Glenn O’Brien’s TV Party blew the dust out of New Yorker’s air ducts for four odd years from 1978 to 1982. The hour-long live, unscripted show took advantage of New York’s early-ish cable access world — a world mandated by a deal that cable networks could have their little monopolies as long as the public was granted free access to a certain percentage of airtime. It’s a deal still going on all across America today, and after watching a little TV Party, you’d be a damn fool not to get involved. You see, TV can be fun, and you can make it! As for TV Party — essentially a showcase for what O’Brien and friends thought of as cool — it’s not for everyone. But those who like bizarro television, the downtown New York scene of the day, or cult movies and TV with a capital C (Liquid Sky or Robin Byrd’s porno talk-show, for instance) will get a serious kick from this experiment in ‘socialist TV’ — the TV show that’s a party, but it could also be a political party.
The Sublimely Intolerable Show aired January 8th 1979, with O’Brien (writer, Warhol-ite and once New Wave gadabout) loosely holding the reins — flogging the horse or letting it stumble down rocky inclines, however he, his guests, audience or callers saw fit. Aired in black and white, the night’s guests included Compton Maddox and John Moses playing weird guitar tunes, Klaus Nomi singing opera, and Andy Shernoff covering the Beach Boys, (backed by Tish and Snooky of Manic Panic fame). Downtown director Eric Mitchell plays a clip of his movie Kidnapped while plugging the New Cinema Theater, director David Silver and Kate Simon do ‘White People Talk About Reggae,’ and finally Debbie Harry, Chris Stein (also of Blondie and later official co-host of TV Party) and Richard Sohl help O’Brien with the viewer call-in segment while passing a joint.
According to O’Brien’s TV Party website, David Letterman once told Paul Schaeffer on air that “TV Party is the greatest TV show anywhere, ever,” and for those of us now corn-fed on the GMOs that are Two and a Half Men and their ilk, it’s hard to argue. The show thrives on O’Brien’s heartfelt diffidence (hard to manage, true) and an anything-can-happen dangerousness that’s impossible to fake. It appears effortless because in many ways it was, semi-professionals aided and abetted, and total amateurs did little things like; operate cameras and run sound. In fact the first five or ten minutes of Sublimely Intolerable have no sound at all, nothing but random pops (as people scurry to fix the problem) and (also according to the TV Party website) Jean-Michel Basquiat typing super-graphics like “Oh no! No sound! Fuck!” Top-notch scenester entertainment makes up for deficiencies O’Brien encouraged. Maddox and Moses’s pre-ironic ironic numbers bubble dangerously, with O’Brien and Debbie Harry et al dancing in lab coats. Klaus Nomi’s unearthly soprano aria and equally alien demeanor are stunning and bizarre. Shernoff is cool enough — while pointing out how even the most insipid Beach Boys song comes with a super-sharp chord progression — and director Mitchell seems baffled and is baffling.
White People Talk About Reggae rides a dangerous edge; the audience mocks, Simon and Silver seem defensive talking about the ‘music of upliftment,’ and then a joint starts making the rounds. The joint stays for the ‘viewer call-in’ segment which always closed the show. It’s emblematic of the off-the-rails genius of the show. Sure, the technological aspects are junk, and performances or interviews hit-or-miss, but letting uncensored live callers on the air is pure gold. O’Brien and crew are unassuming in their greatness — they’re the cool kids at school who’ll actually accept you (even though you know you’re a total geek) just because they’re self-secure — shining as they wade through call after call questioning their sexual practices and ethnicity. This stuff is not for the easily offended, but it’s a testament to the power of a slick hand willing to let the chips fall wherever.
The first 10% of this show sums up what we don’t get on TV anymore. Technical difficulties. TV Party was live and improvised, and this meant casual disaster. This early episode gets off to an artistically agonizing start–the sound person is late, overdosing on drugs or both. Or it was the broken down equipment. Once the sound kicks in the show gets lively. Compton Maddux, a droll singer songwriter, is backed up by Debbie Harry and Glenn; the unique futurist soprano Klaus Nomi does one of his post-modern arias; Adny Shernoff, of the Dictators, plays the Beach Boys’ “Be True to Your School” backed up by pom pom girls Tish and Snooky, the Manic Panic designers. Downtown legend director Eric Mitchell announces the opening of the now famous New Cinema theater and shows a clip from his film “Kidnapped” with Arto Lindsay, Duncan Smith and Anya Phillips. Brit director David Silver and photographer Kate Simon do the “white people talk about reggae” segment. Blondie’s Chris Stein and Debbie Harry and the Patti Smith Group’s Richard Sohl drop in to smoke a reefer and take calls from all the crazies in cable land. Chris explains all this isn’t chaos, it’s art.