Message in a Bottle

For TV's Ian Rans, there's no such thing as an unhappy hour

Ian Rans downs his beer and announces his new idea: "The Biggest Motherfucker in Minnesota."

The host and namesake of Drinking with Ian is surrounded by the cable-access show's creative team, six guys hunched around a pitcher of Old Style at Jimmy's bar in Nordeast. The men are mostly in their 30s with short hair and T-shirts bearing the names of punk or metal bands. The jukebox is silent for the game on TV. The pull-tabs lady is oblivious.

"We want to try something 'user-generated,'" Rans continues. The idea is to hold a statewide contest. "Everybody knows several motherfuckers. Everybody has a favorite motherfucker. But now we finally get to separate the chaff from the wheat and get the biggest motherfucker."

Rans speaks in a hipster parody of unctuous TV voiceovers: rapid-fire, relaxed, transparently insincere. He looks like a young Malcolm McLaren with Conan O'Brien's hair, but has a deadpan stare all his own.

"What we need is people to make videos of their friend, who is the motherfucker," Rans says. "And then those go up on drinkingwithian.com, and everybody votes for it. The grand prize will be a station wagon full of beer and beef. Maybe some whiskey in there, too."

"I thought it was 'bastard'," says producer Brian Forrest, scratching his whiskers.

"MF, mofo—we can change it as we need to," says Rans. "My initial idea was 'bastard,' but 'motherfucker' seems more unisex, even though bastard is the more asexual term. We definitely want this to be female-centric."

"We'd like some female motherfuckers," Forrest agrees.

"Motherfuckers are the people who watch our show," says Ron Gabaldon, the director of Drinking with Ian. He wears a black pork-pie hat and glasses that magnify his eyes. "Motherfuckers and people who like motherfuckers. We are unified by this motherfuckerness."

Gabaldon says the grand prize should be taken away from the winner "for being such a motherfucker." Others suggest alternate vehicles.

"I'm down with a pickup truck, I'm down with a fucking wheelbarrow," says Rans. "I don't care, whatever. Here's a midget, he's full of beer, have at him."

"What about one of those cheap trailers?" says Forrest. "Like a box trailer? If you don't have a trailer hitch, you're screwed."

"Or make it a U-Haul," says Rans. "Where they have to return it at some point."

The guys have succeeded in cracking themselves up.

"The meat's going to go bad at any moment," Rans says, gasping.

Halfway through its fourth season, Drinking with Ian has found a surprising number of viewers with an appetite for rancid meat—or whatever else Rans is dishing up. Tonight's brainstorming session is preparation for an April 25 shoot at First Avenue in the club's Mainroom, the show's big jump up "to the big kids' table" from its usual 7th St. Entry stage next door. (Another shoot in the same venue happens June 1, and will be open to the drinking public.) Dubbed DWI for short—an abbreviation guaranteed to offend and entertain—the series has found cult success with a formula that's part late-night talk show, part pretaped sketch comedy. Even cable access airs the program at bedtime hours—see "Drinking Times" p. 19.

The meeting at Jimmy's produces such wholesome ideas in family entertainment as "Chippers the Menstrual Chimney Sweep." It's the latest in a DWI series of "lesser-known mythical creatures" that has included Philip the Abortion Stork and Gregory the Nocturnal Emissions Faerie. For Chippers, according to Gabaldon, the plan is to "drape some peach-colored fabric that looks like a vagina, and pour blood and meat on it."

For most of the conversation, Chris Maddock, host of "Death Comedy Jam" at Grumpy's downtown, stays pretty quiet. Then, suddenly, he pipes up: "How about 'Kids Say the Darnedest Things When They're Drunk'?"

The table explodes, and Rans starts talking logistics. "How many kids can we wrangle?" he says. "There's an assload of single mothers in our audience."

Maddock launches into a Bill Cosby impression—"He gave me two Jell-O shots!"—and soon everyone is speaking in the constipated rasp of the Cos. "Let's do the rest of this meeting in faux Cosby, shall we?" says Rans, not bothering to compete.

There's talk among this group about the show getting picked up by Comedy Central, following the local precedent of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Let's Bowl. While the meetings haven't happened yet, DWI already has connections. Gabaldon once worked with Lindsay Wagner on one of those ComfortRest commercials, for one thing. He jokes about it outside the bar as the group takes a smoke break.

