Conan O'Brien and Robert Smigel look back on their lost, glorious Adam West comedy Lookwell
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.
NEXT PAGE: “There were a lot of people whose opinion I respected who said, ‘Is he a sociopath?'”
Lookwell’s levels of delusion are incredible, and the undercover disguises were crazy. Were there lots of discussions about how far into absurdity to take him? Where was that line?
SMIGEL: It just seemed to fit naturally. It was a very simple setup, and that was part of the original concept for us. He’s going to be deluded to the point where he wears ridiculous outfits and thinks that he’s a master of undercover.
O’BRIEN: The one area where it got hairy — and where people thought we had crossed the line — is in the acting class when he goes into his trances and we put in creepy music. That was a thing where you were either in or you were out. There were a lot of people whose opinion I respected who said, “Does he have a tumor? Is he a sociopath?” It’s like when the clown gets scary. That’s still a thing that I will defend to my dying day. It makes me laugh-cry.
SMIGEL: One of the things I enjoy about watching it now is how well it holds up, because the comedy is so character-driven and timeless and pure and absurd. And yet Conan and I grew up in a certain era, and I’m not sure that a young person watching it would appreciate it entirely the same way, because of the context of knowing these Quinn-Martin shows or these kind of shows where the detective or investigator would stop and say, “Wait a minute….”
O’BRIEN: Jack Klugman as Quincy would do that all the time. It was a real thing that people were like, “Hold it a second…” and [would] talk out loud and have an idea.
SMIGEL: And the thing that he would say right after that — “I’ve got a little appointment with a certain someone….” — that was straight out of what we were making fun of.
O’BRIEN: As silly as the costumes are, [there was also] the fact that he would go into what pretty much looks on camera like he’s had a psychic break. Also, you have to keep in mind, the rules of television changed so much. Look at Curb Your Enthusiasm. The rules used to be: Everyone had to be likable. So here we are, a guy who lives alone, is unemployed, his best years are behind him, he has no friends, he’s fleecing these students — he doesn’t think he’s fleecing them, he thinks he’s God’s gift — and then we hint that he may be unhinged. So we made this pool shot impossible, in terms of getting it made. And then if you look 10 years later, there’s plenty of unlikable characters on television, and everyone’s a misanthrope. Zach Galifianakis can be brilliant in 65 different roles being that kind of character, and there’s no executive around saying, “But is he likable? And does he win at the end of the episode? He needs to win.”
SMIGEL: Lookwell wasn’t going to win in the original drafts we made. That was at least a note we took. [Laughs.]
O’BRIEN: I remember saying to Robert after we made the pilot, “If we had to staff up, we would need to hire a real crime writer because we suck at this.” The crime is awful, and Robert and I had no idea what we were doing. And it was such a stupid crime. None of it made sense. I remember thinking we have to hire one person who understood that sh– because Robert and I are never going to get it.
SMIGEL: [You need] just enough to matter a little. Like, if it matters too much then it becomes a different show. Our friend Andy Breckman created Monk, and on his staff, he had at least one guy who was not a funny writer at all, a pure mystery writer. But Monk had to have that because Monk was a good mystery show that had a fun character in it.
O’BRIEN: We would’ve needed one-tenth of what they had on Monk, and still that would’ve been 200 percent more than Robert and I could’ve thought up or had any desire to think up. “Yeah, but then how did they get the jewel back at the museum?” Oh, f—, who cares?
SMIGEL: A great line of Conan’s in the show — which is the perfect answer to our ineptitude — was when [the police] are telling Ty at the beginning of the show, “There’s been several classic cars stolen around the neighborhood,” and Ty’s response is “Sounds like a string of classic-car thefts. You boys should check it out.”
