What’s Alan watching? Why, the ‘What’s Alan Watching?’ pilot, of course!

It’s December, which is list-making time in the entertainment journalism business, and I’ve noticed a lot more chatter this year on Twitter between different critics as they try to figure out their best-of and worst-of lists. The other day, someone asked whether NBC’s horrible “Wonder Woman” pilot – which never aired, but leaked briefly on the Internet – should be eligible. That got me thinking about ye olden days of the ’70s and ’80s when TV networks would actually air some of their unsold pilots, especially when they were two hours long and could be presented as a TV-movie, or if they had something special that the network could promote one time, even if no one felt it would work as a series.

One example of the latter kind of Busted Pilot Theatre was the show that gave my blog its name: 1989’s “What’s Alan Watching?,” a one-hour family comedy starring a pre-“Parker Lewis Can’t Lose” Corin Nemec as Alan Hoffstetter, a suburban teenager who tried to escape his unhappy life by spending hours in front of the TV, often having fantasies where the TV characters would talk to him.

It was produced by Eddie Murphy, directed by a young Tommy Schlamme, and created by Bernie Blaustein and David Sheffield, who had written most of the really memorable Eddie sketches on “SNL,” and Eddie consented to appear in several of the pilot’s TV sketches, as both a James Brown fan pleading for his release from prison and as the Godfather of Soul himself. It was Murphy’s presence – his first TV comedy work since leaving “SNL” in 1984 – that got CBS to put it on the air, even though executives were skittish about the show’s long-term prospects.      

Murphy’s presence, and the subject matter, also caught the attention of the nation’s TV critics, and “What’s Alan Watching?” was an unlikely winner for that year’s TCA Award for outstanding movie, miniseries or special. I wasn’t a TV critic back then, but aAs a teenager named Alan who spent too much time watching television (albeit never imagining that “Jeopardy!” would devote a category to my family), the show caught my eye, stayed on a treasured VHS tape for a long time, and eventually seemed a natural choice to be the name of my blog when I started it up many years later.

The Twitter discussion of poor Adrianne Palicki as Wonder Woman got me wondering if “What’s Alan Watching?” had finally turned up on YouTube – and, while talking about it with Todd Van Der Werff, we found out that it was, in two large chunks. There are a couple of bits where the video goes haywire for me, but you can watch virtually all of the pilot in the two clips embedded below.

It was interesting watching this again for the first time in more than a decade. The family material remains completely unremarkable (thought it features a young-ish Fran Drescher as Alan’s older sister, and Barbara Barrie in one of her patented quirky but understanding mother roles), and I imagine that’s what scared CBS off back in the day. The TV sketches hold up much better, even if the idea of satirizing TV shows in this way seems much less novel. (Even at the time, it was starting to become familiar; the same year as the pilot, Weird Al’s “UHF” had a similar “Gandhi does a TV special” spoof.) Eddie as James Brown is never not funny, and the Mr. Ed biography plays out like a “Behind the Music” parody years early. 

UPDATE: I forgot to mention, it’s also fascinating to me to see a snapshot of the TV era I grew up watching, just in the way that Alan doesn’t have a DVR, doesn’t have dozens of cable channels catering specifically to his age and interests, and that he therefore has to surf around and see what’s on – and as a result winds up watching a lot of things not necessarily made with a teenage boy in mind. I got exposed to a lot of older material for the same reason (I’ve seen every Abbott & Costello movie, for instance, because it was the only thing vaguely of interest to me on Saturday afternoons), and while some people are still adventurous in their channel-surfing, it’s not nearly as prevalent these days.

So if you’re curious for an obscure bit of TV history, and/or a piece of this blog’s origin story, here’s “What’s Alan Watching,” in two parts: