He starred on one of the most successful ’70s detective shows. (Actually, it was canceled after three seasons.) He recites Shakespeare at will. (It’s the same line every time.) He firmly believes that a couple dozen episodes of playing cops and robbers qualify him to help the police to solve crimes in real life. (It doesn’t. And they don’t want his help. Like, at all.)
There is only one man who fits this description and he goes by the name Ty Lookwell, the delightfully deluded semi-hero at the heart of the extremely short-lived 1991 NBC comedy Lookwell. Created and written by a pair of then-SNL writers and eventual comedy stars named Conan O’Brien and Robert Smigel, this one-episode series stands as a pop culture gem of what-could-have-been proportions, a joke-jammed achievement of alterna-comedy that looked nothing like anything else on a broadcast network at the time. Brimming with dry, deadpan, daffy humor, Lookwell served as a wonderfully batty vehicle for the late Adam West (who was forever known for his aslant, assured, tongue-in-cheek portrayal of Batman), and one in which he revved his finely tuned comedic engine while popping some serious self-serious comedy wheelies. It’s 22 minutes of Adam West at his Adam Westiest.
Ty Lookwell ruled for part of the 1970s as the grizzled, hard-boiled, take-no-criminal-guff detective named Bannigan. Now, many years later, we find him out of work (and out of time, in many ways). He’s resorting to unsuccessfully auditioning for shows like Happy Days: The Next Generation (a reboot joke in 1991!) and being confused for other famous TV detectives, while his unseen, new-to-the-business nephew Matt just breezes into town and immediately scores meetings with the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, Kevin Costner, and Steven Spielberg. Ty isn’t discouraged — his mind and body appear to reject anything resembling negativity or self-doubt — so he whiles away the days before his next sure-to-come-any-minute break by watching old episodes of Bannigan and hosting an acting workshop (downstairs, second door on the left) in which he ascribes far too much thespian significance to his TV detective work of yesteryear.
For example, Lookwell shows his class a clip of Bannigan sneering to a defiant, lawyer-demanding pimp, “You can call the Supreme Court for all I care! You’re going to do time, Leron — hard time.” Lookwell turns off the projector and dramatically repeats that “hard time” line to the wide-eyed students before previously explaining to them: “In those lines, I had to convey both anger and triumph… a sense of disgust with Leron, and all he represented, as well as reaffirmation that the balance of nature would be restored. I served, if you will, as both magistrate… and messenger.” Silence. “So… the pimp was actually funneling money through the disco?” asks a slightly skeptical student named Jason (played by future In the Bedroom and Little Children director Todd Field). Jason was the lone student who questioned Lookwell’s loony ways, but ultimately, he too was sucked into the windmill-tilting crusade of justice that was to ensue.
Which, of course, it did. Because if there is one thing Ty Lookwell believed dearly, it’s that he could crack any case wide open, just like his TV alter ego. So when Ty stumbles into the vicinity of a car-theft ring, he grandly offers up his sleuthing services to the police. (After all, he’d once been awarded an honorary badge at a formal ceremony in Television City. Still, carries it around with him.) And when the police issue him clear instructions to step out of the character and slowly back away, he brushes them off and takes his method acting to the hardscrabble streets of L.A., giving West a fantastically delirious showcase to slip Ty into such woefully outmoded undercover identities as a scarf-and-goggles-wearing race car driver named Dash Carlisle and a hobo wearing a patchwork jacket and carrying a stick with his belongings. As he tries to solve this crime with faulty deductions and a trip to the park to seek wisdom from a Shakespeare statue, Lookwell further descends into both sadness and madness, but his can-do spirit and the rock-dumbest of luck help him to emerge victoriously — or at least allow the bubble to go unburst for one more day. (See for yourself in the 22-minute pilot episode below.)
Lookwell would be a victim of changing executive regimes at NBC, and only one episode ever made it into America’s living room, burned off into a summer night. (In a feeble footnote, that pilot earned the distinction of being the lowest-rated show in the week that it aired.) Life moved on, but ever so slowly, word-of-mouth began to build: VHS tapes of the Lookwell pilot were passed around by comedy nerds, and later, the show grew into the stuff of YouTube cult legend. As part of EW’s Untold Stories series, we revisited the gonzo, gone-too-soon series through the eyes — and mouths — of O’Brien and Smigel. Here, in an extended Q&A (which was conducted before West died on June 9 following a battle with leukemia), the duo looks back on Lookwell with a mixture of fondness, amusement, head-shaking, and pride in knowing that their almost-show gave the legendary West a chance to shine again.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What were the first seeds of Lookwell? Adam West as a washed-up TV cop delivering lines like “Used to play detective… mind can’t help but… make… deductions” seems like a good place to start.
