Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Groove Tube + TunnelVision

(R, Levitt-Pickman Film Corporation, 75 mins., theatrical release date: June 23, 1974)

(R, World Wide Pictures, 70 mins., theatrical release date: March 1976)

Before Saturday Night Live and SCTV, Channel One Underground Television tuned in to the irreverent potential of pop cultural satire. The brainchild of Bard College buddies Ken Shapiro, Lane Sarasohn & Chevy Chase, Channel One was a comedic troupe who crossed the mediums of theatre and television. The trio recorded 90-minute blocks of racy programming which was then aired on three closed-circuit sets suspended from the ceiling of their East Village "stage." Instead of seats, they had sofas, and the snack bar was replaced with a well-stocked refrigerator containing snacks and sodas. Audiences, critics and colleges became abuzz with hype surrounding Channel One, and a compendium of their most popular sketches was making the rounds under the name of "The Groove Tube."

Keep in mind that VCRs were a distant dream of the future, and though there was such a thing as cable television in 1972 when HBO was launched, Channel One's content was bawdy to the max. No self-respecting network would give Shapiro & Co. free reign to skewer the medium with as much free-minded puerility as they had demonstrated. So how did Channel One expand to the masses away from Greenwich Village and Manhattan?

The answer is simple: Channel One went cinematic.

The Groove Tube debuted in movie houses starting in 1974. Although the promotional budget didn't allow Shapiro to go the full William Castle and hang TV monitors in every screening room in America, it was an independent film success, just the same. Even after its initial run, you could've seen The Groove Tube double-billed with Flesh Gordon later in the 1970s and it was later loosed onto video via Media Home Entertainment and got regular pay-TV play, including on The Movie Channel. And I remember seeing it on both of those formats.

What is lost to most people was just how influential The Groove Tube proved to be. Later omnibus films like The Kentucky Fried Movie, Amazon Women on the Moon and Movie 43 are well-known in one capacity or another, but you had lesser variations sprouting immediately, too. Case in point: 1976's TunnelVision, which shared with The Groove Tube a bankable early appearance by Chevy Chase, who became a certified star thanks to Saturday Night Live. Alas, TunnelVision also spotlighted a handful of recognizable comic performers, including big names known from Second City and The Groundlings.

Aside from Chase, who appears twice in the film, The Groove Tube has only a couple of other names which are of instant recognition. The first is Richard Belzer, best known as Sgt. Munch from Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, but also a superstar of the stand-up comedy circuit who was immortalized as emcee both on film (Fame, Scarface) and in the Friar's Club. The third is Martin Kove, who had previously played the bumbling deputy in Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left, but would later become famous as the Cobra Kai dojo leader from The Karate Kid.

As for the big names peppered throughout TunnelVision, I'm going to hold off for a bit.

The main thing both these movies have in common is that they are period pieces which lampoon the average television programming of their time. There is a Putney Swope-style inclination toward uncensored, in-your-face advertising and storytelling where the prurience and scatology are left unchallenged by any standards & practices committee. In the post-hippie era of increasing cynicism and social upheaval, The Groove Tube and TunnelVision mock the bland, earnest constrictions of the commercials and sitcoms and newscasts familiar to the average TV viewer.

Don't kid yourself this is righteous disillusionment on the order of Gil Scott-Heron, who favored civil rights awareness over the lavish attention awarded to soap operas and celebrity. The blows these films land are about as superficial as their subjects, and their success depends entirely on your predilection for rampant bad taste, leering nudity and casual profanity. The Groove Tube, by dint of being the first of its kind, has a bit more counter-cultural curiosity to it than TunnelVision, particularly in skits involving openly explicit sex and drug use. The latter movie can't help but feel like an also-ran by comparison, especially given the increased volume of throwaway gags which don't reward one's avid attention.

Also counting against TunnelVision is that the movie boasts a flimsy framing device, looking ahead ten years into the future where the filmmakers believe 1980s audiences will be watching dirty-minded take-offs of distinctly 1970s entertainment. This is not exactly forward-thinking, nor particularly funny, as All in the Family will have been supplanted by Family Ties and children's entertainment will be inescapable. Furthermore, the plot involving station owner Christian A. Broder (Phil Proctor from the Firesign Theatre) being taken to trial by irate senators doesn't even live up to the juicy potential of foretelling the PMRC witch hunts and Video Nasties furors to come.

The Groove Tube kicks off with an amusing twist on the apes' discovery of the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey and a titles sequence which posits the TV set as the ultimate technological advancement. There is your sacred cow. Curtis Mayfield's "Move On Up" kicks into gear as the scene shifts to a pair of free-spirited young adults stripping and sprinting through the woods, the proverbial Gadda-Da-Vida, only for the lustful drifter to run smack into a policeman, buck naked and bewildered. This is indicative of Ken Shapiro's comedic approach to the remaining hour's worth of material.

