In 1990, Saturday Night Live ran a comedy skit entitled "Nude Talk Show." The sketch was designed arround a late night public access cable show (like "Wayne's World") where a bearded, schlubby and naked host played by Jon Lovitz interviewed a vacuous and equally undressed porn vixen played by the lovely and under-rated Jan Hooks. The skit was mildly amusing and probably left a lot of the SNL audience wondering, yet again, "Where do they get their ideas?"
What many people didn't realize was that "Nude Talk Show" was lifted almost verbatim, down to the lecherous host and inane interviewees, from a real show that ran on Manhattan’s Public Access cable station. How do I know this? Because I saw the show myself back in the summer of '90. After spending a year driving around the country, I'd ended up in New York. One night I found myself apartment sitting for a friend of my mom's. I sat around drinking wine and playing guitar and decided to watch some television. After a bit of channel surfing I found myself looking at porn. Real porn, right there on television! What the fuck (literally) was going on?
At the time I was unaware that New York was infamous for its ultra-liberal restriction of the public airwaves. As a result, after 10:00 PM Manhattan Public Access, Channel 35, was dominated by porn themed shows like the "real" nude talk show (it had a name which I've forgotten) "The Robin Byrd Show" (starring former porn actress Robin Byrd) and numerous ads for "escort" services that were clearly prostitution rings. (Not much is left to the imagination when an escort service features women engaged in coitus during their commercials.)
Obviously, even on late night cable there were some restrictions on what could be shown. No penetration could be aired and the government offered confusing, often contradictory guidelines of the type and state of genitalia that could appear. Despite all that, watching Manhattan Public Access was still a pretty mind-blowing (and other-parts-of-the-body-blowing) experience.
Of course, this broadcasting of televised debauchery didn't just happened overnight. There was one show that released the wave of toxic titillation to the TV sets of the eastern seaboard. This show was the godfather, the overlord, the Big Kahuna of TV porn shows. This show was Al Goldstein's “Midnight Blue.”
Al Goldstein was the notorious founder of “Screw” magazine, a Village Voice-style newspaper for porn that had been incubated during the same alternative media explosion of the late sixties that fueled the careers of underground comix illustrator Robert Crumb and rock critic Lester Bangs. Before helming “Screw,” Goldstein had already had a multi-faceted career working as a photographer in Cuba (and actually being jailed by Castro), an industrial spy in the world of corporate America and a writer for tabloid magazines like the now defunct “National Mirror.” In 1968, Goldstein decided to try his own hand at publishing and launched “Screw.” “Screw” was primarily a listing of classified ads interspersed with dirty pictures, dirty cartoons and rants and raves provided by Goldstein and other contributors. Over the next several years “Screw” attracted its share of controversy, often resulting in Al and other employees getting arrested for obsenity charges. But it also generated a tidy profit, eventually allowing Goldstein to buy a mansion in Florida with a sculture of giant a middle finger in the driveway. As his profile grew, Goldstein fashioned himself as a crusader for First Amendment rights. While many porn publishers shied from the spotlight, Goldstein embraced it, eagerly tackling criticism from public officials and social moralists.
In 1975, the success of “Screw” was firmly in place and middle class America had just eagerly embraced the breakout porn-chic-flick, "Deep Throat." Al decided it was time try his hand as a talk show host. He finagled airtime from the burgeoning medium of cable television and “Midnight Blue” was born. It immediately attracted attention even though each episode looked like it had a budget of three dollars and its content was often censored by broadcast regulators.
The general focus of the show was interviews, usually with female porn stars, though eventually non-porn guests like O.J. Simpson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Gilbert Gottfried and Debbie Harry made appearances. Al's primary interest was that of sexual technique; he would often throw out provocative, curse laden queries along the lines of "How do you like your pussy licked?" or "Is there anything wrong with me fucking a chick with my nose?" The porn royalty sat in the hot seat, too jaded to be shocked at Al's questions, and offered serious answers. (One of my favorite “MB” moments occurred when Al asked Carol Connors, the "forgotten actress of Deep Throat" (and mother of current mainstream film actress Thora Birch!) whether she would ever perform bestiality. "No," Carol demurred, "But I love animals!")
This isn’t to say Al couldn’t get into other areas of discussion. His conversations with “Deep Throat” actor Harry Reems (once convicted of conspiracy to distribute obscenity merely for being an actor in “Deep Throat”) on subjects of morality, fidelity and the nature of love are quite profound, with the two men sounding more like a couple of mensches sharing a bottle of wine than a slovenly porn publisher trading quips with a Geraldo Rivera-ish fuck stud. Equally of interest are Goldstein and Chuck Traynor, Linda Lovelace's manager/husband (and according to Lovelace's biography, tormenter) discussions on Constitutional law and the alignment between the First and Second amendments.
