April 25, 1970
Television goes underground
By William Marsano
Strange things are happening in a small dark room in New York's East Village
On a handful of very special TV sets in New York City, strange things are happening. For example:
       Ko-Ko the Clown, the kiddies' friend is entertaining his young audience. He shrills gleefully and tells the kids to send away all of the"big people" - anyone over 10. Once the "big people" are out of the room, Ko-Ko regales his fans with excerpts from "Fanny Hill"
       In an anti-LSD public-service spot: A man sits in a small boat, enjoying a quiet afternoon on the water. Suddenly a hideous monster rised from the depths - a monster two, maybe three times as awful as Godzilla or King Kong. The monster roars and rages horribly until he is replaced by a warning: "Thinking of taking acid? Think twice." Then another card: "A message from your American Medical Association."

All of this is happening on, or rather at, Channel One - "the world's first television theater," a brash and irreverent enterprise in the East Village, New York's shabby hippie pleasure dome. Channel One offers a televised shock comparable to a bop on the head with a sock full of gravel.
     Instead of a stage, the Channel One theater has three TV sets - closed-circuit monitors - hung from the ceiling. The shock comes when the monitors hum with a 90-minute burst of free-wheeling televison comedy and satire that makes Laugh-In look a little staid. Familiar television images come into view: soap operas, newscasters, sports reporters, commercials - the staler offerings of network TV. But before these shopworn bogeymen can insult the intelligence, each is swiftly punctured, deftly deflated to a more realistic size by brief and alarmingly funny sketches that mock the bland conventions of everyday television.
     Sketch: A newscaster completes his broadcast and signs off with a smug smile. Then something weird happens. The camera remains focused on his face. Still on the air, but with nothing to say, the newscaster becomes nervous. He shuffles his papers, but the camera stares on for what seems an eternity. Soon, visibly agitated, the omnipotent, all-knowing TV personality shrinks to a life-sized, ordinary human being. Humbled and despairing, the newscaster slinks off-camera, crawling out of camera range on all fours.
     Sketch: A know-it-all talk show host is showing off with a pretentious discussion with a heavily publicized Indian yogi. During the interview, the "Mahayoni" giggles witlessly, throws flowers at the camera, and mumbles mystically about the"deepness of the inner core of one's soul."

And then there's a spoof of TV's long-winded sportscasters, called "The International Sex Games." Sketches like this bring gasps from the audience. Some are stunned and others shocked, but sooner or later everyone joins in the laughter. And no one ever walks out.
     What exactly is Channel One? The most accurate description is "underground television." Underground television is, simply, a gadfly's-eye-view of how much fun television could be without censors and stereotypes and stuffiness. Without sacred cows, play-it-safe programming and condescending opinions about what viewers are "ready for." And with a little more freedom and imagination. Channel One doesn't say that dull, repetitive, just-plain-bad TV is funny; it says that pretending such junk is good is ridiculous.
     Channel One is the creation of Kenny Shapiro, a quick-witted 27-year-old with his own private niche in TV trivia. In the early '50's, Sid Stone, sidewalk pitchman on Milton Berle's show, occasionally interrupted his Texaco spiel to chase a bothersome brat. Every time Stone sneered, "Go 'way, kid, you're bodderin' me," he was talking to 7-year-old Kenny Shapiro. Shapiro later acted in productions of Studio One and other dramatic anthology series, but his career ended when his voice changed.
     Channel One came into being because Shapiro likes tape recorders. In college he wrote and recorded satires of TV commercials with the help of his college roommate, Lane Sarasohn, and a drama student with the unlikely name of Chevy Chase (both are involved in Channel One today). In four hectic months early in 1967, Shapiro and Sarasohn masterminded the creation of a 90-minute video-tape revue of songs, sketches and satires. Shapiro rented the theater, once the site of a health cultist's dramas on the virtues of organic gardening, and Channel One opened its tube to the public in July. The first production was an encouraging success. It was also precarious: there was only one video-tape machine available, and, as Shapiro recalls, "when it went out, the show went off."

More reliable equipment and word-of-mouth advertising gave Channel One half a chance for survival. Bigger audiences came to laugh over Channel One's cheerful mockery of Presidential press conferences, TV programming and a pointed example of how Madison Avenue might make commercials for marijuana cigarettes.
     Before long, Channel One attracted what all television attracts - critics. Most of them liked the show. Vogue magazine's reviewer found it "cleverly to the point." Clive Barnes of The New York Times said "Go see it." The Beautiful People just swooned.
     Channel One is now a popular and financial success, but its recording studio is still a 15-by-25-foot room on the second floor of Shapiro's Brooklyn home. The equipment consists of sundry video-tape recorders and tape decks, one camera, one electronic organ, stools, chairs and an assortment of way-out props, electrician' tools, several miles of wire and video-tape, and a limp Raggedy Ann doll.
     The sketches are put together by Shapiro and his associates, who write, perform, tape and edit the material themselves. Sometimes Shapiro uses televison to mock itself, especially when a particularly noxious commercial finds its way onto network TV. In such cases, he tapes the offending blurb directly from his own TV set, later adding his own narration - often so subtle a parody that the fine line between banal reality and pungent satire becomes nearly invisible.
     By now, Shapiro and the Channel One gang have become so adept at needling "real" TV that they would actually like to be on "real" TV. But only, Shapiro insists, "on my own terms." Naturally - if Channel One couldn't operate on its own terms, it would become what it is satirizing.
     But Shapiro is far too busy with other projects to worry about trading show time for prime time. He has two more editions of Channel One running. One is an uptown branch on Manhattan's fashionable East Side; the other is Channel One Midwest, which is unleashing "Groove Tube," the present offering, on the ill-prepared citizens of Chicago. Other theaters may open in Boston, New Haven, on the West Coast and in London. A tape of "Groove Tube" is beginning a cross-country tour of college campuses. In short, the underground in "underground television" means that Channel One will reach growing numbers of people without the help of commercial TV.

The idea of a Channel One TV special hovers in the background nevertheless, but Shapiro is a realist, well aware that commercial television still takes itself too seriously to risk laughing at itself. And there's always the old theatrical maxim that says, "Satire is what closes on Saturday night."
     There's just one thing, though, that everybody should keep in mind: at the Channel One theater in the East Village, Shapiro presents three showings on Saturday night.

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