Steve Martin, George Burns, and a comic take on The Twilight Zone—what could’ve gone wrong?

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Steve Martin, George Burns, and a comic take on The Twilight Zone—what could’ve gone wrong?

Some TV shows never even make it past the first season. Maybe a series lacked the ratings to match its artistic accomplishments, or maybe it floundered its way into the network crosshairs, but it’s time to look at one-season series outside the immediate context of ratings and renewals. One-Season Wonders, Weirdos, and Wannabes considers the merits of these short-lived shows. In this installment: George Burns Comedy Week, which ran between September and December of 1985.

Like the variety show, the anthology series—where every week brings a new episode, and every new episode is unrelated to the previous week’s episode—is a format that found favor with viewers once upon a time but has only seen isolated success in recent years. (And even then it’s generally been in syndication or on cable.) There was, however, a brief window of time when the broadcast networks appeared dedicated to bringing back the anthology series. In 1985, Steven Spielberg—who famously cut his teeth as a director on a memorable installment of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery—combined his fondness for the format with his box-office clout and tried his hand at creating his own anthology series for NBC, Amazing Stories. At the same time, NBC was inspired to revive Alfred Hitchcock Presents as a companion for Spielberg’s new series, a move which similarly spurred CBS to bring back The Twilight Zone. But the networks weren’t the only ones emboldened by the announcement of Amazing Stories: When Spielberg’s series got the green light, the concept also captured the imagination of a gentleman named Steve Martin.

Martin didn’t so much find inspiration in Spielberg’s idea as he pilfered it (and he wasn’t ashamed to admit it, either). And so, the viewers who tuned in to CBS on Wednesday nights at 9:30 in the fall of 1985 were treated to one of the rarest beasts in the television kingdom: a comedy anthology series. Better yet, it was a comedy anthology series co-created by Martin and Carl Gottlieb, Martin’s screenwriting collaborator on The Jerk. The series was hosted by a card-carrying comedy legend, and it featured a veritable cavalcade of funny people over the course of its brief run. George Burns Comedy Week, to quote Ed Bark of the Dallas Morning News, “offered viewers some fresh, generally amusing little stories starring people such as Joe Piscopo, Elliott Gould, Catherine O’Hara, Bronson Pinchot, Telly Savalas, Don Knotts, Martin Mull, Don Rickles, and even Patrick Duffy as an accountant whose dream girl came to life.”

“Steve went to CBS, and he basically sold the show by saying, ‘I want to do the same thing Steven Spielberg is doing with Amazing Stories, only I want to do half-hour comedy films and have it bookended by George Burns,’” said Marcia Zwilling, then the director of development for Martin’s production company, 40 Share Productions.

“Steve Martin is such a good salesman, he can sell anything,” said David Axlerod, one of the show’s writers. “You talk to him in the room, and he says, ‘How about we do this and this?’ And it sounds like a brilliant idea! And then later when you’re writing, you’re, like, ‘Wait a minute, this isn’t that good, but… it sounded so good when he said it!’”

Why George Burns? Aside from the obvious advantages of an instantly recognizable comedian’s imprimatur, it came down to five words: “It worked for Rod Serling.”

“Anthology series didn’t have a standing cast, so you never knew who was going to be on every week, which means there’s no habit viewing for the audience,” said Gottlieb. “The only truly successful anthologies were The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery, and they had Rod Serling, who was intimately involved with the shows. He wasn’t just a presenter: The show reflected his sensibilities. He addressed the camera directly, but he was also responsible for the content and feel of the show, so you looked to him as a real host, and he’d be the familiar face every week. We hoped we had that with George Burns. But apparently not.”

But there was a major difference between Serling’s involvement with The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery and George Burns’ work on Comedy Week: Aside from the occasional tweaking of his lines, Burns didn’t have anything to do with the creative side of the series. In fact, in an interview for the Archive Of American Television, Peter Bonerz—who directed two episodes of the series and acted in one, too—made Burns’ brief stints on the set sound suspiciously like Krusty The Clown making personal appearances. “He was driven up in a limousine, the door opens, he gets out,” said Bonerz. “And he’s, ‘How ya doing? Where’s the cue card? Fine, okay. ‘Welcome to The George Burns Show, this’ll be about this, and there’s a monkey, and you’ll like it.’ Okay, let’s go!’ You know, one take and he left.”

