“The Coneheads” (1983)

Sometimes you watch a failed TV pilot and think “What a shame this treasure was never discovered.” You lament the lost potential, the notion of what could have been, if only someone had given it a chance.

I’m lying, of course, nobody does that. Failed pilots fail for a reason, because they stink on ice. They flop to such a spectacular degree that everyone involved, right down to the gaffer, has trouble finding work again for a little while. If you think anything while watching them, other than “Why am I watching this?” it’s “Who thought this was a good idea?”

I had no idea that there was once a pilot of a cartoon based on the Coneheads until last year, when a friend brought it to my attention. Yet, there was, airing in prime time in 1983, and even by mid-80s standards, when “mediocre” was considered a noble goal for most TV cartoons, this is an unpleasant viewing experience. It’s particularly startling when you take into consideration that it was done not only with the full participation of the actors and writers who originated it on Saturday Night Live, but produced by Rankin & Bass, who were responsible for some of the most memorable animated features of the 60s through the 80s, including Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Year Without a Santa Claus, and The Last Unicorn. How all those hands involved resulted in such a lumpen turd is inexplicable, unless, of course, too many hands was the problem.

A brief overview for those of you either too young to remember, or not hopelessly trapped in the past: Coneheads was an original era Saturday Night Live sketch about a family of aliens originally from the planet Remulak, trapped on Earth and trying to live among humans undetected, despite their large, conical heads, bizarre diet, monotone nasal voices, and habit of referring to things by unnecessarily long names (”shredded swine flesh” for bacon, “irregular sound patterns” for music, etc.). The running gag was that no one really seemed to notice how odd they were, even when they drank entire six packs of beer in one swallow.

Coneheads was an amusing sketch, until, like virtually all Saturday Night Live sketches, it was driven deep into Earth’s core. Nevertheless, everyone involved in the creation of Coneheads–Dan Aykroyd, Jane Curtin, Laraine Newman, Lorne Michaels, Al Franken, and Tom Davis–thought America wanted more of their delightful antics, this time via animation. Coneheads the cartoon helpfully fills in the blanks about what happened to Beldar and Prymaat before the SNL sketches, in case you were wondering.

Though it’s merely one of many, the predominant problem with The Coneheads is that it has no clear audience. It has the quality, pacing, simple plotting, and even the goofy theme music of a C-level Saturday morning cartoon, with a phony, random laugh track, but closes with a joke about teenage daughter Connie bringing a “senso-ring,” which is basically a Remulak sex toy, on a date. There’s also this curious design carved on the Remulak leader’s throne:

coneheads1

You see it, right? It’s a truly bizarre moment, mostly because the shot lingers too long to qualify as subliminal. What is it doing there? How did it get past censors? Why is it in a prime time cartoon?

In The Coneheads we learn that Beldar and Prymaat were originally sent to Earth to enslave humans and colonize the planet, but crashed their ship while arguing over which direction to go. As Remulakians, or whatever they’re called, they’re mostly incompetent, but as humans they fit right in, which I suppose is a moderately clever joke in and of itself. Once they have daughter Connie and move to New Jersey, the rest of the show is largely a rehash of some of the original SNL sketches, with Beldar and Prymaat entertaining their befuddled neighbors and Connie lamenting that she just wants to live like a normal teenager.

coneheads3

The thing about The Coneheads is that it probably could have been a passable Saturday morning cartoon. But no, someone involved in the writing process thought it needed to be punched up with a few smutty yet still juvenile jokes (Connie’s boyfriend, believing her family to be from France, says “Come on, gimme one of those French kisses,” at which the canned audience lets out an “oooooooooooh!” in delighted shock). Result: a show that is enjoyable for no one. Kids would be baffled by the adult humor (”Mommy, why are there boobies on the man’s chair?”), and adults would be put off by the shoddy, ugly animation. This was a pilot that should have never made it to the launch pad in the first place.

Original airdate: October 14, 1983

Watch it here

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