One Man’s Machines


Sometimes the very things a technology lacks are what give it life. Working mostly with a few thousand dollars’ worth of video-editing equipment in a spare room of his Upper West Side apartment, veteran TV writer Jamie Greenberg distills the grainy images and rough cuts of old-school videotape into Media Shower, a public-access show miles apart from its better-funded network cousins.

Best described as America’s Funniest Home Videos crossed with The Daily Show and Mystery Science Theater 3000, Greenberg’s Media Shower is one of those rare public-access programs whose peak moments are as entertaining as the best offerings on mainstream TV. And both Media Shower itself and the clips it features are deeply informed by the rickety technology used to capture them.

“If someone showed you the Magna Carta or the Gutenberg Bible and it was perfectly pristine and brand-new looking, it wouldn’t seem as otherworldly or as sought-after,” Greenberg says. “In the same way, a classic piece of underground video has a certain exclusivity to it. You can tell that it has been lovingly copied and passed around hand-to-hand.”

Yet even Greenberg admits his ancient machines only go so far. He has long used software to craft some of the show’s graphic details, like rolling titles and a bug that sits at the bottom of the screen. Now he’s getting ready to buy a powerful new computer, which he’ll begin using to create the entire show. Though thrilled by the possibilities of digital editing, Greenberg says he’s concerned about the new computer’s potential to kill Media Shower‘s thrown-together appeal. “How slick do you want to go?” he says. “Because you could get to a point where you sort of become a well-packaged show and you lose that fascinating, very personal appeal that public access has.” Commercial TV “is the total antithesis of personal. In most shows, anything that’s particularly unique or lumpy or sticks out gets filed down in the process. That’s what the process is for. But public access is like reading zines. The charm of is it that it’s so personal, so warts-and-all.”

Fortunately for its fans, Media Shower is unlikely to stray far from its twisted roots. The show has a simple format: Greenberg, 32, the show’s host and sole creator, plays a variety of weird or disturbing or unintentionally hilarious video clips, often offering bemused commentary. The show, which debuted in January 1997 and now appears on channel 34 in Manhattan on Saturday nights at 12:30 a.m., is perhaps best known for broadcasting two things: a legendary 1978 clip of a hopelessly sincere William Shatner performing a spoken-word version of Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” and clips from the breathtakingly awful Star Wars Holiday TV Special, also from 1978. The former clip, which Greenberg acknowledges has “become a cliché,” was taken from that year’s Science Fiction Film Awards; the latter comes from a variety show—yes, variety show—featuring Art Carney, Bea Arthur, Harvey Korman, Jefferson Starship, Diahann Carroll, and, at one point, nine uninterrupted, unsubtitled minutes of grunting from Chewbacca’s Wookiee family.

Collectors of underground video have long worshiped many of the excerpts Greenberg features on Media Shower. But what makes the show exceptional is Greenberg himself, both as an onscreen presence and as the writer, producer, director, and editor of the show. As host, he has an impressive ability to pluck meaning out of, or at least crack a few good jokes about, even the most seemingly innocuous clip. The Star Wars Holiday Special is not simply bad; it’s “ass-wretched.” An amateur video of several rednecks breaking beer bottles over their heads is “kind of Blair Witch meets Animal House, with a touch of the Russian roulette scene from The Deer Hunter thrown in.”

Many Media Shower clips are several generations removed from the original copies, and the audiovisual distortions give them a surreal quality. When something’s been copied so many times, it imposes a greater distance between the spectator and the performer, says Irwin Chusid, a DJ at WFMU and the cohost of Fez’s semiannual Incorrect Music Video shows, which have featured some of the same clips that appear on Media Shower. “It makes [what is onscreen] seem as if it’s from another planet or another time,” Chusid says, “or from some other corner of the universe that is far removed from the viewer’s reality.”

The distortions also serve as fingerprints, in a way. Chusid says the loss that comes with each generation gives “visual evidence of another person discovering something.”

Long before Media Shower, Greenberg was an active member of the hand-to-hand tape-swap network. He built his collection by trading for “dubs of dubs of dubs that had traveled the underground gonzo video circuit.” These days, he finds his clips in all sorts of ways. Viewers send him tapes; he uses a number of cuts from a bootleg compilation of America’s Funniest Home Videos submissions deemed too disturbing or bizarre for broadcast television. He has even been known to fish a tape out of a garbage can on the street. “If it doesn’t look like it has urine on it,” he says, “then I might pick it up and actually try it out.”

In addition to his work on various programs for MTV and PBS, Greenberg has done stints on a monster truck show, numerous game shows, and various shows that have gone nowhere. These experiences in Nielsen never-never land have made him a more sympathetic viewer than he might otherwise be, he says: “I’ve been the person making the kind of programming that I’d show on my show. I know exactly—exactly—how that feels.”

Greenberg says he has talked informally with people at MTV about developing a Media Shower-inspired program for the network, where several staffers are said to be regular viewers. “Some people watch the show and simply have no idea why anyone would want to watch this stuff,” he says. “Other people watch it and it’s like coming home. It’s like someone else is articulating that fascination that they have.”