O’BRIEN: There’s a lot of lines in it that I really like, but there’s one that never fails to make me laugh, which is when he’s like, “Did you get the hairspray?” and his housekeeper tells him, “They don’t make that kind anymore.” And he just looks and he goes, “Those fools…” And I’m thinking: “Those fools” is always supposed to go after someone says, “Well, we only put half as many lifeboats on the Titanic as possible….” “Those fools” is supposed to go with massive loss of life, not “I can’t get my hairspray.” [Laughs.]
[NBC Entertainment president] Brandon Tartikoff was a big fan of the show, but there had to have been some executives at NBC that didn’t get all this Saharan-dry humor. Do you remember your favorite note or just something that made you laugh about that process?
SMIGEL: We didn’t even get notes because we got to work directly with Tartikoff. He gave us little notes here and there. In fact, we tried to pull them out of him because we actually had a lot of respect for him. When we met him, I remember coming away from the meeting and we’re both saying, “Oh, so that’s a guy who really deserves to run a network! He knows so much.”
O’BRIEN: He was a fan of television and he had a very sophisticated knowledge of it. When we sat down with him, what I appreciated was that he was like, “Look, this is funny, but what you’re trying to do is something that a million people have tried and it has never worked.” And we said, “What’s that?” And he said, “Bring Get Smart back into prime time.” And I remember thinking, “He’s right.” He was saying, “People have been chasing this. This is a really hard thing to do, but I’m intrigued.” I gave him so many points for immediately seizing on, “Man, this is a hard shot to make! You’re not even on the court, you’re off in the seats and you’re trying to do a hook shot wearing a blindfold, but this is a funny script and you guys are onto something, and I like you guys, so let’s give it a shot.” And then after that, I swear to God, the only other note we got is “We’re never doing this.” [Laughs.]
SMIGEL: Warren Littlefield [who replaced Tartikoff] — he was a good guy, it just wasn’t his project. He said, “A little bit of the character goes a long way.” More than anything, at the time I was disappointed for Adam. We really wanted him to have a second career of being that funny. Fortunately, Family Guy ended up using him very well. But he got to do everything in this. Anybody who reads this: You gotta watch the Batman movie — I think it’s on Netflix. When the Michael Keaton Batman movie came out, there was another theater in the Village that was playing the 1966 Batman movie, and that’s the one Conan, [future executive producer of The Office] Greg Daniels, and I wanted to see. We were all Adam West lovers, and we watched this movie and were just overwhelmed by how funny Adam West was. He gets to do every great Batman move and more in that movie, and I’ve seen it since and it’s still just incredibly funny. It’s really one of the funniest performances I’ve ever seen.
O’BRIEN: Let’s put him in the top 10 best comedic performers in television history. You could make the case that what he did was so unusual. What he’s doing is so specific in Batman…
SMIGEL: What was different from Lookwell than Get Smart or Police Squad! was there was no winking of any sense. And those are great. Believe me, I would’ve killed to have written Police Squad!, but that’s just a different animal. It’s self-aware of being a joke bag and so was Get Smart. And all the laughs [in Lookwell] hinged on the character, hinged on Adam West being nuts and deluded. And if you like it, it’s all because he pulls it off to that extent. It’s a real challenge for him, and he makes it work. He’s really amazing.
Was any part of you worried that the show would get picked up and you wouldn’t know how to sustain this idea as a series?
SMIGEL: As we were writing it, we both thought that we’re just putting one over on everybody. Like, can this really sustain? And we just wanted to work with Adam West really badly! [Laughs.] Now I think we would have found a way to sustain it…
O’BRIEN: I don’t know about Robert, but I desperately wanted it to be a show. Just the idea of making it was so exciting, and I had a total feeling of, “Let’s just cross that bridge when we come to it.” But we were two very hungry, young comedy cowpokes that had come in from the desert, and we were so desperate to make this show — and make it this really cool show.
