beyond the music
I Want My MTV: New book recalls offbeat shows and hosts (remember Martha Quinn?)that defined a network
To celebrate the release of the book I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution, we're examining the top five MTV alterna-comedies we miss the most.
Whether you were a fan in the early days or tuned in just in time for TRL-mania at the turn of the millennium, chances are your formative years were somehow influenced by MTV's programming.
I Want My MTV is a biography of the iconic network that's allegedly full of reflection and gossip from many of the artists whose careers were helped — or hurt. The New York Times has some choice excerpts, to whet your appetite:
Here are a few stray quotations, chosen almost at random: “I slept inside of a chandelier last night. What’s your excuse?”; “the cow flew out the back of the trailer”; “We fed Valium to a few cats and had them running around a table while we had a feast with sexy models and Playboy centerfolds, ripping apart a turkey”; and “At one point I was drinking gin out of a dog’s dish.”
These days, you're more likely to hear breaking news about the love lives of teen moms than the backstage antics of rock stars. While we all know that MTV’s days as a showcase for up-and-coming music are long gone, there’s another loss to lament: the network’s once savvy eye for intelligent comedy. So with that, let's commence with the countdown:
It’s a sad fact: many current Austinites have no idea that a hilarious comedy series was filmed within their own City Limits in the late '90s. Austin Stories’ cast was a roster of the best comics in town at the time, a list that included Matt Bearden, Laura House, Howard Kremer and Brad Pope. The show only lasted 12 episodes (most of which you can track down on YouTube, shh), and watching now it’s fascinating to see how much Austin has grown and changed.
You Wrote It, You Watch It / The State
Did you know that, a year before getting picked up as The State, the cast of the iconic sketch show had a short-lived show (hosted by Jon Stewart) where they performed viewer-submitted scenes? I didn’t, but I’d pay good money for a VHS copy of it. It almost makes up for the fact that The State itself only made it two seasons, despite producing some of the smartest, edgiest and best-written comedy on TV at the time.
Airing for a scant five months in 1997, Apt. 2F had all the ingredients of a cult hit comedy but never quite caught on. Written by and starring comics Jason and Randy Sklar (currently hosts of the podcast Sklarboro Country), the show featured guest spots from Stephen Colbert, Amy Poehler, Lewis Black, Zach Galifianakis and a bunch of other performers who’d eventually make it bigger than anyone at MTV clearly anticipated. Meshing stand-up and sketch with elements of a sitcom, the show centered on the Sklar brothers’ weird experiences around New York City.
The Sifl and Olly Show
Faring a little better in the 1997 season was Sifl and Olly, a trippy talk show hosted by the most endearing pair of socks (and one very dumb rubber glove). Created by childhood friends Liam Lynch and Matt Crocco, the show’s segments blended journalism (interviewing subjects like Death and an atom), music (“And now…ROCK!”), opinion (“Calls from the Public”) and straight up farce (“Precious Roy’s Home Shopping Network”).
While the bright colors and DIY aesthetic made it seem more like a public access effort than a major network offering, Sifl and Olly set the standard for the kind of absurdity later found in shows like Tim and Eric and Wonder Showzen. (If you’re completely sold already, here’s a four-hour long YouTube of S&O episodes. Enjoy.)
The Jenny McCarthy Show
Sure, now we know that women aren’t funny, but back in 1997 (that year again!) MTV disagreed, giving former Singled Out host Jenny McCarthy her own half-hour variety show. Directed by Jon Benjamin (of Bob’s Burgers, Dr. Katz, Home Movies and more), the show’s cast included Jon Glaser, Brian Posehn, Melissa McCarthy and Will Forte (Splitsider has all the details here).
Remembering the VJs
The MTV VJ was more than just a bubbly host; back in The Day, the faces of the network were opinionated and obsessive music fans who curated their shows carefully and helped launch hundreds of bands' careers. According to this handy Wikipedia list, there are “no MTV VJs at this time.” (I suppose when roughly 93 percent of your programming features an interchangeable cast of reality personalities, you don’t need to confuse your audience with even more in-yo-face bursts of conversation. But still!)
While there are plenty of VJs who made a big name for themselves — Carson Daly being perhaps the biggest example — there are a few that remained particularly close to our hearts over the years. Here are a few of them:
One of the original five VJs at MTV’s 1981 launch, Martha Quinn was the sweater-wearing girl-next-door to fellow host Nina Blackwood’s wild-haired wild child. Despite her demure appearance, Quinn held her own in interviews with some of the '80's loudest personalities, like Slash and Alice Cooper. For future fans of My So-Called Life (and, later, Daria), Quinn was MTV’s original brilliant, badass lady.
I remember falling asleep to episodes of 120 Minutes in the late '80s, when I was definitely too young to be watching that kind of stuff — so I feel I can safely blame some of my most deeply-rooted fears (of, for example, pretty much everything in The Cure’s “Lullaby” video) on show creator Dave Kendall. The arbiter of alterna-cool, Kendall knew even in the '80s that the network needed to give more airtime to indie artists, and he’s responsible for giving cult bands like Sonic Youth and The Pixies a big boost.
Arguably one of the first in the new wave of reality stars (if the “new wave” was the contest-centric crop of shows that came after The Real World heyday), "I Wanna Be A VJ" contest-winner Jesse Camp was like a cross between Stretch Armstrong and Steven Tyler. His unwavering enthusiasm for whatever mundane event he was covering was always complemented by a haze of confusion, making him — if nothing else — the most visibly high VJ of all time.
It’s sad that a love of Kennedy has to come with a caveat these days; the energetic activist, who spent the late '90s writing female-friendly books like Hey Ladies! Tales and Tips for Curious Girls, is more recently an outspoken advocate for more conservative causes. But! Back in The Day, she was amazing, hosting 120 Minutes’ slightly-more-mainstream little sister Alternative Nation and providing cutesy commentary on music news.