"This is not a test!" the host shouts into his microphone. "This is an actual show!" If you lived in New York and had cable in the late 1970s, you may have witnessed it yourself — and you may well have needed the reminder, because this show neither looked nor felt like anything that ever aired before. A fixture on public access Channel D and Channel J from 1972 to 1982, it threw down a redefinition of televisual possibilities that hasn't just survived as a time capsule of the downtown Manhattan scene at its creative rolling boil, but retains its anarchic charge to this day. Welcome, whether you first tuned in back then or have only just tuned in on the internet now, to Glenn O'Brien's TV Party.
O'Brien, who co-created and presided over the show, didn't always shout, but when he did, he managed to retain his deadpan self-possession. He even kept his cool when hanging out, live on the air, with the regulars of a guest list including "David Bowie, David Byrne, Robert Fripp, the B-52s, Chris Burden, George Clinton, Iggy Pop, Steven Meisel, Mick Jones, James Chance, John Lurie, Klaus Nomi, Kraftwerk, the Screamers, Robert Mapplethorpe, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Nile Rodgers, Kid Creole, the Offs, Alex Chilton, the Brides of Funkenstein, Arthur Russell, David McDermott, and Charles Rocket, just to name a few." At its height, TV Party let its audience hang out with such luminaries almost every week as well — literally, if they managed to find their way to the studio.
Having attained subcultural fame as the first editor of Andy Warhol's Interview magazine, the Cleveland-born O'Brien also engaged in such straightforwardly countercultural efforts as writing for, and later editing, the infamous journal of the cannabis lifestyle High Times. That bit of status drew an invitation to appear on the early public-access variety program The Coca Crystal Show. The experience immediately inspired him to create one of his own, a strike against the threat to free speech he sensed when mass media meant just a few mainstream television channels. And so O'Brien, along with Blondie co-founder and guitarist Chris Stein, launched TV Party, a drug-fueled re-interpretation of Hugh Hefner's Playboy After Dark, "the TV show that's a party," as he put it in a memorably askew phrasing on its very first broadcast, "but which could be a political party."
Here we have a few particularly memorable TV Party evenings, including a performance by the not-of-this-earth proto-glam-rocker Klaus Nomi, an interview of painter Jean-Michel Basquiat (who became a regular presence on the show and a "little brother" figure to the crew), and an episode with Blondie (not just Stein but the whole band, including Deborah Harry, who would turn up on the show pretty often herself). Vice put up a TV Party best-of a couple years ago, which has let a new generation experience what now seems strikingly like a predecessor of the shows created for the internet video platforms they frequent today. It also includes a 90-minute documentary about the history of TV Party, which provides the necessary historical and cultural context for those unfamiliar with the New York O'Brien describes as "like a third-world country." Shot in the ghostly black-and-white one associates with 1970s video artists, its visual elements either psychedelically bleeding into or jaggedly cutting between one another, "the show could get abstract quickly," remembers O'Brien.
But in upholding its mission to erase the distinction between performer and audience, TV Party belongs as much to the late 70s as it does to the 21st century. It used to the fullest extent possible the freedom of public-access television, very much the Youtube of its day. (Certainly the callers-in could sound just as abusive as Youtube commenters.) It even ended in the highly modern fashion of not getting canceled, but simply fading away, the stretches between episodes growing longer and longer. "Maybe Chris and I will start it up again," O'Brien speculates in the documentary, but he presumably has his hands full with his latest talk show: Tea at the Beatrice with Glenn O'Brien, created especially for the internet. The sensibility may have changed — nobody fires up a joint on camera anymore — but the excitement of exploring uncharted media territory remains.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.