SMIGEL: I wanted it to work for the same reason. I mean, I just loved the idea of getting to do something that was purely our sensibility. SNL was a great experience, and I think we’re both proud of a lot of things we’ve done. Both of us took the approach like we weren’t just there to make ourselves laugh all the time — we were there to make the show work on many levels. We were very grim and serious about it at times: What does the show need? It was so exciting to just jump out of there and do a show that was a singular sensibility that we really both loved. It worked out anyway. For us, Late Night with Conan O’Brien turned out to be that. [Smigel served as Late Night‘s first head writer.]
O’BRIEN: The Conan show was just an extension of Lookwell, in a way. [Both laugh.] It was the chance to rule in hell. We were desperate to make this one half-hour of television, and then later on it was like, “Be careful what you wish for.” It was: “Make an hour a night for the rest of your lives. And guess what? It’s such an incredible task, you’ll have little or no supervision.” But I was crushed when Lookwell didn’t get picked up. That was like getting hit in the stomach with a baseball bat, and I think it was for Robert, too.
SMIGEL: Well, I was maybe a little less because I think deep down I had most of the time not expected it to happen. Then there was this brief period where I did, and then when it didn’t, I was like, “Oh, okay. The world sucks after all.” [Laughs.]
O’BRIEN: I had actually bought a Bentley on credit, and the license plate said “LOOKWELL.” That’s how confident I was.
SMIGEL: There was a little bit of a meta-quality to it. To some degree, we didn’t even get to do everything we wanted. He has the acting class and he’s showing them his sh–ty show and waxing poetic about it, but a big idea was to have famous people in the acting class. And this was before Larry Sanders, and I wish we had been able to pull this off. We almost got Donna Rice. She brought down Gary Hart [in a scandal during the 1988 Presidential race]. We got her on the phone and talked to her manager, and she just wouldn’t pull the trigger. And then we had regular actresses audition. One was just really funny, and we decided to hire her, and the next day we were told, “Oh, [Donald Trump’s then-girlfriend/eventual ex-wife] Marla Maples will do it.”
O’BRIEN: Yeah. Can you imagine?
SMIGEL: Eventually we would have expanded the world of Bannigan, and have Lookwell recruiting people, say at an autograph festival or cruise, suckering other actors from the show into solving crimes. A guy who might have played his sidekick on the show, whether a Herve Villechaize type [from Fantasy Island], Stewart Margolin from The Rockford Files. Or somehow he challenged an actor who starred in a different detective show — he would draw him in as another deluded rival who would try to solve crimes. Or convince him to work together.
NEXT PAGE: The disastrous debut… and a Lookwell movie?
After Tartikoff left the network, support for Lookwell seemed to vanish. It wound up airing just once in the summer, and was the 92nd ranked show out of 92 shows that week…
SMIGEL: There was a very brief period where we were confident. All the way through it, we loved it but we didn’t think it was a typical NBC show by any stretch. Also while we were shooting, Brandon Tartikoff, who greenlit the show, left to go to Paramount, and you just know you’re dead when a new executive comes in. It’s almost always a death knell. So we were just trying to make it as good as we could for ourselves….
O’BRIEN: We got this call that said they were going to “burn it,” and at first I thought “burn it” meant they were literally going to make a bonfire in Berlin and burn it.
SMIGEL: More people would’ve actually come to see that.
O’BRIEN: Exactly. But then we found out that no, that means they’re going to spend no money promoting and they’re going to put it opposite 60 Minutes on a Sunday night. And then the final injustice was — I’ll never forget this — they aired it, and it was mixed in Dolby or not mixed in Dolby. And there’s a simple switch that needs to be thrown — it’s a switch that’s always in the correct position — but this time it was in the wrong position. I was just picturing a common little switch and some guy in a room leaned back to drink his cocoa, hit a broom, and the broom hit the switch…. I was in Italy at the time, and Robert — this is pre-cell phone — tracks me down, and he finds out where I am in Italy, and he calls me and he says, “I just wanted you to know that Lookwell is airing tonight on NBC.” And I said, “Okay, I’m staying at this hotel, let me know how it goes. I can’t watch it because I’m in Italy.” And then Robert calls me back and he’s beside himself. And I’m saying, “Robert, what’s wrong?”
