Every year, TV networks horde up pilots for potential new shows and then whittle this group down to a few programs that actually make it to air. While it’s often the case that these passed-over pilots are rejected for good reasons, there have been tons of high-profile projects from respected comedy auteurs to get shot down by trigger-happy network brass (especially at Fox!). Let’s take a look at some of the comedy series that almost were, and how they could have changed the careers of those involved and the face of television as we know it.
1. Lookwell (1991, NBC)
Starring Adam West
Created by Conan O’Brien and Robert Smigel
Perhaps the best-known comedy pilot that was never turned into an actual show, Lookwell was an ahead-of-its-time riff on the crime procedural from the minds of Conan O’Brien and Robert Smigel. At the time, O’Brien and Smigel were fresh off a run on Saturday Night Live where they were two of the show’s most prominent writers during the well-regarded Hartman-Carvey era. The Fox network, still in its early days, passed on Lookwell, and O’Brien and Smigel went on to find great success elsewhere. O’Brien served a brief but notable two-and-a-half-year stint on the The Simpsons, while Smigel stuck around at SNL and gave being a featured player a shot. The two reunited in 1993 to develop Late Night with Conan O’Brien, with Smigel serving as O’Brien’s original head writer.
Lookwell starred Adam West as Ty Lookwell, the former star of a forgettable 1970’s detective series, who now spends his time teaching an acting class, watching old tapes of his show, and irritating the LAPD by using his decades-old honorary detective title as justification for interfering in actual criminal cases with his own misguided investigations. West gives a particularly strong performance in the pilot, proving that he’s in on the joke of his own has-been status. If Lookwell had taken off, it could have been a career rebound for West and reinvented him as a comedic actor a la Leslie Nielsen. Adam West’s well-oiled, deadpan comic chops are in full display here, and Conan O’Brien and Robert Smigel proved they knew how to make West funny long before Seth MacFarlane ever got a hold of him. Lookwell’s hypothetical success would have also changed the career trajectories of O’Brien and Smigel, locking them down as sitcom creators and potentially precluding O’Brien’s transition to the other side of the camera as a talk show host. So, maybe it’s all for the best that things went the way they did.
The Lookwell pilot, unlike many of the others on this list, actually made it to air (once during an undesirable summer slot on NBC and years later on the defunct Trio network’s Brilliant But Cancelled block of neglected shows). Here’s the show in its entirety.
For a longer, more-detailed take on Lookwell, check out this piece by Mike Schuster we ran last year profiling the abandoned series.
2. Heat Vision and Jack (1999, Fox)
Starring Jack Black, Ron Silver, and the voice of Owen Wilson
Created by Dan Harmon and Rob Schrab. Directed by Ben Stiller
The Pepsi to Lookwell’s Coke, Heat Vision and Jack is the other big scrapped comedy pilot that’s gone on to develop a cult following. Rookie writers Dan Harmon and Rob Schrab, then known mainly for authoring comic books like Scud: The Disposable Assassin, were recruited by Ben Stiller to create this series for Fox. Jack Black played ex-astronaut Jack Austin who becomes superintelligent after being exposed to excessive sun radiation, while Owen Wilson voiced his Knight Rider-esque sidekick, a talking motorcycle named Heat Vision. The pilot opens with an introduction from Ben Stiller, clutching his 1993 Emmy from The Ben Stiller Show (another project Fox unjustly axed) as he urged the network not to make the same mistake twice. Fox ignored Stiller’s warning and fouled up once more, but everyone involved in Heat Vision and Jack found great success in the years that followed, an indication of the rare mix of comedic talent that went to waste when the full season pickup didn’t come. Stiller, Wilson, and Black became some of the biggest movie stars of the next decade. Rob Schrab and Dan Harmon birthed the star-making monthly short film fest Channel 101 and The Sarah Silverman Program; Harmon created Community solo. Plans to resurrect Heat Vision and Jack as a movie emerged in 2007, but little movement has been made on the project because of the busy schedules of everyone involved.
