The Twilight Zone Episode That Never Was: A Serious Look at a Humorless World
Have you ever watched a Twilight Zone, then thought about how it’s even more relevant today than when it first aired?
If so, you’re not alone. Many fans feel that episodes ranging from “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” to “Number 12 Looks Just Like You” offer more insight into our own time than they did into the early 1960s. We joke about the writers having Mystic Seers and time machines, but what they really had was a deep understanding of human nature — which, of course, never changes, no matter what the era.
But every now and then, you encounter an episode that seems eerily prescient. Case in point: Charles Beaumont’s “Gentlemen, Be Seated.”
Doesn’t sound familiar? I’m not surprised. It was commissioned and written, but never filmed (though it was later made into a TZ radio drama). When producer Bert Granet took another job shortly after Season 5 began, he left behind several assignments, including this Beaumont script. The next producer, unfortunately, didn’t care for “Gentlemen, Be Seated,” so he passed on it.
Which is a shame, really. I read it recently, and believe me, the feeling of déjà vu was particularly strong. Check out the radio summary, and I think you’ll see why: “In the future, humor is outlawed, so James Kinkaid joins a secret underground organization, the Society for the Preservation of Laughter, which exists to keep comedy and satire alive.”
No matter what your politics, I’m guessing the idea of a society in which comedy is forbidden sounds incredibly plausible. And get this: Beaumont even set the story in 2014.
Sure, that’s exactly 50 years after he wrote his script, so he was probably just picking a round number. But still. For it to land so close to our own time, in which comedy is a stress-filled minefield instead of a relaxing outlet, seems like more than mere coincidence.
Even the slogan under which the humorless workers of Beaumont’s story labor sounds oddly appropriate today: “A Serious World for Serious People.”
We see little of Kinkaid’s world beyond his office (where his boss, William Biddle, recruits him for the underground society) but it carries a strong whiff of totalitarianism that will be familiar to Twilight Zone fans. Everyone is deathly afraid to so much as crack a smile, let alone laugh. Citizens are occasionally subjected to televised addresses by the “Executor”, a mirthless ruler reminiscent of the “Leader” in “Eye of the Beholder”, who reminds them of their duty to be nothing more than production drones.
Even their food sounds dreary. Asked at one point if he’s had dinner, Kinkaid says yes. Biddle then adds, “The usual synthetics?”
Once it appears Kinkaid is a suitable candidate for their secret society, Biddle takes him to a “Laugh-Easy” (based, of course, on the speakeasies that once served alcohol surreptitiously during Prohibition). There members lament the current situation and remember how it used to be:
The world used to be a pretty terrible place … we had disease and war and oppression and prejudice, and a lot of unpleasant things. The people couldn’t change it all, but they could try to endure it. How could they endure it? By laughing at it.
They laughed at everything then. But along came the psychologists, and the censors, and suddenly no one could tell a racial joke, or a sick joke — or any kind of joke. It was the end of humor, and we’re trying to bring it back.
Imagine if Charles Beaumont could time-travel to the present day. He’d probably feel more like a fortune-teller than a fantasy writer.
Consider one other scene. Biddle tells Kinkaid that he thinks TV “did it”. Kinkaid asks “Did what?” Biddle replies:
Killed humor. They had their own kind. It didn’t offend anyone… But it didn’t amuse anyone, either. Nobody really cared for it… But that didn’t matter. Just as long as they weren’t offended!
Vaudeville died. Burlesque died. Circuses died. The wonderful jokes that used to spread like wild fire… It was amazing. You’re too young to remember, James. But we had jokes about everything under the sun… About insanity and disease and religion and crime and marriage… And the wonder of it is some of those jokes were good. Still are! But we’re all so afraid!
Once again, I can’t get over how much this story echoes (or should I say predicts?) our current situation. We don’t have legally mandated seriousness 24/7/365, but it’s easy to see matters trending in that direction.
One element of Beaumont’s script that I find somewhat annoying is its reliance on stereotypical gags. It’s filled with trite riddles, pies to the face, exploding cigars, and the like — circus-type jokes that I generally find pretty juvenile. But maybe that’s the point: In a society where humor is outlawed, those who secretly preserve it inevitably revert to its most primitive forms.
I’d also like to think that, had the script been filmed, they’d have come up with a better title. True, it’s based on the title of Beaumont’s original short story (written under the pen name C.B. Lovehill in the April 1960 issue of Rogue magazine). And it is spoken by a clown character at one point. But it has nothing to do with the subject matter, and it certainly isn’t as catchy as many other TZ titles.
I truly wish Beaumont’s script hadn’t been scrapped. I suspect it would have livened up Twilight Zone‘s final season, which didn’t log as many hits as its predecessors. Even better, it would have given us something, well, serious to think about.
As Beaumont’s friend and fellow writer William F. Nolan later noted, “Humor was an integral part of our lives. It was the one thing I felt we’d never lose.”
Beaumont must have thought it was possible, though. It’s a shame we don’t have his never-filmed episode around to warn us — and to encourage us not to be “so afraid”.
Beaumont’s “Gentlemen, Be Seated”, by the way, has nothing to do with the 1948 Robert Heinlein short story of the same name, which involves a trip to the moon. You can read the Beaumont script in “The Twilight Zone Scripts of Charles Beaumont” from Gauntlet Press.
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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!