The Show-Offs

Ian and Irene are reality TV stars. But their shows aren’t on MTV. They’re on reality TV’s realest forum – public access.

As bizarre as television might seem these days, with Flavor Flav looking for love, Hulk Hogan taking care of a teenage daughter and Nick Lachey’s brother dancing the samba, sometimes a simpler concept is where true weirdness lies. All the D-list celebrities hardly compare to the wonderment that can be found on low-budget, locally produced public access.

Although local cable access channels have the reputation of airing boring PTA meetings, kindergarten spring plays and high school band recitals, public access is really for the freaks. It’s for the underrepresented and unvoiced that mainstream television ignores. Only on public access do drag queens, Jesus freaks, polka dancers and Scrabble nerds coexist in a beautiful hodgepodge of social outcasts.

A drunk and a college student might not seem too far from the norm, but neither are personalities you’d expect to see hosting a television show. One is too tipsy to be David Letterman. The other is too giggly over inside-sorority jokes to be Ellen. But “Drinking with Ian” and “Irene on TV” both have a makeshift charm and the self-awareness to not take themselves too seriously.

In the satellite sea of surrealness, the average is now the strange. And you might find that your neighbors are even freakier than former Brady kids.

‘Drinking with Ian’
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Ian Rans, host of the public access show “Drinking with Ian,” declares that “Public access is the last bastion of free expression in America.” And by free expression, Rans doesn’t necessarily mean he has the liberty to speak ill of the president or divulge in government conspiracy theories (although he could). Basically he likes the thought that anyone has the ability to do anything on television – even get drunk.

“Drinking with Ian” is exactly what the title suggests: It’s a show about drinking, hosted by a lanky, sarcastic guy named Ian. With help from Ollie Stench the bartender, Ian, his guests and the audience get drunk. While it may sound uninteresting to watch someone else get wasted, drunks are funny people, much funnier than the sober ones. Ian’s a drinking buddy for the couch potato.

But still, the Daily wanted to find the heart, the essence, the je ne sais quoi of DWI (yes, the initials are intentional). So the Daily got drunk with Ian.

Stop 1: The Dinkytowner, finding the roots of DWI

Rans moved to Minneapolis from Muncie, Ind., (same hometown as WCCO anchor Don Shelby), and instantly became involved with the local music scene. He helped run two former indie music publications, Cake and Toast, and by 2000 did public relations for First Avenue.

“I actually got the First Ave. job because of an April Fool’s joke I pulled,” Rans said. At the same time, he and the editor of Toast sent out a fake news release that claimed the downtown club was moving to Blaine. WCCO failed to fact-check the story and ran it.

“I thought I was going to jail,” Rans said, “but First Ave. was actually happy about it; it was the same time as their anniversary and it turned out to be easy press for them.”

Rans also hosted punk rock karaoke in Northeast for a time. It was a pretty do-it-yourself operation, consisting of MP3s and pieces of paper with the lyrics – no fancy TV screens. But through the karaoke, Rans said, he met almost everyone else involved in DWI.

“Not a lot of thought went into the idea of the show,” Rans said, “it seemed like the natural thing to do, and I was comfortable enough to get drunk and act like a weirdo in front of a camera.”

In January 2004, DWI was scheduled to run on the WB, but at the last minute, the station realized what the show was actually about (because it couldn’t figure it out from the title) and pulled the plug. Luckily, though, just six months later, DWI found a station apparently more tolerant of alcoholics, Channel 6.

Now DWI is on its third season, two other local cable networks have picked up the show and the first season DVD is expected to be released this spring.

Stop 2: Grumpy’s Downtown, haikus and more booze

DWI is not entirely a chaotic drunken mess. There is some structure to the show.

“The show’s actually more straightforward than I thought,” Rans said. “I thought I would interview a grapefruit for half an hour.”

While I wouldn’t put it past DWI to still include a grapefruit interview (they did, after all, run a segment about dating a dead chick), most of the DWI episodes have a distinct talk show flow – there’s a host, a guest and a band. Here’s where Rans’ tie-ins with local music come in handy. Guests have included the likes of Dillinger Four bassist Paddy Costello, Steve McClellan of First Avenue and more recently, author Diablo Cody. Although Rans and crew seem to be more in step with the rock and punk scene in town, the bands on DWI have included hip-hopper P.O.S. and rockabilly punksters Red Satyrs to blues singer Baby Grant Johnson. “We tried to go outside our immediate knowledge,” Rans said. “We want everyone to be invited.”

