The Groove Tube
dir. Ken Shapiro
scr. Lane Sarashon and Ken Shapiro
Commissioned by John Bishop
I’m afraid to look up the actual date, because I’ll start second-guessing my own memory, and I’ve had this image burned vividly into my brain for as long as I can remember. I was sneaking back downstairs late on a Saturday night, not an uncommon occurrence since I was one of those restless kids who had to make nine or ten guest appearances post-bedtime every night. I was on the stairs, and I stopped because I heard my parents laughing uproariously. Not just laughing, but howling. I’d never heard that before, and I moved so I could see what was happening.
On the TV screen, there was a woman speaking in a weird high-pitched sing-songy voice, trying desperately to act like all was right with the world as sheets of blood spurted from her obviously-wounded hand. I didn’t realize the woman was Dan Aykroyd as Julia Child, and I didn’t hear any of the set-up, but I certainly had a reaction.
It was galvanizing. It was electric. I was instantly immobilized by what I was seeing. The contrast between the hyper-vivid gore and the seemingly-unflappable nature of the woman was bizarre to me, and yet, my parents were laughing. It looked terrifying, but that’s not the reaction they were having. And watching the scene continue, the blood like a geyser the entire time, I found myself laughing, loudly enough that my parents realized I was there and my introduction to the subversive humor of Saturday Night Live was cut short, but laughing nonetheless and not regretting it a bit.
Over time, I learned that my dad had a much lower tolerance level for subversive comedy than I did, and it caused occasional friction. Richard Pryor albums had to live inside the Star Wars soundtrack sleeve. Hard-won copies of Mad or National Lampoon would get shredded and thrown out if discovered. My dad faced life in a transitional age in America. He’s fairly conservative at heart, but he genuinely worked to be tolerant in a way the generation before his was not. When he found himself outraged by the comedy of the ‘60s and ‘70s, it’s because it genuinely challenged some of the ideas and ideals that he held dear. My mom’s sense of humor was always way more open to those things than his, and I think that helped open him up. With me, though, he would sometimes clench up because he worried about how these things might affect me and who I was going to be. Over time, he grew to accept that I could enjoy these things and question these things and yet still respect him and become a person he could be proud of, and thank god for that. Still, I try to imagine him watching The Groove Tube, which features full-frontal male nudity before the opening title is even shown onscreen, and I can only imagine what a total trip it must have been for him in 1974.
While Shapiro’s film predated a lot of other films and TV shows that were similar, he certainly didn’t create it in a void. There was a new movement of underground comedy, of improv comedy, with groups like The Groundlings and the Second City and the Committee springing up. There was a lot of crossover between these things. The National Lampoon Radio Hour helped launch various members from all of these groups into the national conversation. One of the guys who popped up over and over, uniting many of these things, was Chevy Chase, who is indeed in a few scenes in The Groove Tube, but who was also in Tunnel Vision as well as Lemmings as well as Saturday Night Live and I remember in the early days of my interest in all of this, just as home video was starting to become a thing, and how confusing it was to figure out what was related to what and how, and actually tracking the films down was difficult. It took me years to see them all and sort them out, and each one has its own attitude, its own voice.
Ken Shapiro was part of an ongoing show at the Channel One Theater in New York, along with Lane Sarasohn and other performers, where they set up televisions to show video shorts to a live audience. If you look at when this was being done, in the early ‘70s, media was starting to get self-reflexive. There’s a reason certain targets loomed large for everyone doing sketch comedy in this era. Advertising became very targeted and sophisticated in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Look at how many TV shows featured characters who worked in advertising. It was seen as a sexy job, but there was also a growing unease. So much of Mad magazine was based on this attitude that advertising, in general, was to be mistrusted, and that it was probably a bad thing, and similarly, much of The Groove Tube is focused on reacting to the way advertising was starting to shape the world. There is a skepticism that is baked into the comedy that is a healthy reaction to what was going on.
But Shapiro was also hopelessly juvenile, and some of the most unsophisticated moments in the film are an unfortunate reflection of that. He is delighted by jokes about poop and butts. More than that, this is positioned as a counterculture comedy, and with co-star Richard Belzer, it has a real claim to that. Looking at it in the year it was released, I have no doubt that The Groove Tube felt radical, but looking at it now, it’s pretty clear that it is not particularly progressive. Shapiro’s a cheap joke artist, leaning on ridiculous exaggerated names pretty heavily, and when he misfires, it’s ugly. There’s an entire sketch with Belzer playing a black woman. Blackface and drag at the same time. To make it uglier, he’s playing a giant prostitute who is beating the shit out of a john, and it is about as nuanced a performance as you’d expect. No one is saying that the moment you put on a dress in comedy, you have to aim for total realism or upstanding representation. Monty Python has a long tradition of shrieking weirdos, for example, but the longer they did it, you’ll notice how more and more general human observation crept into the work the Pythons did. Their drag came out of the pantomime tradition and the history of English stage comedy, and it’s part of a continuum.
There’s a big difference between that and what Shapiro and Belzer do in that sketch, and it made me realize that much of what we talk about as the “counterculture” of the ‘60s and ‘70s is really only a counter to white middle-class mainstream culture. It’s still a “choose your own adventure” where everyone’s white. For white kids who were part of the fringe, it was mainly about rejecting the career paths that their parents laid out for them and indulging in drugs and sex in a way that older generations hadn’t. There is a hedonism to the white counterculture that has nothing to do with genuine radicalism. There is a lot of bratty attitude to The Groove Tube, but very little righteous anger. Shapiro’s sense of humor still punches down, and I think part of that is simply because he goes for the easiest joke in many cases. It’s easy to make fun of something about someone, but it’s hard to figure out why you’re lacerating them. What purpose is there to the joke?