“The reason he did it, I think, is that it was very good money for him,” said Gottlieb. “What we’d do was, he’d come in when we had two or three episodes in the can, and he’d do the intros and the bumpers, and we’d do, like, three shows at a time with him. He’d just come in for a day and shoot his intros and outros, so it was very easy for him. He’d just pick up a paycheck for stepping in front of the camera, reading the teleprompter, and being charming… or, really, just being George Burns.”

George Burns and Marcia Zwilling (photo courtesy of Marcia Zwilling)

Well versed in being George Burns (he was 89 years old at the time), his contributions to the series proved consistently charming. Many a punchline was punctuated by a cigar puff, starting with the opening moments of the very first episode, where he says, “When they asked me to do the show, I was a little hesitant. I said, ‘What if the show’s no good?’ They said, ‘That’s never stopped you before.’”

Fortunately, the pilot’s quality was never in question. Conceived by Martin and Gottlieb (the latter of whom wrote the script), “The Dynamite Girl” featured Catherine O’Hara as a suggestible mental patient who escapes from an institution, crosses paths with a police lieutenant (Tim Matheson), and is mistaken for a bomb expert, sending her into an unskilled attempt at resolving a potentially explosive situation. “The pilot was so good that it was one of the first times I think probably ever that one of Carl’s scripts went from his typewriter to actually shooting it,” said Zwilling. “There were no rewrites, there were no revisions.”

“They just said, ‘Okay, go ahead and shoot it,’ which is pretty unusual,” said Gottlieb. “The guy who was our executive at Universal—who was in charge of going to the network—later became an agent, and when I was with his agency, he’d always say, ‘This is Carl Gottlieb. He wrote the only script in my life experience that’s ever gone through without network notes.’”

George Burns, Marcia Zwilling, and John Landis on the set of “Disaster At Buzz Creek” (photo courtesy of Marcia Zwilling)

The show also drew top-flight directorial talent; there’s a general consensus among the creative team that Martin wasn’t afraid to call up the occasional friend or acquaintance to sway them into participation. John Landis, for instance, has freely acknowledged that he helmed the show’s sixth installment—his first-ever foray into episodic television—“as a favor for Steve Martin.” Written by future Monk co-creator Andy Breckman, the episode focused on a small, near-bankrupt town trying to secure government aid by faking an earthquake, with Stephen Collins playing the government inspector opposite a group of townsfolk that included Don Rickles, Don Knotts, Fannie Flagg, and Lana Clarkson.

George Burns Comedy Week also provided future Field Of Dreams director Phil Alden Robinson with his first opportunity behind the camera, as well as his second: “The Smiths” put mob accountant Martin Mull into witness protection with a new wife, played by Tess Harper, while “The Assignment: A Philip Flick Adventure” found Robinson working on an adaptation of a Bruce Jay Friedman story (adapted by Friedman himself) where great white hunter Elliott Gould and his guide, played by Telly Savalas, enter the jungles of Africa in search of a rare animal.

Martin Mull, Marcia Zwilling, Phil Alden Robinson, Gi Gi Vorgan, and Tess Harper on the set of “The Smiths” (photo courtesy of Marcia Zwilling)

The level of talent involved and the variety of comedic premises rarely wavered during the series’ brief run: “Home For Dinner,” directed by Gottlieb, kicks off with Eugene Levy moving to the suburbs and accepting an invitation to tag along on a weekend trip with his new neighbors, played by Joe Flaherty, Fred Willard, Frank Bonner, and Greg Morris. He presumes it’s a case of the guys going fishing to get away from the gals, but he soon discovers the truth: They’re flying to an unnamed Latin American country to apprehend a dictator who’s wanted by the CIA. There were shifts into traditional material, too, such as “The Couch,” which followed the travails of a married couple played by Harvey Korman and Valerie Perrine. (That episode, the pilot for a series called Leo And Liz In Beverly Hills, gave CBS another six-episode comedy in the spring of 1986.)