O’BRIEN: I remember very clearly Robert coming to me. I was in the control room at Saturday Night Live, and Robert saying, “Adam West.” That was totally Robert’s idea that it was Adam West playing —
SMIGEL: — an actor who played a ’70s detective who thinks he can still solve crimes.
O’BRIEN: And me saying, “That’s really funny.” And then both of us having writing sessions. At the time I lived with that giant dog…
SMIGEL: Yes, the Rhodesian Ridgeback. 96th and Columbus.
O’BRIEN: I remember Robert and I sitting up there and throwing things out to each other.
SMIGEL: I had the initial skeleton of what it would be: He shows his dumb ’70s cop show to his acting class, he comes up with clues for the crime in the middle of the class and has to leave, he goes undercover in absurd outfits because he considers himself a great actor. It’s so funny to watch it now. I’ve never watched it before and thought, “Oh, my God, this is great,” until today. And it’s partly because I have this distance, and I can see how much of it had to do with Conan and Adam West… All these lines that are Conan’s are so amazing.
O’BRIEN: The one I was proudest of was when he’s threatening the detectives on the way out, and he says, “But remember, I have a lot of free time.” [Laughs.]
SMIGEL: See, I thought that was my line. [Laughs.]
O’BRIEN: Oh, that was your line.
SMIGEL: Actually, I think I had the idea of Adam bragging about his free time like it’s a superpower, but the line I wrote was something longer, like “I have all the free time in the world,” or “I’ve got more free time than you can shake a stick at.” Conan streamlined it into something more direct: “Just say, ‘I have a lot of free time.'”…. One of my favorite Conan lines was when we wanted this [student in his acting workshop] to always be correcting him, and yet Adam had to be high status and be dismissive of this guy: “Nice of you to catch up with us, Jason.” There’s this one time where Jason says, “So this whole endeavor was just a waste of time?” [and Lookwell responds,] “You never waste time, Jason. Time wastes you.”
O’BRIEN: Yeah. It doesn’t mean anything.
SMIGEL: We were so excited to write a vehicle for Adam West, but it really turned out to be a great vehicle for Conan as well, because this kind of sh– is really in his wheelhouse. By “sh–,” I, of course, mean brilliant, articulate nonsense that sounds like music out of Adam West’s mouth.
O’BRIEN: A lot came together quickly. It was pretty fun and effortless to write. My grandfather had been a policeman, and whenever I would go over to his apartment in Worcester, Massachusetts, he had his badge in a lucite block, and so the idea —
SMIGEL: (to O’Brien) He did? You never told me this!… Conan had so many details, like the Lucite badge and the name Ty Lookwell and the Firm Pops. Just amazing, hilarious details.
O’BRIEN: People always say the good songs are written in, like, two minutes, and all the things that Robert and I have worked on — the really, good fun stuff — happened really quickly.
SMIGEL: The best ideas happen almost by mistake. [Future Seinfeld writer] Spike Feresten, of Soup Nazi fame, was a receptionist at SNL and he was writing jokes for Weekend Update, and he tells us — Conan, I thought you were with me, but maybe not — “I’m developing a show for Adam West on Nickelodeon.” He was describing it as a kids show. I was like, “What about a show where he’s an actor playing a detective and thinks he can solve crimes?” It’s such a perfect vehicle for his insane brilliance.
O’BRIEN: This was the early ’90s, and the Quinn Martin television of the 1970s [The Streets of San Francisco, Barnaby Jones] that we had grown up watching hadn’t been mined yet. So we really felt like, “Oh, my God, he lives in that era and he’s citing shows like Mannix and he’s competitive with all those shows!” And then getting to recreate a scene from the 70s where he’s shoving Leron against a wall…. Later on, I realized everyone was all over it, but this felt like we were onto something ahead of the curve.
What was it like to pitch and shape this character with Adam? I imagine he took it very seriously and/or in the spirit.
O’BRIEN: He was great.
SMIGEL: He’s unbelievable in it… He’s really educated and interesting on one level, and on another level he made really goofy jokes, and I think we were never totally convinced at the time whether he was a genius [laughs] or some kind of prodigy with an amazing voice and face, but watching it [now], he’s so brilliant. He knew what he was doing.
O’BRIEN: I think initially he did it well, and then the network really didn’t want him. In fact, they said, “You can’t have Adam West.” So we had to meet with all these other people, but we were determined to get Adam West. So, on the side we were coaching him, and then they said, “You can bring him in,” and we thought, “Okay, let’s bring in Adam last, after all these people who aren’t it.”
