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TV Party: The Sublimely Intolerable Show
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.
O'Brien, for much of TV Party's run, rented a studio and black and white cameras for 60$ an hour, so that's what you get with this DVD, washed-out, black and white fullscreen video - with occasional tape hiccups and all that other fun stuff you remember from recording programs onto VHS. It's a decent transfer of stuff that never, ever looked good to begin with (except for Debbie Harry and Kate Simon - those chicks is hot).
If you can forgive the first chunk of the show, with no audio other than the occasional open line buzzing with feedback, then you'll be well primed for the rest of this audio atrocity. I mean, you can hear everything OK, except when people are yelling or talking over each other, but sometimes you can't. Like when someone's talking without a mic, or if the mic is way too loud, or whatever. It's fun to see microphones worn around the neck on lanyards, but the mess is what it's about. Musical performances ain't mixed great either, but they certainly capture a moment in time.
Another hour's worth of maniacal viewing pleasure is culled from other TV Party episodes. First is 26 minutes of Nile Rodgers Call In, during which it becomes apparent what a good sport Rodgers is, and how delighted a few folks are by getting to anonymously call someone the 'N-word' on TV, over and over. And through Rodgers, O'Brien and Stein's weary good graces and quick wits, it's actually pretty hilarious. "Lil Rico" Amos Poe is an 8-minute snippet from director (and TV Party director) Poe's movie, more downtown goodness featuring Debbie Harry singing a cappella. Intellectual Talk (wink wink) is anything but. This 15-minute bit from the 'color' years of TV Party features more tape-jumps than usual, while O'Brien and crew sit on a couch in a club. They try to interview David Byrne who won't say much more than "I have my own microphone," they try to interview some other guy who says nothing. Eric Mitchell plugs another movie and O'Brien eventually walks off in 'disgust.' Luigi Ciccolini showcases the terrible magic of a pseudonymous member of the house orchestra. Best line: "I just gotta make-a sure my fake-a moustache doesn't-a come off." Six minutes of excruciating fun. Finally Glenn on Mardigras attempts to define the holiday through O'Brien interviewing a gorgeous French woman. O'Brien then advises us to eat nothing but beans and rice for Lent.
Cult fans (especially Gen-X-ers and older) will likely lap up Glenn O'Brien's TV Party like sweet cream. It's stupid, it's cool, and it's an uncontained whirlwind of fun and faux fun. Hipsters of all levels of coolness dug the scene (Fred Schneider of the B-52s even turns up in the audience). O'Brien makes you feel cool and detached just for watching, his attempts to socialize TV and increase its impact by rubbing the amateur ethos all over the place makes for invigorating couch-time. Guests on The Sublimely Intolerable Show are so cool they're uncool, (except for the Blondie contingent I guess) but O'Brien's self-possession in the face of the tornado is what holds the whole shebang together. Most folks will reject this outright as too weird, while lunatics like me might wish for the entire run to be released on DVD. If you like skinny ties or watching UFO theorists on late-night television, you owe it to yourself to rent this, but I had such an unexpected good time I'll call it Recommended.