Today, we look at how the series finale of You’re in the Picture, which was an apology for…You’re in the Picture, and yet it somehow started a brand-NEW TV show!
This is Back Door Blues, a feature about “backdoor pilots.” Backdoor pilots are episodes of regular TV series that are intended to also work as pilots for a new series. Sometimes these pilots get picked up, but a lot of times they did not get picked up. I’ll spotlight examples of both successful and failed backdoor pilots.
December is a month of Back Door Blues! Following our look at how The Facts of Life‘s series finale tried to set up a new series, we’ll look at a week’s worth of series finales serving as backdoor pilots!
CONCEPT: The Jackie Gleason Show – The famous comedian interviews guests in a simple talk show format
SERIES IT AIRED ON You’re in the Picture
Okay, this is probably the weirdest “backdoor pilot” on a series finale you’ll ever see. In January 1961, the night of John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, Jackie Gleason starred in a new game show called You’re in the Picture. Remember, this was at a time when celebrity panelist game shows were still all the rage, with What’s My Line? being the most famous. On What’s My Line?, celebrity panelists had to guess what a person’s job (or “their line”) was.
On You’re in the Picture, the celebrity panelists would insert their heads into a cartoon of either a famous historical moment, a famous historical group or the lyric of a popular song. One easy gag would be that the dudes would always be standing in for women.
For instance, for a cartoon of Pocahontas saving John Smith…
Here are their faces in the picture…
The panelists would then have to ask Jackie Gleason yes or no questions, and if they guessed their picture correctly, the show would send 100 CARE packages (CARE packages were originally designed as Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe, in other words, people would donate to people in Europe dealing with the after effects of World War II. In 1961, the packages would be being sent over to West Berlin) in their name. If they lost, the 100 care packages would be sent in Gleason’s name.
The celebrity panelists were Jan Sterling (a once popular film actor who was struggling in her career in the 1960s after she made the unfortunate mistake of turning 40), the hilarious comedic actor, Pat Carroll (who only passed away just last year), the character actor, Arthur Treacher (best known at the time for his role as the butler Jeeves in a series of films. He would later lend his name to the Arthur Treacher’s Fish and Chips franchise) and a young comedian named Pat…
The show was awful, and its ratings were poor, and the reviews terrible.
Gleason was not involved in the production of the show, so it wasn’t really blamed on him, so he had little to risk, so the next week, You’re in the Picture aired again (still called You’re In the Picture, with the same opening credits), only this time, Gleason came out by himself in a chair and small table with a cup of coffee on it (he caused controversy by joking that the coffee cup had alcohol in it). He then apologized for how bad the first episode was, and explained how things like can go wrong without anyone really being to blame.
He was such a talented comedian that he had the audience eating out of his hand as he was SO relatable and down to Earth. At the end of the episode, he explained that they’d somehow be back the next week with SOME sort of show.
DID THE PILOT GO TO SERIES? It did. Of course, it was all sort of accidental, but his apology episode was so well-received that they decided to finish out the original contractual obligation of the game shoe with a talk show starring Gleason.
SHOULD IT HAVE? Gleason was an icon of comedy, so sure, why not give it a shot? The time slot was already being held for the show, ya know? Once the season ended, the show was canceled, but the network then gave Gleason a new show, a satire of news magazine shows called The American Scene Magazine, that was basically a variety series. It ran for a number of seasons. So it all worked out really well for Gleason.
Okay, that’s it for this installment of Back Door Blues! I KNOW the rest of you have suggestions for other interesting backdoor pilots, so drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org (don’t suggest in the comments, as this way, it’ll be a surprise!).