Does anyone remember the television show that immediately followed The Twilight Zone (Friday nights, 1961) and offered bizarre plays with twist endings even more incredible than Mr. Serling's?
    Perhaps these tantalising tidbits will refresh your memory: the post-mortem brain of an articulate snob (Henry Jones) is kept alive in a tank with an eye stem and ear drum attached, his growing agitation expressed only with wordless electronic static on an ocilloscope as his wife blasts twist records and exhales L&M smoke into his tank! An odd little man (John McGiver) slips swamp water into his neighbors' cocktails, changing them into frogs. An overly-ambitious method actor (Alfred Ryder) sneaks around skid row to steal ideas for playing a ravaged wino. (He actually becomes the skuzziest bum on skid row. Even the dirtiest dregs avoid him!) Or a photographer (Barry Morse) disfigures people's faces by painting a weird fluid on their photos, until the bottle splashes on his portrait -- erasing half his face (the most shocking sci-fi TV episode of it's day, with make-up by Dick Smith of Dark Shadows and The Exorcist). Have you guessed the name of this half-hour series yet?
    A recent Fox-network documentary on science-fiction television shows included a clip from an episode of this show: an actress finds herself trapped after-hours in a television studio, where she rehearses with zombies. Do any of these episodes sound familiar? No, they weren't from The Outer Limits, Boris Karloff Presents Thriller, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, or The Night Gallery.
    Hosted by sardonic British author Roald Dahl and called, appropriately enough, Way Out, the series brought together some of the most talented people who have ever worked in television.
    Possibly the most distinctive and memorable elements of Way Out were the rather odd and unsettling opening and closing remarks written and delivered, with marvelous touches of blackhumor, by host Roald Dahl. Beginning each show with an inviting "How're you?" he would then give advice on, for example, how to murder one's spouse or he might tell "pleasant" stories of his boyhood in Norway where, when somebody died, and the ground was frozen solid, they would sharpen the legs and hammer the body into the ground, "like an enormous nail." Dahl himself got some of the best reviews, with one critic describing him as a "thin Alfred Hitchcock, an East Coast Rod Serling."
    At this time (1961), Dahl was best known for his rather "strange" stories that had appeared in the New Yorker and several published collections. His specialty was the macabre, laced with savage black humor. David Susskind knew about Dahl from "William and Mary," Dahl's ironic take on a wife's final revenge on her husband. Therefore, Susskind and his production company sought Dahl as the host of a show they were developing.
    After accepting their offer, Dahl soon found the weekly show to be demanding. In an interview, Dahl fretted, "Now, suddenly, I find myself in the position of speaking to the nation for one-and-a-half minutes every week and it's nerve wracking." However, in another interview, Dahl fondly recalled hosting Way Out: "I was a pretty young chap then and it was jolly nice. It was amusing for me because it was my first thing on television."
    One of Way Out's greatest advantages was its New York location. This allowed Susskind to draw from the great wealth of talent in the New York live theater. Among those who appeared were Fritz Weaver, Mildred Dunnock, a young Richard Thomas (The Waltons), Martin Balsam, Kevin McCarthy, Michael Conrad (Hill Street Blues), Charlotte Rae (The Facts of Life), and Mark Leonard (Star Trek). As Susskind has said, "The honor list from that group of players on Way Out would be hard to beat."
    How did such an off-beat show attract such high caliber actors from Broadway? According to Susskind, "Most good actors were fearful of this kind of material. But by showing that we could get good scripts with these themes and that the characterizations would be rich and ripe for them to play, we were able to make this kind of thing more respectable than it had ever been before." Carmen Matthews, star of the third episode, "The Sister," recalls, "It was a time of boundless energy--and joy and dedication in our work."
    On March 31, 1961, Way Out premiered to rave reviews with with Roald Dahl's "William and Mary." Calling this first episode an "auspicious debut," The New York Times praised the show for a tale "told tightly and lightly, with wry and brittle dialogue." A West Coast review added that "Way Out's chief asset could be its host Mr. Dahl, who practices literary witchcraft in the realm of the macabre and whose introduction to the series and the opener (which he wrote) was a joy. 'The story we are about to see,' he said with a gentlemanly leer, 'is not for children, nor young lovers, nor people with queasy stomachs. It is for wicked old women.'" With "William and Mary" rated number one in its time slot, it looked like Way Out, as producer Mike Dann had hoped, would be a "good team mate" for The Twilight Zone.
    Seasoned script writers such as Irving Gaynor Neiman, Sumner Locke Eliot, and Phil Reisman, Jr., building on the basic premise of the impossible, had managed to devise a series of tales that were eerie, unsettling, and, often, fantastic. Way Out zinged its audience weekly with startling "twist" endings. With Dahl's deliciously nasty encapsulations adding spice to the mix, Way Out seemed headed for a long, successful run.
    So why, on July 14, 1961, after a mere fourteen episodes, did the show bite the dust, never to be seen on television again? The answer is simple--the almighty ratings. Although Way Out was a hit in the larger metropolitan areas, it unfortunately did poorly nationwide. Mike Dann speculates that the stories were "perhaps a little too macabre, a little too odd for television. Roald Dahl's show simply was too limited to be that successful." Thus, for the remainder of the summer of 1961, the 9:30 p.m. Friday night spot was filled with reruns of Schlitz Playhouse (renamed Adventure Theater), probably the cheapest series of shows CBS owned.
    Fondly remembering this almost forgotten chapter in television history, Mike Dann says, "Way Out was one of the last weekly dramatic shows to be done in New York. Practically more than any other show, while it was not the most important, it represented the end of the era of New York as a production center for prime time. The only thing we had left then was variety shows. It meant the death of drama in New York, which is a great loss for everyone."
    David Susskind donated tapes of Way Out to the Museum of Broadcasting in New York City. His message to first-time viewers -- or those who like to relive disturbing memories -- is, "Enjoy them! They were made for entertainment. They were not made to change your philosophy of life. Just be amused, entertained, and enjoy them."
    Once again, after having the wits scared out of us, Roald Dahl can comfort us with his kind works, "Goodnight. . . . . and sleep well."