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!

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About Paul

Fanning about the work of Rod Serling all over social media. If you enjoy pics, quotes, facts and blog posts about The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery and Serling's other projects, you've come to the right place.

Posted on 07/10/2019, in Twilight Zone and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. I agree completely. It’s a prescient script. Unfortunately, as you point out, I think it falls apart in the sequences where the humor that is presented is trite and simply not funny. Were someone to give a stab at producing this script now, I would have stand up comedians telling exactly the types of jokes that are mentioned as being outlawed. It would make much more sense.

    • Agreed, Nick. That would help underscore the point, in fact. I suspect that if the script HAD continued in the production pipeline, it would probably have undergone some reworking before it reached the filming stage. Unfortunately, we’ll never know, but it’s interesting to ponder.

  2. Mike Poteet

    I’ll reserve judgment until I can read the script for myself, but — at the risk of sounding censorious — I don’t muster up much sympathy for people like the character you quote who complain they “can’t” tell racist jokes.

    Yes, we have to defend and preserve free speech, and that includes the freedom of people to say ugly, hateful, and/or stupid things. Knowing how progressive Serling and the series were, I suspect that plot point plays better in context — kind of how similar laments are heard in Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451”: books died the death of a thousand cuts and snips before things ever got to the banning stage, for fear “someone would be offended.” At the same time, racist jokes offend usually, if not always, for very sound reasons.

    I do quite like the bit about humor helping us cope with an often absurd and difficult world. And I guess it shows the slippery slope of “allowing” some humor and not other. But then again, logicians classify “slippery slope” arguments as fallacious. Surely society can come to some consensus about what’s appropriate and what’s not without blundering into full-blown censorship.

    Even unproduced, then, Beaumont’s script has me thinking. So, yeah – it would’ve probably made a good “Twilight Zone”! Thanks for letting us know about it.

    • I know what you mean, Mike. My admiration for what Beaumont was trying to say does not mean that I advocate a complete wild-west situation. Certain forums can draw what they consider appropriate boundaries. That was true then, and it’s true now. The choice, fortunately, is not between “you can say anything” and “you can say nothing.” I would prefer the line to land closer to the “anything” side of the equation, but some bright lines can be posted.

      Three points, however.

      1) This may seem to be a matter of mere semantics, but it’s important: You said “racist” jokes, and the script says “racial” jokes. There’s a critical difference, I believe. I don’t think the man who wrote “The Intruder” (a roundhouse indictment of the segregationist Jim Crow south), among other things would speak up in defense of RACIST jokes. But RACIAL? That sounds to me like he’s saying a member of the world he’s writing about here is enjoined from even touching on the topic at all. Hence there could be no, say, Archie Bunker in this world — whose purpose is to show the absurdity of racist assumptions. There could also be no jokes from an Eddie Murphy or a Chris Rock or anyone else who makes jokes that trade on race. I think this — jokes that touch on race, not racist jokes — is what Beaumont was talking about, and it’s certainly not something I would want to see outlawed.

      2) I agree that slippery-slope arguments are often logically fallacious, and even where they aren’t, they are grossly over-employed. Not every bad thing will inevitably lead to bigger bad thing X. But that doesn’t mean that slippery-slope arguments can never by properly deployed. They have their place. I recently tweeted a quote from Rod Serling about how violent rhetoric often descends into violent action, which is a sort of slippery-slope argument — one that I believe few of us would disagree with. I don’t think Beaumont was saying that the world he paints here is INEVITABLE if there are reasonable rules here and there regarding what one can joke about. I think it was more of a thought experiment — a dramatic “what if” scenario, which many fantasy authors are naturally drawn to.

      3) Who decides? That’s the big question. The reason I feel as if Beaumont’s script resonates more today than in 1964 (when most entertainment was squeaky clean, and the edgiest thing in comedy was if you happened to catch a Lenny Bruce routine) is because of technology. Today, many platform-providers (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) can’t handle (and really don’t WANT to handle) the complaints they get, so what do they do? They react the same way parents might with squabbling kids — they just take away what everyone is arguing about. Peace and quiet, not principled freedom, is what they prize. Plus, it’s often farmed out to machines to police content, so what happens? You wind up with educational videos about Hitler being taken off YouTube because a computer “hears” a racist quote. That sort of thing. And that puts us a lot closer to Beaumont’s world here. Don’t forget — it can all be done with the best of intentions. The rulers in his “Number 12 Look Just Like You” mandated the “transformation” because they wanted to eradicate the differences that, they felt, make people fight.

      Anyway, thanks as always for stopping by, Mike, and leaving a thoughtful comment!

      • Great points in response, Paul – and you are quite right that I accidentally misquoted the script. I was reading too quickly and jumped to a wrong conclusion.

        I certainly agree our world would be far poorer if we’d never had Archie Bunker in it!

  3. All I can say, Paul, is that I would love to have the opportunity to view the production and then pass judgement. We’ve seen you describe how Serling would work his magic on scripts and get everything right.

    • So true, Dan. There would surely have been further work and refinement of the story before it was filmed. What a shame that it never came to fruition, but at least we can read the script and listen to the radio version — and wonder “What if?”

  4. Quite the interesting post, comments and all. To me, this script screams Black Mirror!

    …also reminds me of the age-old truism: comedy ain’t pretty (and “Comedy Is Not Pretty” was a Steve Martin album).

    …and you can’t please everyone.

    …and have a thick skin.

    …and at the risk of retreading similar ground…you’re always going to insult someone, so, yeah, who decides?

    I think intent plays a vital part. You can whiff intent from acts, and if you merely whiff pointing out humorous, odd, interesting “data points” to laugh at and consider, fine, have a thick skin and move on…but if you whiff harm of any kind, then you deal with it—but, again, who decides? I could make pronouncements as to who decides, what is done, blah x 3 , but someone will always disagree. And an argument could definitely be presented that there is a “majority” in many areas, but there are also forms of “majority” that bring about all manner of “repercussions” (to just choose a term and not go any deeper). Look at the “hate groups.” Politicians. All the many forms of any religion, government. or organization. WHY do they all believe as they do so much so that they feel the need to create whatever group they’ve created to separate and identify themselves from everyone else (aka “society”)?

    I don’t know that there are necessarily “right” answers to any of this, and I don’t know that it even matters. Perhaps a more philosophical approach would be that *answers* simply do not matter…what matters is consideration. Thought. Experience. Assimilation: the situation itself and how you perceive, filter, and internalize it’s operation, intent, and energy (remember, EVERYTHING is energy). Perhaps what matters is that we *raise* the questions! That we give consideration *to* the questions, and not that we give any so-called “right answers”! That we learn tolerance, patience, and respect for other points of view and people. I’m not a fan of all of his work, but I recently learned that Spike Lee is a master at raising questions without giving resolution, or “right answers.”

    Perhaps, in the end, all that truly matters is that something…gets us to THINK.

    • It’s funny how comedy is often viewed as something lower than drama. Even if we appreciate getting a laugh, we tend to rank Serious Stories (with a capital S) higher. And yet comedy is actually much harder than drama, and why? Because it involves a very delicate balance. Knowing how to poke fun without being cruel is very tricky. So tricky, in fact, that one could decide it’s too difficult — that we can solve the problem by banishing it altogether.

      I think that was Beaumont’s point: to get us to ponder the nature of comedy and how — despite the fact that it can be extraordinarily challenging to do well — it serves a critically important purpose in society. Being a fantasy writer, he does this by outlining a society where not only comedy is outlawed, but laughter itself. It’s a shocking thought, but it does what it’s supposed to do: gets us, yes, to think.

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