The Story of Glenn O'Brien's 'TV Party'
We traced the rise and fall of the public access show that featured monoliths of New York's art scene in the late 70s—from Debbie Harry and David Byrne to Iggy Pop and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
VICE is rerunning the best TV Party episodes for your viewing pleasure. Watch them all here and read a note from Glenn below.
In 1978 I started a public-access television show in New York along with a few friends. It was called TV Party, and by the time it ended in 1982 our list of guests included 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.
I first became interested in public access when I was invited to appear on the show If I Can't Dance You Can Keep Your Revolution, hosted by a woman named Coca Crystal. It went well enough, but I didn't think much of it. Then, the next day on the subway, several strangers said that they had seen me on the show the night before. This happened more and more. I thought, Wow, people are actually watching this. In those days, the lack of decent cable options meant random dial-spinners had a very good chance of landing on your channel.
My friend Chris Stein, the guitarist of Blondie, lived in a Midtown penthouse around this time and had cable. I often watched it with him while smoking Rasta-sized joints. One night it just hit me and I called him up and said, "Chris, we have to start a public-access show. People are actually watching this shit instead of Bonanza."
And so we did.
Public access offered something strange and exciting. In New York City, that meant programming like Tele-Psychic, the Robin Byrd Show (which featured adult film stars dancing nude), the John Wallowitch Show, and the Vole Show. Then there was Hugh Hefner's cocktail party on the airwaves, Playboy After Dark, which featured guests like Ella Fitzgerald and Lenny Bruce. While it wasn't a public-access show, After Dark was still an early influence on TV Party.
The show ran on Channel D and Channel J, and was quite popular with the kids. We lucked into following the Robin Byrd Show for a while, and so inherited an audience of horny guys. We also got a big high school following thanks to smoking a bunch of pot and talking shit. The show never officially ended—Chris got sick and almost died, I got married and decided I needed to make some money, some people went to rehab, some left town, and some died of AIDS, which had just appeared. It seemed like suddenly everything was changing, and it just got to be longer and longer since the last show. We had a good run fucking up television, though—cursing, getting high, advocating subversion, and being party desperados.
It all looks glamorous now, but that's because even with HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, CNN, ESPN, AMC, Comedy Central, and hundreds more, television is still monitored and censored by higher powers. And even though we sort of invented reality TV, if anything, TV is less real than ever. So is reality. We still have our work cut out for us.