Gottlieb also helmed “Christmas Carol II: The Sequel,” co-written by Axlerod. Set one year after the end of A Christmas Carol, the episode portrays the newly charitable Ebenezer Scrooge as having turned into such a milquetoast that Bob Cratchit and other past victims of Scrooge’s abuse have started taking advantage of the reformed miser’s generosity, necessitating the return of the spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. “I thought for sure it would run every year at Christmastime, along with A Christmas Story,” said Gottlieb. “We wrote it to be a Christmas classic, and we cast it that way: James Whitmore played Scrooge, Roddy McDowall was Bob Cratchit, and Ed Begley Jr. was Tiny Tim. Samantha Eggar was in it, too. It was a great cast! But it disappeared… like all the episodes!”

If Gottlieb is exaggerating, it isn’t by much: George Burns Comedy Week premiered on September 18, 1985, and was gone by Christmas—make that on Christmas: The final episode aired the evening of December 25. If quick cancellation wasn’t a sufficiently rotten fate, it’s since managed to sink deeper into obscurity than a show with this kind of pedigree ever should. George Burns Comedy Week has never received an official DVD release, and, at the moment, there’s only one complete episode uploaded to YouTube: “Boris And Ivan In Las Vegas,” in which two cosmonauts (Bronson Pinchot and SCTV alumnus Dave Thomas), crash-land in Las Vegas and have to dodge the KGB—which is disguised as a bowling team. The picture quality makes it reasonable to presume that it’s merely been dubbed off of an old VHS recording.

As to why the series came and went so quickly, the biggest reason likely lies in the show that was airing opposite Comedy Week on ABC. As Burns told Barbara Holsopple of the Pittsburgh Press while doing press for the series: “We’re on Wednesday nights. I hear Dynasty’s worried.”

It’s a great line, but he wasn’t kidding about the series’ competition. Martin begged CBS to change the timeslot, but they refused, leading to a standoff that Zwilling suspects might’ve also had something to do with the series cancellation: “He kept saying, ‘Move the timeslot!’ And they kept saying, ‘Act in an episode!’”

That was never going to happen, according to Gottlieb. “We sold it with the promise of his creative input and genius, but it was like a deal point with Steve: ‘Don’t ask me to be in it. If I wanted to do series television, I could do series television. I could do The Steve Martin Show.’ He had other fish to fry.”

Would Martin’s presence in front of the camera have saved George Burns Comedy Week from extinction after only 13 episodes? Probably not. It might’ve earned the series enough of a bump to earn it a back nine, but it’s not likely that it would’ve mattered in the long run: When Amazing Stories failed to live up to ratings expectations, the whole anthology trend went belly-up, anyway.

Since then, Amazing Stories and the Twilight Zone reboot have resurfaced on DVD and streaming services, while the ’85 Alfred Hitchcock Presents episodes saw the light of day on NBCUniversal’s horror-centric Chiller network. But what of George Burns Comedy Week? Will it ever be seen again? And is it even worth seeing?

Take it for what it’s worth, but “yes.” Let’s just say that it’s not impossible to find an unofficial complete-series set floating around somewhere. The only problem is that, even if you find one, it’s not likely to look significantly better than the YouTube’d version of “Boris And Ivan In Las Vegas,” (and it may look much, much worse). Gottlieb says he still has all of the episodes on 3/4-inch tape, and if Martin’s half the salesman that David Axlerod says he is, selling a distributor on the idea of George Burns Comedy Week: The Complete Series should be a snap. At the very least, the set would prove fascinating to aficionados of TV history, but unlike far too many short-lived comedies, there’s an additional reason that audiences might enjoy it: It’s actually funny.

Wonder, weirdo, or wannabe: A weirdo on the TV landscape, but a wonder in its execution.