Sprouting between the channels

The garden of public access TV is anything but secret.

For an entire week, I watched only public access TV. We’re not talking PBS shows about mushrooms in the rainforest and girls in cargo pants traveling in Europe and mispronouncing several versions of “excuse me.”

What I watched was Minneapolis Television Networks, a hodgepodge of shows made by anyone who walks into their studio on Southeast Main Street. Some choose to take their free filmmaking classes and cart around town in their production van, and some sit in the rooms in the studio and stare at the camera like it’s their waiting lover, or their cooling dinner.

To many, public television is cathartic. They can tell their life stories, reveal that their kid’s friend got shot eight times, how they got their buff bod, their master’s degree, or $500 for selling their soul on eBay. It can act as a street vendor of individualism, roping in whoever might walk by, hoping they stay a minute as they channel surf.

To others, public television is a means of keeping a community together. Ever notice that there are basically zero shows on television about recently migrated families who don’t speak English? The Somali community isn’t exactly represented on “Gossip Girl.”

For a week, I explored the climate of public TV. No “Top Modelthons” for me. I even gave up my “No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain” lunch hour. My experience culminated in a late-night watch-whatever’s-on marathon. Sure, it can get tricky to keep the fingers from channel surfing, but with the right beer and snacks, you can feel right at home. In case you venture to try, I provided a recipe for public access quesadillas, which I like to pair with a Blue Moon or two.

Adieu Mr. Bourdain and Ms. Banks, it’s time for a world of marijuana enthusiasts and city council meetings.


9:00 p.m.
VIVA AND JERRY’S COUNTRY VIDEOS

“Minnesota is full of Norwegians, doncha know?” Viva and Jerry remind the audience from behind a table full of knickknacks. Troll heads, flower hats, and a “Norwegian chain saw” (a saw with its blade replaced by a chain) are brought to life by this couple of married country music VJs.

Jerry, with a grin on his teddy-bear face, puts the flower on his head and calls himself a pothead. Viva explains more rules about being Norwegian. “You can say ‘uff-da’ if you’re eating hot soup, with a runny nose,” she instructs.

A joyful reminder of regular TV appears in the grinning, roly-poly form of Andrew Zimmern from the Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods.” Spend an hour watching him eat $100 dollar spoonfuls of caviar in Russia and win scrap-meat kabob eating contests in Japan. Reveling in their common Minnesotan heritage and love of tomfoolery, there were a few hugs.


10 p.m.
DEMOCRACY NOW

A news show whose logo features a wrist-pumping statue of liberty is on next. Here, you shall see what MTN’s classical-music driven ads are promising: the First Amendment on screen. The show launches into an interstate satellite discussion about Barack and Hillary. I begin to feel a bit of homesickness for Comedy Central as I realize that I am missing John Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Where’s “tonight’s word,” and my irreverent Rob Corddry?


11:00 p.m.
LABOR BEAT

Next up is a screening of a protest in Washington. “That whiff of fascism has become a stench of fascism,” is the update. An ex-soldier gives a speech about Guantánamo. I’m starting to see a consistently anti-war vibe in the absence of Rupert Murdoch-sponsored programs.


12:30 a.m.
FRIENDSHIP SET TO MUSIC

“Just another polka, Holy smokah,” a DJ booms to a roomful of hoop skirt-wearing 70-somethings who are square dancing from man to man. I find the title of this show somewhat misleading. I was expecting a repeat of a show about elementary school kids whose teachers got them to sing songs about recycling and math problems. (There is something fascinating about how teachers can make children pretend to care about such things via song.) My attention span wanes at the prospect of watching an hour of square dancing. I remind myself that all I’m missing is Carson Daly and his spray tan. There are fates worse than boredom.


1:30 a.m.
POETV

Yes! The trippy poetry show. I have only seen this show once before, when I woke up at 3 a.m. and found my boyfriend entranced by an existential poem set to rainbow people floating around the screen.

Unfortunately, no gifted poets are calling the show tonight.

A little boy calls in and forgets the words to “Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear.” A stoned guy calls in, confused by the bright lights. He improvs a poem about apples, rhyming apple with “tapple,” and “scrapple.” Some one else calls in and proposes a threesome with the host, Hamil. All the confused people and loopholes in space-time floating around the screen make me sleepy.

Good night, Minneapolis.


THE GENIUSES OF PUBLIC TV

Public TV is like a garden. Its landscape can be anything, depending on who is willing to get into the soil. To further investigate, I chatted with a few of the driving forces behind the Television of the People.

(“La tele de la gente,” as Che might have called it).

1. HAMIL

“There’s a voyeuristic appeal,” producer Hamil Griffin-Cassidy proposed, explaining why so many University students follow his call-in shows.

I had most recently seen Hamil in silhouette form, next to a girl with blonde dreads as they were fading in and out of acid trips of video editing. If you’ve never seen “PoeTV,” you might have caught his hands placing letters on the board of call-in Scrabble, or heard him being yelped at by Viva and Jerry as he edits their country music show.

While most of his shows are postsundown, Hamil also works at MTN as his day job.

“I got involved in TV because in high school I went to cable access and started taping poetry readings and putting them on TV. It seemed in the spirit of public access,” he explained. Now he does community events programming, taping city council meetings and award ceremonies.

“It’s funny because I hear a lot of speeches by people who are really excited about going to college. Now that I’m done with school, it’s interesting to look back at people’s expectations.”

The spirit of higher-ed is caught in many of his programs, as people call in to Scrabble begging him to spell the word “marijuana.”

“You can hear them taking bong rips,” he added. “Sometimes they just call and cuss me out.” Or try to seduce him, if I remember correctly.

