Post-Twin Peaks, Lynch’s slapstick boon On the Air was likened to I Love Lucy on acid
Once Twin Peaks became a cultural phenomenon and David Lynch a household name, the thirst was real for American network ABC to continue hawking Lynchian’s booming brand of weird to its viewers. The network quickly snapped up a new idea from Lynch and Twin Peaks co-creator Mark Frost. For their next trick? A meta sitcom called On the Air – which, rather ironically, was not on the air very long – about an absurdist TV variety show where everything that can go wrong, does.
The premise follows the cast and crew of The Lester Guy Show – some of them comically burdened with foreign accents and all of them nuts – and how their incompetence translates to an unlikely hit. It’s been summed up neatly as “David Lynch does 30 Rock” or, in the words of cast member Miguel Ferrer, “I Love Lucy on acid”. Unfortunately, the show’s plot of becoming a success was not echoed in real life. It was practically dead on arrival, buried in a late night Saturday slot. As the third episode became the last to air on July 4, 1992, here’s a look back at the weirdly endearing cult gem and its three episode run.
THE PILOT EPISODE WAS VOTED ONE OF THE BEST IN TV HISTORY
It might only go downhill from its debut, but TV Guide ranked the first episode as number 57 on its “100 Greatest Episodes of All Time” list. Pretty impressive, seeing as ABC only aired two more before the series got the axe. Was it doomed to fail? In short, yes. It was dumped in a Saturday evening slot during the summer – a time when most people are outside necking back a happy hour cocktail and nowhere near a TV. By choosing to run after hours, ABC effectively pulled the rug out from under the short-lived series before it even found its legs. This was most likely due to a loss of faith in Lynch as Twin Peaks’ second season massively underperformed. Lynch was vocal about ABC’s lack of support, saying, “I've heard that summertime is pretty much the worst time you can be on, but we're going on in summer. I've heard that Saturday night is the worst night of the week to be on, and we're going on Saturday night… So I don't know. What can you make of that?”
THE IDEA FOR ON THE AIR STRUCK DURING SEASON TWO OF TWIN PEAKS
During Twin Peaks’ second season, Lynch was mixing sound for the series when the idea for On the Air was born. “It just came into my head, the idea of people trying to do something successful and having it all go wrong,” he explained to the Los Angeles Times in 1992. The slapstick sitcom was heralded as “I Love Lucy on acid” by Miguel Ferrer, a Twin Peaks fixture who plays tough network boss Bud Budwaller in On the Air. “Because it's a half-hour comedy, this show is more self-contained than Twin Peaks and therefore accessible to a wider audience,” Ferrer told the Los Angeles Times. “But the dyed-in-the-wool Lynch fans are not going to be disappointed – it's still this crazy world where something went really wrong.”
THERE IS A LOT OF TWIN PEAKS CROSSOVER
A wealth of cast and crew members made the leap from Twin Peaks to this new project, including Miguel Ferrer (FBI Agent Rosenfield in Twin Peaks), Ian Buchanan (Lucy’s baby daddy in Twin Peaks) and David L. Lander (the irascible Tim Pinkle in Twin Peaks). Beyond that, there are some questionably coincidental similarities between the shows. As one Reddit user points out: “In episode four, Lester Guy is lying on the floor with a duck sticking out of his head, exact same pose as Leland Palmer realizing what he’d done to Laura, crying, shouting ‘What have I done!’ My hypothesis is that Betty Hudson is who Laura became when she passed through the black lodge. That the American public watching the show are the trees in Twin Peaks reacting to what they've seen.”
And just when you thought Lynch couldn’t get any weirder than Cooper’s dream feat. a dancing dwarf, On the Air’s final episode is even more of a mindfuck than the last half hour of Twin Peaks. Gone too soon but never forgotten, this underappreciated cult show deserves to be remembered, and – dare I say it now that 23 years have passed since it fell off the summer TV lineup – remade?