Think back to the dark ages before the Internet. Before anybody with a keyboard-playing cat and a video camera could captivate the world. The amateur auteur’s only option for small screen stardom: public access television. It was the YouTube of its day, but fuzzier and far less respected. In early ‘80s New York, public access aired an uninspiring grab bag of shows by preachers, horror film fanatics, and Sprockets-like German graffiti artists. That is, until December 1983, when a couple of twenty-something pop culture enthusiasts from Sheepshead Bay made low-budget TV history. That was the month they debuted one of the wildest music shows ever aired, a show that introduced public access TV to bands like Woofing Cookies and Half Japanese and featured, to give just one example, the acid-addled lead singer of the Butthole Surfers interviewing a mole on his own leg. And also, four young kids from Brooklyn — three guys and a girl, their drummer — who, as a trio, would soon be known to the world by their band’s name: the Beastie Boys.
Scott Lewis was a funny, quick-witted guy always in search of new sounds and unique talents. A rabid music fan and part-time stand-up comic, he longed for a TV show that featured the alternative bands he listened to as Brooklyn’s disco age raged on around him. Gary Winter — an aspiring director with a penchant for Marx Brothers films and Tennessee Williams plays and an artist’s ability to find beauty in the mundane — was volunteering at a public access station on 23rd Street in Manhattan, so he proposed an idea. They could do it themselves, creating a half-hour show of screwball comedy and new music from bands they’d seen perform at clubs like the Mudd Club, CBGB’s, and Danceteria. With the single-minded power of youthful idealism — and a willful myopia to the costs and labor it would entail — that’s exactly what they did. For five years, The Scott & Gary Show hosted some of the most influential acts in indie music, garnering a cult following in New York, Austin, Minneapolis, and a handful of other public television markets around the country as the two chums from Homecrest Avenue had the time of their lives.
“We wanted it to be like a Bizarro version of American Bandstand crossed with Hugh Hefner’s Playboy After Dark and Soupy Sales,” said host and producer Lewis, now 52, over clam chowder and a margarita on a recent evening at Walker’s in Tribeca.
“This was our reaction against MTV,” added Winter, a shade younger, the show’s director and producer. “MTV was polished, and we felt like if we could do something really fun we could get the energy of television coming across live.”
If The Scott & Gary Show had any archetype, it was the variety shows of the 1960’s that the two had grown up watching, with their unwavering cheer and devotion to showmanship. Lewis and Winter added a healthy measure of mayhem, twisted humor, and south Brooklyn sensibility and hit upon a formula that suited the times to a tee.
“The whole idea was a teen dance show for adults with cool bands,” said Lewis. “I loved asking people on the show, ‘What high school are you from?’ and they’re in their thirties. That cracked me up.”
Among the many bands to answer that question were the Beastie Boys, who taped the show’s Valentine’s Day episode on January 30, 1984. Comprised of teenagers Michael Diamond, Adam Yauch, Adam Horowitz, and Kate Schellenbach, the Beasties were ascendant, enjoying considerable buzz in the New York music scene on the back of a single called "Cooky Puss," the first rap/hardcore hybrid and an inspiration to a generation of prank callers. "Cooky Puss" had sold 10,000 copies, and deejays like KISS FM’s Jazzy Jay and Red Alert and the various personalities on WLIR FM were giving it plenty of airplay. On top of that, a recent gig opening for the Dead Kennedys convinced the band that they were the next big thing, leaving Lewis and Winter with a group of seriously cocky adolescents to deal with.
“We picked [Diamond and Yauch] up on Hicks Street in Brooklyn Heights,” recalled Winter, seated before an open-faced roast beef sandwich and Blue Point Winter Ale. “I had a ’69 Buick with a big trunk, and we went up there and looked at each other and went ‘woah!’”
“They were quite wealthy and had incredible film equipment in their homes,” added Lewis. “And they were very pompous — saying things in the car like ‘We shouldn’t have to do this show, we’re going to be big stars.’”
“I was like ‘If you really don’t want to do it you don’t have to. If this is too much for you.’ ‘No, no, we’ll do it.’ That was our second episode.”
Everybody made nice at the studio on 23rd Street, and the baby-faced Beasties – with lead singer Diamond sporting a kelly green windbreaker that he could have swiped from a leprechaun – delivered a blistering set of seven sloppy hardcore songs like "Egg Raid on Mojo," which recounted a revenge egg attack on a club bouncer who had tossed them, and "Where’s the White Shadow?," the story of their search for TV reruns of The White Shadow, a show about a white basketball coach in South Central Los Angeles. Despite plenty of bad camera angles and major deviations from the script, the only real snafu was the lack of a working monitor for Diamond, who complained that he couldn’t hear himself sing.
“Having not ever done a music show in my life, I had no idea what he was talking about,” Winter recalled. “Why do you need to hear yourself? That made no sense to me. And Scott was like ‘You don’t need it, just go on.’”
With Winter at the mixing board and Lewis a vision of faux gravitas with black slacks, green dress shirt, black tie, and a tan two-button jacket, they completed the now-legendary episode, pausing mid-set to chat with the band about their schools, favorite deejays, recent appearance on the cover of The Face magazine, and how they were still owed $6,000 for "Cooky Puss."
