In 1978, writer Glenn O’Brien was writing a column for Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine and contributing to High Times, when he decided to do something more artistic. So, he went down to New York’s public access station and started his own TV show.
That show, TV Party -- “The TV show that’s a cocktail party but could be a political party” -- ended up running from 1978 to 1982, becoming a true embodiment of punk rock on television. David Letterman even publicly proclaimed it to be his favorite TV show.
TV Party - The Show
Every week, the show would be broadcast live with mixed results. It was low quality, recorded with the subpar equipment that is typical to cable access. Oftentimes, the show failed; voices were inaudible, the camera was out of focus, or the cameraman would focus on the guests’ shoes or ears. Sometimes, it was all but unwatchable. Sometimes, though, the show’s genius and influence on new wave and punk culture was readily apparent. This was the DIY movement -– in a TV show.
The format was basically that of the talk show; guests talking about what was going on, accompanied by musical accompaniment, but the guests were not the typical Carson fare of the era.
Over the course of the show's run, guests on the show would be a veritable who’s who of the scene, including Iggy Pop, David Bowie, P-Funk's George Clinton, the Clash's Mick Jones, and too many more to list.
It was often unpredictable, featuring obscenity-laden vicious call-ins live on the air, and strange stunts like the bizarrely theatrical Klaus Nomi singing opera and doing performance art, Fred Snyder of the B-52’s telling bad jokes, and Debbie Harry demonstrating the history of the pogo -– complete with a pogo stick.
Just as it was a big part of the scene at the time, music was a big part of TV Party. Just as in all late night talk shows, TV Party had an orchestra. It was not typical fare, though. Music guests in the TV party orchestra would reflect what was going on in the music scene, including some of the most innovative artists of the time, like David Byrne, playing improvisational sets that were often inspired and sometimes flatout noise.
The music guests were amazing, too, and could range from guests like Andy Shernoff (the Dictators) with Tish and Snooky (the inventors of Manic Panic) dressed as cheerleaders doing the Beach Boys’ “Be True to Your School,” to actor Charlie Rocket playing “Wild Thing” on accordion to Blondie doing “Tide Is High.”
Sometimes, too, the show was simply weird. When they did the “Primitive Show” complete with cavemen costumes, or when they did the show that was meant to show what you looked like watching it at home. When it was at its weirdest, it was often at its best. It was likable, whether or not you knew why you liked it.
TV Party - The Documentary
As a documentary, TV Party does a great job of compiling the show for what it was -– innovative and groundbreaking, simply because the people producing the show didn’t know any better. It was the same way that punk music was being launched by musicians who wanted to make music and statements, whether or not they knew how.
Interspersed with footage of the show are interviews with everyone involved, including O’Brien himself, remembering the era and realizing how eye-opening it was, when they didn’t realize it at the time. They talk of conflicts with the studio manager, the lack of training and inexperience of the crew, the low sound and video quality of the show, and the pure joy they got out of making the show.
The show also reminisces on the dirty, dangerous scene of the Lower East Side at the time, which contributed to the art, music and culture of the scene, and looks at how gentrification has calmed the area, but also killed some of its magic.
Drug use was rampant in the scene at the time, and drug use was often a heavy theme in the show; the cast often smoked marijuana live. But while drug use was a big part of the show, the documentary doesn’t condone it, instead simply addressing it for the part it played in the show’s production.
At the end of it all, you realize that, even when it failed, TV Party was something amazing. And when it was on, it was really on, and it was really a party.
Sometime in the ‘90s, I got together with a group of friends to make a film. There were writers, artists, filmmakers and musicians in the group, and some pretty low-end equipment. Our script was great and our passion was there, but at the end of it all, after several weeks of getting together and shooting video, we had a pile of raw footage that was pretty unwatchable, and couldn’t be compiled into anything watchable (although some of the guys involved went on to bigger and better things).
Still we had fun.
When I watched TV Party – The Documentary, I recognized the passion and mentality that created the desire to get behind this type of project.
Of course, TV Party is better than anything we ever did.
2006, 91 minutes