Dealing with so many confused callers, Hamil keeps his Scrabble laid back. “The dictionary is a little too narrow for late-night play,” he said. “My favorite word we’ve made up is ‘s- -t ragu.’ “

2. VIVA

Viva met Jerry at Lee’s Liquor lounge 20 years ago.

“I didn’t even like him because he was short. He planted a kiss on me and I got goose bumps,” she giggled on the phone as Jerry watched TV in the background.

Their love-at-first-smooch blossomed into 18 years of VJ-ing the country music that began my MTN marathon. I asked if their collections of troll toys and Norwegian jokes were references to their heritage.

“I’m from Estonia,” Viva explained. “And Jerry’s Norwegian, but he’s taking pills for it.”

“I can’t say enough about public access,” she raved. “We thought our show would run maybe six weeks and that’s it.”

From what I saw, it seemed that their banter was more the spotlight stealer than the odd video or five that was played in their hour-long show. Viva explained that since they began in 1990, the country music scene has become less accessible to them.

“Kenny Chesney was our first interview back in 1991. He was very humble, very nice,” she began. “Eighteen years later we don’t get to run his videos anymore.”

While fame might have changed a thing or two for Chesney, Viva and Jerry remain loyal to their fans. People who watch their show can salute them with a silent handshake in the form of a thumbs up. The thumbs up is recognition of Cliff, a character played by Jerry’s dressed-up thumb.

“Cliff is going to get married on air!” Viva said.

Approaching their 800th show, their fan base is getting larger and larger. “The Daily Show” flew out to do a story on them, and they were also guests on “The Maury Show.” Now that I think of it, I might have seen Jerry doing a chicken dance on Stewart’s “Moment of Zen” credit roll.

I asked her if she had any tips for those with prospects of public access fame.

“Don’t be a phony,” she advised. “Be yourself, double chins and everything.”

3. THE NANCY BOYS

“Our biggest audience is straight women,” the Nancy Boys told me. They hypothesize that their show, a variety hour starring their many decked-out drag personas, appeals to suburban housewives because of its spiritual themes. One of their segments is reviewing self-help and spiritual books, listing “Conversations with God” and “The Law of Attraction” as some of their favorites.

“The women will just come up to us at Target and rave about our show!”

The many personas, from Barbara Dahling to Test Tube Tina, are played by Danny K. and Ronny Day, two long-term partners who film the show at their house in Eagan.

“We met at Blanche’s piano lounge,” Ronny said. “I saw him at a table and I thought, ‘Wow he’s cute.’ I started singing ‘What are you doing the rest of your life’ right at him, and it must have worked.” They’ve been together nine years, and find it important to mention that they were born in the same Fargo hospital only nine months apart.

Dan’s “Margo from Fargo” persona is a tribute to their hometown. One of Ronny’s first personas was Beth Johnson, a tribute to the stereotypical Edina housewife. “I grew up in Richfield and I was always jealous of the Edina lifestyle and wealth,” he said.

They explain their getting-ready process as “painful.” They use lots of girdles and rouge, not to mention duct tape to “help their lovely cleavage.” Something about dressing up allows them to let go and create “wacky” skits about cooking and children’s science experiments.

“Being with my lover, my best friend in front of the camera, it’s so natural. We don’t script anything,” Ron tells me.

4. VERA ALLEN

Program manager Vera Allen doesn’t have a favorite show on MTN.

“I love so many of them,” she said. “I couldn’t choose. I do love Viva and Jerry though.”

“We really like when foreign language communities use our shows. We need a lot more Spanish-speaking people to come make shows here,” she said.

Vera believes that public access TV reaches out to a lot of elderly immigrants who will most likely never learn English.

“Television is very important in a foreign community,” she explained. “It allows them to stay connected. The Somali people get a lot of information about presidents and Parliament back home. Public TV is like their Hollywood.”

Vera manages about 150 shows that show up on public TV, and has probably heard the First Amendment stretched to every possible corner.

“We hear racist things all the time. Anti-gay, anti-Semitism. There was even a show from a Nazi perspective.”

“Everyone has their right,” she concluded. “And I can’t decide that somebody’s perspective doesn’t deserve free speech.”


PUBLIC ACCESS QUESADILLAS

Watching public television makes a lot of people hungry. After all, it’s for the masses, and the masses have ever-growling bellies, hungry for communication, change and cheesy goodness. So, let them eat quesadillas!

INGREDIENTS:

⇒Sweet Baby Ray’s Barbecue Sauce: The only one that packs the zing needed for hours of witnessing the First Amendment being played out by the phosphorescent lights of your television screen.
⇒Chicken: Like public access, its trim on the fat.
⇒Cilantro: the fresh bite of each green sprig will prepare you for new perspectives.
⇒Cheddar Cheese
⇒Feta Cheese: This traditionally Greek cheese gives a “melting pot” aspect to this Latin dish.
⇒Purple Onion
⇒Oil
⇒Red Pepper Flakes: These will slap you right out of thinking that you’d rather be watching “The Office.”
⇒Tortillas

Heat the oil in a skillet, add chicken and onion. When the chicken is cooked, splash on some pepper flakes. When it’s all tinged and sizzling, add the barbecue sauce and remove from pan before the sauce caramelizes. Heat up the tortillas in the microwave and cover them with barbecue sauce and cheese. Add barbecued chicken and cilantro, fold in half and place on skillet until tortilla browns.

Who needs Taco Bell? It’s all about making it for yourself.

(NOTE: This recipe was written from the place in my mind that has been deprived of commercials for a week. My memory, as well as that of any avid TV watcher has a “drawer” filled only with images of head-sized food and slogans like, “There’s a whole lot of mexican going on/ going on at Taco John’s.” It looks something like Times Square.)