Tonight at 8pm, ABC will debut its new series Splash, a “celebrity” diving competition show in which such iconic figures as Kendra Wilkinson, Keshia Knight Pulliam, and Louie Anderson… well, they do dives, and that’s pretty much the show. If you’re anything like us, you may have greeted this description with one question: “Holy moly, is that the stupidest idea for a television program, ever?” To which we laugh and laugh, and then say, “I dunno, maybe.” To be fair, it’s a tough competition; since its inception, television executives have seemed consistently challenged to top each other in creating excruciatingly dumb shows. After the jump, we’ve rounded up ten that give Splash a run for its money.
Secret Talents of the Stars (2008)
Beware of any reality/competition show with “stars” or “celebrity” in its title — the simple math is, if someone’s career is in the kind of shape where they’re doing a reality/competition show, they’re probably not much of a star or celebrity anymore. Such was the case with this 2008 CBS series, featuring Clint Black showing off his stand-up chops, George Takei crooning a country tune, Mya tap dancing, etc. Trouble is, we weren’t all that interested in seeing these folks do what they were known for anymore — who cares if Sheila E. can juggle? Secret Talents of the Stars aired exactly once before the network canceled it due to low ratings.
Mr. Smith (1983)
Here’s something to remember about America in the ‘70s and early ‘80s: we loved monkeys. And we’re a simian-loving people today, but back in the Carter/Reagan years? Holy moly! There were the Clint Eastwood orangutan movies (Any Which Way You Can and Every Which Way But Loose), there was Tony Danza’s rip-off of the Eastwood movies (Going Ape), and then there were the TV shows, including the three-season (!) B.J. and the Bear and Me and the Chimp. But none of them were quite as stupid as Mr. Smith (no relation to the LL Cool J album). This 13-episode NBC sitcom centered on Cha Cha the orangutan, who escapes from his traveling act and ends up in a research lab, where he drinks an intelligence serum, develops a speaking voice and 256 IQ, and (wait for it) becomes a political adviser. Mr. Smith was one of nine new shows in NBC’s 1983 fall line-up that became notorious for not yielding a single hit, but relief was around the corner; Mr. Smith’s show runner Ed. Weinberger would return the following fall with the series that would save NBC, The Cosby Show.
From its title, Automan sounds like a rip-off of Knight Rider, which debuted the previous year on NBC. But that was a fake-out; it was actually a rip-off of Tron, which hit theaters in the summer of 1982. That movie took us deep into the world of computers and programmers and video games and all kinds of other cool stuff that felt like the future was happening right now. Which brings us to Automan (short for “Automatic Man”), the story of a computer programmer (played by Desi Arnaz Jr.) who develops a AI crime-fighting computer program that’s so super-awesome, it can actually leave the program and become a real person (Chuck Wagner), albeit with a weird glowing blue suit thingy that was not at all reminiscent of Tron. Automan only lasted 12 episodes on ABC, though its basic premise was apparently recycled for the Denzel Washington-Russell Crowe movie Virtuosity 11 years later (in another period of ill-advised computer-heavy sci-fi).
The Flying Nun (1967-1970)
Sally Field’s “you like me, you really, really like me” Oscar speech is one of the most frequently quoted (and frequently parodied) in that ceremony’s history — so much so that it’s easy to forget what it signified. It wasn’t easy for Field to be taken seriously as an actress; she had plenty of less-than-prestigious projects behind her, from the Smokey and the Bandit movies to Beyond the Poseidon Adventure to her big break as TV’s Gidget. But all of those works paled in comparison to The Flying Nun, the three-season ABC sitcom in which Field played Elsie Etherington, a nun with, yes, the power of flight. No, the title wasn’t some sort of religious metaphor — it really was a television series about a nun who could fly, which made it, according to David Hofstede’s invaluable book What Were They Thinking: The 100 Dumbest Events in Television History, “the dumbest concept ever for a television series.”
