On The Air: The Lost David Lynch TV Show

This surreal, strange sitcom was out of place in 1992, but it might be the perfect time to revisit David Lynch's On The Air.

Thanks to the Twin Peaks revival, there’s plenty of new eyes on David Lynch’s rich library of work. As a result, you might be starved for more content from this visionary, or are simply curious if Twin Peaks was a one-off of weirdness, or if his creations are always this off-kilter.

That’s why taking the time to look at David Lynch and Mark Frost’s On the Air, almost the polar opposite of Twin Peaks in terms of popularity, is necessary. Not only is the short-lived anomaly of a sitcom a mystery to most people (seven episodes were produced, only three of which aired), but it’s every bit as weird and upsetting as you think it would be. But as much as On the Air’s rarity is reason to check it out, more importantly, over twenty years later, the nightmare sitcom may finally have an audience.

Let’s just dig into all of this. Lynch’s sitcom, which aired in June of ’92, was set in the 1950s, going behind-the-scenes of the popular variety show, “The Lester Guy Show,” which aired on the Zoblotnick Broadcasting Company (or ZBC). After a series of disasters lead to ingénue, Betty Hudson, taking the limelight, the show is retooled into “The Betty Hudson Show With Lester Guy” much to Lester’s chagrin, as everyone just tries to get production done successfully. Still following? If the behind-the-scenes premise of this niche show, as well as its 1950s setting wasn’t enough to perturb viewers, the whole thing took place in a surreal, loose reality where an angry executive can literally breathe fire out of the receiving end of a telephone. And this all aired on ABC in primetime.

Basically, imagine if David Lynch had made 30 Rock (which this is, in so many ways, right down to the name of the fictional show changing to reflect the new star). This sounds ridiculous, but it really needs to be conveyed how out there this show was and how its presence on ABC should have never happened in the first place. Can you imagine if some strung out sitcom directed by Lars Von Trier was airing in primetime after Modern Family, or if some body horror workplace comedy from David Cronenberg was on right before Two and a Half Men? What’s more, the network’s knee-jerk reaction to pulling it from the schedule, in spite of the pedigree of Lynch and Twin Peaks, is fascinating.

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Lynch even commented on the whole situation by saying, “Anything different on television is a potential success or just the opposite – a catastrophe. And for the most part it’s a catastrophe.” From this you can see that Lynch wasn’t trying to make a broken, upsetting show here, but rather the impetus on how Twin Peaks worked, and how in theory this had just as good a chance of succeeding as it did failing. And don’t people like laughing more than they do watching murders?

Most of the creative staff, writers, and directors of the show all came from Twin Peaks (most notably, Robert Engels, Lesli Linka Glatter, and Mark Frost, who he co-created the series with), so it wasn’t just Lynch on his own here. The whole crew was in place, with everyone having a warped mind, and the product being steeped in such accordingly.

It’s not surprising that On the Air essentially was about a weird show that becomes a success by accident, and all of that weirdness is also all by coincidence. We see all of the creative types; actors, executives, directors, all being attacked and made fun of, and it’s hard not to view this as Lynch funneling some of his own experiences through here, as On the Air began production as Twin Peaks was winding down. Twin Peaks was able to hang its weirdness on a mystery that pulled people along (would this have worked better if Lester Guy was murdered in the middle of a live taping, and trying to determine which disgruntled Hollywood mogul was responsible?),

There’s a large consensus that On the Air’s pilot is its strongest episode with the most present voice behind it (along with the finale which devolves into a six-minute colossal beatnik/mime interpretive dance sequence of insanity), but the content slowly goes downhill as the show continues. This isn’t exactly unexpected, as other writers tried to play with the pilot’s strong voice and fumbled under the pressure, but you’re still getting something uniquely different every week, and that should be exciting in itself. There is a degree of joy and surprise around this comedy that is sorely absent from the majority of TV these days (Louie might be one of the larger exceptions, but in a totally different way, and Louis CK has pegged Lynch as a large influence on his work).

It might be hard to imagine how a show of this nature could be that confusing and unpalatable, but some of the regular ideas tossed around throughout are that the director of the show, Valdja Gochktch, speaks in an incredibly garbled foreign speak where there is another character, Ruth Trueworthy, who acts solely as his translator. He’ll bark out: “Can you scram?” as it’s filtered incorrectly as “Can you swim?” before she eventually tells us he’s asking, “Can you scream?” That’s a character who takes up most of your screentime, and he’s more incomprehensible than the Man From Another Place in the Black Lodge on Twin Peaks

There’s also the character Blinky, who suffers from Bozeman’s Simplex, a disease that causes him to see 25.62 times more than we do. Think about that concept. He sees that much more than we do, with this perspective often being represented like some haunted kaleidoscope with random images thrown everywhere.

