By Jake Rossen
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"Let me clarify one thing," explains Tim Scott, the creator of the locally produced sports/comedy/variety TV grab bag Let's Bowl. "Our show has never been a public-access show."
Lest Scott's reaction seem somewhat defensive, let's put his achievements in perspective. At a time when scads of infomercials lumber across the post-prime-time landscape, Scott has managed to nestle a low-budget local program into a plum 1:05 a.m. Saturday night slot on KARE-TV (Channel 11). Moreover, the show's mixture of live bowling and impromptu wisecracks has been startlingly successful, generally prevailing in its slot and occasionally finishing with twice the ratings of multimarket, multimedia juggernaut Howard Stern.
Today Scott is chatting by cell phone from New York, where perceptions differ a bit, and where he's currently in negotiation for both a syndication deal with Hearst Entertainment and a development deal with MTV. "If you make a show in the Midwest, it's automatically considered a public-access show," he says. (In fact, after debuting on broadcast television, Let's Bowl did spend a season on cable access in 1995-96.)
Given the long, patchy history of locally generated television programming, a hazy memory in this supersized corporate era, you can forgive the cloistered execs for equating all independent television with the public-access ghetto. Independent music and film enjoy an often mythical yet readily acknowledged antiauthoritarian past, but television has always been seen as the tool of the Man, a box of fear disseminating consumerist palaver. Nor can an independent television producer mouth off with his ideals so freely--not with sponsors to please, and corporate sponsors at that.
Let's Bowl would have floundered years back if Scott hadn't flown down to Chicago, hassled an Anheuser-Busch ad rep who happened to be a fan, and snagged a $30,000 sponsorship from Budweiser. Having secured that cash, Let's Bowl topped the combined ratings of all its fellow shows on the Warner Bros. affiliate Channel 23 without the benefit of the network's deep-pocketed promotion or the endorsement of the WB's trademark capering, top-hatted frog.
Scott's idea to combine bowling and sideshow comedy dates back to the '80s, when he performed an internship at Bowl-o-Rama, a program that served up serious fare for the serious bowler. But he decided to attempt to pursue that concept only after fulfilling a stint as technical supervisor on Mystery Science Theater, where, he says, he learned "the only way you make your own money is if you make your own show."
Next Scott enlisted Steve Sedahl to play Chopper, one half of the powder-blue-jacketed commentators on Let's Bowl. The two had met during a stint at Combs' ValueVision, a precursor of the home shopping boom that later mutated into the Cable Value Network and was eventually snatched up by QVC. Scott had been a director and Sedahl an announcer.
"It's four in the morning, a caller would call in and [Sedahl] would say, 'You bought that 18-inch herringbone necklace. Is that for your girlfriend?'" Scott recalls. "And the guy would say, 'That necklace would look really good wrapped around my cock.' But Steve would rebound wonderfully, saying, 'Okay, let's take another caller.' He can talk about nothing forever and sound pretty good."
And essentially that's Sedahl's task. As sidekick Wally Hotvedt, Rich Kronfeld talks about nothing interminably; it's his job to sound adenoidally and obnoxiously ingratiating. This involves everything from providing color commentary on his bowel movements to insisting vehemently that he was a member of Flock of Seagulls--even offering up the "I Ran (So Far Away)" video as persuasive empirical proof. ("The Thompson Twins told me to invest all my money in the USFL and I lost a bundle," he grumbles.) Scott hooked up with the comic (stage name Dr. Sphincter) while working on a pilot for Comedy Central called Work Force. "It was basically COPS, only instead of following cops we followed plumbers, dental hygienists, people like that," Scott explains. The pilot was never aired.
And so, while Wally kvetches and Chopper sticks to the play-by-play, amateur contestants (and local actors) concentrate on the game at hand--hamming it up as the situation demands. (The series is shot at local lanes--Wallaby's in Hilltop, and Stahl House in St. Paul.) During the "Halftime" segment, local bands perform on the lanes, or the commentators wander off into misadventures.
And thousands tune in to watch. "It's not like every night is bust-a-gut funny," Scott explains. "It's light entertainment fare before you go to bed and have to get up for work the next day."
Unsurprisingly, the creator of Let's Bowl has an ambivalent attitude toward the sport (or is that "pastime"?) his program both celebrates and satirizes. "I don't bowl," he declares uncategorically, before a bit of prying uncovers the truth. Scott may not consider himself a bowler, but that doesn't keep him away from the lanes. He owns his own ball, heads down to the alley every month or two, and averages a 145 or so--more than enough to keep pace with most of his program's contestants.