SMIGEL: I was practically in tears.
O’BRIEN: And he said, “I’m watching it and it sounds as if it’s playing under water! It’s incomprehensible gibberish!” And I was like, “What?” And then Robert held the phone up to the TV and the TV sounded like one of the teachers on Charlie Brown, and I almost had to laugh. It was so ridiculous. It’s like there’s a corpse on the ground and you go up and you shove a carrot up its ass, you know? [Laughs.] And then Robert made some calls and “Oh, don’t worry, they’re going to fix for the West Coast.” I remember hearing from people, “You know, I tried to watch your show, but I couldn’t understand it.” Meaning not, “I didn’t understand the humor,” but, “I didn’t understand the words that were coming out of people’s mouths.”
SMIGEL: I still tried to watch, and my doctor advised me that it would cause trauma or seizures…. The reason I was so upset was because it’s just my nature, I can never let go entirely of something that fails. I’m thinking, “Maybe there’s some other life to this.” I got somebody in The Village Voice to review it and they really gave it a good review before it aired, and I had Broadway Video [Michaels’ production company] send tapes out to a few places in advance of it airing, hoping that somebody would hear about it, and then this happened. So that was the kick in the stomach for me.
What ultimately doomed Lookwell? Was it the lack of support from the network, or an audio switch in the wrong mode, or was it just ahead of its time?
O’BRIEN: Yeah, 1991 doomed Lookwell. Look, a lot of people say things are ahead of their time, and maybe there was no time for Lookwell, I don’t know, but we made something that completely pleased us on every level, and we did it at a time when there was no [outlet]. I’m not even exaggerating, there might be 150 outlets for Lookwell now. And that doesn’t even include like, “Oh, Netflix is bemused by what you did — here’s $30 million dollars.”
SMIGEL: Not only that, I got a call…. [to O’Brien] Did you hear about this? A year ago, my agent said, “A studio wants to make a Lookwell movie!”
O’BRIEN: No, I never heard that.
SMIGEL: But the fun of it was Adam West, you know? They were like, “Well, what about Nicholas Cage?” And I love Nicholas Cage, but it’s just like I can’t imagine —
O’BRIEN: — someone else doing it.
What was that moment when you realized this show had in fact made an impact?
O’BRIEN: We made it, it died, we went on with our lives. And then about seven years later, I’m doing the Late Night show, and I’m hosting it, and Jack Black is becoming a big star, and he comes on the show and he wants to talk to me before the show. I go back to say hi, and I’ve never met him before, and he is looking at me. He’s like, [affects dramatic Jack Black voice] “I just wanted to say one thing to you.” And I was like, “What’s that?” He was like, “Lookwell….” I didn’t know what he was talking about. And he was like. “You and Robert Smigel, man — Lookwell.” And he was talking about it as if it was a band religion that had gone underground, but a hundred years have gone by and someone mentions the name of the Holy One. And then I started hearing about it from lots of other people, and then Robert and I started getting calls that they want to show it in a movie theater, and, “Can one of you fly out there and give a talk beforehand?” It was just so strange. You hear about this all the time with groups where they record a song, no one gives a sh–, and then six years later, they’re both hauling fertilizer and they hear it on the radio and it hits the No. 1 spot, you know? That’s how crazy it was that it had this life.
SMIGEL: I had friends tell me about it every now and then who’d just seen it.…. I see that it’s on the web every now and then, Splitsider or The Onion will write about it and call it legendary, some nice description. And part of me has always been a little bit skeptical like, “Well, is it because it’s Conan’s thing, and even me to some degree, that people are giving it too much credit?” And it was a nice feeling to watch it after many years and really like it more than ever.
O’BRIEN: Anytime it gets noticed, I’m happy for people to see Adam be that funny.
