In the 80's and 90's, Manhattan public-access TV was like the Wild West.
Anyone could get 28 minutes to do whatever the hell they wanted. And this material aired on channels that everyone seemed to watch.
Public-access began as a mandate of the FCC in 1972. Cable companies were required to give up a portion of bandwidth for "public, educational and local government use." In most towns this led to dull and earnest viewing: county commission meetings, say, or a performance by the Senior Swingers at the local library.
But my story takes place in Manhattan -- Manhattan back then, mind you, which was an eccentric and lively borough. In an age when everybody didn't feel entitled to be as noisy as they do now, the rowdy public access children turned it out.
I was one of them.
In 1994, when my story begins, Time Warner offered about twenty channels in its basic package. Four of those were reserved for local public access.
I first experienced the magic of public-access on my first night in New York City: July 26, 1993 (I moved to New York sight unseen and still haven't left.) My brother George showed me channel 35, the working-girl sister to the four nonprofit channels.
Channel 35 -- aka "Paid Public Access" -- most famously featured "The Robin Byrd Show." Every week on her eponymous show, the omnisexual Byrd presided over all sorts of raunchy goings-on. She seemed always stoned and cheerful, but shrewder than she let on. Strippers of varying savoriness shook their wares between hilariously blunt commercials advertising phone sex and escort services. For a sizable number of New Yorkers those commercials became a common reference point:
"Call Asian Escorts now. You do not have to be Asian to call."
"Welcome to the Dungeon. Let's go down."
"Call 970-P-E-E-E. The Extra E is for Extra Pee."
The show ended in the same fashion every week. To the strains of "Baby Let Me Bang Your Box" (vocals: Robin Byrd), the evening's ensemble would assemble onstage. It was similar to the closing credits of "Saturday Night Live" -- except that on Robin's show the hostess would bury her face in the Volkswagen-sized breast implants of the women and mime fellatio on the dangly cocks of the guys.
When I saw Robin Byrd for the first time, I knew New York was my home. In this city, anything was possible.
Especially on the non-commercial channels. Channel 35 had a capitalist raison d'etre -- somebody wanted money from you in the end. But the other four "community service" channels were a giddy grab bag of unrestrained self-expression.
"Mrs. Mouth" was one of the most popular shows in the 80's and 90's. The depiction of the "hostess" was crude but effective: a man's face shot upside-down, with facial features drawn on his chin and a wig around his neck. Mrs. Mouth offered hilarious commentary and swallowed strange substances fed to her by her assistants. Bonus features included soap-opera dramas portrayed by down-and-out Barbie dolls.
Another show called "The Church of Shooting Yourself" featured a manic guy pacing the streets of Manhattan, ranting nonstop into his video camera. "On Patrol" featured Brandy Wine and Brenda-a-Go-Go, two clown-drag personalities who interviewed downtown celebrities.
I was a huge fan of New Age healer Linda Pendergraft, who offered a 28-minute stream-of-consciousness monologue every week. She was beautiful and talked in a breathy baby-doll voice. She always gazed into the camera with longing. Linda could jump topics acrobatically and return to an abandoned train of thought many minutes later. If you smoked a joint while watching, the sudden return to logic could seem downright Olympian.
Another show featured a guy who basically sat there, cock-and-balls naked, not doing much of anything. He was pretty easy on the eyes. I liked that show too.
There was an old woman whose name I can't remember who'd interview rich people at their various rich people functions. Did any of the rich people realize they'd be sandwiched between, say, the naked guy and those "White man are the devil!" preachers?
These public-access shows, the best of them, weren't culty pleasures for a hip few. Back then, everybody watched public access. There just wasn't that much TV to watch back then. The "World Wide Web" was a few years from global domination. One could either watch television or, God forbid, read. And in Manhattan, which was then stacked so thickly with creative nutjobs, public-access TV was often the best thing on.
THE BIRTH OF "SPEW"
In October of 1994 I began my first year of grad school at NYU. I found myself with a lot of free time at night. I spent much of that time watching public access TV.
On a whim, I decided to see what it would take to get a public-access show of my own. I sent the network a simple letter: "I'd like to produce a public-access television show. Please send any relevant information."
A week later, I got a two-page letter back. The second page was the application form. It asked for preferred time-slots, the title of my proposed show and a brief description.
Having no idea what my show might be, I chose an abstract name: "Spew." I described it as "a media collage." I asked for a prime time-slot and stuck the form in the mail. The process took about a minute.
The reply came a month later. "Starting January 4th, SPEW will air on Channel 17 every Tuesday at 10:30 PM."
For a minute of effort -- hardly time enough to pleasure myself to climax -- I was set to broadcast to the artistic and financial center of the universe in a great time slot on a highly-trafficked channel. I only needed to handle a few details:
I needed a show.
