TV Discussion

Coming To America – Pilot Error!

Every year, of the dozens of pilot episodes that are made for TV, some don’t get picked up, while others are changed significantly or even remade when they become a full series. Our series Pilot Error! takes a look at some of them, including the ones that got away.

The release of the movie sequel Coming 2 America brings the return of Eddie Murphy as Prince Akeem Joffer, taking up his story over 30 years after the 1988 original. However, this is not actually the first time that the story of the Royal family of Zamunda has been revisited; there was an effort made to create a sitcom based around the film, which was broadcast the following year.

Following the success of Coming To America, which made nearly $300 million worldwide, Murphy’s own production company for the small screen – Eddie Murphy Television – came up with a pitch for a weekly comedy series that would be based upon the exploits of Prince Tariq of Zamunda, the younger brother of Akeem. Although not appearing in the series himself, Murphy would act as co-executive producer on the show, also called Coming To America.

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Eddie Murphy Television had a first-look deal with CBS on its projects, and there was talk of a potential 13-episode run for Coming To America. When it came to casting the lead, there were regular telephone calls being made to the president of the production company by a young rapper, Will Smith, who was looking to get his big break; however, Murphy remained unconvinced about Smith’s suitability for the part, given his lack of acting experience (Smith’s major breakthrough came with The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air, in 1990).

Two leading candidates for Tariq were Marlon Wayans (who, with brother Shawn, went on to create the Scary Movie film series), and Wesley Snipes (who came to prominence as the drug lord Nino Brown in 1991’s New Jack City, and would go on to appear in Coming 2 America). However, the part went to one of the hottest young comedians at the time, who had come to the attention of the show’s producers, and had also impressed Murphy after being persuaded to see him in a live performance: Tommy Davidson.

At the time, Davidson had an offer from CBS to appear in the pilot of sitcom Murphy Brown, starring Candice Bergen; that show ultimately ran for ten seasons between 1988 and 1998, returning for a further season in 2018. In addition, Davidson also had a three-year holding deal with Disney, which would have given him free reign to do whatever he wanted. With a tempting offer to star in a pilot which he thought would lead to him collaborating with Eddie Murphy, Davidson chose to go for that instead.

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However, Murphy preferred not to be hands-on, and left the project in the hands of the production team instead, perhaps fearing that he might provide a distraction; he was also busy working on other projects at the time. The production team initially wanted to get David Sheffield and Barry Blaustein – the writers of the original movie – to put together the pilot’s script, but they were unavailable; in their place, Paramount – who had released the film, and were partners on the pilot – suggested a sitcom veteran.

Writer Ken Hecht, who also acted as co-executive producer alongside Murphy, had penned scripts for a range of shows, including Happy Days, The Love Boat, and the adaptation of the movie Private Benjamin; he had also written for Sanford and Son (the US version of Steptoe and Son), and Diff’rent Strokes (on which he had also acted as executive producer) – as both these shows featured black lead characters, it may be why Hecht was thought by Paramount to be a suitable choice to take on the scripting duties here.

Some of Hecht‘s material, however, proved a source of some contention, with jokes being made about how the people of Zamunda liked eating insects, amongst other questionable and problematic attempts at humour. With Hecht being in effect showrunner, as well as writer, it meant that efforts to try to amend the pilot’s script by the cast and crew were met with resistance; he was also Paramount’s pick for the role, so the team from Eddie Murphy Television felt that they had to defer to the studio, and not replace Hecht, despite their misgivings.

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The premise of the series was that, following his experiences in New York, Akeem – who was now King of Zamunda – felt his brother to be “spoiled, irresponsible, unreliable, lacking in direction and character”, plus “a constant embarrassment” to himself and to their nation as a whole, so by sending Tariq to America, it might help to straighten him out. Accompanying Tariq is Oha, with Paul Bates reprising his role from the film; Oha acts in the same capacity in the pilot episode as Arsenio Hall’s Semmi from the movie.

Effectively living in exile – albeit temporarily – Tariq is sent to stay with the Mackey family, who have been given control over his finances. In the pilot script, Tariq has already blown his month’s allowance in only nine days, so both he and Oha end up working in the diner which is owned by their landlord, Carl Mackey (John Hancock). In the process of doing so, Tariq ends up (sort of) learning an important life lesson in the very best tradition of American sitcoms.

CBS had been airing a series called CBS Summer Playhouse since 1987, which is used as a way of broadcasting pilots for drama series and sitcoms, using them as material for filling the schedules during the Summer months, with the original programming being kept back for launch in the Autumn. In the third and final run of CBS Summer Playhouse, the pilot of Coming To America was aired at 8pm on Tuesday July 4th 1989, alongside one called Shivers, with Lesley-Anne Down, and which was essentially a Beetlejuice rip-off.

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Unfortunately, the Coming To America pilot met with a poor reception, both critically and in terms of audience numbers. The tone of the pilot was markedly different from the movie, and the humour lacked sophistication, relying on such hoary tropes as the sight gag of somebody splitting their trousers; in another instance, one line of dialogue namechecks several of Murphy’s movies – Beverly Hills Cop; Beverly Hills Cop II; 48 Hours; and Trading Places – seemingly in the hope their association with him would generate a laugh, and somehow make up for his absence.

Airing the pilot episode during a time of year when viewing audiences were typically lower might have demonstrated a marked lack of confidence in the show, particularly as it was being included amongst a run of failed series pilots. Perhaps the network lost faith after finding out that the show would not feature Murphy in any capacity. Broadcasting Coming To America on Independence Day, a major US holiday, will have certainly damaged its prospects of success, and as a result of the inevitably low audience figures, CBS declined to take the pilot up for a full season.

Perhaps Tariq sums it up best when, after having his Donald Trump-inspired business plan for making money shot down in flames, he says – in a riff on Furious Five and Grandmaster Flash‘s ‘The Message’ – “It’s like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder why I ever left Zamunda“.

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