Like Lookwell, Heat Vision and Jack is viewable online, which may be part of the reason these two pilots are so much better-known than some of the other shows on this list. Here’s the first part of the pilot.
3. Sick in the Head (1999, Fox)
Starring David Krumholtz, Kevin Corrigan, Amy Poehler, Andrea Martin, Austin Pendleton
Created by Judd Apatow and Paul Feig
Another late 90’s gathering of future comedy juggernauts that the Fox network passed on, Sick in the Head was the second of three collaborations between Judd Apatow and Paul Feig (so far). Given the overwhelming acclaim their other two mutual projects, Freaks and Geeks and Bridesmaids, have received, it’s safe to say that amazing things happen when these two butt heads. Sick in the Head starred David Krumholtz as an inexperienced therapist with Kevin Corrigan as his slacker roommate, and the rest of the cast playing his patients. Apatow recently tweeted the above photo of himself with the cast, succinctly summing things up (as Twitterers are wont to do) with the phrase “Came out great. Not ordered.” Sadly, Sick in the Head is not available to view online, but it did air several years ago under the Trio network’s Brilliant But Canceled umbrella, and Apatow has screened it at the occasional live event for those lucky enough to be in attendance.
4. Black Market Music (2003, HBO)
Starring Seth Rogen and Jason Segel
Created by Jack Black, Seth Rogen, and Jason Segel
A project from Judd Apatow’s two biggest proteges without their mentor present, Black Market Music saw fresh faces Seth Rogen and Jason Segel collaborating with Jack Black in Apatow’s place. The series would have starred Rogen and Segel as two friends who run a hip L.A. record store. Black (whose breakthrough role was as a record store clerk in High Fidelity) considered appearing on the show in a guest star capacity and aimed to recruit actual musicians to cameo and perform. This project seems to have been called off before the pilot was even shot (just like the original incarnation of Party Down, which was also shut down in its pre-pilot phase by HBO around this same time). Still, a young Rogen and Segel working with Jack Black at a time when he was at the height of his creative powers would have been worth watching.
Rogen and Segel became major movie stars a few years later, but Black Market Music would have been the perfect way to introduce them to audiences a few years earlier. They both had roles on Apatow’s series Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared prior to this, but neither was the main character on these two shows and people didn’t start watching those series in large numbers until years later. Also, Freaks and Undeclared were axed by impatient broadcast networks, whereas Black Market Music’s affiliation with pay-cable channel HBO, which tends to be more patient with its series, would have guaranteed them a full season run and more time to make a connection with audiences. Plus, HBO tends to value critical praise over ratings, since they make their money from subscriptions, not advertisers. Given the favorable reviews Seth Rogen and Jason Segel’s other writing projects have garnered, there’s a good chance critics would have loved this project too, allotting the series a long run.
5. Next! (2001-02, Fox)
Starring Bob Odenkirk, Fred Armisen, Jay Johnston, Jerry Minor, Jill Talley
Created by Bob Odenkirk
Following the cancellation of Mr. Show, David Cross wound up on the Fox sitcom Arrested Development, while Bob Odenkirk was prepping his own series for Fox. Next! (not to be confused with the MTV dating show of the same name) was a proposed sketch show for which Odenkirk recruited Mr. Show stand-outs Jay Johnston, Jerry Minor, and Jill Talley, plus up-and-comers like Fred Armisen, as well. In addition to this strong repertory cast, the Next! pilot also featured guest appearances from future Comedians of Comedy Zach Galifianakis, Patton Oswalt, and Brian Posehn. The entire pilot has surfaced on YouTube, albeit with poor sound and picture quality. Here’s a higher-quality version of an individual sketch that’s one of the pilot’s better ones, in which Jerry Minor plays a clueless R&B singer recording a 9/11 tribute song without knowing the exact date of the tragedy or what specifically happened on that awful day.