Besides the special guests, what makes DWI worthy of public access, cult-following status are the regulars. Chanteuse Neil always starts the show with the slurred and sloppy theme song. Ollie Stench then concocts a new shot for the audience to consume. And of course, every episode the audience favorite, Haiku Jim writes a new poem.

“The first time I knew we won over the audience was when people started yelling for Jim,” Rans said. “I knew then we were doing something right.”

Stop 3: 19 Bar, inside Ian’s psyche

“My first drink was a Harvey Wallbanger, I was 8 years old,” Rans said with a laugh. “My parents might deny this, but they made me a weak one I think just to see what would happen. Well, I started yelling and cursing, or at least shouting every kind of profanity I knew at the time.”

Perhaps Rans’ destiny was sealed then. He was meant to be a drunk who swears a lot.

Although he claims the show is “anything but political,” the hooch is not just about getting stupid. “It takes an amount of booze to admit what’s going on,” he said, adding that 2006 is a crazy time to live. “I mean, Dick Cheney just shot someone!”

‘Irene on TV’
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Although public access might overflow with clutter, tune in at the right time and you just might catch a glimpse of that girl in your marketing class.

Irene Fernando makes a hobby out of reciting comedic monologues about her mother in front of a cardboard cutout of the Minneapolis skyline, while a studio audience supplies the laugh track.

Her show, “Irene on TV,” is a variety show hosted and produced by University students, filmed on campus at The Whole in Coffman Union once a month. The show is a vaudeville of local acts and celebrities, each getting a few minutes on stage before Irene makes another series of cracks about her mom.

The guests include comedians, local bands like the Plastic Chord, actors and artists from the Twin Cities, such as the creators of the “Uptown Girl” movie and comic books.

The show’s semi-professional production might make it stand out from other local access acts, yet the primary objective of the show is to give everyone involved an excuse to laugh.

The show’s host, Irene Fernando, doesn’t take her job too seriously. A University marketing major, Fernando skips the formalities and calls her guests “dudes.” She blows kisses to the audience and fiddles with the stuffed penguin on her desk between cuts. She’s sillier than she is funny, which might be a breath of fresh air in the world of variety television.

Co-executive producers Drew Pederson and Mark Williams came up with the idea for “Irene on TV” while in their hometown, Forest Lake. While the two compare “Irene on TV” to “The Late Show with David Letterman,” “Ellen” and “Saturday Night Live,” it started as a way to “just hang out,” said Pederson. Although her show mimics that of Jay Leno, Fernando hasn’t set a goal to host a late-night talk show in the future.

“Initially it was done to provide a way to get our friends some practice in filming and producing,” Fernando said. “I think now everyone just has fun with the whole experience.”

Pederson, a student in finance and entrepreneurial management, sees the show as a way to “escape Carlson,” he said.

Since its inception, the show has become more organized and clean-cut, with a range of skits and acts to fill up the half hour. “Irene on TV” now has how-to segments and a street team, offering the audience the “variety” in “variety show.”

The team now produces one episode a month, using the time off-camera to write skits and edit footage before sending the final cut to the local access station from which it’s aired, the Minneapolis Telecommunication Network.

A typical show begins with a session of mimicry of Fernando’s heavily accented mother, in the likes of comedian Margaret Cho. They then break away for two or three guests, using jokes and clips as segue, finishing the show with a musical guest.

For Valentine’s Day, however, the cast broke the rules and began the show with a montage of clips of letters from “fans” read aloud, specifically from one viewer with an unhealthy obsession with the host. The fan then appeared in the audience, bearing his pasty, hairy, all-American physique, roaring, “You know you want this!”

Fernando’s loyal sorority sisters, more uncomfortable than amused and sitting in the front row, squealed at the sight of the man’s blubber. The sisters make a front-row appearance every episode, laughing at the stunts and swaying to the live DJ’s bumper music.

“Back when we were not as organized or polished,” Fernando said, “I think they made up more than half the audience. They continue to come, so I guess that hasn’t changed too much.”

Anyone is invited to come to the taping at The Whole and sit in the audience – at a slight cost. The entire audience must dance on stage at the end of the show to whichever song the DJ chooses. Sitting out simply is not an option.

In April the audience will be treated with an appearance by the host’s mother, allowing us to finally meet the woman behind the mystery. Fernando uses public access as an outlet for her impressions, something she’d be doing with or without the cameras.

She’s a “crazy Filipino mother,” Fernando said. “My impressions may be good, but she’s the real deal.”