“I really sincerely believe cable TV in New York City can become a viable force that will compete with The Village Voice, really mean something,” Blondie’s Chris Stein declared during an episode of TV Party, the post-punk public access television series he hosted with writer Glenn O’Brien from 1978 to 1982. The show’s life span just happened to coincide with the golden age of Manhattan Cable, a halcyon period when public access TV seemed like the vanguard of a new democratic art form. It was an open pulpit that beckoned to neighborhood freaks, visionaries, show-offs, paranoiacs—pretty much anyone who had the gumption to ask for airtime. And back in the days before MTV and the zillion other networks we have now, New York couch potatoes like me watched it voraciously, lapping up everything from Telepsychic and The Robin Byrd Show to Ugly George and TV Party, never quite sure what unscripted nuttiness would erupt from the screen.
“This is not a test! This is an actual show!” O’Brien once assured his TV Party audience, shouting amid the melee. This moment appears in a new documentary about the series being screened at Tribeca Film Festival this week. O’Brien hopes the doc will eventually be released on DVD along with several episodes of the original show, and that’s a very good thing because TV Party offers us a glimpse of a lost cultural moment. This is not the same slick retro-vision of ’70s and ’80s new wave you’ll find on VH1, but TV made by artists and addicts. O’Brien, always dapper with his shorn hair, wayfarer sunglasses, and skinny suits, played the ringleader of a wayward downtown hipster posse that included Stein, independent filmmaker Amos Poe, graffiti artist-rapper Fab Five Freddy (introduced on the debut episode as “the token black”), one-man-band Walter Steding, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, who liked to sit in the control room and type poetic graffiti across the screen. It’s the spirit of the Mudd Club brought to the small screen with all its neo-dadaist playfulness intact.
TV Party‘s archives are a trove of priceless footage—unusual performances by David Byrne and Debbie Harry, interviews with David Bowie and George Clinton, and most importantly, live appearances by such barely documented entities as DNA and Tuxedomoon. On any given week, you might’ve been treated to a makeover by photographer Steven Meisel, a cooking lesson with Klaus Nomi, or a call-in session in which cantankerous New Yorkers kvetched to a surprised Mick Jones of the Clash. One caller claimed to be Atlantic Records founder Jerry Wexler; rather than being awed, Basquiat dismissed him as “an art pimp” before blithely disconnecting the call.
“You could think of it as early reality television, but it was a whole different reality,” O’Brien says now, looking much the same as he did 25 years ago, only with whiter hair and straighter teeth. “It wasn’t about becoming a celebrity in the sense that it is today. It was about starting your own system.” In some ways TV Party is like Warhol’s Factory meets the cathode-ray tube, and in fact, O’Brien spent his formative years working for Warhol. (He was one of the first editors of Interview.) “I always thought of Andy’s philosophy as taking art out of the ghetto into the public consciousness,” he says. “That’s what we were trying to do with TV Party.” There was always a vaguely political whiff to the series: O’Brien introduced each episode with the tagline “the TV show that’s a cocktail party that could be a political party,” and posters of Mao and Lenin adorned the studio walls. O’Brien’s fantasy was to see New York secede from the union and become an independent city-state. He even talked about running for mayor but says wryly, “No one could ever get up early enough to circulate the petitions.”
George Clinton once dubbed the program “Anarchy Howdy Doody Guerrilla TV,” which nicely sums up its Groucho Marx-ist blend of rebellion and silliness. The series epitomized the best and worst excesses of the era: chaotic, entertaining, amateurish, defiant, and disorienting—both intentionally and unintentionally. Amos Poe, who served as the show’s director, loved to play visual games by zooming in and out randomly or switching between cameras at migraine-inducing speed, a habit that made it “toxic to look at,” as Debbie Harry points out in the doc. The sound quality was often terrible, and there were plenty of longueurs. Guests blew pot smoke into the cameras, and O’Brien once served psilocybin margaritas. Sometimes you get the feeling the show was more fun to make than it is to watch.
In the last few years, a generation of new bands, like LCD Soundsystem, has taken inspiration from the no-wave-mutant-disco nightlife era, but the milieu is surprisingly hard to capture, as visitors to the New Museum’s recent East Village show discovered. O’Brien’s own film Downtown 81, which starred Basquiat and was made back in the day but only just released in 2000, did communicate the ambient seediness and roiling crosscurrents of the downtown art-music scene. But TV Party, with its meandering lo-fi quality and self-conscious artiness, conveys the grain of the era even better. It is unpretty and uncompromising, just as no-wave artists like Lydia Lunch and the Contortions were. Their attitude, says O’Brien, “was like: We’re not just going to hand it to you.” And if you look at what people are wearing, you won’t see much in the way of designer labels. “Everyone looks great but they’re all individuals—they picked through a lot of garbage to come up with that outfit!”
TV Party quietly disappeared in 1982. The gang dissolved along with the scene itself: O’Brien got distracted by Downtown 81, Stein got sick, Basquiat got famous, and a bunch of people went into rehab. Plus, says O’Brien, “It got harder to live on no money in New York.” It almost seems like a hallucination now, an idyll before the ’80s art and real estate booms kicked in. As Poe wonders in the documentary, “Was it some kind of folly or some kind of genius?”