Perhaps a little too edgy for Fox, Next! plays like a mainstream version of Mr. Show (minus key component David Cross), and it offers a glimpse at what the cast of Mr. Show might have looked liked had it stayed on the air a few years longer, with Fred Armisen and Zach Galifianakis feeling like natural fits for Odenkirk and Cross’s sensibilities. Like many sketch shows, the pilot to Next! is hit and miss; but, when it hits, it hits, as in this Odenkirk-fronted sketch “Dad Rap.”
Other sketches aren’t as strong, such as a wraparound segment involving an Internet chat group meeting up in real life, which feels understandably dated. Next! was one of two sketch shows Fox was considering launching at the time, but they went with the ill-fated Cedric the Entertainer Presents instead. While David Cross has seen his star rise following Mr. Show, Bob Odenkirk has yet to find a post Mr. Show TV project that’s a worthy showcase for his comedic voice (although he is great on cable drama Breaking Bad). Next! could have brought him the mainstream success he so rightly deserves and given a boost to the show’s impressive collection of comedy bit players, many of whom found fame later anyways.
6. The Jeff Garlin Program (2006, TBS)
Starring Jeff Garlin, Bob Einstein, Dan Castellaneta, Marla Garlin
Created by Jeff Garlin, Steve Rudnick, and Leo Benvenuti
In 2006, Curb Your Enthusiasm sidekick Jeff Garlin began developing a TV sitcom that put him front and center for a change. The pilot starred Garlin as the popular host of a Jack Benny-esque variety series and followed his on and off-camera life a la The Larry Sanders Show. Garlin recruited an impressive ensemble to surround himself with, including Dan “The Voice of Homer Simpson” Castellaneta, Bob Einstein (a.k.a. Super David Osborne, a.k.a. Marty Funkhouser), and Garlin’s real-life wife Marla Garlin, Curb’s longtime casting director. Jeff Garlin describes it as, “the show I’ve wanted to do since I was little.” TBS hasn’t had the best luck with original sitcoms, mainly producing forgettable fare like The Bill Engvall Show and Tyler Perry’s slew of syndicated schlock. It seems like Garlin’s show fits better on another network, and that may be part of the reason it never came to be. TBS passed on the show, but Garlin was dissatisfied with the pilot being “slowly bastardized” by network notes and forced rewrites. The Jeff Garlin Program sounds like it could have been something special (at least before network meddling), but maybe it’s for the best that another show hasn’t been keeping Garlin and Einstein away from Curb all these years.
7. Hey Neighbor (2000, Fox)
Created by/starring Thomas Lennon, Ben Garant, Michael Ian Black. Also starring Kerri Kenney
Thomas Lennon, Kerri Kenney, and Ben Garant, the trio from The State who went on to create Reno 911!, along with Michael Ian Black, starred in this sketch/sitcom hybrid for Fox in 2000 (the four had previously worked together on the Comedy Central show Viva Variety). The show would have featured the State alums as various characters, with the sketches arranged around a sitcom narrative about a wealthy family forced into a poor white trash neighborhood when they enter the FBI’s Witness Relocation Program. Fox passed, but Michael Ian Black, who appeared in the pilot, would have been unable to star in the show full-time anyways as he was locked down to NBC’s Ed. All for the best, though, since this project falling apart left Lennon, Garant, and Kenny open to create and star in Reno911! (which was originally developed at Fox) a few seasons later and Black to co-create and star in Stella.
8. Beat Cops (2002, Fox)
Starring Jon Benjamin, Sam Seder, Aasif Mandvi, and Judy Gold
Created/directed by Sam Seder. Produced by Conan O’Brien
Popular voice actor/van owner Jon Benjamin and Air America refugee Sam Seder starred in this laughtrack-free sitcom pilot from Conan O’Brien’s production company Conaco, but it was unfortunately passed over. Benjamin and Seder have been friends and colleagues for years since both of their careers began as members of David Cross’s sketch group Cross Comedy in Boston in the early 90’s. Beat Cops followed two NYPD desk officers who find themselves overwhelmed when they’re sent into the line of duty. Tonally, Beat Cops was said to be “dry as dust,” evocative of the deadpan humor Benjamin is still practicing today on his Comedy Central series. Fox didn’t order the pilot, leaving Benjamin to become one of the industry’s busiest voice actors and Seder to find fame with Air America Radio.