"She's got her own gaffer," he says. "And you can't talk about The Bionic Woman."

"You can't even make the sound?" asks Dan Schlissel, the show's audience wrangler. He's referring to the late-'70s show's trademark ch-ch-ch-ch sound effect.

Schlissel owns Minneapolis-based Stand Up! Records, which has released recordings by alternative comedians such as David Cross, Maria Bamford, and Doug "show me where babies feed" Stanhope. A DWI DVD is due out on the imprint this summer, which can only raise the show's profile further.

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."

By '96, Rans was art director for a local music monthly, Cake. He worked in exchange for free rent on a basement apartment—until the publisher decamped to Hazelden. Rans brought most of the staff with him to a new magazine, Toast, which he published for two years. By the time it folded, he had already made the news without anyone knowing his name.

On April 1, 2000, a press release arrived at 20-odd news outlets announcing that First Avenue was closing and moving to Blaine. The legendary club would now be called 101st Avenue.

"It was April Fool's, and I was sitting there at five o'clock, bored out of my mind," remembers Rans. "I hadn't heard of any good pranks. So I emailed [editor] Todd Bennington at Toast, and said I wanted to put together a press release that First Avenue was moving." Bennington added such details as First Avenue's plan to take over an abandoned Supervalu. Then Rans faxed the local media on a Saturday night, and fell asleep.

"I'd forgotten about it until Monday morning, when Todd woke up and read something in the Star Tribune about 'ethics in journalism,'" says Rans. On Sunday morning, WCCO Channel 4 News had showed up with a crew in front of First Avenue, and reported the hoax as solemn fact, even showing Purple Rain footage to mark the event.

"Heads fucking rolled at WCCO, which I feel really guilty about," says Rans. "But I even put the real contact name and phone number, and nobody did anything to check the sources."

Days later, Rans got a call from First Avenue manager Steve McClellan. "I honestly thought I was going to jail," says Rans. "Instead he hired me to do all their public relations."

Rans has become one of the few local icons associated with the club—though more on Fancy Ray's level than Prince's. He's hosted First Avenue's crazed annual Halloween party for the past four years, dressing as Max Headroom and the yellow-suit-era Bowie. His all-time favorite costume on the floor?

"Hermaphrodite in a box," he says. "It was this girl who had a cardboard box and three holes with curtains. You put your hand in here, and there's a boob. You put your hand in here, and there's a boob. You put your hand in here, and there's a dildo. It was such a great concept."

Many of his Drinking with Ian collaborators were regulars at Punk Karaoke, which Rans ran out of Tubby's in Northeast for two years, from early 2002 through the end of 2003. Swiping the idea from similar nights in New York and L.A., he mixed out the vocals of punk mp3s on his laptop. Today he's master of ceremonies for Wednesday trivia night at Pizza Lucé in downtown Minneapolis, and seems game for just about any gig holding a mic. "I hosted an employee drag show at the Saloon," he says. "For some reason they asked me, a surly straight guy."

Meanwhile, Rans has turned down job offers that he probably should have taken: art director for Epitaph Records in the late '90s, bass player with Indiana pal Kristopher Roe's band the Ataris. "This pop-punk thing is played out," Rans told friends at the time. A year later, the Ataris were all over MTV2.

"He's somehow managed to not have a real job in the 12 years I've known him," says Tony Zaccardi, bassist in the local band Kruddler, "and he's always had an angle on getting free beer."

Today, Rans and Drinking with Ian co-creator Ollie Stench (a.k.a. Brad Beving) drink for free on camera, thanks to sponsors Phillips Distilling and Grain Belt beer, two companies willing to back a sardonic TV show about alcohol consumption. In a broadcast era that has left sozzled icons such as Dean Martin far behind, DWI is bracing stuff. WB affiliate KMWB (Channel 23) originally planned to broadcast the series premiere in January of 2004, but station brass yanked it after discovering that the content was true to its title.

"I think that the stigma that's gone along with drinking in the past 10 years is unbelievable," says Rans. "I think we should be flip about it. Because everybody wants to be politically correct. Everybody's worried about drunk driving. Everybody's worried about killing people because of bad decisions. When in reality, our show is about hanging out and drinking in a bar, at night."

