A collection of promos and station ID's from MTV's early years and the original Joe's Apartment short film.A collection of promos and station ID's from MTV's early years and the original Joe's Apartment short film.A collection of promos and station ID's from MTV's early years and the original Joe's Apartment short film.
The videotape begins with MTV's first commercials from the early 1980s, in which the 24-hour music video cable channel was fighting for its life all but one American household at a time (because, as may have been forgotten in these present days of cable subscription packages, in the 1980s, cable channels were chosen by cable providers on the basis of *consumer* demand). Brilliantly, the promos used the very artists from the music videos themselves. Maybe their parents couldn't tell a Billy Idol from a David Bowie, or a Cyndi Lauper from a Pat Benatar, or a Sting from a Boy George, but the teenagers who saw these promos and begged their parents for the channel are the ones to truly thank for MTV's continued existence (Later, Sting more or less memorialized his band, The Police, being in their promo -- "Call your cable company/And say/I Want My MTV!" -- with co-writer Mark Knopfler in the Dire Straits song, "Money for Nothing").
As the tape continues on, you see how MTV took advantage of being in New York, a hotbed of artist creativity and diversion. Of course, at the center of every promo was the MTV logo, but I doubt the CBS eye or the NBC peacock will ever be envisioned, in either live-action or animated vignettes, as a sandwich, fried on a pancake (after a restaurant patron goes on a rant fest about grease), a dentist patient's teeth, a do-it-yourself metal shop project, as graffiti on a wall, as graffiti painted over the White House, as a huge "Godzilla"-like monster wreaking havoc on the city below, on the chest of a bosomy comic strip superheroine, as silver flying creatures, as a mad scientist's haircut, as a grisly decapitated head, or as the label on the can of an awful-tasting soda -- or in spots that reference classic painted works of art, or the montage from the film, "The Parallax View."
But beyond the logo circus is the long line of artists and personalities to which MTV gave valuable early exposure, including actors Jim "Randee of the Redwoods" Turner and Donal "Jimmy McBride the Cab Driver" Logue, poets Paul Beatty and Todd Colby, comedians Gilbert Gottfried, Judy Tenuta, and, most especially, Denis Leary.
But despite the popularity of Leary's hilarious black-and-white, in-your-face, chain-smoking monologues, the title of "Mr. MTV Promo" has to be handed over to actor Toby Huss. Now I know what you're thinking: "Who?!" But Huss put on any number of faces for MTV. He was the Frank Sinatra impersonator, suggesting how the Chairman of the Board would sing such 90s hits as "Insane in the Brain" (by hip-hop group Cypress Hill) and "Two Princes" (by rock group the Spin Doctors). For MTV's "Keeps You Plugged In" spots, Huss affected all manner of outfits and behaviors, including playing one very long horn, dressing (and trying to fly) like an angel, sticking an electrical plug up his nose, and wearing an S&M leather outfit and spanking a blindfolded fake ram. But surely his masterpiece is "Code Name: Cobalt," a pre-"Austin Powers" 1960s James Bond spy parody in which Huss plays nearly all the parts, including those of spy hero Cobalt, bad guy Bootsy, and his blonde lover laying in bed waiting for him. Huss is so campy and fun, and the device of him playing most of the parts so effective, that it makes you wish you had Mike Myers' phone number, so you could call and ask him point blank if "Cobalt" played any part in the creation of that "Austin Powers" movie, hmm?
Most noticeable about "Code Name: Cobalt" though, is how it makes no mention of MTV at all. By the 1990s, everyone was familiar with MTV and what it was, so MTV seemed to donate promo time to upcoming filmmakers, setting the stage for surely the most famous and recognized spot included here, 1992's "Joe's Apartment," a live action/animated film short about a young single guy living in a run-down apartment and the many, many, many cockroaches who are his friends and confidants. So popular and successful was it that it served as the basis for the 1996 film which starred well-known TV and film star, Jerry O'Connell.
Besides the entertainment value that these promos provide -- and the social commentary provided by other promos that touch on the topics of domestic violence, the Rodney King and Reginald Denny beatings, and the positives of turning your back on being in a gang -- there's also a clear evolution presented, from how MTV began and evolved, from being specialized niche television for rock music-loving teens, into a platform for up-and-coming artists, into the very source for mainstream pop culture. Becoming mainstream does mean that MTV has softened its previous edginess -- just compare the still hard-talking Leary to current nice guy MTV star Carson Daly -- but this tape clearly shows that MTV got there in perhaps the best way: pop culture caught up with it, as opposed to the other way around.
- Dec 16, 2001