There’s a segment of this in each episode, along with an appearance by the Hurry Up Twins (conjoined twins wearing a two-headed sweater who we know are such because the Narrator, who is only used here and with Blinky, tells us as such as they chant “hurry up” incessantly). It’s not even solely the inhabitants of the ZBC that are like this, with the viewing public at large, who are shown in almost every episode, shown as an empty, confused dystopian audience who process what they’re seeing as brilliance. This is clearly a theme that Lynch was going for but obviously didn’t pull it off well enough, as the show didn’t even make it to episode four.

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Lynch again tried to explain the thought process behind the show by saying, “Absurdity is what I like most in life, and there’s humor in struggling in ignorance. If you saw a man repeatedly running into a wall until he was a bloody pulp, after a while it would make you laugh because it becomes absurd. But I don’t just find humor in unhappiness – I find it extremely heroic the way people forge on despite the despair they often feel.” After understanding that this is how Lynch viewed this show to work, a lot of its impulses make more sense. Frankly, that running into a wall bit could have been a five-minute segment in an episode and it wouldn’t feel out of place.

While all of that might not have connected in the early ‘90s, we now have a number of shows now that are embracing this absurd, nightmare stance, like The Eric Andre Show, Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy, The Heart She Holler, The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret, or even Broad City in terms of its absurdity and elasticity (but in terms of nothing else).

After looking at all of this then, why is now the time for On the Air to work, and its surrealism to connect with a larger audience? The big answer to this is that, like previously mentioned, television has gotten weirder since the ‘90s and more embracing of this new direction. We have more auteurs on television now with weirder visions, and shows like John From Cincinnati are given a chance. Even 30 Rock has helped move us in this direction by normalizing outlandish ideas like cartoony cutaways.

The nonsensical beatnik dance number that the end of an episode of On the Air devolves into is akin to the many musical numbers that have populated Community episodes, it’s just more focused on presentation. Even Mad Men has dipped into this well now. The absurd Bozeman’s Simplex idea is seen currently in the over the top perspective of Kenneth on 30 Rock (and taking it even further; On the Air never dealt with muppets). Ridiculous characters like The Hurry Up Twins even have (weirder) approximates with the McPoyles on Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Even the elasticity of something like on How I Met Your Mother sandwiches are visual representations of joints; glitter doubles for defecation; and suddenly the mighty “fire coming out of the phone” moment from On the Air feels right at home. They’ve even shown Barney constantly bending reality to convey a point. This is all happening on a mainstream CBS sitcom, and it feels no weirder than On the Air’s surreal visual tricks.

While nothing quite like On the Air has since aired on a major network, in primetime, we’re still taking steps in this direction, such as Community doing riffs on things like My Dinner With Andre or throwing their world into post-apocalyptica with strategies that seem specifically interested in not appealing to the masses. The show is constantly using parody and elasticity to move it more in the direction of things like On the Air.

Hannibal is a drama, but still one on NBC, within the realms of primetime, that delights in pushing the envelope and letting insanity and chaos play out on screen, with creator Bryan Fuller explicitly stating that Lynch’s influence is deep within the DNA of their show. Even the recent Mixology, while having none of Lynch’s uncomfortable, unsettling content, had a controversial, gamble of a gimmick to it (the entire season played out over the course of one night, in a bar) showing that we are accepting of change and new ideas, there just needs to be quality and support behind it.

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There are even shows designed specifically to air at midnight because they’re so weird and upsetting, with Adult Swim’s near-entire lineup pushing this agenda forward and making this sort of content standard. Keep in mind that David Lynch originally produced Mulholland Drive as a pilot for ABC before it was rejected, showing that in 1999, the world still wasn’t ready to embrace this idea fully. But given the current trend towards absurdity on television, it isn’t hard to believe that you could simply re-run On the Air five years from now and it would seem perfectly at home in a way that it didn’t twenty years ago.

While we may be more inclined, or ready for a show like On the Air now, and even have seen quasi-examples of it working, Lynch himself states that the fine line between success or failure is almost non-existent. So much is dependent on timing. So much is based on your competition. And while after taking all of this into account, and how we might be ready for On the Air now, that still doesn’t mean that it would work. At least get it on your radar though. At least see the bizarre experiment that was going on twenty years ago that perhaps wouldn’t seem so bizarre now. At least check out the “Mr. Peanuts” song. Do all of this so you can see what was hiding in the shadows of comedy for so long, waiting to pounce out and make you laugh to death. 

This article first ran in 2014.