Bar culture and the outside world, says Rans, are two different things. "What happens in a bar, if you do it in a different time and a different locale, it's the most scandalous thing ever," he says. "The simple act of drinking beer and the occasional shot now, it's how we look at doing coke 20 years ago. I think we've sensitized ourselves so that anything vaguely dangerous is frowned on. I mean, it's beer, man!"

 

A week after the meeting at Jimmy's, producer Brian Forrest is pressing his face into the ass of director Ron Gabaldon. Standing barefoot in front of Forrest on a plastic tarp, Gabaldon wears a pointy green hat, a foamy white beard, and a red-striped shirt with suspenders. He holds a pipe in one hand and a pickax in the other. The producer and director have backed off their threat to stage a skit with Chippers the Menstrual Chimney Sweep. Replacing Chippers is "Angstrom the Vaginal Gnome," and Gabaldon is fully in character.

Crouching behind him is Forrest, holding two boots on a stool to give the illusion of short legs—think Tim Conway's Dorf. "It's not what it looks like!" says Forrest when I walk into the studio at Northwest Community Television in Brooklyn Park. His voice slightly muffled by buttocks, he adds, "I have a B.A."

Picking up the scene again, Gabaldon declares, "I love to sing!" His helium voice sounds like Jello Biafra crossed with a Smurf. (At Punk Karaoke, Gabaldon made a habit of covering the Dead Kennedys' "Stealing People's Mail.")

"We gnomes are a right jolly bunch of fellows," he continues. "And there's nothing more satisfying than a rollicking tune with your elbows up in the girlie sauce."

Draped two feet behind the gnome is what looks like a pink tablecloth spattered with blood—corn syrup and food coloring, it turns out. The folds have been tucked into the shape of the female anatomy. Forrest climbs a portable staircase behind the cloth and picks up a big white bucket. As the camera on the tripod rolls, he pours the fake blood over Gabaldon's dancing gnome, who picks away at the virtual sugar walls. The liquid weighs down the beard, which begins to hang off his face. Soon his feet are sticking to the goo on the tarp.

Forrest was making instructional videos for major corporations when Rans approached him five years ago with the idea of doing Drinking with Ian. Two things immediately struck the videographer—the title, which he loved, and the fact that the show would offer so many opportunities for "roll in" sequences shot by Minnesota filmmakers.

"I never thought it would last four seasons," Forrest says, wiping cherry-colored goop off his hands. "I thought, 'We'll do six of these, and have a few laughs.' Now people are sponsoring it—Pizza Lucé, the Onion."

Since Dillinger Four's Paddy Costello stumbled onstage for the first episode, guests have included the North Star Roller Girls, local Guardian Angels, Fancy Ray himself, City Pages writers Diablo Cody and Melissa Maerz, and a broad range of Minnesota bands—the Awesome Snakes, MC/VL, the God Damn Doo Wop Band, the Mighty Mofos. But the show's surreal comic bits are what sets the program apart from the local-music-themed Nate on Drums, which cracked commercial television two years ago on KSTC-TV, Channel 45.

For one of his favorite shorts, the "Dictator sketch," Gabaldon dressed up in fatigues, a big mustache, and a beret. "You know how it's a craze for suburban couples to adopt a child from a third-world country?" Gabaldon explains. "By some snafu of paperwork, this particular couple inadvertently got a third-world dictator instead. So I walked around saluting traffic."

Shooting at a playground, he started chasing children around with a riding crop. "The kids just thought it was hilarious," says Gabaldon. "I'm sitting on a swing next to this one kid, and his mother was yelling at him, 'Get over here, stay away from that man.' 'Mom, he's all right, I'm just talking.' We just sat there and chatted for a little while, and I kept saying, 'I could have your family killed.' 'No you can't!' 'Yes I can.'"

Back in the cable studio, before the two men wrap the vaginal gnome sequence, Gabaldon needs to mime an action scene that would leave Stanislavsky at a loss: Angstrom is supposed to be batting back a penis that's attempting to enter the vagina—"Hit it with your ax," says Forrest. Putting on a brave face, Gabaldon turns to the camera, his voice helium again.

"You see, sometimes, I'll be in there working away, and along comes some mushroom—" He loses the line.

"Sometimes I'm working away inside the woman hole—" He pauses again.

"Sometimes when I'm working away inside the woman mines, along comes some guy to give me a mushroom tattoo," he hollers, nearly singing the lines. "And I say, 'Ahoy, there, I've got work to do! There's slopping to be done! Get your jollies some other time why don't ya!'"

