The late 1980s and early 1990s was a very prolific period for David Lynch, from the performance art of Industrial Symphony No. 1 in 1989 to the HBO mini-series Hotel Room in 1993, it seemed like he was everywhere. It was the surprise success of the Twin Peaks television show, however, that put the eccentric artist on the cover of every major magazine and guest on all the major late night talk shows. He and his creative partner Mark Frost parlayed the buzz from it into convincing ABC to broadcast a sitcom they created called On the Air.
The series followed the wacky misadventures of the fictional 1950s T.V. network Zoblotnick Broadcasting Company as they produce The Lester Guy Show, a variety program aired live. The humor of the show is often derived from the peculiar personalities that work in front of and behind the cameras as well as their disastrous attempts to put the show together every week.
Much like with Twin Peaks, Lynch directed and co-wrote the pilot episode thereby establishing the look and tone of the show that subsequent writers and directors would follow. Cool jazz music courtesy of regular Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti plays over the opening credits, punctuated by a farting sound, which establishes the absurdist tone Lynch is going for right from the start.
We meet the people working for ZBC as they prepare for a live broadcast of The Lester Guy Show. There’s Valdja Gochktch (David L. Lander), the director of the show and the nephew of the owner. He’s from the “old country” and sports a thick European accent that nobody can understand except for Ruth Trueworthy (Nancye Ferguson), an optimistic production assistant. We meet producer Dwight McGonigle (Marvin Kaplan) who is suffering from pre-show anxiety as evident from two coffee mugs he holds in his shaking hands, creating quite the puddle around him.
They have their hands full wrangling the “talent,” which includes the adorable yet clueless Betty Hudson (Marla Rubinoff), an ingénue with zero acting experience and not too smart either. Her introduction, as she tries to understand Gochktch’s directions, is an amusing exchange as his thick accent comes up against her sweet, yet dense nature. She’s much easier to handle than Lester Guy (Ian Buchanan), a washed-up movie star that still demands to be treated as such thus annoying the hell out of everyone with his primadonna behavior.
If this wasn’t enough pressure to contend with, network president Bud Budwaller (Miguel Ferrer) shows up to make sure everything goes smoothly. He sets the tone by barking orders and insulting McGonigle (“Dink spine” and “gob of jelly” being two of the more memorable ones). His job is on the line and he commands through fear and intimidation. Not surprisingly, Miguel Ferrer gets some of the show’s best lines, like his assessment of Betty: “She’s no dim bulb, she’s a blown-out fuse.” The actor is playing a variation of his rude FBI agent from Twin Peaks complete with a shouty, overbearing approach and adopting an intimidating stance in the control room, wielding a large nightstick.
Things start off decently enough with Lester’s pretentious interpretative dance routine with moody jazz music until a prop he’s using falls over, taking him with it. It’s all hilariously downhill from there as music and sound effects cues are all wrong, a stagehand appears on camera, and Lester is knocked unconscious. Against all odds it is Betty who saves the show when she talks to the camera and sings “The Bird in the Tree,” a sweet song reminiscent of “In Heaven” from Eraserhead (1977), and that offers a short respite from the insanity as all hell breaks loose. Amazingly, the show is a hit! The rest of the short-lived series sees Budwaller and Lester conspiring to ruin Betty because they resent her success while she remains blissfully unaware.
The cast acquits themselves quite well, hamming it up for this cartoonish world that their characters inhabit – Ferrer plays a stereotypical blowhard studio executive, Ian Buchanan portrays a pompous movie star, Nancye Ferguson plays a His Girl Friday-type P.A. and so on. On the Air is less interesting when it spends time away from the studio, like in the second episode when Betty meets Mr. Zoblotnick (Sidney Lassik) for dinner, and works better when riffing on cultural touchstones of the time period, like the quiz show craze.
While working on the sound for an episode of Twin Peaks during its second season, Lynch came up with the idea for On the Air, which involved “people trying to do something successful and having it all go wrong.” He would go on to direct the pilot, co-write two episodes and supervise post-production.
The pilot episode tested so well with audiences that ABC ordered six more episodes. Even though it was ready to go in spring, the network put off airing it until summer. On the Air debuted on Saturday night at 9:30 with little promotional support, which many of the cast and crew felt was a message from the network about how little they cared about the show. Chief among them was Miguel Ferrer: “Why don’t they just put a bullet in its head? The support we’ve gotten from the network – or lack of support that’s perceived on my part – is enormously disappointing.” Lynch echoed these sentiments: “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…”
Not surprisingly, On the Air was not well received by critics when it aired. In his review for The New York Times, John J. O’Connor wrote, ”Different, certainly, even strange, but unfortunately about as funny as, well, an overworked foreign accent.” Variety’s Brian Lowry wrote, “Lynch and Frost still can’t seem to protect their initial vision once they pass the ball on to others, as the numbing flatness of the second episode—which involves a plot inspired by the ‘50s quiz-show scandals—painfully demonstrates.” In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Chris Willman wrote, “Though On the Air appears destined—between its unfortunate time slot and Lynch’s own odd sense of comedic timing—to be just a footnote in both his career and TV history, it’s one to tape for posterity, before it becomes Off the Air.” Finally, People magazine’s David Hiltbrand wrote, “The show’s comically choreographed mayhem is a difficult premise to sustain, like trying to stage a big bumper-car pileup again and again.”
If you ever wondered what a David Lynch sitcom would be like then On the Air is the short-lived answer. It’s a silly trifle of a show but also very sweet, much like Betty who embodies its heart and soul. While it is hardly a masterpiece, the show does have its moments. I love how it is bathed in ‘50s nostalgia and reflects Lynch’s particular brand of comedy that is usually kept in check but is allowed to run rampant for better or for worse.
Cerone, Daniel. “Television of the Absurd: Twin Peaks’ Co-Creators Try Again with On the Air.” Los Angeles Times. June 18, 1992.