Revisit “Turn-On,” the Innovative TV Show That Got Canceled Right in the Middle of Its First Episode (1969)

It may give you pause, at least if you’re past a cer­tain age, to con­sid­er the dis­ap­pear­ance of the word com­put­er­ized. Like portable, it has fall­en out of use due to the sheer com­mon­ness of the con­cept to which it refers: in an age when we all car­ry portable com­put­ers in our pock­ets, nei­ther porta­bil­i­ty nor com­put­er­i­za­tion are any longer notable in them­selves. But there was a time when to call some­thing com­put­er­ized lent it a futur­is­tic, even sexy air. Back in 1969, just a few months before the Unit­ed States’ deci­sive vic­to­ry in the Space Race, ABC aired “the First Com­put­er­ized TV Show,” a half-hour sketch-com­e­dy series called Turn-On. Or rather, it would’ve been a series, had it last­ed past its first broad­cast.

Turn-On was cre­at­ed by Ed Friend­ly and George Schlat­ter, the pro­duc­ers of Rowan & Mar­t­in’s Laugh-In on NBC. With that sketch com­e­dy show hav­ing quick­ly become a major cul­tur­al phe­nom­e­non, Friend­ly and Schlat­ter used their new project to puri­fy and great­ly inten­si­fy its con­cept: the sketch­es became short­er, some of them last­ing mere sec­onds; the mate­r­i­al became more top­i­cal and risqué; the humor became more absurd, at times verg­ing on non­sen­si­cal.

But Turn-On’s most strik­ing break from con­ven­tion was the elim­i­na­tion of the role of the host, replac­ing them with a for­mi­da­ble-look­ing com­put­er con­sole that was osten­si­bly gen­er­at­ing the show accord­ing to the instruc­tions of its anony­mous pro­gram­mers.

Though its cen­tral com­put­er was a fic­tion, Turn-On real­ly did use tech­nol­o­gy in ways nev­er before seen or heard on tele­vi­sion. Instead of a laugh track, it was sat­u­rat­ed with the nov­el sounds of the Moog syn­the­siz­er (whose capa­bil­i­ties had been pop­u­lar­ly demon­strat­ed the pre­vi­ous year by Wendy Car­los’ Switched-On Bach). Instead of prop­er sets, its troupe per­formed against the kind of white void lat­er asso­ci­at­ed with Gap com­mer­cials; often, that space would sep­a­rate into com­ic-strip pan­els right onscreen. Its dance sequences even made use of an ear­ly motion-cap­ture sys­tem. Alas, none of these inno­va­tions saved the show from being pulled off the air just fif­teen min­utes into its debut by Cleve­land’s WEWS. That deci­sive rejec­tion set off a cas­cade, and sev­er­al sta­tions on the west coast sub­se­quent­ly elect­ed not to broad­cast it at all.

Schlat­ter remains a defend­er of Turn-On, blam­ing its rejec­tion on a vin­dic­tive fan of the show whose time slot it took, the declin­ing prime-time rur­al soap opera Pey­ton Place. Now that both the first and nev­er-aired sec­ond episodes have sur­faced on Youtube, you can watch and judge them for your­self, assum­ing you can han­dle a fren­zied dis­joint­ed­ness that makes Tik­Tok videos feel state­ly by com­par­i­son. The objects of these often-absurd salvos  — cam­pus protests, anti-com­mu­nism, “the new math,” nuclear anni­hi­la­tion, the pill, Richard Nixon — may be dat­ed, but at this his­tor­i­cal dis­tance, we can bet­ter appre­ci­ate what Ernie Smith at Tedi­um calls a “sharp com­men­tary on an increas­ing­ly direct and imper­son­al cul­ture.” And if we also take Turn-On as a state­ment on the nature of enter­tain­ment gen­er­at­ed by arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence, we can cred­it it with a cer­tain pre­science as well.

via Boing Boing

Relat­ed con­tent:

Watch Sun­spring, the Sci-Fi Film Writ­ten with Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence, Star­ring Thomas Mid­dled­itch (Sil­i­con Val­ley)

Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence, Art & the Future of Cre­ativ­i­ty: Watch the Final Chap­ter of the “Every­thing is a Remix” Series

Watch Steve Mar­tin Make His First TV Appear­ance: The Smoth­ers Broth­ers Com­e­dy Hour (1968)

How Will AI Change the World?: A Cap­ti­vat­ing Ani­ma­tion Explores the Promise & Per­ils of Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence

Pink Lady and Jeff: Japan’s Biggest Pop Musi­cians Star in One of America’s Worst-Reviewed TV Shows (1980)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (3)
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  • Fayd says:

    It’s inter­est­ing. I was four years old when “Turn-On” aired and I don’t think we got ABC where I lived, so there’s no way I could have seen it. I first heard about the show in “The Book of Lists” in the late 70s and became curi­ous about it. For the past few years, I found lim­it­ed clips on YouTube and did­n’t dis­cov­er the full episodes until this week. Appar­ent­ly, they had been post­ed a cou­ple of months ago. The bizarre thing is that the show was very much as I imag­ined it. Yeah, it was­n’t a very good show, but I won­der if, giv­en the oppor­tu­ni­ty, the writ­ers and cast could have found a groove in which they could have been more con­sis­tent­ly fun­ny.

  • DarkAlleyDan says:

    Sad to see the recent con­fu­sion between “fun­ny” and “ran­dom” isn’t an inven­tion of the mil­len­ni­als.

  • Alissa says:

    Hap­py mem­o­ries! I saw it when it aired, and liked it.
    How­ev­er, I can see how peo­ple did­n’t like it: it was wicked provoca­tive, from the very first clip.

    A Black hand flip­ping a switch.

    Nowa­days, we would­n’t even notice, or if we did it would reg­is­ter as “Oh, inclu­sive! That’s nice.” and go on to the next bit.

    Back then, it was well, kind of unheard-of. Maybe in the 25th cen­tu­ry, Uhu­ra could be a switch­board oper­a­tor. But not now! Black peo­ple did­n’t oper­ate com­put­ers. Black peo­ple dust­ed com­put­ers after hours.

    The whole thing is full of these lit­tle digs, this “did you see THAT?” kind of sight gags. It’s just won­der­ful.

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