Steve Carell played a Greek chef named Yorgo in 1997 On top. (Photo: ABC/Everett Collection)
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In the fall of 1997, a sitcom appeared on ABC’s primetime lineup titled On top. It ran for three episodes before network executives pulled it from the program. At Primetimer, we salute the 25th anniversary of On top because it marked the television acting debut of a certain Steve Carell, who stars in FX’s The patientbowing this week on Hulu.
Years before landing his gig on The daily show, Carell played a crazy Greek chef named Yorgo. And the performance was so objectively awful that it earned him the worst review of his career, such a scathing, so – dare we say? — on top, that Carell would later transform the narrative of this criticism into performance art. We will come back to this shortly. But first, in the time machine.
Soon we’ll have to explain to our grandkids that there was a time when 15 million people were all watching a TV show at once, and it was still cancelled. But that’s how network television has operated since its inception in 1947. A handful of networks have spent ungodly sums developing shows aimed at mass audiences, and several of those shows were almost certain to wouldn’t happen on Halloween before being. pulled off the air for what were considered “low ratings”.
This was before DVRs, when people over the age of 12 had trouble programming VCRs, which meant most of us watched live TV. Hit shows were therefore partly determined by when they aired. And this fall, ABC was getting murdered in several key timeslots, including the Tuesday night period when On top was to be broadcast.
On Thursdays at 8 p.m., ABC had a show called nothing sacred like the sacrificial lamb facing off on NBC’s killer comedy series. As well as being a thoughtful and well-written series from David Manson (who would go on to write and produce ozark), nothing sacred was the first show in which Ann Dowd would work as a regular, playing – yes! – a nun. A right-wing Catholic group caused much ink to flow in the press that fall when it called for a boycott of nothing sacred. Normally that would be a godsend for a TV show, but you couldn’t get people to tune in to ABC on Thursday nights if they promised to raise Marilyn Monroe from the grave. After its 15th episode, aptly titled “The Coldest Night of the Year,” ABC took nothing sacred out of program for good.
On top starred Annie Potts as a hotel owner who is surprised when her English ex-husband appears in front of her and is in desperate need of a job. So of course she hires him as hotel manager, and Fawlty Towers-as comedy ensues. Well, that was the idea, anyway.
By 1997, Annie Potts was an established TV star, having successfully transitioned from film to TV, back when it was a big deal. She had successfully transitioned to CBS, where she appeared on design women, one of the many hit comedies aired by CBS on Monday nights for three decades. CBS owned Mondays. ABC, on the other hand, did not own Mondays except when they aired Monday night football.
In 1996, Potts agreed to play the role of Michelle Pfeiffer in ABC’s adaptation of the hit film. dangerous spiritsabout a downtown school teacher. dangerous spirits was scheduled for Monday just before football. It lasted 17 episodes before ABC pulled it off the air in March 1997. This gave Annie Potts’ agent just enough time to sign her up for her second main balloon on ABC, On top.
His co-star on the show was Tim Curry, who played Dr. Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, reprising his role from the stage version. Curry has three Tony nominations to his credit, but in the 1990s television liked his voice better than his face. He had voice roles in animated shows duck man, The Wild Thornberrys and something called fish font, an attempt by CBS to make prime-time animation. (The network rolled it up after three episodes.)
Famous latecomer Steve Carell was 35 when he made his series debut on the On top. The former postman had started acting in the late 1980s, had landed TV commercials and taught at The Second City in Chicago, where he had understudy Stephen Colbert. The future Daily show the correspondents were both chosen to be in the company of The Dana Carvey Showan ambitious sketch comedy series led by former SNL star. It was a really good show with a bunch of talented people working on it. But… it was on ABC in a terrible timeslot. Plus, as a wonderful Hulu documentary noted, America probably wasn’t ready for it.
So Carell was in the market in 1997 when they started casting On top, and he got the role of Yorgo, the cook at Annie Potts’ upscale hotel. Yorgo was Greek and kind of crazy. The role seemed inspired by the character of Andy Kaufman in Taxi, perhaps through the “chee-boigah!” by John Belushi! character. Either way, it was a thankless role to play, as evidenced by that cold open to episode 8, which like all the other episodes after #3 of On topnever aired:
In the 1990s, many of us wrote about television for our friends on the Internet, and money rarely changed hands. We did it because we had something to say and, before 2000, saying it online was a surprisingly effective way to do it. Everyone on the Letterman show, it seemed, read my late-night newscast. And a lot of people in the industry read TeeVee.org, a collective effort spearheaded by my friend Jason Snell, who is now the co-editor of the excellent Apple review site Six Colors.
TeeVee did things like an annual Dead Pool, where various contributors guessed which three TV shows would be killed off first. Again, these weren’t necessarily bad shows, but shows that were given impossible missions – like confronting Seinfeld Thursday evenings.
But in the case of On topyou had a bad show and terrible time slot. It proved an irresistible combination for TeeVee contributor Peter Ko. He’s a mighty American lawyer today, but back then Peter Ko was just another smart guy with free time and the pilot of On top on his VCR. Ko wrote a fantastic 1,500-word summary of the show, most of it devoted to his previously unknown bit reader:
Just as young Adolf had his Heinrich Himmler, Tim Curry has his Steve Carell. It’s rare for a relatively unknown actor in a supporting role to steal the show from his much better-paid leads, send audiences and critics diving over their beanbags, groping for the TV Guide, shouting “Who the hell is that? !?!” …
Now you can add Steve Carell to that list, in the sense that his performance as what appeared to be a deaf-mute European chef had anyone watching the show with minimal taste starting to tear their hair out. screaming: my television! Take it off my TV! Take it away! Oh my god, what did we do to the kids”…
I wish I could say Carell is bad, but that would imply that I have a frame of reference to judge him. The truth is that I have never seen something like what I saw last Tuesday night. I’ve been standing in a freezer full of dead people in the morgue. I saw a man’s scalp pulled down over his nose. I even saw 35 minutes of Ellen DeGeneres Mr wrong. But I can now honestly say that until Steve Carell’s turn in the premiere of On top, I have never known the true horror. Carell is screaming, hissing, his eyes bulging, and that’s while he’s still. Believe me when I say this is not a road you want to travel.
Nine years later, the Television Critics Association paid tribute to NBC Office with its award for Best Comedy Series and presented Carell with its award for Individual Achievement. The TCA prides itself on honoring shows and stars before anyone notices how good they are, and Officethen in its second season, was a good example.
A grateful Carell took the stage and, after some obligatory thanks, pulled Peter Ko’s review out of his suit jacket and read it to the audience, beginning with the line: “I stood in a freezer full of dead. …” It destroyed the house.
And nine years later thisCarell – not one to waste good material – re-read the review when he last appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman.
On top aired its third episode with guest star John Ritter – who had starred in two different hit comedies for ABC, meaning he would apparently be a surefire getter for the poorly rated show. But the needle barely moved, and ABC pulled the show for good. He eventually replaced On top with a new season of Grace under firefeaturing an occasionally sober Brett Butler and created by an up-and-coming producer named Chuck Lorre.
The following year, Annie Potts landed on a pretty good Lifetime drama called Any Day Now, opposite Lorraine Toussaint. Tim Curry returned to voice acting. Steve Carell finally landed on his feet. And unaired episodes of On top landed on YouTube, where commenters over the years have regularly praised the show, saying they found it hilarious.
Aaron Barnhart has been writing about television since 1994, including 15 years as television critic for the Kansas City Star.