The fall TV season kicked off this week, with NBC being the first of the major networks to launch new shows. It’s really impressive any time a TV show makes it to air because it’s such an arduous process to even get a pilot episode made, let alone getting a show picked up to series. There are so many steps at which things can completely fall apart when developing a TV show that it’s a wonder so many shows get made at all.
Because most networks develop far more pilots than they need, each network has its own back catalogue of rejected shows that never made it to air. While most of these rejected pilots will never be seen by the public, a few have surfaced on the Internet and they offer an interesting look into what might have been if network execs had made some different choices. Here’s a collection of 10 unsold TV pilots, many of them starring well-known comedians like Andy Samberg, Nick Swardson, and Andy Kaufman. And be sure to check out 10 promising pilots from this past pilot season that weren’t picked up, too.
1. The Andy Kaufman Show (1983)
By 1983, Andy Kaufman was going through a bit of a rough patch, both in his career and with his health. Taxi had been canceled, he’d been voted off of Saturday Night Live via a viewer call-in poll, and a series of bits involving wrestling women had drawn some amount of controversy, all while a rare type of lung cancer was slowly ravaging Kaufman’s body. PBS was just about the only place Kaufman could get his own show on the air, and the result was The Andy Kaufman Show, a special episode of the PBS series Soundstage that serves as a good example of what Kaufman would have done with his own TV show at this late stage in his career. Andy Kaufman sadly passed away at the age of 35 the following year, and we never got to see a full run of a TV show he created.
2. The Elvira Show (1993)
CBS hired Cassandra Peterson to create a sitcom based around her popular horror hostess character Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, back in 1993. Here’s Peterson talking about the show to The AVClub:
Peterson: That was a bummer, man. That was a really good show, and I was very proud of it… it was the happening pilot at CBS—like, No. 1 with a bullet. And then the president of CBS at the time, Jeff Saganski, on the day that they screen all the pilots and pick the ones that are going to go on, he got ill—I think with pneumonia—and had to be put in the hospital. So this guy flew out, this VP from New York named Howard Stringer who was head of sports for CBS, and when he saw my show, he said, “Uh… We can’t show those kinds of tits on TV.” [Laughs.] Just like that. And one of the executive producers just stood up and quit CBS right then and there. It was kind of a nightmare.AVC: Stringer didn’t know what Elvira looked like?Peterson: He’d never seen me before! He just did sports. He was like, “We can’t have that kind of cleavage on our channel!” That was it…
The Elvira Show had some shocking similarities to Sabrina, The Teenage Witch, as Cassandra Peterson pointed out during the same interview (although Sabrina was three years later, not one, and on ABC, not CBS, as Peterson says):
AVC: How do you think the premise of this show would have played out had it been allowed to continue?Well, it was allowed to continue: CBS did Sabrina, The Teenage Witch with the exact identical plotline as my show. The talking black cat, the two old aunts, the teenage girl—the whole damn thing—and they released it the following year. It just focused on the teenage lead instead of me—because in my show, I was the aunt of a teenage girl, along with Katherine Helmond. Teenage girl, aunts who are witches, young girl who didn’t want to be a witch because she wanted to fit in, talking black cat, blah blah blah… It did get made! [Laughs.]
What CBS picked up instead that year: Fran Drescher’s The Nanny and the Dave Barry-inspired Dave’s World, one of the most successful sitcoms based on a newspaper column ever.
3. The Pat Kilbane Show (2003)
Early period MADtv standout Pat Kilbane signed on to develop a sketch show starring himself for Comedy Central. The network commissioned a pilot, which isn’t online, but this sketch, in which Kilbane plays a superhero fashion designer, popped up on YouTube a few years back.
What Comedy Central picked up instead that year: Reno 911 and I’m With Busey, a short-lived reality show about Gary Busey teaching Jimmy Kimmel writer Adam De La Peña the ways of the world.
4. Awesometown (2005)
Off the success of their web videos, The Lonely Island (sketch trio made up of Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer) was hired by Fox to create and star in their own sketch pilot. The resulting show, Awesometown, features a laughtrack and live stage segments, but there’s plenty of funny stuff in it. Fox passed on the show, and The Lonely Island was snapped up by SNL just a few months later. Fox’s loss.
What Fox picked up instead that year: The Michael Rapaport family screamfest The War at Home and the Bradley Cooper-plays-Anthony Bourdain sitcom Kitchen Confidential.
5. Gay Robot (2006)
Nick Swardson and Tom Gianas created this pilot for Comedy Central, based on a track Swardson recorded on Adam Sandler’s album, Shhh…Don’t Tell. The show revolved around a group of college students who are friends with a robot who became gay after his inventor spilled a wine cooler on him. Swardson voiced the robot and played an onscreen character, starring alongside Jon Glaser and Natasha Leggero. In 2008, Swardson began developing an animated version of the show, but that one never made it to air either.
What Comedy Central picked up instead that year: The Sarah Silverman Program, Dave ‘Gruber’ Allen and David Koechner’s The Naked Trucker and T-Bones Show, and David Cross and Jon Benjamin’s animated misfit superhero series Freak Show.
6. Not Another High School Show (2006)
Not Another Teen Movie writer Mike Bender developed this TV version of the movie for Comedy Central, with the emphasis being on spoofing TV teen dramas like The O.C., Dawson’s Creek, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
What Comedy Central picked up instead that year: Same as the shows chosen over Gay Robot (see above).
7. Todd’s Coma (2006)
Todd Glass has been one of the funniest stand-ups going for years now, and in 2005, TBS signed him to co-create and star in an original sitcom. Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison Productions produced the pilot, which starred Glass as a guy in a coma with the show dipping in and out of his comedy sketch-like dreams. It’s a shame TBS didn’t pick up the pilot (which featured a cameo from Glass’s old roommate Ben Stiller), especially considering it had one of the catchiest theme songs ever. (Note: The audio on the video is a little out of sync but this is the only copy of the pilot out there).
What TBS picked up instead that year: My Boys, 10 Items or Less, and reruns of King of Queens.
8. The Derek & Simon Show (2006)
Bob Odenkirk co-created this show for HBO with Derek Waters (Drunk History) and Simon Helberg (The Big Bang Theory), with the duo playing themselves in exaggerated versions of their own lives. HBO passed on the pilot, which was made up of two different 15-minute vignettes, but it was screened at several film festivals and developed into a web series for the now-defunct comedy site Super Deluxe.
What HBO picked up instead that year: Dane Cook’s Tourgasm and Louis C.K.’s three-camera experiment Lucky Louie
9. The Sound of Young America (2008)
Jesse Thorn created and starred in this TV pilot for Current TV based on his popular radio show and podcast The Sound of Young America. The pilot offers a cool behind-the-scenes glimpse into Thorn’s show and features a pair of great interviews with Patton Oswalt and The Onion/Daily Show/Colbert/Modern Family writer Ben Karlin. The Karlin interview includes clips of a rejected Fox pilot he made for The Onion called Deadline Now, which may be the only time an unsold pilot was ever featured inside an unsold pilot, creating some kind of unsold pilot vortex.
The show wasn’t picked up because there was a regime change at Current TV and the new network bosses wanted to take the cable channel in a different direction.
10. The Reggie Watts Show (2010)
Reggie Watts, who was headlining Conan O’Brien’s tour at the time, created and starred in this Comedy Central pilot a couple years but the network passed on the show and Watts scored a sweet gig as Scott Aukerman’s sidekick on Comedy Bang Bang.
What Comedy Central picked up instead that year: Jon Benjamin Has a Van
Bradford Evans is a writer living in Los Angeles.