I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

A Sitcom With Brains: David Lynch's On The Air

by Jake Goldman
Jan. 9, 2012

Recently, cable returned to my household after nearly five years since the cord was cut. A sudden and surprising ache for the mindless comfort provided by cooking shows and late-night Seinfeld prompted the glowing tube's re-emergence, a heavy, awkward, beastly box dragged up from the basement, coming home once again to the living room.

And so, cable installed, I was thrilled to sit down and scan the wonders before me. This was after a maddening day of nearly seven hours on a gummed up I-95, having seen nearly all possible manifestations of anger demonstrated by the throngs of aluminum-entrapped folks horn-honking, shouting, and erratically pumping and slamming as they drove. Needless to say, I was thirsting for something silly and familiar. Something that would woo me away from the inner-walls of my swelled skull—perhaps an early episode of Cheers or an episode of The Simpsons from the mid-nineties. Something to distract me, but also something that would produce some belly laughs.

Unfortunately, it was late, and the old faithfuls of syndication had come and gone for the evening. As I paged through, I came to a two-hour long block of How I Met Your Mother. I'd never really watched the show before, but have heard people deem it “surprisingly good.” These people, after I watched an episode of the show quickly became “surprisingly wrong.” This is because the episode tackled a subject so incredibly trite and groan-worthy: a guy—potentially--having sex with two women. At the same time! Oh my, my, my! And, of course, at this point, we all know the essential plotline: sensitive, nerdy sort of guy who never seems to get the girl, somehow flirts his way into a threesome. Upon bringing both ladies back to his apartment, he finds his roommates hiding in his bedroom, wildly giddy about their friend's sexual situation. And of course, there is some rigamarole in shuffling the roommates out of his room, and eventually, he enters the bedroom to giggling girls and the scene ends, cutting to breakfast the next morning in which the sensitive nerd sits with his roommates, refusing to divulge any information whatsoever. It does everything good comedy should not: tiptoe around jokes, exchange punchlines for cheap, clownish action and deliver an overall telegraphed storyline. It's safe, and that, at least for me, is not comforting. In fact, it's disquieting if you consider the fact that the show is now in its seventh season.

Here's what I'm saying: America has whole-heartedly embraced mediocrity.

But, friends, there is a savior and her name is: Network Awesome. “O, Lord of Awesome,” I shouted into the winds of a cold winter night, “thou must save me from the drudgery of this bleating glow. Please. I beg of you.” And, lo, Lord Awesome swiftly replied with a helpful hand, a kind heart. “There there,” she spoke. “Drink in some David. David Lynch, I mean.” And drink in, I did.

On the Air is a show probably only known to the most hardcore Lynchians. The show debuted in 1992, a year after Twin Peaks was canceled, and only aired thrice, though seven episodes were shot and edited (according to Wikipedia, all seven episodes have aired, just not on American television). It really is a shame that the show didn't last beyond three weeks. I'm sure Lynch himself isn't too broken up about it, but after just one episode of On the Air, I was pining hard for more. To call the show straight satire wouldn't quite do it justice.

The premise is fairly simple: it's a show within a show, specifically The Lester Guy Show, and all of its goings on. It's unclear from one episode as to what actually goes on during The Lester Guy Show, but it doesn't matter—it's the heightened reality of the backstage and show-biz environment Lynch and co-creator (and frequent Lynch-collaborator) Mark Frost create that drives On the Air. Lester Guy is on the last legs of his acting career, given a final shot on the basis of his involvement in a Broadway musical, Picadilly Circus. Picadilly Circus is a show near and dear to the heart of Mr. Zoblotnick, head of ZBC broadcasting, and a man that speaks absolutely unintelligible english, with a hilarious and indistinguishable accent. The show as a whole focuses on Guy's insecurities as he fights for stardom with his co-star, the dim-witted but beautiful Betty Hudson.

The dialogue is quick, as is the overall pace of the show, with jokes that often border on the absurd packed into nearly every line. But it works so well; dialogue is delivered incredibly straight, which is exactly how satire is done. There are no winks, no explorations into the meta or breaking the fourth wall. The lines are delivered plainly; the actors let the nuanced tone of the writing do the work, and they do so masterfully. Exchanges like this had me smiling:

Nicole: Oh, it's that Betty, isn't it?

Buddy Budwaller: The answer is maybe yes.

[Budwaller sees a man, on-set leaning against a frame of a house, a set- piece]

Budwaller: What do you think you're doing, holding up the building?

Man Leaning: Yes.

Budwaller: Get back to work!

[Man steps away, the house-frame collapses completely].

Even more than the silliness On the Air revels in, I was excited by just how dark the show went when it took on ugliness primetime television seems to breed. Everything about The Lester Guy Show is miserable: the scripts are terrible, the show's director (a cousin of Zablotsky) is unable to speak English to any discernible degree, the overt bitterness and jealousy of Lester Guy, and the general sense that no one on the program truly cares about making good television. All they care about is keeping their jobs, making money and receiving adoration from “The American Public,” the term frequently used for the show's audience, which is painted as a mass of people dumb enough to watch just about anything. It's dark, but honest; this is the world in which we live.

And, that's what sets On the Air apart from the How I Met Your Mother's of the world—honesty. Lynch and Frost seemed to be having a good time poking fun at the entertainment world, but mostly, they were just being honest with the material, depicting a television production for what it truly is: absurd, risk-averse, all-too-eager-to-please and money hungry. True, On the Air may not fall under the category of good, old mindless comedy television, but I'll take it any day over the predictable maw of modern multi-camera sitcoms. And for that, I have Network Awesome to thank. [you're welcome -- ed.]

Jake Goldman is a writer and a teacher. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut.  Occasionally he writes songs.  If you are so inclined, check out Internetdogfist.com for words and Otsego.Bandcamp.com for music.