The Simpsons Decade

Lookwell: How Conan O'Brien, Robert Smigel, and Adam West Predicted Modern Comedy in One Failed Pilot

In this week's column, Nathan Rabin explores an absurd cop drama spoof from 1991 that was way ahead of its time.

by | April 19, 2016 | Comments

Lookwell-Title-Card

 


When Abe Vigoda died recently at the age of 94, the public mourned a beloved character actor and television fixture whose career lasted much longer than anyone had a right to expect. But they were also mourning a man who long ago turned himself into an absurdist, oddball joke, a walking punchline who didn’t necessarily have to do anything funny to win laughter. Vigoda’s hangdog presence alone seemed to reduce many to guffaws.

Actually, it isn’t entirely accurate to say that Vigoda turned himself into a joke. It’d be more accurate to say that Conan O’Brien turned him into a surprisingly popular running gag by featuring him as part of his show’s crazy repertory cast of outrageous and surreal characters, a coterie that also included the Masturbating Bear and Mr. T.

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Lookwell feels at once a product of television’s past and an early glimpse into its future.

It never felt like O’Brien was exploiting Vigoda for cheap laughs, though. He was using him for comedic purposes, alright, but it always felt like he was laughing with Vigoda rather than laughing at him. O’Brien was celebrating the weird show business survivors from our fuzzy, half-remembered past and our weird emotional connection to them, and it helped that they were in on the joke.

In the early 1990s, a pre-fame O’Brien and regular collaborator Robert Smigel similarly took Adam West, another figure from the cheesier recesses of pop culture past, and made his exquisitely cornball cult of personality the core of their ill-fated but widely beloved 1991 pilot Lookwell. It only aired once, and it never got picked up or made it to series, but this strange riff on 1970s cop shows somehow proved more influential and talked about than a lot of shows that make it into syndication. Today, Lookwell feels at once a product of television’s past and an early glimpse into its future.

The cornerstones of edgy television comedies to come are all here. In a world of multi-camera sitcoms fortified with the unholy, inhuman braying of laugh tracks and/or a live studio audience, Lookwell boldly opted for the single camera, laugh track-free sensibility of the interchangeable cop shows of the 1970s that were its inspiration. At a time when police dramas and comedies alike understandably leaned towards protagonists who were nice, likable, relatable, and sane, Lookwell instead gave us a deluded anti-hero who was unmistakably scheming, amoral, deranged, and damn near impossible to relate to.

Like Get A Life’s iconic head sociopath Chris Peterson, Ty Lookwell, the character Adam West brilliantly inhabits, isn’t just ingratiatingly daffy in time-tested comedy form. He’s a lunatic, a confident man who seems to inhabit his own bizarre universe, a universe that doesn’t look like ours and plays by entirely different rules.

Lookwell also isn’t just a man who gets all of his ideas from television. No, he’s damn near television personified. He’s television’s Ford- and Carter-era cheesiness rendered flesh. But where Peterson is forever stuck on the other side of the tube, passively taking in television’s rich cornucopia of inanity and insanity, Lookwell has made it inside the television. He has ascended to a higher level of craziness.

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Not only is Lookwell not in on the joke, he inhabits a television world where jokes don’t exist, just clues and crimes and roles he feels he’s perfect for.

After a gloriously pitch-perfect opening credit sequence, West’s Lookwell begins the pilot dispensing wisdom to a fellow actor in an audition for a Happy Days reboot. With his leather jacket and comically oversized black pompadour, he could not look more out of place, a preposterously cartoonish caricature of a 1950s greaser plopped down in early 1990s Los Angeles. When a fellow actor inquires whether he’s Ty Lookwell, he responds affirmatively, then coolly implores, “But until this audition is over, I prefer to be addressed as Buzz McCool.” Not only is he not in on the joke, he inhabits a television world where jokes don’t exist, just clues and crimes and roles he feels he’s perfect for.

In a way, Lookwell anticipates The Brady Bunch movies in dropping the living embodiment of 1970s cheese into the real world of the 1990s, then deriving big laughs out of the incongruous juxtaposition between the two. The show and the film’s anachronistic fashion style and aggressively non-ironic sensibility rub right up against a contemporary world that can’t help but see them as clueless, crazy relics of a bygone era.

But Lookwell splits the difference by sporting the look and feel of a 1970s cop show like Mannix or Ironside, right down to a score that’s half dirty, borderline porno funk and half police-and-military martial pomp. It sounds at once swank and gritty, and it’s one of those killer details that makes the show’s satire wonderfully specific.

Lookwell divides his time between impossible auditions, acting lessons where he uses Bannigan as an unlikely tool to understand the complexities of Shakespeare, and horning his way into police investigations under the curious logic that three years of pretending to be a detective has given him unique insight into the criminal mind.

