Q: This is the time of year when networks announce their fall schedules. From time to time, I will try a new show only to see it canceled after a half season or less. It seems like a TV series used to tape at least 25 episodes per year, but now I hear that they do 10 or fewer in case it fails. My question: What are some of the shortest-lived shows? Is there a winner for shortest episode run?
Bob Gillespie, of Troy
A: Ever since the ABC game show “Fun and Fortune” died after one episode on June 6, 1949, TV has created a graveyard of at least three dozen one-episode wonders that may have left viewers wondering, “What were they thinking?!?” None may have been so embarrassingly sad than when Jackie Gleason had to eat crow for the egg he had laid the week before.
After “The Jackie Gleason Show” and “The Honeymooners” in the 1950s, the young comedian was well on his way to establishing himself as “The Great One.” So when Gleason asked CBS to try his hand at a game show in 1961, the network probably figured it would have another hit. Instead, the show was one of television’s earliest disasters.
It was called “You’re in the Picture,” and it worked like this: Four celebrities stuck their heads into holes cut out of a large illustration. It was like amusement parks offering you the chance to put your face into a drawing of Tarzan or Captain America to have your picture taken. In this case, however, the celebrities could not see the picture that surrounded them. Instead, they had to ask Gleason questions to figure out the puzzle. After a few minutes, Gleason reportedly looked as if he wanted to sink through the floor. The next week, Gleason fans tuned in to find the comedian sitting on an empty set with his trademark cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other.
“Last week,” he began, “we did a show that laid, without a doubt, the biggest bomb. This would make the H-bomb look like a 2-inch salute ... ”
He then spent 30 minutes talking about how the show came about and other failures in his career. He was so funny and personable that CBS immediately turned the remainder of the series into a successful talk/interview show as a reincarnation of “The Jackie Gleason Show.”
It wasn’t the last time that a major star suffered a massive flop. Do you remember the time Andy Griffith played a small-town sheriff and watched his show sink faster than the Titanic? No, no, not the one with Opie and Aunt Bee. This one came years after he had left Mayberry and found his career going nowhere. To try to revive it, he did a made-for-TV movie in 1974 called “Winter Kill,” in which he played Sam O’Neill, a sheriff in a small resort town. It was filmed as a pilot for a mystery series, but networks never picked it up. Instead, it was reworked into “Adams of Eagle Lake” in which Sam Adams (Griffith) tries to keep order in a small resort town. Despite Griffith’s star power — along with Abby Dalton and a young Nick Nolte — the series was shot down after two episodes.
Networks did tend to be more patient with shows years ago. Costs were much lower then. In 1965, for example, a show like “Bewitched” churned out 36 episodes in its inaugural season. Ratings were much more rudimentary. Networks couldn’t find out that 374,876 single women aged 30-39 who ate Skippy Peanut Butter and shopped at Kresge’s had watched “Perry Mason” 10 minutes after the show was over as they can now.
Still, it didn’t keep shows from getting a quick hook if they ran afoul of viewer (and sponsor) sensibilities. That happened in 1951 to the CBS game show “Who’s Whose,” on which four celebrity panelists tried to determine which of three male contestants were married to which three female contestants. The show attempted to replace “The Goldbergs,” a long-running comedy-drama that CBS dropped when creator Gertrude Berg refused to fire blacklisted actor Philip Loeb. The premise of “Who’s Whose” apparently turned the stomach of General Foods, which ended its sponsorship after one episode on June 25.
These do not hold the record for the most quickly axed show ever. That honor goes to “Turn On,” which turned out to be a complete turn-off on Feb. 5, 1969.
ABC probably can be partially excused for taking a chance on this debacle. At the time, NBC was enjoying monster ratings with “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” so when the idea of a similarly fast-paced, sock-it-to-me, youth-oriented sketch comedy was pitched, ABC jumped on it. Unfortunately, the very first show, hosted by Tim Conway, unleashed a barrage of “jokes” based on promiscuous sex, birth control, drugs and homosexuality — perhaps tame by today’s standards but outrageous in 1969. In Cleveland, station execs at WEWS-TV were so outraged that they did not return to the show after the first commercial break. Some stations in the Western time zones refused to put it on at all after word quickly spread.
“If your naughty little boys have to write dirty words on the walls, please don’t use our walls,” WEWS wrote to ABC, which immediately deep-sixed the disaster.
Although there are dozens of candidates, here are six more to round out a possible Top 10 Worst Stinkers list:
▪ “Co-Ed Fever”: Trying to build on the hot success of “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” this CBS series was given the cold shoulder by viewers and was pulled after one episode on Feb. 4, 1979.
▪ “The Will”: A CBS reality show about family members and friends who competed to be named in a will was dead on arrival on Jan. 8, 2005.
▪ “The Sanford Arms”: Redd Foxx and Demond Wilson were gone, but ABC tried to milk “Sanford and Son” for all it was worth by having Fred’s old Army buddy (Theodore Wilson) buy Fred’s house and run a hotel next door. The show went off to join Elizabeth after four episodes in 1977.
▪ “The Paul Reiser Show”: Poor Paul found audiences weren’t exactly mad about him any longer when he suggested a “Curb Your Enthusiasm” ripoff to NBC in 2011. Its 1.1 was the lowest rating the Peacock Network had ever suffered for a comedy premiere and the show vanished after two weeks. Helen Hunt, where were you?
▪ “Dudley” and “Daddy’s Girls”: What’s worse than one fiasco? How about two in a row suffered by former box-office king Dudley Moore, who rated more of a one than a 10 in these two duds, which ran a combined eight episodes in 1993 and 1994.
▪ “Heil Honey, I’m Home!”: But the Emmy for all-time worst TV atrocity may have to go to this British comedy that featured a spoof of Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun enjoying a happy life until they wind up living next door to a — you guessed it — Jewish couple. Mercifully, it lasted only one night on Sept. 30, 1990, but unaired episodes reportedly had the Hitlers plotting to kill their neighbors, making Archie Bunker look more like Mr. Rogers by comparison.
Hugh Jackman may have turned into box-office gold as the X-Men character Wolverine, but even he couldn’t claw his way his way out of the TV ratings cellar on this 2007 musical drama. Do you remember the title of this show that lasted two weeks?
Answer to Saturday’s trivia: In 1957, Theodore Geisel earned more accolades when “The Cat in the Hat” was published. The story consisted of 236 different words. That prompted his publisher, the well-known Bennett Cerf of “What’s My Line?,” to bet him that he couldn’t write a book with 50 different words or fewer. Geisel won the bet with “Green Eggs and Ham,” which became the fourth-best selling English-language children’s hardcover book of all time despite having exactly 50 different words.