Twin Peaks was a huge TV hit of the early 1990s. The series, created by Mark Frost and David Lynch, brought Lynch’s brand of nightmarish surrealism to the small screen. The first season was a legitimate phenomenon — and ABC decided to strike while the iron was hot and commissioned another show from the duo. However, unlike Twin Peaks, On the Air probably won’t be coming back anytime soon.
On the Air took place in 1957, at the beginning of network television. The show followed the production of the live variety show The Lester Guy Show on the ZBC network. Each episode pitted the cast versus the dangers of live television and the high-wire act involved in broadcasting the show every week.
On the Air couldn’t be more different than Twin Peaks. Twin Peaks was dark, mysterious drama and On the Air was … odd. But not in the same way Twin Peaks was odd. On the Air was an absurdist comedy.
The introduction sets up the show by hinting it’s not quite right. The theme music by Angelo Badalamenti, who also wrote the classic Twin Peaks theme, incorporates smoky jazz with raspberries. Likewise in the introduction, we see a globe — but viewers may notice New England is significantly larger.
On the Air was an ensemble piece of bizarre characters. David L. Lander from Laverne and Shirley played Lester Guy Show director Valdja Gochktch, an incomphrensible incompetent who got the gig because he’s the network president’s nephew. Marvin Kaplan, who worked with Lynch on Wild at Heart, is Dwight McGonigle, the high-strung producer. Miguel Ferrer, who played Albert Rosenfield in Twin Peaks, and Kim McGuire, Hatchet-Face from John Waters’ Cry-Baby, played the network executives wanting to keep Betty, the dim-witted ingenue from ruining the show.
As odd as the main cast were, the supporting cast got even stranger. There were the Hurry-Up Twins, conjoined twins who lumber around during the background of scenes chanting “Hurry up, hurry up, hurry up.” Or Blinky, the engineer — who isn’t blind like everyone thinks, but suffers from “Bozeman’s Simplex,” a (fictional) disorder which makes him see “25.62 times what we do.”
Unfortunately, the show proved too bizarre for ABC. Despite a heavy advertising campaign leading up to the premiere, the network pulled On the Air after three episodes. The series attracted a small cult following, however even among David Lynch fans, opinions are starkly divided between those who think it’s brilliant, and those who think it’s the worst thing he’d ever done.
For a long time, On the Air was very hard to find. There were a couple of almost immediately out-of-print releases, but the source of most of the bootlegs came from a Japanese cassette. The Japanese tape added subtitles — which, oddly enough, seemed to improve the show by adding to its bizarre nature. Even today, some of the bootlegs on YouTube come from this release.
David Lynch and comedy may seem an odd match, but Lynch has always been interested in comedy. He just hasn’t had the most success with it. On the Air was cancelled almost immediately. Lynch had been trying since Eraserhead to make Ronnie Rocket, a strange cosmic detective comedy. The crudely animated Dumbland is, like On the Air, controversial among Lynch fans.
Lynch said in Lynch on Lynch that his style of comedy is “very absurd and really stupid. I love that combo, but apparently nobody else does!”
At least he gets to focus that sense of humor into his movies — for example, the hilarious, ridiculous hitman scene in Mulholland Drive.
Given how closely David Lynch controls the release of his work — the fact that we haven’t seen an official On the Air DVD or Blu-Ray release means we likely won’t ever see one. (This is an instance in which we’d love to be wrong.) But at least there are a number of high-quality bootlegs available on the internet to keep On the Air alive.