The Grinder came out last season. Did you watch it?
SMIGEL: Did you see it, Conan?
O’BRIEN: I never did.
SMIGEL: I read an article about it, and I liked the direction it went in. They made some interesting choices.
It had a similar premise — Rob Lowe plays a former TV lawyer who believes he can practice law in real life even though he lacks a law degree — and it lasted a whole season. Would Lookwell have fared better today than two and a half decades ago?
O’BRIEN: Oh, it couldn’t have done worse than it did in ’91. I think, yes, today a show like Lookwell would have a home. It’s impossible to explain to anyone reading this article what television was like in 1991, and how a show getting on the air was miraculous. Now, there are shows that run for eight years —
SMIGEL: —that have thinner premises than Lookwell.
O’BRIEN: Yes, exactly. There’s a whole kind of alterna-meta-comedy; there are whole channels devoted to it. If someone told me today that there was a show starring two seasoned breadcrumbs that are animated, and they run a circus, I would say, “Probably. What’s it called?”
SMIGEL: For a second, I thought you were talking about a real show.
O’BRIEN: “Oh, it’s called The Upside Down World of Polygog.” “Oh! And it’s got breadcrumbs?” “Oh, yeah. And guess what? It’s got a cult following and they’re doing a whole week of cast readings at South By Southwest.” And you’re like, “Wow, okay — good for them.”
SMIGEL: The other thing that exists now that didn’t in 1991 is the diverse and more democratic media. There are so many outlets now that would champion a show like Lookwell. It’s that whole thing of: The nerds run show business now. They’re such a huge part of the culture now that’s written by people who are very specific about championing the weirdest sh–. God knows there was no such animal in 1991.
O’BRIEN: It was just not the right time, and that’s a little bit of what makes it special. It’s got this James Dean quality — it died young and pretty. It left a good-looking corpse, and people wonder what it could’ve been. There’s always this mystique around it. And it lived at the wrong time and it got no backing and it was ignored. What saves it is that I think it holds up.
SMIGEL: I have all these other screenplays and I may be deluded in thinking that they’re some of my favorite things that I have worked on, and nobody will ever know or care. And it’s so nice that this one exists. At least people can make their own judgment on whether it’s funny or not — and I think a lot of people already have.
O’BRIEN: You know what’s amazing? Somehow we tricked one of the Big Three networks — back when that really meant something — into spending $2 million dollars to do a piece of conceptual comedy art starring Adam West, who was hitting on all cylinders.
Conan O’Brien hosts TBS late-night talk show Conan and is an executive producer of the TBS comedy People of Earth and the upcoming animated pilot Final Space, while Robert Smigel, who is the creator and puppeteer of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, recently hosted Triumph’s Election Watch 2016 on Hulu, and is co-writing and directing Netflix comedy film The Week Of starring Adam Sandler and Chris Rock.
Adam West, who had a longtime guest-starring role on Family Guy and this season on NBC’s comedy Powerless, recently voiced Batman in the animated movies Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders and its sequel, Batman vs. Two-Face. He died June 9 at the age of 88. “Adam West gave probably the most inspired and ingenious performances in the history of television,” O’Brien said in a statement on Twitter after West’s death. “He is revered by my generation of comic minds. He was also a sweet and lovely man, and it was a rare honor to know him.”
“Getting to work with Adam and make a show for him was easily one of the greatest honors of my career,” Smigel told EW after West died. “Conan and I had so much fun talking about Lookwell again that we agreed just recently we’d screen it at a Comic-Con panel someday with Adam, something we’d never done in all these years. I was thrilled at the prospect of seeing Adam again, and at him getting to hear the laughs in the big room. Not that he needed it — fortunately, in the years since we met him (which was right after the first new Batman movie), I think Adam came to fully appreciate how timeless and iconic his Batman is, and how beloved and revered he was. And above all, I’m grateful for that.”