What innovations are there in television? Multi-camera filming, laugh tracks, color, the variety show, cable, reality TV, HD, digital filming, and a handful of other landmarks (including a few major ones I’m sure I’m forgetting) that have sprung up. The point is, in nearly 100 years of television we’ve seen that it’s not a form that plays on innovation, necessarily. New and different is good in moderation, but comfort, and to some degree, predictability glues butts to seats as well. That’s fine for some, but not for Joel Hodgson and his TV Wheel.
Joel is best known as the creator of the subject of the last From the Archives, Mystery Science Theater 3000. But before that he was an innovative standup performing with strange props and a sleepy delivery. He was in LA, being booked regularly on Letterman and Saturday Night Live and finding success. According to an interview with Wired, “Eventually I got asked to be in a Michael J. Fox sitcom called High School U.S.A. I didn’t think it was funny and said no. They doubled the money, and that kind of offended me.” Not wanting to compromise, Joel moved back to Minnesota to plan his next move.
That next move ended up being a bad movie puppet show that became wildly successful, but once again, when the atmosphere became one in which he feared that he would have to compromise artistically, he respectfully left the show and moved on to create his next thing. That thing was a house of ideas called Visual Story Tools, which took on various unique projects that he and his brother Jim cooked up. One such project was The TV Wheel.
The idea behind The TV Wheel starts with a concept: your television is a window. You’re looking into it and the things you see are moving. You’re cutting away to other scenes constantly, all while commercials are interrupting you. With the TV Wheel, Joel created a world in which there was a continuity to what you were seeing. Once the show starts, the camera does not move at all. What does move is the entire set, which is built on a giant rotating turntable, upon which sets and puppets and mini-golf courses exist. Because the camera never has to move, there are no edits. Because there’s no need to edit, there’s no need for post-production. This means that TV Wheel is performed, recorded by cameras on to video, and then that video is put on television. It’s a streamlined process designed to connect the viewer as closely as possible to the people on the other side of the “window.”
Joel managed to wrangle a pretty incredible collection of people to put his vision to work. In the writer’s room you had Joel, along with Judd Apatow, Paul Feig, Nick Bakay (a standup and later the voice of Salem on Sabrina), and Morwenna Banks. Performing the sketches you had Nick, Morwenna, Feig, as well as young versions of Doug Benson, David Cross, Andy Kindler, and Fred Stoller, among others. Together they make their way, in one take, through unique comedy pieces that at times are very unlike the comic personas they are in the process of developing. Andy Kindler does silent physical comedy. Paul Feig plays an over the top, animal abusing magician. Doug Benson doesn’t appear to be high. It’s all very strange.
There are a few different types of sketches that appear on TV Wheel: the first is the spectacle-type. These are sketches which are anchored by a unique visual, such as the one performed by puppets in the style of Thunderbirds, or a sketch in which a man pulls item after item from his (puppet) dog’s mouth before being eaten by the dog himself, or David Cross’s girlfriend is seduced by a bar’s drink serving ventriloquist dummy. Then there are the forced perspective jokes. In these, Andy Kindler and Lawrence Wrentz are way, way off in the background playing mini-golf, which in actuality is a model that is much closer to the camera, but creates the illusion that in actuality a giant building is falling on them when the ball goes in the hole. Then there’s the confessional sketches between the sets in which an actor who just appeared in a sketch opens a small door, just large enough for their head and shoulders to appear and tells a very, very quick, Laugh-In-style gag.
The sketches are… fine. For the Mystery Science Theater fans out there, a viewer commenting on the show on MetaFilter describes the quality as, “About half of the writing is on par with an average MST3k host segment. And about half is far below.” Basically the sketches range from amusing to awful. At times some of the comedy gets deflected when the emphasis of the scene seems to be about creating a unique visual experience for the viewer. The silver lining, though, is that even if you’re watching a bad sketch, there’s usually still something pretty neat to look at in it.
Originally the show’s pilot was produced for HBO, which is probably its only possible home, given the fact that it’s a half hour show in one continuous take. As you figured out, though, it ultimately wasn’t picked up as a series. Instead TV Wheel was aired only once on Comedy Central, following the first (of at least three) series finale of Mystery Science Theater 3000. But here’s the thing: how do you show a show without commercials on a network that is commercial-driven? Luckily there was another idea.
Make it an hour and warn the viewers up front that there’s going to be a lot of commercials in the first half of the show. A full hour’s worth in that first half. It’s not the cleanest solution to the problem, but if there’s no escaping advertising, it’s the only way to get there. In his short four-minute segments, Joel explains how the TV Wheel itself works and the methodology behind it. Also, as is often the case when Joel appears on Comedy Central, he is accosted by a bunch of puppets. The background isn’t that useful since he explains the idea at the beginning of the HBO pilot, and while it is interesting to see footage of the prototype model and to have Joel diagram the succinct post-production process, ultimately it feels like what it is: filler so that we can have the show without commercials. But you gotta take your lumps.
The TV Wheel is an experiment, and ultimately it was a failed one. As a different commenter in the MetaFilter thread described it, “It’s solving a problem that doesn’t exist,” which is basically true. There’s no problem with the fact that there are commercials or cut-aways in the middle of sketch shows. What you get here is an interesting attempt at presenting material in a different way, but when it comes down to it, the comedic experience isn’t really enhanced by the medium. The TV Wheel might have evolved into something truly amazing, but as it stands, it remains an attempt that didn’t spin just right.