Little did audiences know, these tracks would be among the last hardcore songs the Beasties would perform for many years. Their behind-the-scenes transition to hip-hop was underway, although they didn’t feel like their rhymes were ready for public access prime time just yet.
“They were rapping between takes, and afterward, but they wouldn’t do it on camera,” explained Lewis.
“They had to be careful about their image,” Winter added.
Within months, the Beastie Boys would part ways with Schellenbach (who would become a founding member of Luscious Jackson) and rise to mega stardom, producing some of the most innovative albums in rap history and maturing from beer-spewing brats to socially conscious adults, championing causes like freedom for Tibet and animal rights.
“If the Beastie Boys were in their 20’s when they did that kind of music they’d be a footnote in history, but the fact that they were 17 and 18 and they evolved into that mixture of New York rap and soul and blues and rock, it’s pretty cool,” Lewis said. “It’s not exactly my thing, but I give them all the credit in the world. They’re terrific.”
“We saw them at the Pyramid Club about six months later, and they were like ‘It’s the dude with the sports jacket, the video dudes!’”
The success of the Scott & Gary Show’s early episodes, with artists like Ben Vaughn and Lewis’s personal favorites, Half Japanese, garnered them a few influential fans, including director Jeff Krulik. Krulik offered them studio time in Maryland after the “sleazebag” who ran the 23rd Street operation kicked them out for not cleaning up after their show (“But we did,” Lewis insists. “My mom used to come with us and help clean up.”) and their nine-show run in Moogy Klingman’s studio came to an end when Klingman sold off his recording equipment. Krulik, who gained a measure of underground fame for his 1986 documentary Heavy Metal Parking Lot, would produce a Scott & Gary Show Tribute in 2000. Subsequent episodes of the Scott & Gary Show read like a who’s who of eighties alternative music: Shockabilly, R. Stevie Moore, the Velvet Monkeys, the Clintons, even the Christian punk band The Altar Boys.
But while the show maintained its low-budget aesthetic, they never booked bands they didn’t personally like.
“There had to be a certain edge, a certain excitement,” said Lewis. “We turned down 10,000 Maniacs. I was like, I don’t want to put that on TV. We turned down the Replacements because we saw them and thought they were a big bore. They were so drunk.”
The Beastie Boys may have become the most famous of their musical guests, but the Butthole Surfers were probably the most memorable. The San Antonio-based band arrived at the studio tripping balls, having munched a few tabs of acid to get in the right mood. While they managed to get through their noise rock anthems, the interview portion proved to be a little much for lead singer Gibby Haynes. Staggering, slurring, stripping down to his boxer shorts, and holding a microphone to a mole on his leg to get its take on things, he was the consummate rock ‘n’ roll train wreck. To his credit, Lewis remained unflappable, dodging Haynes’s stream-of-consciousness with humor and somehow steering him back to the subject of his past life as an auditor for a major accounting firm.
Over the course of 19 episodes, Lewis and Winter realized their artistic vision with a series of interesting bands, cheesy skits like Casting Off with Debraella (a fishing report rife with thinly-veiled sexual innuendo), and a “3D episode” that wasn’t. (“Scott had a shiny green suit, I got a box of green-and-red 3D glasses, and we just flashed the lights and put in a few red gels,” explained Winter.) And while the show had its fan base, not everybody got the joke.
“I was frustrated by people’s limited vision of what music and art should be, ” said Lewis. “Nobody was doing what we were doing, and they made fun of it. I was like, You don’t like it, let’s see what you can do.”
“Our friends would make fun of us for going into the city to see an Andy Warhol film or go to CBGB’s, god forbid,” added Winter. “Even in Brooklyn, with the access to Manhattan, some of your friends decide they’re going to stay provincial, and some decide they’re going to take advantage. That’s when you start veering off.”
But eventually, real world demands brought the show to a close. Since it was public television, they weren’t able to sell advertising and never made a dime from it. It became too costly to continue. But its influence is widespread. Lewis is convinced that MTV used it as an inspiration for Remote Control, its irreverent late-80’s game show, and its ghost can be seen in do-it-yourself music shows like Squirt TV and any number of web-based productions.
Today, they both hold down respectable day jobs at NYU, but each maintains a sizable creative footprint. Lewis, still youthful and energetic despite hair that’s more salt than pepper, is a visual artist, creating colorful semi-expressionistic abstract paintings with titles that are as long as short stories. (“I believe an artist should explain what they’re doing, ” he says.) He frequently shows his work in galleries throughout the area, and maintains a website with his fantastical creations.
Winter, meanwhile, is a prolific playwright affiliated with 13P, a group of 13 mid-career playwrights dedicated to bringing new works to the stage quickly, avoiding the “endless readings and new development programs” that can suck the soul out of a project. His next play, COOLER, will open at the Chocolate Factory Theater in Long Island City in April 2010.
“The theme of it is the death of idealism,” explained Winter, whose quiet intensity is belied by a mischievous smile when discussing his art. “It’s about four people living in a cooler and how they’ve given up on their ideals, which, to me, is as bad as being oppressed.”
Some belated recognition for the Scott & Gary Show is on the way, as it’s being added to NYU’s Fales Collection as an example of downtown and East Village art in the seventies and eighties. And they still toy with the idea of reviving the show.
“I always feel like there’s another episode coming,” said Lewis.
“Brooklyn public access would be perfect,” added Winter, not a hint of oppression in his voice.