9. The Thick of It (2007, ABC)
Starring John Michael Higgins, Michael McKean, Oliver Platt, Alex Borstein
Created by Mitch Hurwitz & Richard Day. Directed by Christopher Guest. Produced by Armando Iannucci
A collaboration between two prolific comedy writers, one the creator of the most acclaimed sitcom of the new millennium (Mitch Hurwitz) and the other an old hand who popularized the mockumentary format everybody’s been aping ever since (Christopher Guest), was in the works back in 2007, with Hurwitz and Guest choosing to adapt the work of Armando Iannucci, an esteemed comedy writer from across the pond. Hurwitz and ex-Arrested Development writer Richard Day wrote a script to a pilot adaptation of Iannucci’s hit UK show The Thick of It (the basis for the Oscar-nominated 2009 film In the Loop) for Christopher Guest to direct. They filled the cast with an assortment of players from all over the comedy landscape, including: John Michael Higgins (whom Guest and Hurwitz had both worked with previously), frequent Chris Guest cohort Michael McKean, Alex Borstein (MADtv, Family Guy), Wayne Wilderson (Mr. Show), and character actor Oliver Platt as the original’s breakout role of Malcolm Tucker.
The UK version of The Thick of It followed an inept British cabinet minister’s office, whereas the Americanized version would have followed a low-level Congressman (played by Higgins) and his staff. Whether or not this would have become as successful as the US Office remains to be seen, but reviews of the ABC pilot for The Thick of It were rather negative, and Armando Iannucci distanced himself from the adaptation, saying, “It was terrible…they took the idea and chucked out all the style. It was all conventionally shot and there was no improvisation or swearing.” As a fan of the original version of The Thick of It (check it out, people), I’d hate to see the show I love tainted by a shoddy knockoff (and I don’t think anyone can play Malcolm Tucker like Peter Capaldi), but The Thick of It had more promise than any of Hurwitz’s post AD projects (Sit Down, Shut Up, Running Wilde). Given the way critics and Iannucci have talked about this one, though, it seems like the US version of The Thick of It would have ended up closer in quality to Running Wilde than Arrested Development.
10. The Norm Macdonald Reality Show (2009-2010, FX)
Starring Norm Macdonald and Garry Shandling
Created by Norm Macdonald
Norm Macdonald signed a deal to star in and create an original pilot for FX for a series that was meant to be paired with It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia in which he would have played a fictionalized version of himself. Here’s how Macdonald describes the plot:
“The premise is my career has fizzled into oblivion, so they give me a reality show, which I reluctantly take. So I have to date the Barbi twins and do all this weird… stuff. Now I don’t know how to drive in …my actual life-so in the show they teach me to get a license, [and]… during the driving lesson, I accidentally kill the teacher. And then all hell breaks loose. I start to become famous again, and the show becomes a hit, and the trial starts. I get my fame that I didn’t want in the first place. But there’s a lot of funny stuff in it. I guess I’m telling it like it’s not funny.”
The pilot for Reality Show was halfway through filming when the network called things off. The project stayed in development for another year, adding Garry Shandling as Norm Macdonald’s co-star, in what would have been his first regular TV role since the landmark Larry Sanders Show. The iteration of the pilot with Garry Shandling on board didn’t go through either, and Norm Macdonald moved on to create a different series for Comedy Central, Sports Show. Macdonald and Shandling are accomplished comedians who each haven’t found a worthy venue for their work since the 1990’s. They’re an odd duo, but a show starring the both of them could have been a project worthy of their presences. Few details have emerged about why this one fell apart or in what capacity Shandling was involved, but it’s a real shame that this faux-reality series never came together.
Bradford Evans knows the Fox network will have gained some new supporters from this piece.