Without public access television the world might never have discovered Elvira, Bobby Flay or Tom Green. Robin Byrd would remain frozen in time as a minor character from Debbie Does Dallas, instead of a reliable, if unsatisfying, source of free, unscrambled T&A on NYC TV.
What the world giveth the FCC has not always been able to take away, given a labyrinthine tangle of deregulation orders, public decency laws and local broadcasting agreements. Despite the best efforts of parental watch groups, in much of America, it's still possible for anybody to get at least five minutes of airtime, and often even a regular show – no matter how offbeat. Production values may be limited, but that's a small price to pay for complete artistic freedom, right?
Fans of the Wayne's World movies or the '90s-era "Goth Talk" segments on SNL may not realize how closely art imitated life. Today, the very concept of public access TV may be seen by some as a quaint anachronism, a holdover from the dark rabbit-ears years, before YouTube made the sharing of awkward moments and wanton insanity so much easier.
But now we look back, into the golden age of public access television, at some of the most memorable moments:
Speak Out With Ken Sander
More than 10 years before 4chan, a bunch of New Yorkers punked en masse a guy who asked the public an honest question. It was 1990, and Ken Sander asked if New Yorkers should be allowed to carry handguns. The public access host should arguably have won an Emmy for his steely nerve and rapid handling of one prankster after another, shrugging off the rudest of comments while never breaking a sweat. Here's to you, Mr. Public Access Champion!
Cooking with Merrill Howard Kalin Show
You cwunchit up cause you get the lettuce more better tastee.
Jerry-Jer, aka the Senator, aka Chain Face, aka the Tampon Man
People in Fairfield County, Conn., still talk about Jerry-Jer. Even though his reign of terror on Bridgeport public access is about 10 years in the past, "the Senator" is a hard guy to forget. Connecticut is more known for white picket fences and Martha Stewart than "die lists" or extreme facial piercings. "Warning, the following program is offensive to everyone in the known universe, therefore put your parents to sleep before you pump the volume," the screen warns before Jerry-Jer comes on. Some of the good folk in the Constitution State are still hiding from their TVs as a result.
Goth Public Access
Remember Chris Kattan in "Goth Talk"? Well the real host of Goth Public Access is even more awkward than SNL's Prince of Sorrows. "Welcome viewers and ghouls," stutters the guy who looks like he works at your local Pizza Hut. "Please keep your hands inside the car ... We don't want any loose limbs," he haltingly warns. I'm not sure what's scarier, when mini-Marilyn Manson messes up the lines to his evil dark poetry or when his frumpy guest makes cat claw gestures.
Dance Oly Dance
If you ever have the good fortune of visiting lovely Olympia, Wash., on a Friday night at 8:00, tune in to Thurston County TV, and behold the splendor that is Dance Oly Dance.
Former porn star Robyn Bird has a long history of clashes with the authorities, not to mention prudes conservative groups. Her cable access show is a mix of banal and intimate talk, scant clothing and nude gyrations. And, because as Bird explains, "The worst part of sexual education is being uneducated," she mixes in some safe sex messaging for good measure. Like an explanation of how to make a dental dam from an ordinary condom. Who says kids can't learn anything useful from TV?
Part of the many treasures that could be found on Atlanta Public Access TV. In this episode Alexyss talks about Vagina Power vs Penis (PENUS!) Power... with her mother.
Baron Ambrosia's Bronx Flavor
What Esquire calls "a mad cross between Ali G, Anthony Bourdain and a blaxploitation pimp," Baron Ambrosia travels around the Bronx in his mauve open-topped roadster (complete with chandelier), sampling the food of the area's many diverse immigrants. The Baron is the alter ego of Connecticut-born Justin Fornal. (Apparently people from Connecticut are too good for regular TV.) "He's wearing a purple suit and a top hat, and he's a bumbling madman," says the creator. The revolution of flavor is upon us!
John Kilduff's Let's Paint TV
An accomplished artist with an MFA from UCLA, John Kilduff started a seemingly innocuous show on Los Angeles public access in 2001. Let's Paint TV was intended to teach people how to oil paint. But then things turned batsh** insane. Kilduff would show viewers how to paint all right, or carve a pumpkin, say ... but while he was huffing and puffing on a treadmill, blending drinks, cooking dinner and taking calls from the audience, a large percentage of whom hated on him with a passion. Throw in the frenetic camera work and loopy colors, and you've got a YouTube goldmine.
The Spirit of Truth
The West Coast spiritual counterpart to Jerry-Jer's insanity just may be Los Angeles public access televangelist Don Vincent.
A preacher man who says, "Repeat it after me beotch, I come in the name of Jesus," the Reverend Run-Away Now reminds us that God Almighty is "ruler of heaven and Earth, and every goddamned thing in between." Dropping F-bombs and a funky soundtrack, Vincent is another true American original.