Shaprio, a former child star whose first exposure was televised as the meddling kid passing by fast-talking huckster Sid Stone's booth on the Texaco Star Theater, uses his insider position to the best of his abilities. The Groove Tube works on the precise level of stylistic parody, taking off from established formulas and templates for maximum outlandishness. A send-up of static cooking tutorials, "Kramp TV Kitchen," finds Shapiro's somnambulant voice detailing a nutty recipe for "4th of July Heritage Loaf," with roundabout instructions that aggravate and confuse the faceless chef handling the load. A Rome apple is peeled only to be reconstructed with toothpicks, Bing cherries have their pits replaced with those cut from olives and there is enough gross overuse of vegetable shortening to put you off Crisco for life.

Shapiro appears in person at the start as Koko the Klown, an excitable Bozo doppelganger who mugs and honks his way towards "Make Believe Time," where he shoos all the "big people" out of the room with the aid of his Magic Monkey. He then removes his big red nose, lights up a j and reads requested pages from various erotica tomes like Fanny Hill and de Sade's Philosophy in the Bedroom. Even better is a brief commercial for "Babs & Roy," which puts Barbie & Ken through the paces of ill-fated matrimony replete with stifling domesticity, workplace adultery and psychiatric care.

Other mocking ads for vitamin supplements and toothpaste lay bare the latent sexuality of their forebears with as much vigor as their female actresses disrobe. Aside from "Babs & Roy," the highlights are Chevy Chase (seen previously in the "Geritan" ad with porn star Jennifer Wells) showing the Yellow Pages' "walking fingers" performing sexual intercourse and the testosterone-damaged "Butz Beer," in which an entire pub, manned by Marty Kove, breaks out into a violent frenzy at the drop of a glass. And then there's the infamous "Safety Sam" PSA about venereal disease, which gets its reliable testimony straight from the source. I will say no more.

The movie's extended bits are the "Channel One Evening News" as well as an episode of "The Dealers," a fictional show about two fly-by-day marijuana sellers unable to keep their heads above water. Shapiro plays the idealistic Boss and Richard Belzer is the gabby Rodriguez. Clearly, this is a precursor to the kind of comedy Cheech & Chong would popularize, and the gag involving the ingestion of pounds of grass is similar to one used in the duo's debut comedy album, on "Cruisin' with Pedro." But Shapiro seems focused more on the hard times faced by the dealers, with paranoia and poverty the defining characteristics of their misadventures.

Their first errand involving a glad-handing WASP is spoiled by the appearance of a silent witness who screams "Narc," and the duo barge into an occupied restroom desperate to flush their stash. On the drive to their next stop, a squad car tails them and even hits the lights, forcing them to eat handfuls more of their supply. Their only respite comes when they hide in a movie theater, where Rodriguez woos a female patron into wild sex and Boss clumsily tries to get close to her disinterested friend. The apex of Boss' nervous breakdown, waking from a psychedelic nightmare to chase away a thieving junkie, comes when he confesses that he wants to sleep with his oblivious partner, who instead offers him more reds to calm him down. The stinger essentially turns this into a Reefer Madness-style propaganda piece.

As for the nightly news, Shaprio plays anchroman Robert Elgin, who reports on the war breaking out in Suc Muc Dik, the latest madness from the White House (Belzer's president is a proto-Sandler manchild), the disastrous Russian spaceship launch (really just clips from old Commando Cody serials with correspondence), and the prostitution epidemic in NYC (Belzer plays the black transvestite who gets to work on his latest trick, the newsman also played by Shapiro). Once Robert signs off, there is another surrealist punch line which has to be seen to be believed.

The Groove Tube is a relic, indeed, but a very well-made relic, too. At a solid 74 minutes in length, both the individual parts and their sum don't overstay their welcome. Even at its most unabashedly tasteless (see "Brown 25" and "The International Sex Games"), the jokes are varied and betray a sharp knowledge of their subjects which the writers use to their advantage. The really refreshing thing about Shaprio and Sarasohn's efforts is that their comedy does resonate even after 40 years have passed, and that's mainly because for all their japery, a sense of showmanship is the guiding principle. Fitting that the movie ends with a pair of song-and-dance routines, Chevy Chase's a cappella rendition of "I'm Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover" and Ken Shapiro prancing down the Midtown streets crooning "Just You, Just Me" to various passersby.

What could have been really enervating is in fact quite entertaining, and it's a shame Channel One couldn't catch a break as its offspring catapulted into stardom. Alas, its 1976 bastard son TunnelVision marked the creative debuts of two people who would dominate the industry in the 1980s and onward. The first is director Neal Israel, who wrote the scripts for Police Academy, Moving Violations and Real Genius with Pat Proft and also made the ribald Tom Hanks vehicle Bachelor Party. The second is producer Joe Roth, who became chairman of 20th Century Fox in the late 1980s and then of Walt Disney Pictures immediately after, from 1994 until 2000. He was co-founder of Morgan Creek Productions with James G. Robinson and launched his own production company, Revolution Studios, in 2000.