Like "The Tonight Show", "Late Night with David Letterman" and other "real" talk shows, "Midnight Blue" would mix performances in with the interviews. Of course, in this case the acts were not the latest teen heartthrobs singing bubblegum pop but porn stars performing the same sex shows they showcased at stag clubs across the nation. Adult film actresses like Georgina Spelvin, Marilyn Chambers and Seka were shown doing standard porn “dance” numbers. Fringe porn actress Veri Knotty demostrated her famed sexual gimmickry by tieing her labia into a knot. Reknowned porn feminist and author Annie Sprinkle tested out sex toys.
The sign off of the show would always feature Goldstein's profanity lacen rants aimed at whichever celebrity/politician/country of the moment was causing him ire. At the end of each tirade, Al would scream, "Fuck You!" and these features became appropriately and affectionately know as the show's "Fuck You Rants." Sean Penn was blasted for punching a photographer. Jack Nicholson was lambasted for refusing Al's invitation to an adult films award show. Howard Stern, Donald Trump, Ted Turner and Santa Claus all became targets of Goldstein's foul mouth.
What became especially apparent during the rants was Goldstein’s particular kind of television presence. He was sweaty, disheveled, obese and often seemed unable to contain the wild ideas running through his head. Being an egomaniac, Goldstein was probably not aware of how unintentionally comic he came across onscreen. And there was a very distinct sense of "Jewishness" with Al - when I first saw Midnight Blue, I was overcome with a sense that I knew him, only to realize he reminded me of a friend of mine's Jewish uncle. If Woody Allen originated the stereotype of the neurotic Jew who lets his paralyzing self doubt pour out of his sweat glands, Goldstein was the opposite: the bullying slob who hides his neurosis under a facade of bluster and braggadocio and whose eyes must constantly dart towards the camera to see if the audience is buying his BS.
But the best part of "Midnight Blue" was the advertisements that played during the show's breaks. A curious mix of promotions for "massage" parlors like Plato’s Retreat and the Taj Mahal, sexual devices like "The Orgasmatron" and adult bookstores, these ads now stand out as time capsules from a forgotten era. The men featured in the parlor ads were unerringly on target as stereotypical 1970s-bad-combover-leisure-suit-wearing assholes eager to be pampered by brain dead robotic bimbos. The questionable sexiness of the often naked models is destroyed when they began speaking in vacuous New Jersey accents. ("Cawl Us - We're very doidy goils!") And the auto-erotica products shown for sale looked more than capable of producing a few lawsuits. The pure comic appeal of this part of the program was beyond description.
“Midnight Blue,” “Screw” and porn in general, were of course, the frequent targets of feminists of the day. While Goldstein addressed this (he debated a few in public forums) he never really got beyond hiding himself behind the First Amendment while accusing his critics of being "anti-sex." There's little doubt that Al had the legal freedom to do what he did, but he never (to my knowledge) addressed the moral concerns raised by “Midnight Blue” and "Screw." There is an unavoidable queasiness generated while watching the zombiefied nature of the porn actresses who appeared on "Midnight Blue" and consented to Al's penetrating questions into their sexual life while the camera ran down the curves of their body. (Many of them apparently submitted themselves to Al's sexual requests after the cameras were turned off.) And there's no doubt that during the era in which Goldstein rose to success, the 1970s, porn was a dirty business, controlled by a mafia that had little issue with sexual slavery and money laundering. Had Goldstein really been the crusader he considered himself, he might have shined the spotlight on such transgressions. (Yes, obviously this would have been a life threatening pursuit, but hey, Larry Flynt took a bullet.)
Instead Al limited his battles to those with feminist academics and government regulators. And on that front one must agree that there was something to Goldstein's argument that America's First Amendment rights are not fought for by charismatic politicians entrenched in mainstream society but by the degenerate wretches on its fringes. It’s the spittle inflected pornographers who hold back the hairy hoards of both pursed lipped womynist censors and Constitution shredding Christian clowns who seek to dissolve our freedoms. (Though I'd argue anti-porn feminists were ultimately defeated from the inside by the pro-sex, third wave of feminist riot grrls who sprang out of the ‘90s.) For better, not worse, society needs people like Goldstein to man the gates of the outer realm.
After surviving his many battles, Goldstein was ultimately defeated by the changing times. The rise of the internet and availability of pornography at a keystroke ended up pushing “Screw” into bankruptcy in 2003. “Midnight Blue” had already fallen in 2002. Goldstein was convicted of harassing one of his ex-employees and with his fortune lost and the shackles of the law on his ankles he fell into poverty, eventually becoming homeless on the streets of New York. But slowly, over the last couple years, he's managed to put his life together, working at a New York deli, marrying for the fifth time and releasing an autobiography. And 2008 could be a comeback year for Al as he recently announced his intent to run for President. Among his campaign promises are “Removing the "o" from country” and “Universal AL-Care, which will provide daily government subsidized cunnilingus for women.”
Top that Obama!
A multi-volume collection of "Midnight Blue" is available in the DVD format from Blue Underground.
Wil Forbis is the pen named shared by such noted authors as James Ellroy, Katie Roiphe, and Jim Thompson. E-mail him, I mean, them, at firstname.lastname@example.org
View Wil's Acid Logic web log, a stirring endorsement of sex with pandas!