"Merely A Puppet Show? I Think Not."

  • 9/13/2008 04:55:00 pm
  • By Mark Gibbings-Jones

If there's something that gets us about American television, it's the way the networks are utterly terrified of taking risks with the technicalities of broadcasting. Half-hour shows must be split into three chunks of approximately seven minutes, with a few extra minutes that can be easily edited out to make way for more commercials when the show reaches syndication. The credits must come at the end of the show - no room for the trickery of putting the end credits at the start of the show (as with, say, Monty Python), or the chicanery of Alexei Sayle's Stuff starting with an announcer informing viewers that the show has been cancelled and is to be replaced with an episode of Juliet Bravo. Barring tremendously rare anomolies - "The Betrayal" episode of Seinfeld being the only instance we can think of on the main networks - messing with the rigid formula of TV in a meaningful sense has been utterly verboten on US networks. This might explain why American audiences were cooing manically over the Andy Kaufman biopic Man On The Moon, whereas the reaction in the UK was pretty much a collective 'meh'.

Right now, television in the UK is in the same unhappy rut. The digital spectrum is awash with credit squeezing, rigid style guides, "NEXT: Another repeat of Gavin And Stacey" captions crashing into the final scene of programmes, wonderfully inventive shows not making it past pilot stage because they don't fit the key 18-29 demographic (despite the channels most popular shows being a soap opera clearly aimed outside that demographic and a cartoon show jam-packed with 1980s pop culture references, but anyway), massively popular shows given little promotion because they're getting the 'wrong' nine million viewers, or all newsreaders to have the channel branding tattooed on their faces - look out of that last one to be introduced in late 2009. At the same time, the more enterprising US cable networks are finally giving a bit more freedom to the people making shows such as the deliciously demented Tim And Eric Awesome Show Great Job.

In the early 1990s, even the concept of comedy programmes being shot from a single camera was a frightening concept for almost all the American networks. Whereas now, programmes like Malcolm In The Middle, Scrubs, The Office or Arrested Development have shown that there is more to comedy than four cameras and a studio audience roaring approval each time the 'wacky' character appears for the first time each episode. At the time, it was only premium cable network HBO willing to take risks on programmes such as Dream On (from the creative team that went on to create Friends) and The Larry Sanders Show, and yet even HBO weren't quite sure what to do when Mystery Science Theater 3000 creator Joel Hodgson presented them with an idea for a new, high-concept sketch show - The TV Wheel.

Evolving from an earlier idea by Hodgson, then known as "The X-Box", the concept was [smug chuckle] quite revolutionary - a single, stationary camera would be mounted in the centre of a large rotating stage. This stage would be split into several different sections, each able to contain a different set. As the stage rotates around the camera, a different section hoves into view, from where a sketch (or part of a sketch) can be performed. Some sections were of different sizes, where there may only be room for some hand puppets, a spoof newspaper advert or a single performer looking through a serving hatch, while some including openings onto the background in order to utilise forced perspective visual gaggery. The most interesting part was that the whole show was to be performed as live, in one complete take, with no commercial breaks, something permitted on the subscription-funded HBO.

A pilot was commissioned and recorded in front of a studio audience. A promising team of writers and comedians were involved, including Absolutely's Morwenna Banks (then about to begin a spell as Saturday Night Live cast member) and Mr Show's David Cross, but sadly HBO elected not to broadcast the pilot, and passed on the show. It then found its way to Comedy Central, home to Hodgson's MST3K. Surely they would know what to do with it? Well, no. They promptly sat on the pilot for around a year.

Finally, and mercifully, it was decided that The TV Wheel would finally be broadcast, to coincide with the final episode of MST3K. One problem - the show was recorded as a single, twenty-nine minute take, a format suitable for HBO, but not for the advertising funded Comedy Central. The decision could have been made to put the show in a forty-minute slot, with adverts crammed in clumsily (as you will see with pretty much any BBC show running on UKTV channels, ITV3 or Paramount). Commendably, this wasn't the case. A one-hour slot was given to the show, with half the runtime given over to Hodgson to explain the concept behind the show, and to perform some business with puppets.

Even more impressively, Comedy Central permitted all advertising for the hour - sixteen minutes of it, as is the norm on basic cable - to be crammed in either side of an uninterrupted broadcast of The TV Wheel pilot, a fact helpfully illustrated at the beginning of the broadcast by Joel Hodgson using a chalkboard illustration. The countdown to the start of the show proper was marked by each segment on the chalkboard being chalked off accordingly.

All this would count for little if the show itself didn't turn out to be very good (although we must admit, we absolutely love it when us viewers are allowed behind the metaphorical silk rope of television like that), so it's fortunate that the pilot made for a largely entertaining half-hour. The whole affair needed meticulous planning, and it shows. While it is fair to say much of the material could struggle to work well as part of a generic sketch show, the amount of risks being taken along with the captivating feeling of watching something truly unique are enough to hold your attention. A lot of props and live animals are a notable part of the show, and the action is kept running at such a pace the performers need to be especially alert, meaning that there's a real sense the whole thing could go calamitously wrong as any moment. By the end of the show, you're virtually cheering the performance along, willing them to reach the end in one piece. Even the end credits are pieces of card stuck onto clear plastic being rolled up in front of a shot of the crew walking past and waving as their names appear - it's practically impossible not to love this show.

Do they make it? Well, we're not going to tell you, because hopefully a little social experiment of our own will give you the answer. We've uploaded the entire show (sans adverts) to YouTube, in six chunks. The rigidly defined maximum of ten minutes per clip mean that we've been unable to keep the show in one chunk as Hodgson intended, but we've split the introductory section from the main show, meaning the preview takes up the first two videos (in two uneven chunks), the show itself is in parts three to five, and the wrap up (and final credits) make up part six.

The main problem is that while Comedy Central 1996 were smashing, generally lovely and the very epitomy of good eggery, we can't neccessarily say the same about the 2008 model. Their evil paymasters are very likely to destroy the links as soon as they get noticed, so we can't promise they'll be up for very long. Unless common sense prevails, it becomes understood that the thing being shown was given a single broadcast around twelve years ago, was only ever given a fleetingly short mail-order only VHS release, that the website address given at the end was stolen by cybersquatting scumbuckets years ago, and using legal might to demand the removal of a performance that can only show the broadcaster in a positive, ground-breaking and enterprising light would be a thunderously self-defeating act.

So - upon which number will the dice of legal fate land? You'd be best off checking out those links while you can.

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