When they're finished, Gabaldon strips to his underwear and walks across the room in paper-towel shoes, then washes his hair and body in a sink in the corner of the studio. "Could I wrap this fake vagina up in plastic?" Forrest asks. Gabaldon says sure, and they gather up everything in the tarp like killers disposing of evidence at a crime scene.

 

"Dearly beloved, we are gathered here to drink to this thing called life."

Rans is onstage at First Avenue, his voice flat as Prince's boobs. He's wearing a ruffled shirt, and riffing on the speech that opens "Let's Go Crazy," which also opens the 1984 film Purple Rain, a movie forever associated with the club surrounding him. A familiar organ part backs him up, mimicking the song.

But Rans's voice is chesty rather than Princely, and he eats his consonants. His machine-gun mumble is part of his charm—he doesn't seem to care if you hear, much less get his jokes, which might be why he sometimes thanks the audience for laughter with a raised eyebrow.

Rans plows through the Prince speech, then walks over to his couch. Rans is more a reactor than an actor, and seems relieved to get gag #2 out of the way—a Morris Day-style glimpse into a mirror held up by Haiku Jim.

Finally, he cedes the spotlight to "bartender of the stars" Ollie Stench. Balding, round, and bespectacled, Stench also hosts KFAI-FM's Radio Riot and fronts a band called the Ed Gein Fan Club with Rans on bass—though they've played only nine gigs in the past 12 years. Stench edits DWI, but seems equally at home on camera.

Having previously concocted drinks such as the Sex in the Dumpster Behind the Skyway Show Lounge and the Dead Nazi Sympathizer, Stench says his new cocktail might actually be recognized when you order it from a bartender: a Root Beer Barrel 1999. Hovering above him is a camera placed on a crane—the big gun for this special Mainroom shoot.

"We got a lot of compliments on that crane," Rans says afterward. "People were in fear of being decapitated."

Rans drinks with his audience—"Salut"—and welcomes guest Patrick "the Spiking Viking" Olsen from Channel 5 and 93X. "You're damn near unavoidable," Rans says to his guest. "You're kind of like me that way."

"I haven't seen this many drunks in one room since I was court-ordered to go to that AA conference," says Olsen.

"And the great thing is," says Rans, "if you're drinking, there's twice as many of them."

Later in the day's shoot, Rans gets his first look at the pretaped footage of the Vaginal Gnome—and appears genuinely taken aback. "When you see it on the big screen, you're kind of confronted with The Fear," he says later. "Maybe everybody was right when they told me I shouldn't do this."

Rans talks a lot about The Fear. And although it can mean different things at different times, it's obviously a force he reckons with. "I think the show actually made me drink less, oddly enough," says Rans, when I ask him later if he has a drinking problem. "We all at some point in our lives drink too much, and can't really remember what we did the night before. But when you do it in front of five cameras and an audience of 200 people, The Fear that washes over you when you wake up the next day is paralyzing."

When he looks at older episodes of Drinking with Ian, he sometimes feels as if he's watching a stranger onscreen: "What's this drunken moron going to do next?"

Onstage at First Avenue, Rans turns from Olsen to the club's giant video monitor to watch another concept take form in front of an audience.

"Hi, I'm Ian, of television's Drinking with Ian," begins the guy onscreen, walking toward the camera against an outdoor backdrop of trees in a park.

"A lot of people know I can be a real bastard," he continues. "See, I have done things, and screwed over both friends and family alike, but they've come to expect it out of me. I don't think they'd like me as much if I went all soft on them. You see, I think there is a little bastard inside all of us."

A group assembles behind him, one by one, like in some hokey political campaign commercial, each person explaining to the camera why he or she is a bastard. "I'm sorry I sold your Dave Matthews box set to buy cigarettes," says Gabaldon, wearing a yellow hard hat, "but really, I was doing you a favor."

"I sell insurance," says Forrest. The audience laughs.

Rans explains the rules of the "Biggest Bastard in Minnesota" contest, and ends his spiel with a would-be catchphrase: "Because deep down, we're all bastards!" The group shouts the last three words with him. Then cast members and extras break into play fighting, and Forrest musses the star's hair.

Rans winces and glances behind him, then shakes his head. "What a bunch of bastards."

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