The Big Picture
- Seven years before Owen Wilson became the voice of a car in Cars, he was the voice of a sentient motorcycle in Heat Vision and Jack. The show starred Jack Black as austronaut-turned-supergenius Jack Austin, and was directed by none other than Ben Stiller.
- Heat Vision is the Knight Rider-style talking motorcycle voiced by Owen Wilson. His tragic backstory is that Jack’s unemployed roommate Doug was waiting to give Jack a ride on his motorcycle when Ron Silver shot a laser intended for Jack and inadvertently merged the man with his machine.
- The long list of enormous talent behind Heat Vision and Jack have proven their refusal to let go of the project over the years.
In the early years of “the Frat Pack” (a group of comedy writers and actors including Vince Vaughan, Will Ferrell and Seth Rogen), one project got as far as the pilot stage before being lost to obscurity. Seven years before Owen Wilson became the voice of a car in Cars, he was the voice of a sentient motorcycle in Heat Vision and Jack. Yup, you read that right. The show starred Jack Black as austronaut-turned-supergenius Jack Austin, and was directed by none other than Ben Stiller. The 1999 pilot also starred Stiller’s eventual wife and Dodgeball co-star Christine Taylor, but it was eventually turned down by the network. It might come as no surprise that TV networks at the time were afraid to bankroll such an outlandish premise, but given the range of bizarre comedies on streaming services today, perhaps there is hope of a revival for this forgotten treasure.
The pilot is prefaced by a tongue-in-cheek intro from its director and executive producer Ben Stiller, in which he sets the tone for the show’s dryly-delivered absurd humor. He also takes the opportunity to rub his Emmy in the Fox network’s noses, which he won for The Ben Stiller Show despite being “ridiculed” and canceled. He introduces his new show to audiences, joking, “Some of you will marvel at our state-of-the-art special computerized effects which, quite frankly, rival those of a certain new Star Wars movie.” Picking up a photograph of George Lucas, Stiller jokes, “Hey there, Mr. Beard! How many Emmys do you have?” After ensuring audiences, “Some of you will be frightened or aroused,” the scene fades into the actual pilot, and Ben Stiller’s promises become reality!
‘Heat Vision and Jack’ Is a Parody of Television Before 1999
The show begins with an X-Files-style cold open in which Vincent Schiavelli‘s frycook Frank becomes possessed by an alien broadcast on the radio. The absurdity never shies away from blatant comedy though, as his first victim is attacked to the soundtrack of a jukebox playing Third Eye Blind. Cut to an unrelated and over-the-top TV intro that serves as a premise-establisher as well as an action montage. In a similar vein to The Six Million Dollar Man and TV’s The Incredible Hulk, it details Jack Austin’s history as an astronaut “exposed to inappropriate levels of solar energy”, making him the world’s smartest man, but only during daylight hours. Despite its seeming irrelevance to the cold-open’s monster-of-the-week, this makes Jack the perfect man to take down the villain. Just trust me, OK?
As the episode continues, we’re introduced to the other series regulars including actor Ron Silver (played by actor Ron Silver), except this version of Ron Silver is also a NASA-trained killer hired to take down Jack. His ongoing mission would have continued throughout the series had it been picked up, and would have seen Silver add obstacles to Jack’s varying weekly missions. We’re also introduced to Heat Vision, the Knight Rider-style talking motorcycle voiced by Owen Wilson. His tragic backstory is that Jack’s unemployed roommate Doug was waiting to give Jack a ride on his motorcycle when Ron Silver shot a laser intended for Jack and inadvertently merged the man with his machine. With the intention that this show would see Jack and Heat Vision ride from town to town, this episode introduced Christine Taylor as the Sheriff, a typical one-episode girlfriend of Jack.
This Show Paved The Way For ‘Community’, ‘Rick and Morty’, and ‘Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace’
The show also utilizes details from other famous shows, such as a mysterious music score reminiscent of Twin Peaks and Jack fixing a broken jukebox just like Henry Winkler in Happy Days. Speaking of music, the opening credits sequence features the first of multiple Tom Jones songs to feature in this 30-minute pilot, eventually followed by another in a strip club where Ben Stiller cameos as a DJ. It’s clear that despite its parody of such campy 20th century television, Heat Vision and Jack comes from a place of love for its inspirations. The actors and writers recognize its absurdity but practise their childhood wish fulfillment all the same. One of its writers, Dan Harmon, would later go on to create both Community and Rick and Morty, in which his brand of parody and reference humor finally found the enormous audience it deserves.
Although this absurd take on 80s television didn’t land for the network in 1999, the pilot clearly tapped into something that like-minded filmmakers enjoyed. In more recent years, shows that resemble Heat Vision and Jack have graced our screens and garnered cult followings. Specifically, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, a British comedy series created by Matthew Holness and Richard Ayoade, delivered with the exact same irony and straight-faced performances. They even perfectly capture the traditional leading man’s make-up and bronzer; Jack Black as Jack Austin is practically a dead ringer for Matt Berry as Todd Rivers, in looks and womanizing prowess alike.
It’s Time For A ‘Heat Vision and Jack’ Revival Series
The long list of enormous talent behind Heat Vision and Jack have proven their refusal to let go of the project over the years. 2008’s Tropic Thunder saw Stiller and Black re-team for the hit action comedy in which they played fictional movie stars. Its accompanying mockumentary Tropic Thunder: Rain of Madness even sees Heat Vision and Jack recontextualized as a show in which Black’s character Jeff Portnoy played Jack Austin, making this meta pilot even more similar to Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace than it already was.
Writer Rob Schrab told Wizard Universe in 2007 that he and Dan Harmon still loved Heat Vision and Jack, and were aiming to revive the project as a feature film at the time. “We’re still in the first draft stage. It’s like right now everyone is onboard, and Jack wants to do it, and Stiller has his own personal project, but he’s saying he loves it, and he wants to do it.” Unfortunately, however, that was the last we heard about this revival. As for Ben Stiller’s eventual projects, his work as a director and executive producer on the miniseries Escape at Dannemora earned him two more Emmy nominations, and more recently, his work on Severance did it again. With movie stars returning to the small screen in droves, perhaps Ben Stiller should return his attention to a forgotten 1999 project he once held dear.
It’s evident from more recent shows that audiences have grown more accustomed to ideas like Heat Vision and Jack than they might have been in 1999. Stan Against Evil and Ash Vs. Evil Dead both exemplify how well tongue-in-cheek humor works with campy serialized violence while Mr. Pickles and Smiling Friends prove the success of even more absurd content nowadays. The humor also perfectly fits the styles of Nathan Fielder or Tim Robinson who are both thriving in their respective streaming shows, and one need look no further than Jack Black’s recent Tenacious D animations to prove his own specific fan base is ready for more. Now, with everything from Frasier to Sex and the City getting its own revival series, now is the perfect time for the network to reconsider its mistake of not picking up this pilot in the first place.