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Lookwell derives much of its subversive, trash-culture kick from the sense that Adam West is, on some level, playing a version of himself.

Long ago, Lookwell was given an honorary badge (along with seemingly every other middle-aged white man who played a cop on television in the 1970s) and decided that this meaningless publicity stunt made him a real detective. When the real cops patiently try to discourage him from poking his nose into their investigation of a luxury car theft ring, Lookwell responds with a quietly indignant, “I don’t think you understand. I used to play a detective.” In Lookwell, celebrity is more than a state of mind; it’s a form of insanity that keeps its titular protagonist from ever having to confront the reality that he’s a terrible actor and an even worse crimefighter, and that the people he thinks he’s assisting really just want him to go away.

Lookwell derives much of its subversive, trash-culture kick from the sense that Adam West is, on some level, playing a version of himself, and that Ty Lookwell is essentially West with a different signature show and no self-consciousness or self-awareness whatsoever. The pilot is equally scathing yet loving in its deconstruction of the detective drama and in its spoof of acting divorced from anything other than the actor’s enormous, blinding ego. In this context, the wonderfully phony nature of West’s performance, with its strange, almost William Shatner-like emphases and purring, conspiratorial tone, is perfect.

Smigel and O’Brien didn’t need a good actor for Lookwell. Hell, a good actor would have ruined the whole project. They needed someone who could act as terribly, as distinctively, and as hilariously as only Adam West can. Good acting often comes down to listening, to engaging with other actors, to being generous and open in the moment. West’s performance as Ty Lookwell, in sharp contrast, is an exercise in self-indulgence. Lookwell behaves as if he is the only person in the world who exists. He sees life as an endless monologue delivered primarily to himself, and for his own benefit.

If much of Lookwell feels screamingly contemporary, even prescient, it’s also redolent of the past. The pilot’s impeccably straight-faced deadpan tone and loving recreation of the style and sensibility of what it’s spoofing calls to mind the 1980s television comedy Police Squad!, the cult classic created by the Zucker Brothers that famously only lasted six episodes but went on to inspire three hit Naked Gun films.

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It’s similarly ahead of the curve in its loving, ironic embrace of 1970s kitsch.

By the third Naked Gun movie, a mugging and over-the-top Leslie Nielsen stopped just short of dressing up in clown make-up and punctuating his jokes with a honking bicycle horn, but on Police Squad, as in Airplane!, he played things absolutely straight and was much funnier. That’s the deadpan tone Lookwell effortlessly nails.

It’s similarly ahead of the curve in its loving, ironic embrace of 1970s kitsch. It understands that the key is nailing the details, whether it’s a ridiculously pompadoured Lookwell auditioning for the role of “Buzz McCool,” or the manly freeze frame on West looking determined as the show’s title comes onscreen for the first time .

But Lookwell is also a throwback to West’s heyday. Long before Lookwell cast West as a man unable to delineate between the make-pretend of his acting career and the reality of his actual life, he became an instant camp icon in Batman, a show that never stopped winking at its audience to let them know it was all just a big joke everyone was in on, including the kids in the audience. Thanks in no small part to West’s angrily, defiantly non-naturalistic, super-stylized performance, Batman elevated comic book shenanigans to the level of pop-art. It made goofy, Roy Lichtensteinesque pop culture riffing wildly popular, at least for a little while, and inflamed the imaginations of pop culture-damaged kids like myself in the process.

Despite airing only once, Lookwell helped transform West from a campy has-been to a camp icon who is a walking punchline first, a joke second, and an actor a distant third. Indeed, Family Guy decided that there was no point in casting West as an Adam West-like figure when they could just cast him as himself and imagine that in some weird alternate universe, he ended up the mayor of a Rhode Island town. There’s something sadly apt about imagining West as the mayor of Cheap Pop Culture Reference City (which is my nickname for Family Guy’s Quahog), since he himself reigns supreme with folks like Abe Vigoda, William Shatner, Mr. T, and Mike Tyson as a ubiquitous pop-culture reference.

The enduring genius of Lookwell is that it used West’s weird, singular iconic baggage as the cornerstone for a smart, dense, and fully thought-out vision that filtered an unabashed love for 1970s macho sleaze through the smart-ass irony and sarcasm of the early 1990s, rather than just coasting on the public’s nostalgia for the 1960s Batman and the beloved actor who played him. 

It remains to be seen whether a premise this odd or unique would have sustained an entire season, let alone a lengthy run. Yet in its justifiably brilliant pilot, young turks O’Brien and Smigel (both of whom we’ll be hearing a lot more from over the course of this series) proved that it didn’t even take an hour of television to create a lasting comic legacy.


Up Next: The Simpsons.

Nathan Rabin on Twitter: @NathanRabin

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