Yet the fact remains that Drinking with Ian couldn't be further from mainstream television entertainment. What would the show, and its host, have to sacrifice to make the leap? In national primetime, could they still advertise "prenatal porn"—the latest frontier in child pornography via ultrasound imagery? Could Rans dress up like Mary Tyler Moore, and credit his camera crew with inventing crack at First Avenue in the '80s before selling it to the CIA? Could audience members hold up signs that say, "Unicorns killed Jesus, not the Jews"?
My first blurry encounter with Rans came a little more than two centuries after slave traders started bringing molasses to New England to make rum. It was the night of July 15, 2003, the debut of Minnesota's 2:00 a.m. bar time, and the extra hour of alcohol in our systems proved precipitous.
We'd both just seen the L.A. punk band X at First Avenue, and decided to hit O'Donovan's across the street, I with a female friend, Rans with his then-girlfriend. Inside the Irish bar, a horn-voiced buxom blonde approached the four of us, flirting like a billboard. Oddly enough, this overture didn't prove agreeable to the women at our table. A WWE screaming match ensued. Rans did nothing to help matters, yelling, "Hey, fake-tit chick!" at the stranger.
My lunchbox-wielding friend took the first swing at Fake-Tit Chick. Either that or she retaliated against the long fake nails clawing at her face. Whoever started it, the fight was over within 60 seconds, as a wall of security wordlessly swept us out to the sidewalk.
"That was a night of bad decisions," Rans remembers now. "It was fun, though. The glory time when you could drink until 2:00 a.m. and smoke. Like free love before AIDS."
Most people in the local rock scene recognize Rans even if they don't know him. He seems to have always been there, at every show, the thin guy in the '60s suit or bowling shirt with a strand of his pompadour hanging into an upturned beer glass. In fact, he moved here from Indiana, straight out of high school, in 1994. Named for the saxophonist in King Crimson and a now-obscure violin prodigy, Ian Josiah Rans was born 31 years ago in Bloomington, Indiana, and grew up in the tiny college town of Muncie. There, Dad ran a basement all-ages club in the '80s called the No Bar and Grill, so named because it had no bar and no grill. Jon Rans also owned the record store upstairs, Repeat Performance, and his wife Rita ran the Savoy vintage clothing boutique next door—one of the few places in town hiring goth girls with mohawks.
"Ian must have been nine years old, and he had a little skateboard," says Wendy Darst, a friend of Ian's who worked at Savoy during her anti-sun, pro-Sisters of Mercy phase. "Ian was always very composed. He was one of those kids who wasn't really a kid."
The Dead Milkmen, 10,000 Maniacs, and Yo La Tengo all played the No Bar—Darst's own band, Manwich, opened for Pussy Galore—and Ian could often be seen onstage, trading barbs with the likes of Mojo Nixon. "It was less dangerous for him than down where the slam dancing was going on," says his dad. "I could keep an eye on him."
Before Rans got his driver's license, he played his first real show singing for the Surreal McCoys at the Flying Tomato, a debut that also marked his father's last gig drumming with progressive rock group the Mystic Groovies. During Dad's set, Ian snuck out with his friends to steal the family's vintage Volvo station wagon and take it on a joyride.
"I think he gets a lot of his bad habits from me," says Jon now. "He's a good kid, just a little on the ornery side, and prone to have too much imagination."
'Drinking with Ian' began with a 1996 video titled Drinking with Troy and Ian, co-starring his friend Troy Duckett. It consisted of two young, chain-smoking friends doing 13 shots of Jägermeister and Goldschläger over the course of an hour, getting progressively stupider. The footage never saw the light of day until it aired in edited form in 2005, during Drinking with Ian's second season, and has since achieved YouTube immortality.
Onscreen, Rans looks younger than his 20 years, a mop of died-dark-red hair over his shy eyes and a cigarette in his nervous hand. Duckett has longer hair and a T-shirt with the Elvis-Nixon handshake photo under the words "WE'RE DEAD." After nine shots, he begins ranting against "pro-life" Blockbuster, and blurts, "I'm not an activist, but I'm a baby killer.... If I want to smoke crack, I'll smoke some [extended bleep] 20-pound bottle of crack."
"He had alcohol poisoning for a week, and I puked for two days straight," Rans says now. "But it was always in the back of my head: If I were to do a show, it would be like that. Over the years it was refined into a talk-show format."