaceship a thousand years in the future and starred Lennon, Garant, Rob Huebel, Natasha Leggero, Brandon Jackson, Eddie Izzard, and Mindy Sterling. FX passed on the show, meaning that those of you who’ve wondered what it would be like if Reno 911! were in space are still wondering.
For a look at more great comedy shows that never made it to air, check out our previous list of 10 Promising Pilots that Weren’t Picked Up.
Bradford Evans is a writer living in Los Angeles.