Television pilots still occupy a special place in fan mythology (and on file-sharing networks), whether as someone’s best work that no one knows about, or a brilliant/krazy road not taken by those hung-up networks, or just this one really funny overgrown skit that no one could imagine lasting the long haul. This weekend, 92YTribeca screens four touring programs of delightful pilots (and author intros) that showcase mostly 1990s writers—who generally got the last laugh.
From a limited sampling, Conan O’Brien and Robert Smigel’s circa 1991 Lookwell (showing in the Saturday, 7:30pm program) is, line for line, the standout: Batman himself, Adam West, plays a washed-up 1970s cop show star who offers unwanted help to the cops in solving crimes (“I don’t think you understand, I used to play a detective”). Speaking in those rich, dulcet tones, a turtlenecked, terrific West dives into delusion and disguise to figure out a series of car thefts, pausing for head-slapping deductions, in between teaching an acting class with tapes from his glory days. (The show was reportedly aired once, opposite 60 Minutes, and with defective sound.)
Eight years later but also doing genre parody is the better-known Heat Vision and Jack (Friday, 7:30), written by Rob Schrab and Dan Harmon but associated with Ben Stiller (who directed) and Jack Black (who starred). Not yet annoying, Black plays a fugitive, experimented-upon astronaut who becomes a genius by daylight (“I know EVERYTHING!”); his sidekick is a motorbike with the voice and soul of his unemployed roommate (Owen Wilson). It’s less rambunctious than most action-comedy and gets its chuckles from reality-check asides, goofy effects (Vincent Schiavelli possessed by an alien), nonsense montages, and Ron Silver as himself: a murderous, testy government-agent who occasionally acts. Bafflingly, a version of 1982 Yaz hit “Situation” is the show’s intro song.
Also screening in the series is work by Bob Odenkirk, Judd Apatow pilots predating his mid-2000s hegemony, and Smigel’s Saturday TV Funhouse.