Great TV: Lookwell

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Let’s talk about Adam West, who passed away today at the age of 88 after a long acting career where he started off as an actor, became a caricature, and then ended it by playing a heightened version of himself.

West always came across as a rather affable, if somewhat loopy, guy. Even though he tried straight dramatic acting for a number of years in his career, he also embraced sillier roles, ultimately performing his most well-known part as Bruce Wayne/Batman in the 1960’s TV series Batman. Campy, colorful, and as close to a moving comic book at the time than the darker, edgier take that later adaptations would begin to produce. And for that particular take on Batman, in that place and time from 1966-1968, Adam West was the perfect actor for the role.

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His stilted, self-serious delivery of very goofy dialogue while wearing a hard plastic mask and gray tights became iconic on their own, being parodied countless times over the years–even by West himself in a deliriously funny cameo on The Simpsons in the early 1990’s.

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From this, then-Simpsons writer Conan O’Brien made contact with West (and would later state that all of the writers were far more excited to meet West than any other guest star that would come to voice on the show) and began to develop a series around West. Playing into the by then well-known peculiar acting style of West, O’Brien and fellow writer Robert Smigel came up with a TV series called Lookwell.

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Following the misadventures of a washed-up TV star who used to have a detective show called Bannigan, Lookwell runs a low-rent acting class in Hollywood and continues to dress up for auditions for roles that are nowhere near his type, Ty Lookwell is an actor who lives on another planet and actually believes his old TV character’s abilities as a detective are also his own. Since he’d been deputized decades earlier by local law enforcement, Lookwell uses this as an excuse to investigate crimes. Of course, he’s almost never near correct about any of his hunches and usually screws up the actual investigation of the police, but his confidence is never shaken. Even in the end, when he accidentally reveals the culprit of the crimes and the police have to admit that he was (somewhat) right, Lookwell never realizes how wrong he was the entire time.

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Literally a part made for Adam West, it took the actor a while to understand why he was selected for it. As Robert Smigel later related: “I remember one day [West] ran into our office, and he was wearing shorts and a straw hat—but not as a gag. […] And he announced, “I’ve got it!” He was dancing on air. He told us that he had been walking on the beach and he’d thought about everything and he finally understood the part. He had cracked the code, kind of like Batman would. He knew exactly what we wanted to do and he was exuberant. He was like a kid.”

Even this small anecdote reveals something about West that made him so perfect for the character of Lookwell: he truly was just a little outside of himself and not fully understanding what it was about himself that made him so inherently funny–or maybe, like Lookwell, he wanted to be taken seriously. But that’s not what modern audiences wanted, the majority of whom were reintroduced to West through Family Guy where he played–who else?–Adam West, the Cloudcoocoolander mayor of Quohog. It seems he finally figured out what was so funny about him: and it was him.

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In a serious intonation he could be on the phone yelling about his missing Lite Brite pieces, which doesn’t allow him to spell his full name, instead stopping at ADAM WE. Then he says, “My name isn’t Adam We. Or is it? Who am I? What number did you dial? Don’t ever call here again.” He hangs up the phone and then says, “I guess I told him. Nobody messes with Adam We.” What makes this funny is that it’s actually Adam West saying this ridiculous dialogue, playing a completely bonkers character named Adam West, and the audience is totally with him on the joke. The joke being, well, himself.

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And this was the joke on Lookwell: that Adam West was playing a ridiculous has-been TV star named Ty Lookwell who’s just as detached from reality that it seemed Adam West was, at least in the audience’s mind. This brilliant TV show only existed for exactly one episode, the pilot, which aired once on NBC back in July 1991. It didn’t get picked up, which is a shame since it’s one of the funniest half-hours of television ever. In an alternate universe, Lookwell became a huge success and ran for five seasons. Instead, one 22-minute episode is all we have–and it is spectacular.

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A sort of soft take-off of the school of Naked Gun-like satires, Lookwell has West drifting from scene to scene, self-serious and trying to get to the bottom of a potential car theft ring. Although the police don’t want him, he’s old friends with the police detective that gave him an honorary deputy badge years earlier so they humor him (even though he can be quite dismissive of the police, at one point clarifying that “Perhaps if you watched a little bit more television you’d be better at your job”). At home, he has an unseen nephew that’s trying to break into the business and based on the answering machine messages is doing very well; but when Lookwell listens back to them and finds that none of them are for him, he simply chuckles to himself and sucks on an ice pop that promises to keep skin wrinkle-free. Later, In his acting class, he shows old episodes of Lookwell to his students and has them attempt to find the source of his motivation in the scenes they just watched.

In short, Lookwell cannot look past himself–or his own past. Even at home, he watches old episodes of his own show at night, all neatly labeled and lined up in a cabinet. So does he think he’s actually the police detective he once played? Or is he just kind of crazy and has just enough people playing into his delusion that he actually believes it? The answer’s probably a little bit of both.

Without flinching, Lookwell goes undercover and recruits some students from his acting class to help him. They infiltrate a high-society benefit for the homeless (Lookwell has incorrectly figured it’s the owner of a classic cars lot that’s stealing cars) with Lookwell going “undercover” as a stereotypical bindle-carrying hobo. As he makes his way through the crowd, he says things like “the sidewalk is my pillow” and “Pay no attention; I’m just a crazy old vagabond” to blend in.

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Of course, anyone that had already met Lookwell–and whom have told him to stay the hell away from them–immediately recognize him. So Lookwell steals a car from the party and leads the actual police on a chase where they start firing their guns at him. When he crashes into the classic car lot, a worker is there that shouldn’t be there that late at night. When the owner shows up and also wonders why he’s still there, the guy panics and is stopped immediately by the police. Lookwell confidently says, “there’s your man” like he solved anything and the police begrudgingly admit that maybe Lookwell should be able to continue his detective work. Why? No reason: Lookwell’s world makes as much sense as a cartoon, and Lookwell is as close to a cartoon as a live-action single-camera show had gotten to that point.

Of course the writing is deliriously funny–thanks to Smigel and O’Brien, two of the funniest comedy writers in the 1990’s–but it’s Adam West that makes the show work. His stilted delivery, self-serious tone, and playing every scene straight makes it fantastically amusing. There’s maybe no comedic character funnier than the confident idiot, and West-as-Lookwell played it perfectly.

In memory of Adam West, who brought a lot of laughs to the world–sometimes without really meaning to–watch Lookwell on YouTube. It’s an incredible piece of work, and it’s maybe West’s best.

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