Who Are These Guys?

Welcome to local cable access, home to couch humpers, hemp zealots, part-time paranoiacs--and some of the best TV you'll ever see.

In an often-quoted 1961 speech to the National Association of Broadcasters, then-Federal Communications Commission Chairman Newton Minow issued a challenge: "I invite you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air... and keep your eyes glued to the set until the station signs off," Minow said. "I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland."

More than 35 years later, every couch potato with a remote control can testify to the enduring truth of that classic metaphor, and this is the story of one such torpid explorer's journeys beyond the bland and lumpen buffet of commercial television and into the backwaters of the wasteland where Baptists, hemp partisans, headbangers, conspiracy theorists, drag queens, apartment wrestlers, neo-vaudevillians, and New Agers preach, propagandize, and strut their stuff for an audience that in their dreams numbers in the thousands. This is the story of some of the brave men and women of local community-access television--the crackpots, zealots, and true believers who are reinventing TV every single day, right here in your own back yard.

Who knows who's watching this stuff, and who really cares? You have your access world and I have mine. There are so many programs and personalities on local community-access networks that deserve attention and recognition, and for so many wildly different reasons, that it is almost an exercise in cruelty to single out some. There are a number of worthy ethnic and cultural shows that address themselves to neglected local communities, including the Healthy Nations Native News Program, Somali Night, Eritrean TV Broadcast, Lao TV, and Vietnamese News. There is the archetypal and multiple-award-winning Mary Hanson Show, the longest-running community-access program in the state (it has aired weekly since 1980) and a virtual model for the community-information talk-show format, with topics ranging from "Sentencing Guidelines" to "Kids and Exercise." And of course you'll also find more than 25 different religious programs spread across the Minneapolis Telecommunications Network schedule (check out Patrice Winston's Turn or Burn), as well as the usual assortment of sketch comedies, music and commentary shows, and slickly edited noise-and-image collages. And that's just Minneapolis cable access; each metro-area community has its own network (for channel and schedule information call your local cable provider), and each of them is crammed with more 30-watt inspiration than you can shake a shtick at.

But let's be honest: The thing that made demistars of local cable-access producers and performers like Fancy Ray, Dr. Sphincter, and Viva and Jerry is the "What-the-hell-is-this?" factor. The remote control in the viewer's hand, while allowing him to sift television as his attention span sputters and flares, is also a powerful tool that can work in the access producer's favor. The challenge is in laying down a big enough puzzle that the viewer will pause momentarily in his stutter surf up and down the dial--the bigger the "What-the-hell-is-this?" factor, and the longer it takes to answer that question, the better the access program's chances are to capture the viewer's attention and imprint itself on his consciousness. The bottom line for most viewers is that while there may well be access programs that deserve their attention more than others, it is the shows that command their attention that they remember and return to.

My introduction to local access programming and easily the most memorable television I have seen in many years was the work of access underground legend Tim Johnson, whose shows pop up at random, and thus unpredictable, times on MTN. Watching one of Johnson's ultra-slow-motion videos of average people--mostly men, and mostly shirtless--running, rollerblading, and biking around the lakes to a throbbing wash of New Age or disco music made me an instant community-access junkie.

Johnson's work has a hypnotic, wholly surreal quality to it, and one feels at once almost guiltily complicit and inexplicably fascinated, seemingly spying from the bushes as these sweating bodies come lumbering or gliding slowly toward the camera, every muscle and tendon popping and straining, fat waggling, bare pectorals heaving, and glutei rolling in tight Lycra shorts. The captives of Johnson's camera grimace and wheeze and huff, and for 90 minutes they just keep flowing hypnotically along, oblivious of the fact that they are being recorded for future access ogling.

Johnson gives everybody his camera's complete and undivided attention, tracking them coming and going, and his "Fun in the Sun" installments (1996 and 1997 versions), as well as his most recent "The Athletic Man in Motion" (which adds slo-mo high school wrestling and swimming to the mix), are each seamless collections of long, panning shots, zooms, and dissolves. Johnson's stuff is fascinating on plenty of levels beyond the mere dreamtime eroticism of the everyday, although the producer is up-front about his motives: "Some people look at it as an interesting sort of movement study, or respond to the surreal aspects of it," he says. "Different audiences get a different reaction, but I do it for purely selfish and voyeuristic reasons.

"I like to watch, and on TV you get nothing but women, women, women. I tell people that this stuff is Baywatchwithout the women. My target audience is definitely men, and right from the beginning I obviously hit a hot button with that audience. But all sorts of people seem to love it. I'm making something that no one else dares to do."

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