SMIGEL: They had us meet Max Baer Jr., Jethro from The Beverly Hillbillies, I think maybe Chad Everett from Medical Center – basically anyone who was on TV in the 70s and had a square jaw and big hair.
O’BRIEN: My favorite thing is us meeting with him, and he wasn’t really doing it the way we had it in our heads — and we realized it was because we had 1960s Adam West doing it [in our heads]. At one point we said, “He’s Batman!” [Laughs]. Adam looked at us and right after that, it was, “Oh!” That kind of [affects assured West voice] “Good to… see you.”
SMIGEL: I feel like Adam had another eureka moment that he came to on his own once we were in production. I remember him running to our office on a Sunday when we weren’t expecting him and he was wearing [laughs] a straw hat and beige shorts — not at all ironically — and he had told us that he had been walking on the beach and he had figured out the character. He was saying it with the same kind of exuberance Batman would have if he had cracked the code required to get into a criminal’s lair. I don’t remember anything about what he said he had cracked about the character — all I can remember is Adam West in a straw hat, dancing on air.
What kind of things did he add during filming that tickled you?
SMIGEL: Moves and reads that we didn’t even anticipate. He executed the character in the perfect Adam West-y way that we had dreamed he would, and then he’d surprise us by pulling out a move that we had never seen him do. One example was when he went undercover as a homeless man, trying to lead a suspect with confusing heavy-handed banter. The suspect is like, “What are you talking about?” and Lookwell says, “Pay no attention, I’m just a crazy old vagabond.” The expression he makes with eyes is priceless and nothing Conan and I had seen him do prepared us for it. We just laughed endlessly, playing the scene over and over, just to enjoy it.
And what do you remember about the filming process?
SMIGEL: I’ve always been a control freak when it comes to directing, but never as much as during Lookwell. Conan and I were the producers, and in TV, the producers have all the power, you know? We had a director. But if somebody didn’t read it the way I had it in my head, I just couldn’t accept it and would make them do it over and over.
O’BRIEN: The shoot was very tense because we overthought it. We hired a very competent guy named E.W. Swackhamer, who’s a director. But we overthought it. We thought: “To do this, we should get a guy from the 70s who directed 70s TV. ”
SMIGEL: In retrospective, it does look perfect.
O’BRIEN: It looks perfect, but I think it would’ve been much less tense if the person had comedically been onboard with what we were trying to do, and I think what we thought is: As long as he makes it look the way it should look, we can walk all over him.
SMIGEL: Lorne Michaels said this to us: “You just get a technician in there to make it look right and then you guys will get a full swing of the bat. You’ll get to do it the way you want.”… But what we didn’t realize was that these kind of technician directors weren’t used to having nerdy young writers hover over every line asking for take after take until the actor does it the way that they had it in their head. The ’70s crime show directors were used to banging this stuff out, having actors show up, do their lines once or twice, yelling cut and being in their pajamas by 4 p.m.
O’BRIEN: [Swackhamer] passed away later on and I was convinced that we took years off his life. I felt bad about it… To me, it was getting so much of what Adam does better than anybody else is that look to the middle distance. We wanted him to go up to the Shakespeare statue and talk to it every now and then, and then when he’s done and he feels like he’s gotten his inspiration, he does a little bow to the Shakespeare statue. And he does it with such sincerity. That opening scene where he’s wearing the giant ‘50s greaser wig [for his Happy Days: The Next Generation audition] — Robert and I both are huge fans of people who are put into an absurd situation but have no sense that their dignity has been compromised in any way. And so Adam West is just sitting there in that ridiculous costume with these young kids, [saying]. “Call me Buzz McCool,” and “No, no, no, that was Mannix,” [when they mistook him for another famous TV detective]. A lot of that looking into the middle distance, not even looking people in the eye — he’s just such a genius when he’s doing that.
SMIGEL: He’s playing such high status in the most ridiculous situation.
O’BRIEN: That’s one of the things we wanted to do: Let’s put him in absurd situations in ridiculous costumes… but where he’s the coolest guy in the room. When he shows up for the auto race, he is dressed like someone who’d be in a 1915 auto race. He’s dressed as a hobo, but he’s saying things like, “The sidewalk is my pillow. Pardon me.” Phrases that aren’t even necessary. I don’t know who invented it, but certainly, I grew up thinking Peter Sellers. Put him in the most absurd costume in the world, and no one’s more serious.
SMIGEL: You believed he had dignity and that he believed he was cool — and he kind of was.
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