Hole in the Wall (2008-2012)
Then again, that book was written four years before the debut of Hole in the Wall, which Fox adapted from a Japanese game show called Nōkabe, and once again, the entire dumb concept is right there in the entire dumb title: the object of the game is for contestants to contort themselves in order to fit through person-sized holes in a wall (y’know, the kind that cartoon characters leave when they make an exit in a hurry). That is, no kidding, pretty much the game and the show, though there are variations like “Double Wall,” “Speed Wall,” and “Blind Wall.” Believe it or not, Americans did not rush to their television to see people squeeze through holes in walls, and Fox canceled the show after less than a season. But Cartoon Network knew not to let a stupid thing die — they picked up the show and aired it for four additional seasons.
Homeboys from Outer Space (1996-1997)
The UPN’s sci-fi comedy was so dumb, so lowbrow, and so inane (even by the UPN’s standards!) that it quickly became a punch line — one that lasted far longer than the series, which died quietly after a single 21-episode season. It was just as stupid as it sounds: it concerned a pair of zany 23rd-century astronauts who zipped through the universe in their winged “Space Hoopty” (no, seriously), having zany adventures with guest stars like Gary Coleman, Casey Kasem, and (of course) George Takei. See, because they’re homeboys! In outer space!
My Mother the Car (1965-1966)
You gotta give them this: when they come up with a genuinely inane idea for a television show, they at least have the courtesy to give a title that they think is simple enough for the morons they’re targeting. In this case, it’s the story of an attorney (Jerry Van Dyke) who purchases an antique jalopy, only to discover that his deceased mother (voiced by Ann Sothern) can communicate with him through the car radio. (We’re not making this up!) Conflict is provided by a villainous automobile collector who wants to acquire the mother/car — and by viewers, who fled this dopey sitcom after a single season.
Saturday Night Live With Howard Cosell (1975-1976)
If you’ve ever wondered why the reruns of Saturday Night Live (and the opening announcement, to this day) just call it Saturday Night, here’s why: back in fall of 1975, when SNL debuted on NBC, another show on a rival network already had dibs on that moniker. It was a new prime-time variety series hosted by Howard Cosell, the love-him-or-hate-him sportscaster who killed on Monday Night Football and nailed his Muhammad Ali interviews — but neither his play-by-play nor profiling skills would make anyone in their right mind think he was the right guy to do the skits-and-music thing. Unsurprisingly, the show was the brainchild of ABC Sports mastermind Roone Arledge and Cosell himself, neither of whom seemed aware of the broadcaster’s limitations as an entertainer. It didn’t take them long to figure it out; ABC canned the show after five months, and Lorne Michaels was able to retitle his show soon thereafter.
Three’s a Crowd (1979-1980)
With his bottom-scraping sensibility and broad taste for double entendre, Chuck Barris was in many ways the father of modern reality television; though he worked primarily in the game show genre, he delighted in airing dirty laundry and showing average people at their very worst. But even Barris had to occasionally pull back, which was what happened with this syndicated game show that asked the question, “Who knows a man better, his wife or his secretary?” Said man would answer three questions (along the classy lines of, “What’s the main reason your secretary goes braless?”), followed by his secretary, followed by his wife; the teams of secretaries or wives that got the most matches was the big winner, while the show’s broad themes of misogyny and adultery made everyone else a loser. Protests were swift and intense (even Barris’s own secretary told him the questions “create reactions between the wives and secretaries that are absolutely virulent”), and the reaction led to the cancellation of not only Three but three other of his shows, too. But Barris was merely ahead of his time — this kind of thing was daily fodder on the likes of Jerry Springer, and sure enough, Three’s a Crowd was brought back for a revival on the Game Show Network in 2000.
The Littlest Groom (2004)
A show really has to sink into the cesspool for even reality show viewers and execs to say “enough,” but that’s what happened with Fox’s The Littlest Groom, which disappeared after two episodes. The pitch: a Bachelor rip-off where the twist was (get ready for it!) that the bachelor and his would-be true loves were all little people. On episode two, however, they shook up the format and threw a dozen “average”-sized contestants in — making this a show that not only had an offensive and stupid premise, but that was so dumb it couldn’t even stick to it.
Those are our picks for TV’s dumbest shows — what are yours? Let us know in the comments.