But Roth was also the pitiful director of both Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise and Christmas with the Kranks. That coupled with the Police Academy franchise launched by Mr. Israel should tell you everything about the comedic pedigree behind TunnelVision. These were the guys who also gave you the duly forgotten Cracking Up (1977) and Americathon (1979), which squandered a fortune in comic and musical talent (George Carlin, Harvey Korman, Elvis Costello, Meat Loaf) for some of the cheapest laughs possible.

Their M.O. remains just as below-the-bar in this debut feature, which crams at least three times more gags into its 67-minute runtime than The Groove Tube, but manages to elicit far fewer laughs in the process. TunnelVision is even more brazenly un-P.C. than Ken Shapiro's earlier film to the point where the gags turn smug and loathsome. Whereas you could sense a framework and imagination behind even the low points from Shapiro's film, Israel and co-writer Michael Mislove expect your automatic laughter at such sights as a proctology school promo, replete with a row of hairy man-ass, a game show where the ultimate tournament is a fart competition (King Frat, this is not) and a gypsy-themed rip-off of All in the Family which is more outwardly coarse but infinitely less hilarious.

That particular lampoon even throws in a mincing gay stereotype in desperation, which coupled with a previous bumper for Curt Gowdy and his hunting team "stalking the wild faggot," reveals a hostile attitude undermining the overall comedy when contrasted with The Groove Tube. In that previous film's "Dealers" bit, the joke was that sexually-frustrated Boss was rebuffed by his "cute" companion Rodriguez ("You ever hear of gay lib?") because the latter guilelessly pleaded ignorance. The juvenile mentality of TunnelVision offends in the most asinine manner possible, without anything clever or clear-minded to compensate.

It takes a special incompetence to bungle nearly every surefire laugh it comes across, whether it be Leon Russell promoting a "marijuana-gram" or an interactive concert experience where audiences beat on the bands. Israel and co-director Brad Swirnoff demonstrate it time and time again. There's another send-up of the six o'clock news involving political chicanery and exaggerated world conflict, which is bad. There's a buddy-cop drama called "Get Head!" starring a mute John Candy who carries around his partner's dismembered dome, which is bald. There's a commercial for an "Ego-spray" deodorant which equally wastes the talents of Al Franken, here a long, long way from Stuart Smalley, and is simply arid. Even Chevy Chase's brief appearance is forgettable, which definitely could not be said for his parts in The Groove Tube.

Glimmers of talent do creep through a mere couple of the sketches, particularly a sexually-liberated send-up of Marlo Thomas and Mary Tyler Moore sitcoms which pairs Lynne Marie Stewart and Gerrit Graham, of all people. Stewart is recognizable as Miss Yvonne from Pee-Wee Herman's shows as well as Charlie's Mom on It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Graham had already proved his chops in Brian De Palma's early movies including as egotistical, speed-addled glitter rocker Beef in Phantom of the Paradise. These two combine their campy expertise for what is surely the two single funny minutes in this movie.

Sadly, I can't say the same thing about Joe Flaherty and Betty Thomas, who both later starred in the rude, crude and truly hilarious Used Cars (also with Mr. Graham), as the aforementioned quiz show contestants. Again, the premise should have been black comedy gold, as the two of them confess sordid secrets involving pedophilia and miscarriages for points. And once again, its execution is pitiful. They have electroshock lie-detecting sensors in their scalps (and later their anuses) which never come into play. What a waste of potentially good slapstick humor as well as its stars.

I've mentioned John Candy and Joe Flaherty (soon to be SCTV), Chevy Chase and Al Franken (of early and later SNL), Lynne Marie Stewart, Gerrit Graham, and Betty Thomas. TunnelVision's only curiosity comes from its large roster of familiar names, and there are minor roles for the likes of Laraine Newman, Howard Hesseman, Ron Silver (who has his own sketch playing a disreputable Spanish language teacher), Rick Hurst, and a young Danielle von Zerneck (later a star of La Bamba and Living in Oblivion, here eating out at a fast-food broccoli stand). Hell, even the film's gratuitous T&A quotient is filled by Dody Dorn, who didn't become a comedienne but had a healthy career as both a sound and film editor, working with James Cameron (The Abyss, T2) and Christopher Nolan (Memento, Insomnia).

TunnelVision could've thrown in Rick Moranis, Steve Martin, Albert Brooks, and Gilda Radner, and it still would've been an abomination. It's a blatantly cheap, flailing and ankle-biting attempt for the au courant by so-called humorists who are about as edgy as a softball. The movie's tagline is "Laugh or get off the pot," but TunnelVision is a pants-shitting embarrassment.

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