I’m feeling down.
You’re not around.
And I’ve been stuck in this town for so long it’s got under my skin.
I’m feeling low.
No place to go.
I ain’t got a nickel, a bottle, much less a friend.
In 1994, I was in my last semester of the creative program at the University of Texas. The program offered a trip to New York for final semester students to visit the big Madison Avenue agencies. It was pretty cool. You’d been studying it for a year and a half. But it was all academic until you walked into one of those buildings for the first time and saw it in real life.
We went to BBDO, Ogilvy, McCann, Kirshenbaum & Bond and DDB. There might have been a few others but those are the ones I remember.
In addition to a valuable peek inside some of the world’s largest agencies, I wanted two things out of the trip. A good slice of real, authentic New York style pizza and a ticket to The David Letterman Show.
We stayed at a pretty shitty hotel. I can’t remember the name but I know it was close to Times Square and though I’m sure it’s since changed, in 1994 if you were staying in a hotel that was close to Times Square then it was most likely pretty shitty. But I was also 22 years old. At that age, I didn’t notice shitty quite the same way I do now.
So, off to Times Square we went to get our first slice of real, authentic New York style pizza. I splurged and got a slice of the sausage and one of the pepperoni. They both got a good shake of red pepper flake and parmesan cheese. I can still remember that first bite as I folded it over the way I had been instructed to when eating real, authentic New York style pizza. Man, it was good. This was the big time. We were in New York. And as we sat eating our slices at the Sbarro on 49th and Broadway we didn’t feel like a bunch of dumb ass kids from Texas. We felt freedom.
Fucking Sbarro. What a bunch of jack-offs. Not Lombardi’s. Not even a Ray’s Famous. We were such a bunch of hicks we went to a fucking Sbarro.
Next on the list was tickets to see David Letterman. This one got shut down pretty fast. Evidently, you can’t just walk up and get tickets to go see The David Letterman Show. We didn’t realize that. However, we did get some good advice from the nice lady working there after she was done laughing at us.
She told us to go to MTV and stand around outside.
“They got a zillion shows,” she says, “And they’re always looking to put bodies in the audience.”
Cool. We were bodies. We were good at standing around. We loved MTV. Off we went. There were about a dozen of us. It was a down-day with no agencies to visit. Ironic t-shirts had just sort of come into being and we were all wearing them. I had on my favorite Dr. Pepper shirt. I probably still have it somewhere.
The lady was right. There were various groups of kids standing around outside MTV. They were all bunched into matching sets. There were a couple different pods of emo kids sulking around and doing each other’s mascara. There were several gaggles of overly energetic teen girls who all looked like Avril Lavigne. There were punks, jocks, weirdoes, hip hop kids and skaters. It was fucking Breakfast Club and each group was a different character.
It didn’t take long for our group to get pulled into a cue. We had no idea what show we were going to see. We didn’t care. We were at MTV. This was fucking awesome. I didn’t know how or for what, but I was sure that I was going to get discovered.
We ended up at a show none of us had ever heard of before. It was new. It was called the Jon Stewart Show.
Jon was super cool. He came out early to warm up the crowd. He told a few jokes and got a few laughs. Then he shouts out, “Where are the Texans?”
Holy shit. He was talking to us.
We were pretty much being idiots the entire time, so we get all excited and we’re standing up and waiving our hands and yelling and screaming at him. Just whooping it up like a bunch of hayseeds taking a night off from the farm to go into the big city for a fancy steak dinner and a show. He kind of rolls his eyes and half mumbles into his chest, “Ever see Midnight Cowboy?”
Everyone kinda gave a laugh but didn’t know why. But I knew why. I had seen Midnight Cowboy. I fucking loved Midnight Cowboy.
When I was 16, I used to go to Blockbuster and because I was an artistic lad, I’d always go to the independent films section where they had stuff that wasn’t necessarily independent, it was just different than the mainstream stuff. Movies like Eraserhead, The River’s Edge and Midnight Cowboy.
At the time, I had never really seen a movie quite like it. There were no redeeming characters. Everyone was trying to rip everyone else off. And the ending was far from a romantic Hollywood finish. I didn’t want to be anyone in that movie. And I definitely didn’t want to be doing any of the stuff that anyone in that movie was doing, but I was enthralled by it nonetheless.
The beginning of the film is nuts. And then you’ve got Dustin Hoffman peeling those rotten potatoes in that filthy squat and shouting, “I’m walkin’ here!”
The song, Everybody’s Talkin’ by Harry Nilsson, is brilliant. It provides a strange and eerie but oddly comforting soundtrack that somehow manages to offset the squalid world of hustlers, cons and creepy people that come in and out of the movie. I watched it a dozen times.
I shout out, “I love Midnight Cowboy!”
And Jon immediately says, “Whoever that guy is, he’s your leader. Follow him for the rest of the trip. Trust me, it’s gonna be weird but fun.”
I don’t remember who the guest was that Jon had on the show, but when the musical act came out it was a band we had never heard of called Green Day.
Growing up in the seventies and eighties pretty much every show was filmed in front of a live studio audience. And they’d say it before every show. “This show was filmed in front of a live studio audience.” Also, most TV shows had a theme song that pretty much explained the entire concept of the show. This made it a lot less daunting to dive into a series you may have never seen before, like “Who’s the Boss?” or “Charles in Charge”.
I think TV today has kind of gone off the rails. There’s so many different streaming platforms and so much high quality content that it’s really difficult to keep up with. I can’t imagine how many great shows there are out there that don’t get their fair share of attention. And I can’t imagine how many viewers there are out there who aren’t seeing stuff they’d really like because they simply can’t get to it. Either they don’t have the time or they don’t have the streaming service.
Advertising used to pay for all of our entertainment. TV didn’t cost you a dime because we got 8 minutes out of every 30 to try and sell you something. Somewhere along the line, those billions of advertising dollars stopped being able to foot the bill. Now everything costs money and everything’s a separate streaming service and if you want the whole enchilada at top notch streaming speed then it isn’t long before you’re making the equivalent of an extra car payment every month to watch TV.
It just seems to me that the math is off somewhere.
Even if I get all that shit, I’m still getting served up ads. Why aren’t they covering more of the cost?
I think we’re in a very transitional stage with all of this stuff. I think it’s the wild west right now. Someone’s going to tame it and bundle it and serve it up in a friendlier package. I don’t know, I’m not a prognosticator.
In fact, I’m more of a sentimentalist. I miss all of us watching the same stuff. I know it was pretty crappy compared to what we have today but it provided an inherent amount of common ground for people to come together around. You could have a hell of an argument with someone and diffuse it pretty quickly with a good Cliff Clavin imitation. Maybe if we were all still watching the same shows we’d be less divided?
I think back to standing outside of MTV in New York. We were all different. But we were all standing outside the same place. The jocks. The punks. The hip hop kids. And the Avril Lavigne girls. We were all coming from someplace entirely different but wanting desperately to walk through the same door.
I don’t know where that door is anymore. It's probably locked anyway.