When cable TV was first introduced, it was something of a free-for-all of programming. An America accustomed to having three and only three national channels for decades was suddenly confronted with dozens to hundreds of cable stations that had to fill 24 hours a day with anything, so there was a lot of throwing shit at the wall to see what would stick. Much of it was worthless of course, because it was TV, but some seemed like nothing less than the trailblazing cultural produce of visionary mavericks. While New Yorkers had the infamously bizarre Channel J and L.A. had pretty much anything you could dream up and some shit you never could, even we flyover rubes could at least enjoy the unpredictable weekly freakouts of the USA Network’s Night Flight and other overnight oddities.
And then there was public access.
I have no idea what’s up on public access cable nowadays, but I suspect it’s primarily churchy stuff. The emergence of phone cameras and YouTube made public access instantly quaint, but in its day, the situation was that in order to be granted a contractual monopoly to serve an area with cable TV, a provider was required by the FCC to set aside at least one commercial-free channel for any members of the public who walked through the doors to do their own shows. Free training in videography was part of the deal as well, so the only barrier to entry the cable companies could erect was to schedule public training for difficult hours of the day, which some did, and which only served to ensure that the most motivated (which often meant the most bonkers) people showed up. It could be a bastion of admirable idiosyncrasy or a fucking garbage can, but for much of the 1980s, some of the weirdest and most fearlessly inventive TV in the world could be found in those little regional treasure troves.
And in the cable access of late ‘80s Cleveland, OH, The Doctor was the king.
In 1987, the East suburbs’ Cablevision company began airing a strange program called The Asylum For Shut-Ins: Video Psychotherapy. It made no pretense to being edifying, it showed no local bands’ cheapshit music videos, it wouldn’t tell you when the PTA rummage sale was being held. It was there to disturb, and goddamn, at its best, it was magnificent.. The aforesaid Doctor was the titular psychotherapist and host - a cheap, sunglasses-sporting ventriloquist dummy whose persona was half Peter Ivers manic cool, half Reverend Jim Jones mass-homicidal, and he’d deliver insanely malevolent monologues/scoldings in between rapid-fire clips of B-movie violence. From the show’s FB page:
The Doctor is a sadistic, power-mad ventriloquist dummy who administers doses of mind bending video ultra-violence and savage social commentary. He delivers his demented therapy with machinegun-like collages of horror movie clips… audio and video samples fused together in a musical tapestry of terror, madness, and destruction… coming attractions for the end of sanity.
But check out the rhythms of all those jump cuts - they have an undeniable musicality to them. This obviously wasn’t some busted-ass Cleveland Heights freakshow who just wandered in one day, the man behind this curtain had skill. We’ve gotten used to a world where a feature film can be quickly cut on a laptop computer, but in Asylum’s day, uzi-edits were tedious and cumbersome work involving multiple tape decks, mixers, and extraordinary timing and patience. This was the work of an experienced hand, and that hand was Ted Zbozien’s. Then and still a video editor in Cleveland, he took some time out of his work day to tell DM about Asylum’s beginnings. What follows was heavily edited down for brevity and clarity from a lengthy and animated telephone conversation with Zbozien.
I started doing a lot of manipulation with found footage in the early ‘80s, cutting TV commercials, doing a lot of sampling and looping. I made one video with Ernest Angley, the crazy TV preacher, and that in particular was a big hit at the Athens (OH) Video Festival like in ’85 or so. That was sort of the beginning.
Coincidentally, my buddy Jeff Adam, who became The Doctor, he was a really wacky, funny guy. We made some videos, short films, and he was always the main character because he was such a flamboyant and funny improviser with a great camera presence. He picked up a Danny O’Day ventriloquist dummy that he started pulling out at parties, and it was an excuse to vent. You could say the craziest things, insult people, expose harsh truths - as long as you were saying it through the dummy. Those things kind of came together when we decided to do videos with the dummy. I was collecting a lot of horror clips, and I was a fan of the old Ghoulardi show, and I thought it would be fun to do that sort of wraparound style show with the dummy as the host.
The glasses came from shooting the dummy and realizing the eyes were dead, just painted on, they were nothing, just dead eyes that don’t move. But if you put the sunglasses on, you could imagine his eyes darting around behind there. I cut them out of a piece of mat board and used electrical tape for lenses, and it just KILLED us, and Jeff went crazy with it.
So the first two shows were in the straight wraparound style while I started to develop the “Video Psychotherapy” method of splintering up shots and making montages. For the second show, we used the 1940s British movie Dead of Night, it was an anthology movie, with five stories that were linked together. The one we really liked starred Michael Redgrave as a ventriloquist, and his dummy became the model for The Doctor’s personality. Then we decided that the diced-up material was more entertaining than the movies, so we chucked the movies and added more of The Doctor. And then we just poured it on. We created about 10 shows, about 6 or so of which were the really hardcore ones.
With The Doctor, we wanted to satirize Morton Downey Jr, Ernest Angley, Ronald Reagan, anybody who wielded power and had a big mouth and liked to rule over others. When we had him say things like “KILL THE CHILDREN, TAKE THE MONEY,” that’s not funny, but it IS funny, and it’s the truth. It seems reckless and insane. That’s fine.
The show became the talk of the town’s weirdo art and music scenes around the turn of the ‘90s. Punk singers started mimicking the Doctor’s misanthropic rants as between-songs patter. A sculptor designed and exhibited a viewing booth made expressly for watching the show. Around 1988-1991, Asylum really was, more than any band one could name, THE Cleveland underground phenomenon that kept things interesting in the downtime between the waning of the ‘80s music scene and the grunge dam-burst. It’s not hard to see why, so please, enjoy some more clips.
Ted Zbozien recently crowdfunded a feature length all-montage film called Worst Movie Ever.