More than anything, I think Ken Shapiro wanted to be a star, and in the early ‘70s, there was a moment where that was actually possible. After all, this is the era where guys like Elliott Gould and George Segal and Woody Allen and Donald Sutherland and Walter Matthau were top box-office draws. I love all of those guys as performers, and I love that they all had their era, but they were nothing like the typical version of good-looking movie stars from previous eras. There was a sense that audiences wanted to see people who looked like actual people, and for a while, it felt like character actors stepped forward and got their chance to be the movie stars. In that kind of atmosphere, I can see Ken Shapiro thinking, “I’ve got a chance here.” The Groove Tube is largely a showcase for him, and I’ll say this: he gives it everything he’s got. There’s a dance sequence that closes the film out that is just long tracking shots of Shapiro dancing all over New York City, and while he’s not a dancer, he throws himself into it with abandon, and there is a dizzy sense of joy that sort of builds and builds as the sequence plays on. He’s giddy, and he’s daring these unsuspecting New Yorkers not to react to that happiness.
I mean… I know it’s a big jump, but there are moments where it evokes that same kind of emotion that you get from those scenes in Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha or Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sang. It’s pretty apparently not the equal of those films, but it’s interesting to see how even Shapiro, a vulgarian blunt instrument of a filmmaker if I’ve ever seen one, manages to stumble into something great.
In general, his instincts are pretty solid. Opening with a 2001 parody is a pretty good instinct, for example. Just ask Mel Brooks, who got there about nine years later. The idea of the television as the monolith is more than just a joke. There’s a pretty cutting observation in there somewhere, and again… you have to remember that this came before Saturday Night Live. This came before the omnipresence of this kind of media satire. And you can’t go wrong with Curtis Mayfield as your opening music. As Shapiro’s ape-men groove out, they accidentally invent fire. Eventually, instead of using a tool to kill something leading to the infamous bone/spaceship cut from 2001, Shapiro jumps from grooving out by the fire to a hitchhiker on the side of the road, and the film is off and running, leaning into the whole “tune in, turn on, drop out” vibe. There’s a contempt for corporations that runs through the entire film, with the Uranus Corporation and their disturbing Brown 25 product as a running thread. If you look at the speed of today’s non-sequitur visual comedy, The Groove Tube feels positively sedate. There’s a children’s show early on called Koko The Clown where Shapiro plays a typical ‘50s TV clown, with the high screaming voice. He tells all the parents watching that they have to leave the room for imagination time, and then when they’re gone, he switches demeanors entirely. He begins reading erotica from Fanny Hill, talking about taking requests for different passages from classic filth. That’s the whole joke, and the sequence takes a good eight or nine minutes. There’s a baking show where Shapiro, playing a woman only seen from shoulders to waist, tries to keep up with the show’s voice-over announcer to make something called a Heritage Loaf, failing miserably and only producing a disgusting bowl of greasy water, and the scene just keeps playing and playing and playing.
By far, the biggest sequence in the film is a parody of a sitcom called The Dealers. Shapiro and Belzer play two guys who smuggle a bunch of weed into the country, then encounter nothing but trouble as they try to unload it, and you could make the case that Cheech & Chong’s entire aesthetic was born here and then lifted wholesale. There’s even a pretty exact duplicate of one of the scenes from Up In Smoke, and that threw me. My first exposure to Up In Smoke was on cable. I was probably thirteen or fourteen years old, and I saw the first half-hour or so. There’s the bit where they’re driving and a cop car pulls in behind them, prompting Cheech to immediately start eating everything they’ve got. Even though I had a very limited knowledge of what pot was or what it did, I immediately understood that comic premise and the way it was staged and the way it was performed, it was immediately hilarious to me. They do that same gag in this film, with both of the guys eating everything before the cop car pulls out around them and drives off, and while I like the Up In Smoke version better, it’s hard not to wonder about how close the sequences are. There’s one way where they differ, though, and it’s pretty significant. While Cheech and Chong are poor, they also always end up drifting through the chaos, untouched and okay. The Dealers is a huge bummer, and by design. The Dealers gets worse and worse as things wear on, and the guys get robbed, they flush their stash out of paranoia, and they end up with nothing. They’re so poor they can’t even eat. Shapiro has a breakdown where everything shifts into crazy Peter Max style hippie trip animation, and then he starts sobbing about how miserable he is and how he can’t go on. The bit ends with Shapiro coming out to Belzer, professing his love for him. Belzer rejects him, acting like he doesn’t understand what he’s saying, and then Belzer offers him some pills instead. Defeated, Shapiro looks into the camera and a final title appears: Presented by the National Council of Churches. It’s a long way to go for a joke about how propaganda comes in many guises. It starts off as a celebration of this freedom, this life outside the law, and then ends with the somewhat disturbing idea that the worst case scenario involves being gay. It’s a big messy joke, and it runs 20 full minutes in a film that is only 72 minutes long.
What value does The Groove Tube have to the average filmgoer now, just stumbling across it without context? Marginal, at best. But taken as a point on the way underground comedy made its way from the fringe to the heart of the mainstream, The Groove Tube is a valuable signpost. I’m just surprised how much it also confirms some of the worst of what the conservative pushback against the ‘60s always asserted. There really is a selfish emptiness to the “freedom” on display in the film, and a fundamental conservatism that makes all the hippie outfits look like cosplay.
Maybe the greatest truth that The Groove Tube lays bare is that there often was no “there there,” and just throwing hand grenades at other culture doesn’t mean you’ve got anything better to offer.