Watch an Episode of TV-CBGB, the First Rock ‘n’ Roll Sitcom Ever Aired on Cable TV (1981)

For a good long while, or at least a few decades, the best things on TV in the U.S. hap­pened out­side the major broad­cast and nation­al cable net­works. And like a great many oth­er cul­tur­al hap­pen­ings of the pre­vi­ous cen­tu­ry, you would have to live in New York to expe­ri­ence them. I mean, of course, the weird, won­der­ful world of Man­hat­tan pub­lic access cable TV. Here you could watch, for exam­ple, Glenn O’Brien’s TV Par­ty, cre­at­ed by the tit­u­lar host as “a drug-fueled re-inter­pre­ta­tion of Hugh Hefner’s Play­boy After Dark”—as we not­ed in a recent post—and fea­tur­ing the most cut­ting-edge artists and musi­cians of the day.

Around the same time, Andy Warhol con­duct­ed his ver­sion of a celebri­ty inter­view show on local cable, and as the banal info­tain­ment of day­time talk show and 24-hour-cable news devel­oped on main­stream TV, a dozen bizarre, hilar­i­ous, raunchy, and ridicu­lous inter­view and call-in shows took hold on New York cable access in the years to fol­low (some of them still exist).

I hap­pened to catch the tail end of this gold­en era, which tapered off in the nineties as the inter­net took over for the com­mu­ni­ties these shows served. But oh, what it must have been like to watch the thriv­ing down­town scene doc­u­ment itself on TV from week-to-week, along­side the leg­en­dar­i­ly flam­boy­ant Man­hat­tan sub­cul­tures that found their voic­es on cable access?

Quite a few peo­ple remem­ber it well, and were thrilled when the video at the top emerged from obscu­ri­ty: an episode of TV-CBGB shot in 1981, “an odd glimpse,” writes Mar­tin Schnei­der at Dan­ger­ous Minds, “of a CBGB iden­ti­ty that nev­er took shape, as a cable access main­stay.” It is unclear how many episodes of the show were shot, or aired, or still exist in some form, but what we do have above seems rep­re­sen­ta­tive, accord­ing to two Bill­board arti­cles describ­ing the show. The first, from July 11, 1981, called the project “the first rock’n’roll sit­u­a­tion com­e­dy on cable tele­vi­sion.”

Cre­at­ed by CBG­Bs own­er, Hilly Kristal, the show aimed to give view­ers slices of life from the Bow­ery insti­tu­tion, which was already famous, accord­ing to Bill­board, as “the club that pio­neered new music.” Kristal told the trade mag­a­zine, “There will always be a plot, though a sim­ple plot. It will be about what hap­pens in the club, or what could hap­pen.” He then goes on to describe a series of plot ideas which, thank­ful­ly, didn’t dom­i­nate the show—or at least what we see of it above. The episode is “90% per­for­mance,” though “not true con­cert footage,” Schnei­der writes.

After an odd open­ing intro, we’re thrown into a song from Idiot Savant. Oth­er acts include The Roustabouts, The Hard, Jo Mar­shall, Shrap­nel, and Sic Fucks. While not among the best or most well-known to play at the club, these bands put on some excel­lent per­for­mances. By Novem­ber of the fol­low­ing year, it seems the first episode had still not yet aired. Bill­board quotes Kristal as call­ing TV-CBGB “one step fur­ther in expos­ing new tal­ent. Radio and reg­u­lar tv aren’t doing it. MTV is good, but it’s show­ing most­ly top 40.”

Had the show migrat­ed to MTV, Schnei­der spec­u­lates, it might have become a “nation­al TV icon,” ful­fill­ing Kristal’s vision for a new means of bring­ing obscure down­town New York musi­cians to the world at large. It might have worked. Though the sketch­es are lack­lus­ter, notable as his­tor­i­cal curiosi­ties, the music is what makes it worth­while, and there’s some real­ly fun stuff here—vital and dra­mat­ic. While these bands may not have had the mass appeal of, say, Blondie or the Ramones, they were stal­warts of the ear­ly 80s CBGB scene.

The awk­ward, strange­ly earnest, and often down­right goofy skits por­tray­ing the goings-on in the lives of club reg­u­lars and employ­ees are both some­how touch­ing and tedious, but with a lit­tle pol­ish and bet­ter direc­tion, the whole thing might have played like a punk rock ver­sion of Fame—which maybe no one need­ed. As it stands, giv­en the enthu­si­asm of sev­er­al YouTube com­menters who claim to have watched it at the time or been in the club them­selves, the episode con­sti­tutes a strange and rare doc­u­ment of what was, if not what could have been.

via Dan­ger­ous Minds

Relat­ed Con­tent:  

Take a Vir­tu­al Tour of CBGB, the Ear­ly Home of Punk and New Wave

Pat­ti Smith Plays at CBGB In One of Her First Record­ed Con­certs, Joined by Sem­i­nal Punk Band Tele­vi­sion (1975)

CBGB is Reborn … As a Restau­rant in Newark Air­port

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

Ian McK­ellen Recites Shakespeare’s Son­net 20, Backed by Garage Rock Band, the Flesh­tones, on Andy Warhol’s MTV Vari­ety Show (1987)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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