When Glenn O’Brien’s TV Party Brought Klaus Nomi, Blondie & Basquiat to Public Access TV (1978–82)

“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. Vice put up 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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Blondie Plays CBGB in the Mid-70s in Two Vin­tage Clips

Klaus Nomi: The Bril­liant Per­for­mance of a Dying Man

David Bowie and Klaus Nomi’s Hyp­not­ic Per­for­mance on SNL (1979)

The Odd Cou­ple: Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol, 1986

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.

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (1)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Toad says:

    Bought a DVD of the Heavy Met­al episode–one that the Vice link you give cites as one of the “best”–somewhere a few years ago on a “huh, what’s this?” basis. It was, by my lights, com­plete crap, and not in a good way. A bunch of peo­ple you don’t know being drunk and stu­pid. They might as well have filmed them­selves wak­ing up the next morn­ing, rub­bing their eyes, and going back to sleep, for all the ener­gy and cre­ativ­i­ty that real­ly, real­ly did­n’t go into that par­tic­u­lar episode, at least.

    To each their own, of course, is always the rule.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.