You may have noticed a new series on NBC last week called ANDY BARKER, P.I., which stars Andy Richter as a doughy accountant who falls into a second career as a private investigator. The series was created by its executive producer, Conan O'Brien, Richter's former LATE NIGHT boss who also co-wrote the BARKER pilot. But it isn't the first time O'Brien has created a spoof of '70s cop shows for NBC.
LOOKWELL is one of television's all-time great busted pilots. It was created and written by O'Brien and Robert Smigel (best known today for Triumph the Insult Dog) and starred Adam West (TV's Batman!) as Ty Lookwell, the former star of a mildly successful TV cop show during the 1970's. Like Maxwell Smart, Lookwell isn't terribly bright, but is moved by his experience as a TV detective (which earned him a Lucite-encased honorary policeman's badge that he carries around inside his blazer) to "help" the authorities solve crimes. Using members of his acting school as operatives and a series of "master disguises" (his hobo cover is hilarious), Lookwell, in the pilot, attempts to smash a stolen car ring (or, as they say in law enforcement, "hot" car ring).
NBC clearly did not understand LOOKWELL. The pilot aired in the worst timeslot available: 6:30pm on a Sunday night opposite 60 MINUTES. In July. And probably after PUNKY BREWSTER, a sitcom miles below LOOKWELL in humor and sophistication. For years, I thought I was the only person who had even heard of it, much less seen it, because I managed to record its only network airing that July evening on WICD-TV in Champaign. Years later, after O'Brien (who was then a SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE writer) became the star of LATE NIGHT WITH CONAN O'BRIEN, LOOKWELL became something of a cult hit, popping up as part of the Trio network's BRILLIANT BUT CANCELLED collection. Now, you can watch the entire 22-minute pilot on YouTube.
It's a big loss that we never got more than one LOOKWELL episode. Anyone who claims Adam West is a bad actor should think again. Not only is LOOKWELL quite likely the finest performance of his career, but I can't think of any other actor who could have played the role better. It's a hilariously deadpan portrayal of vanity, stupidity and child-like fantasy obviously reminiscent of West's Batman and Don Adams' Agent 86. But nobody gives line readings like West does, and it would have been incredible to see him play this character again.
Executive producer Lorne Michaels (O'Brien's then-boss on SNL) hired E.W. Swackhamer to direct. Not only did "Swack" have plenty of experience directing one-camera sitcoms with no laugh track (such as THE FLYING NUN), but he had also done many of the shows that LOOKWELL parodies, such as THE ROOKIES and S.W.A.T. LOOKWELL masterfully mocks the visual style of those shows, and composer Jack Elliott filled in the musical blanks.
But LOOKWELL's brilliance really comes down to Adam West and the O'Brien/Smigel script, which contains some subtle wit. For instance, Lookwell, trying to establish his undercover identity as an auto painter, explains to his boss that "my father painted cars, his father painted cars, and his father before that." The gag that automobiles surely didn't exist during Lookwell's great-grandfather's lifetime is hilarious, but takes a couple of seconds to seep in.
Don't take my word for it. Watch LOOKWELL for yourself. YouTube's print is from the Trio rerun. Oddly, my copy, which was recorded from the NBC one-time airing, has slightly different titles. Swackhamer's directing credit is shown a few seconds later, for instance, but I can't imagine why Trio would have redone the titles. My copy is actually missing the first 30 seconds or so, so the Swackhamer credit is the only one I have. And composer Elliott's name isn't listed in the end credits on my print, but he is in Trio's.
A minor point, for sure. Take 22 minutes out of your day and visit Ty Lookwell's world. And leave your favorite line in my Comments section. It'll be hard to choose just one.