‘Daddy-O,’ the incredible failed TV pilot that broke the fourth wall 25 years before Garry Shandling
02:13 pm
‘Daddy-O,’ the incredible failed TV pilot that broke the fourth wall 25 years before Garry Shandling

Wow. I recently discovered a show that was up for consideration by CBS in 1961 that was as subversive and as “meta” as anything on the air now, but for understandable reasons never got picked up. Thank god the pilot still exists, anyway. It was called Daddy-O, and that title ought to signal that something was a little “off” about the show. It was developed by Max Shulman, whose main previous credit was consonant with the title of Daddy-O, the beatnik hit The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, which had been a success for CBS since 1959.

The first scene of Daddy-O is by far the most mind-blowing. We start in medias res, as the dopey father of a typical television suburban family, “Daddy-O” himself, seeking to explain to his sassy children what a great foxtrot he was once capable of, strides out into the living room and promptly steps on a carelessly placed roller skate, after which his startled wife drops a meringue pie on his head. Cut to a TV control room, where an executive fervently cries, “No no no, you call that a laugh?” It turns out that HE would prefer “MH-9” at that juncture (“Mad Howl-9”), a tumultuous uproar on the laugh track that will really sell the scene. (If your mind blipped to a key scene in Annie Hall in which the Tony Roberts character does much the same thing, you’re not alone. The whole thing also reminds me of the old Olsen and Johnson musical Hellzapoppin’, in which the hectic action of the movie is governed from decisions made in the projection booth.)

We then get a scene in which a handful of TV professionals tinker with the sequence, including a soundman’s trenchant query “How do you know it’s that funny?” It turns out that Don DeFore, who was best known for playing Ozzie and Harriet’s neighbor “Thorny” on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and would later find a home as a key player on Hazel, is here playing “Ben Cousins,” a TV actor paid to portray “Daddy-O,” the castrated father figure in an anodyne TV series in the style of Leave It to Beaver or Father Knows Best. In perfect Brechtian fashion the episode features, in addition to the distancing debate over the laugh track, a lengthy (comic) demonstration of stunt techniques as well as a key character’s removal of makeup.

In the pilot, “Ben” wants to quit his job as the lead actor of the show within the show (because, as he insists, his job is to make “silly shadows on the screen”) and resume his erstwhile career as a master builder responsible for house construction—you know, a real job that actually helps people. Ben whines, “What do you want with me, anyway? The town’s full of actors!” The answer of his buddy Albert, the executive that hired him, is a masterpiece of exposition on the contradictory business of manufacturing a wholesome and mainstream artifact of popular culture:

The town’s full of actors with caps on their teeth, and toupees on their head and noses they were never born with. I don’t want an actor! I want a real guy, like you! Look at that face. People see a face like that on the TV screen, they gotta love you, they gotta believe you! Look at yourself, you wouldn’t hurt a fly! You’re clean, you’re wholesome, you’re pure, you’re harmless, you’re pre-digested!

Exactly, we don’t want toupees or rebuilt noses, we want pre-digested pabulum like you—you know, authentic!!

According to user bgrauman at, whose account, quite apart from being totally plausible, is the best one on offer,

This pilot was produced as a proposed series for the network’s 1961-‘62 schedule. I think even Max Shulman knew CBS was going to pass on it because it made fun of the kind of sitcoms the network (and their competition) were scheduling at the time.

And if there was one thing James T. Aubrey, the network’s president and chief programmer at the time, DIDN’T want on his schedule, was a comedy that “told the truth”...especially about TV {and situation comedies} in general. What HE wanted was the kind of “fatuous” sitcom that “Daddy O” satirized at the beginning of the episode- where Daddy’s a bumbling idiot- or the wife is scatterbrained- and the plot is nothing more involving than, say, “Hubby invites the boss to dinner, but Wifey burns the roast”. In fact, he objected to “THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW” because he didn’t Rob Petrie to be a New York-based comedy/variety show writer (“Too ‘inside’”, Aubrey told Carl Reiner and Sheldon Leonard,, suggesting “Couldn’t you make Van Dyke a Midwestern insurance salesman, like Robert Young on ‘FATHER KNOWS BEST’?” They refused, and Aubrey [who was virtually forced to schedule the show because its sponsor, Procter & Gamble- CBS’ biggest advertiser- insisted on it] tried to sabotage, then cancel the series by the end of its first season). No, “DADDY O” probably would have been received better as one of Max Shulman’s novels. It’s hilarious, but too far ahead of its time…

While it’s entirely possible that the show was just too radical, another problem is that the show isn’t all that funny, there just aren’t enough laugh lines per minute. Or as user Classic_TV_and_Radio_Fan puts it, “If Adolf Hitler watched TV, This is what he would watch. Being raped is more fun than this crap fest.” Ooooookay…..

What are the later TV shows that Daddy-O reminds us of? The obvious one is It’s Garry Shandling’s Show from Showtime in the 1980s, in which Garry Shandling played “Garry Shandling,” a neurotic comedian who is completely aware that he is in a sitcom. The most famous innovation of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show was direct address to the audience at home, and Daddy-O has that too. Other examples include Chris Elliott’s awesome Action Family, also from Showtime in the 1980s, and last year’s delirious and haunting Too Many Cooks.

Darrell Y. Hamamoto, in Nervous Laughter: Television Situation Comedy and Liberal Democratic Ideology, aptly describes the underlying force of Daddy-O as well as explains where it would have headed:

Daddy-O as a self-reflexive critique of the situation comedy operated on two levels—ideological and structural. This was accomplished by beginning with the premise of Daddy-O being a situation comedy about a situation comedy.  Not only did Daddy-O mock the thematic and ideological conventions of the sitcom, but it did so in a way that laid bare the mechanisms for what usually passes for television realism.


Future episodes of Daddy-O would treat domestic themes such as “homemaking,” “child rearing,” “domestic bliss,” “domestic strife,” “civic virtue,” and “adolescent love.” Unlike other sitcoms, however,  the program would include “inside stuff” about Ben’s show business life complete with behind-the-scenes looks at writers’ conferences, laugh track sessions, music scoring, special effects, agency conferences, and other activities related to producing a sitcom.”

Here, in its entirety, the failed pilot of Daddy-O, passed over by CBS in 1961:


Posted by Martin Schneider
02:13 pm



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