Tune in Tonight: "Quark"
Earlier this year, Netflix aired A Futile and Stupid Gesture, based on the true story of the creation of National Lampoon. Regardless of whether you’re a fan of National Lampoon, you come away from the movie knowing one thing for certain: boy, were those guys ever pleased with themselves. Lampoon’s humor veered wildly between grossly juvenile and so dry it was almost undetectable, but it was clear that its writers had no specific audience in mind for it except themselves, and everything they wrote was the funniest thing they wrote. That sort of smug self-assurance propels Quark, a short-lived sci-fi sitcom written and directed by Buck Henry, who, having written The Graduate and created Get Smart, certainly earned the right to be smug. Nevertheless, there’s a sense that Henry, under the impression that he was working with a can’t miss premise, crafted only the laziest jokes and called it a day after the first draft of every script.
Quark’s pilot aired in May of 1977, just weeks before Star Wars premiered, but it far more resembles Star Trek in tone. It takes place in some unspecified “future,” the kind of shitty future where food is served by pneumatic tube launched directly into one’s mouth, everything is powder blue and burnt orange, and sassy telephone operators are still needed to connect calls between galaxies, only now they have four arms. Earth has been abandoned, and so have bras, if what the female characters look like is any indicator.
Adam Quark (Richard Benjamin) is the commander of his own ship, but that ship is assigned to intergalactic garbage detail, a job which consists of literally picking up Hefty bags just floating in space. Quark’s crew consists of navigator Betty (Tricia Barnstable), and her clone, also named Betty (Cyb Barnstable), whom no one can tell apart, not even themselves (it doesn’t help that they wear matching hot pants and go-go boots). The Bettys don’t do much other than speak in unison, stare adoringly at Quark, and hint at a possible three-way in his immediate future. There’s also Gene (B-movie veteran Tim Thomerson, credited here as “Timothy”), the engineer, who is a “transmute,” meaning that, even though he looks like a man, he has both X and Y chromosomes. This causes Gene to abruptly switch back and forth between a macho male persona, and Jean, a delicate, timid “female” persona, though Jean sounds less like a woman and more like Tim Thomerson doing an atrocious impersonation of a stereotypical gay man.
Quark’s casual, even accepting attitude towards Gene/Jean is almost progressive, particularly for the 70s, but the show plays it both ways, with one-eyed, cranky old man scientist Dr. Mudd (Douglas V. Fowley) cringing away from them in disgust, and later threatening them with violence. This is all played for laughs, as is Quark’s nonplussed reaction to the Bettys’ obvious desire for him, even though their scenes with each other seem like they could turn into Cinemax softcore porn at a moment’s notice.
In the pilot episode, Otto Palindrome (Conrad Janis), Quark’s officious supervisor, under instructions from “The Head,” a mysterious being who resembles the Wizard from The Wizard of Oz if he had hydrocephalus, orders Quark to sacrifice himself and the crew in order to save the galaxy from an “enzyme cloud.” Thankfully, they’re saved when the crew’s resident robot, Andy, who’s super horny for the ship’s garbage processor, accidentally launches trash at the enzyme cloud, satisfying its hunger. As a reward for his service, Quark is granted permission to explore the universe and seek adventure, as is his dream—but not before picking up more garbage first. Whomp whooooomp!
It’s okay if you think this sounds hilarious. Buck Henry obviously did, and the laugh track politely agrees. There are some occasional moments of inspired weirdness, such as the Head, and Quark’s pet, Ergo, a sort of oversized, gelatinous caterpillar. Unlike Starstruck, it does everything a pilot is supposed to do, establishing the setting and characters, and has a discernible plot. Nevertheless, there’s a sense that, once Henry came up with the premise and the characters, he thought that they would be funny enough on their own that he wouldn’t have to give them much to do. The jokes don’t really land so much as stand there for a few moments, then quietly excuse themselves and leave. Even the Gene/Jean gag is too lazy to be truly offensive—perhaps if Jean competed with the Bettys for Quark’s attention Henry would have had something. Granted, it might have been something terrible, but it would have been something.
Quark’s remaining seven episodes were burned off almost a year after the pilot aired, to ever diminishing returns. Given that future episodes featured multiple plots involving clones and a character named “Princess Libido,” it doesn’t appear that Henry stretched himself beyond the effort it took to roll a blank piece of paper into his typewriter. It’s not funny enough to be good, and not bad enough to be memorable.
Original airdate: May 7, 1977