And I had to rustle up some video production technology.
This was 1994, remember, when the technology we take for granted on our smartphones would have reached the budgetary scale of a space shuttle.
I already had a VCR and a TV, but I needed a camera. I got a store credit card at a now-defunct electronics retailer, "Nobody Beats the Wiz." 800 bucks got me a camera that could manage primitive, two-color titling effects. 800 bucks. Hm. I'd be a hugely successful actor soon, I reminded myself.
The deadline for each week's videotape was 10AM every Saturday, to be hand-delivered by me. So I developed a routine over the next few months: every Friday I'd arrive at my eight-foot by twenty-two-foot apartment and set up my ramshackle editing equipment. Then I'd smoke a joint and edit into the wee hours. Sometimes I'd get to the public access office in the Flatiron District only seconds before 10.
"Spew" did become a media collage of sorts. Lacking a decent microphone, I decided to use that limitation as a gift. I never once synced my audio and video. My onscreen appearances were brief: the viewer saw some dude lit only by the unseen TV he was watching. I dubbed snatches of found audio over that. I never looked into the camera once.
The first episode of Spew was a wash. But one two-minute segment at least captured a spirit that would define the show:
I still had technical issues to handle. But I liked the grainy, washed-out effect of filming the television (note: I was miles ahead of the "vintage" photo filters that are now all the rage). You can see the dust on the TV screen and, in some shots, you may spy the reflection of That Black Halogen Torch Lamp That Everybody Had in Their First Apartment.
"Spew" hit its stride about six episodes into its run. I mastered my primitive technology. My editing became more fluid and fast-paced. I found that I could tell stories by layering tonal opposites. A children's show with a slasher film -- why not? Oh, and layer on a soundtrack by Enya.
When I inserted phrases amidst the chaos, stories assembled and random moments gained significance. And it never hurt to flash a millisecond of porn every now and then. Or more.
(Warning: said porn, though rather light. appears in the following clip. I remember recording it off of Channel 35. As I recall, one had to opt OUT of Channel 35 as it was automatically included in the cable package!)
I got a ten-dollar voicemail and ran the number on each show so viewers could respond. This was mind-blowing back then. The death threats grew dull after awhile but I loved the drunk, debauched people who rambled for minutes at a time. I was invited to a gallery opening, and went! A hospital employee left a message from an operating room. I felt triumph when a viewer complained that I'd put up a rerun -- someone was watching "Spew" more than once!
I heard from a one-night-stand-gone-bad. He recognized me and asked for another date. Another lonely guy called in almost every week. I called him "The Gland." His high-pitched voice oozed with eroticism: "Spewie Spewie Spew -- your name rolls off my lips like buttah ..."
Another public access show existed to aggregate the best of the other shows. It was called "Channel Surfing USA" and they declared me among the ten best shows of the year. I became friendly with the show's producers and met other members of the public access circus. It was a preposterous, fun hobby, launching your 28 minutes into the void and discovering that people were watching. Across the isolating city, the voicemail messages felt like a connection of fucked-up urban hearts.
Such communication is cheaply accessed now. The magic and longing are gone. An orange was a rare delicacy for the Elizabethans, but nowadays it's just an orange.
ENTER: BAD LUCK
Because "Spew" was a media collage, I spent every week harvesting compelling material. I found some amazing footage of late 60's hippies tripping their balls off in a hospital emergency room. I lifted the clip from its original home, "The Twentieth Century with Mike Wallace" and spruced it up in my way: I interspersed single frames of porn now and then and ran a completely different soundtrack.
On the Tuesday of that show's debut I was hanging out with my friend Brendan at The Break, a bar on 20th and 8th. After 11PM, I checked the show's voicemail.
The rest of the story is in the video below, which I made for "Channel Surfing USA." I didn't air it myself for reasons that will be evident.
What are the chances that the producer of the stuffy, distinguished show that I stole footage from would be watching my smutty, amateurish public access show? Was he scrolling by on his way to "Robin Byrd"? Doesn't he sound like he's coked up?
I still want to know that fuckwit's name. I hope he's lonely.
If for some reason, Sir, you Google yourself with the search term of, say, "mike wallace producer," and come across this writing, please email me. I'd love to chat with you. Or, say, "mike wallace producer fuckwit" -- yes, I'm talking to you, douche.
In any case, that incident spelled curtains for "Spew." The legwork required to mend my relationship with Manhattan Neighborhood Network was too onerous. And I was frankly getting a bit tired of the grind.
It takes rafts of people to make 22 minutes of subpar network television a week, and I was doing 28 mostly-subpar minutes alone with one VCR and one video camera.
I wanted my Friday nights back.
So I set "Spew" free.