Dancing With Themselves

The hilarity and guilt of Stairway to Stardom, NYC's Web-resurgent amateur reality show

Let's start with the terrified little kid, maybe six or seven, with the snappy periwinkle shirt, slick dark hair, and coal-black eyes that desperately avoid looking directly at the camera, which clearly scares the bejesus out of him, as though it's a grizzly bear holding a shotgun. The kid is himself clutching a microphone and unsteadily bleating a song that erratic eye contact suggests is certainly not addressed to the camera/bear, and probably not to his sparse studio audience.

The song he is singing is Billy Joel's "You May Be Right." A song that, thematically, it must be said, is wildly inappropriate given his age, with its allusions to motorcycle wrecks and drunk driving. (Mostly) unfazed, Michael Daniel Baez initially false-starts twice, his gaze darting nervously toward his solo pianist accompaniment. But once he gets going he barrels through, his accent flaring up on "I walked through Bedfoed-Stuy alone," giggling just a little at the upward swing of "You may be right!" and delivering the lines "I told you dirty jokes until you smiled/You were lonely for a man/I said 'Take me as I am' " with a gusto that defies, you know, full comprehension. We take him as he is.

It was 1983, and Michael was trying his luck on Stairway to Stardom, a cult weekly NYC cable-access show of the Star Search persuasion that aired from the late '70s to the early '90s, featuring very, very, very amateur performers trying their unsteady hands at music, dance, monologues, or most regrettably, stand-up comedy. A Brooklynite named Frank Masi presided and occasionally warbled (or lip-warbled) a standard himself, offering invaluable support in post-performance interviews wherein he often asked, "So do you want to pursue this as a career?" and occasionally politely suggesting that, say, the wayward teenage dude who just annihilated Olivia Newton-John's "I Honestly Love You" might sound better in the bathtub.

Amateur hour, two decades ago
Amateur hour, two decades ago

It is 2006, and of course, this shit has caught fire on youtube.com with the so-bad-it's-awesome crowd. Inevitably, '80s awkward sincerity has become '00s smirking kitsch. Bleagh.

The only thing more popular than youtube.com this summer was chin-stroking media trend pieces about youtube.com: how the post-yer-own-videos site has provided yet more new avenues for bizarre, instant notoriety. Let's (mostly) avoid such wankery and concentrate on, say, the ridiculously attired young Stairway to Stardom lass flailing wildly through a solo dance to the Fame theme, which better gets the point across in all its conflicted sincerity, hilarity, warmth, and ugliness.

Ugliness, perhaps, when it's projected on the walls of a box-like room in the posh Williamsburg "video bar" Monkey Town, maybe 50 people lounging on white futons as Stairway to Stardom's two modern curators, video-editing enthusiasts Mitch Friedman and his buddy Doug Miller, display two 90-minute programs' worth of short clips on a late-August Saturday night. The hilarity is projected on all four walls, so you stare straight across as the folks straight across stare straight back at you. It is suitably profoundly uncomfortable, whether you're watching a terrifying, theatrically bombastic woman with a quivering bottom lip and tears streaming down her face threatening to smash someone's brains out on the radiator or enjoying a prototypical rap group awkwardly describing the various woes of crack addiction.

Friedman was first turned on to this by Irwin Chusid, nationally renowned patron saint of "outsider music" (see his book Songs in the Key of Z), which generally involves very sincere, emotionally raw singers unaware of their so-bad-it's-good appeal, either due to obliviousness or, more often, mental illness. Think Wesley Willis or the Shaggs, or especially Daniel Johnston, a prolific but deeply tortured singer-songwriter embraced by the indie-rock community to the tune of tribute albums and a recent warm biopic. Chusid seems like a decent and genuine guy, partly because he understands how quickly interest in this stuff descends into mocking exploitation. Sometimes the singers understand too. You had better get a pretty heavy feeling when you hear Johnston sing "You can listen to these songs/Have a good time and walk away/But for me it's not that easy/I have to live these songs forever/Please hear my cry for help/And save me from myself."

The victims in the surviving Stairway to Stardom footage—after catching the show live near the end of its run, Friedman and Miller hunted down Masi and acquired 20 hours of additional film—aren't quite as helpless, but Friedman to his credit treads lightly anyway. "I've found that most entertainers are somewhat oblivious to how much talent they actually have," he says carefully. He will wax at length about the show's appeal: Stardom captures "people learning their craft, but they hadn't quite, uh, mastered it yet," Friedman says. "I like the fact that that was on TV. It was almost kind of comforting in a way."

It's less comforting to learn that the show has earned a small celebrity fan base, from Marshall Crenshaw to John C. Reilly to, evidently, Björk, Friedman's friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend. "She went crazy, you know—she was rolling around on the floor in pain," he reports of her first exposure. "From laughing, I mean."

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