“ABBEY OF THE LEMUR” PRODUCER C.F. ROBERTS PROVIDES AN IN-DEPTH LOOK AT THE INSPIRATION BEHIND THE CONTROVERSY.
What inspired you to create your show?
It was kind of a long process with a long gestation period. It was my roommate at the time (Andrew “Panda” Lucariello) who suggested we go down to the Access Station. I never thought of ever doing television (side note: Today I work in television professionally). We were hanging around watching a lot of movies at the time — everything from Silent Expressionism to avant garde indie stuff to low-budget gore; and I think he was keen on being a filmmaker.
We went into it without any concrete idea of what we wanted to do. I’d seen a lot of the local access shows at the time (this was ’96). There were a ton of talk shows, some religious shows and the one I remember most was a music-and-poetry show called “Pondering the Muse”. I liked that show a lot and any number of friends had been on that show. Some of whom went on to be frequent flyers on “Abbey”.
We started taking out cameras on the weekend and probably ran around for 6 months randomly shooting stuff before anything resembling a “show” began to materialize. If you asked me what I wanted to do back then I would have told you something open-ended, like “Dada”.
We ran all over the place. We drove up and down 540 shooting footage of roadkill. We’d invite friends over and get loaded and whatever happened wound up on camera. We’d go shoot a band at a house party. We’d run up to an industrial chickenhouse and shoot what was going on in there.
All of this non-specific video searching eventually came together in kind of a crude goulash that was built loosely around the framework backstory that we were some kind of demented cult, trying to convert and/or “deprogram” the viewer. A lot of what fell into our filter at the time was pretty much white trash, working class culture — a lot of frustration because we were creative people stuck in hellish jobs — various counter cultural concerns that would run the gamut between punk attitude, experimental psychedelia, surrealism and stupid, lowbrow humor.
Underground filmmakers like John Waters were big heroes for us. I had published an underground literary zine for about 5 or 6 years. For me it was just a process of taking what I was doing with my mag and turning it into a television show.
What inspires you to push the limits of tradition?
A lot of it is just our artistic DNA. For me a lot of that IS my tradition. I can look back across a hundred years of art and culture and cite examples — Antonin Artaud is part of my tradition. Marcel DuChamp is a part of my tradition. William Burroughs is part of my tradition — Waters, as previously mentioned — the Panic Movement, the Situationists, the Sex Pistols, the Marx Brothers — maybe those are disparate influences but there’s a thread, or a common aesthetic, and I see that as my tradition.
That’s a very confrontational, irreverent kind of tradition to follow in, and ‘x’ number of people are probably not going to like it. When we got involved with Public Access, we started watching a lot of it and most of it was, to one degree or another, very staid and respectable. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I applaud anyone who goes down there and makes a show. When we began playing with the editing equipment, (which, at the time, was the old Amiga Toaster system) we were jazzed by the potential we saw. Our thoughts were, look at all these bells and whistles. No one’s really using any of this to its full capacity, and so it became very important for us to explore, to push the technology we were given as hard and as far as we could to see what we could come up with just to put something pure and different on the screen that no one had really seen before.
What is your goal?
“Goal” — that’s a tough one — it’s always been very difficult for us to answer questions like “what is your goal” or “what is your message” because you’re dealing with a show that’s been around for 14 years through shifting casts and ideas and landscapes; and we’ve all gone through big life changes over the course of the show’s run. Ostensibly we want to entertain and provoke and (hopefully) make people think.
We’ve used the show as a vehicle to make people laugh, to scare people, to thumb our noses at the status quo, to showcase local bands and poets and to express our feelings about politics. For me — one guy who has been doing this show for 14 years —I could say that a goal of mine, as a working class artist, is to create art and entertainment on my own terms and maybe inject some healthy subversion into people’s lives.
How do you feel about PA in association with your 1st Amendment rights?
Access has largely been a great forum over the years — it’s defended me and I’ve defended it. It goes through weak periods and strong periods but it’s always been a good forum. When you become involved in public access you find yourself part of a larger continuum of activists and advocates and you can all find a common bond in that.
Have those rights ever been challenged?
They certainly have! Glossing over various angry phone calls or minor complaints there have been a few noteworthy controversies. One person wrote in 2003 that no one had ever really used the Access Complaint process before, but that was actually incorrect. Some parties brought an official complaint against us in 1998, when we used a pig’s head as a prop. This went beyond just the Access Provider. The complaint went all the way to the Cable Board (now the Telecom Board), and we were actually unaware of the complaint until a member of the Cable Board approached us personally and asked us for a copy of the tape.
We were vindicated, as per usual, through use of the Miller Test. As a music fan and a writer/publisher on the zine scene, the idea of first amendment controversies and writers, artists & musicians being harassed and prosecuted for their art (via censorship or culture war) were always very big hot button issues for me.
If people were going to be taking me down that path they were going to get a tooth-and-nail fight. I made a point of becoming very conversant in the Miller Test and SLAPS values. One thing people have tried to hang us with over the years has been the idea that the show has no meaning, value or merit. I can defend anything we’ve done on the basis of Serious Literary, Artistic, Political and/or Scientific value and I’ve done my homework: it goes into everything I do. The BIGGEST challenge happened in 2003 when we did a two hour live show that was very raunchy and over-the-top.
One individual made a formal obscenity complaint: that’s a charge of legal obscenity. We were later told that some people in the city administration were behind the complaint.* The Government itself can’t try to censor an access show directly (without getting sued) but a civilian can complain.
They had a few of their buddies in the newspapers write some well-timed hack jobs to give the Access Provider bad press, and it was very transparent and stupid. We defended the show on the basis of the Miller Test and we beat the rap easily. For a while people kept calling in with obviously orchestrated attempts to shut us down. People called the station asking for copies of the Miller Obscenity Test so they could determine for themselves whether we were breaking the law with our shows. Again, very transparent and ill-considered. A friend and fellow Access Producer (also an erstwhile member of the Lemur Cast) created a spinoff show whose entire purpose was to satirize the people who had gone after us.
I guess it hit a little too close to home. A friend of mine who worked for the city told me one of his higher-ups had vowed to criminally prosecute any controversial show on the channel. In a matter of weeks it all came to pass. My friend’s show was seized by the police in a criminal investigation for obscenity. A high-ranking city official came down to the CAT Board of directors meeting to discuss the show, but we were on it like white on rice. Four or five of us showed up at the meeting prepared to argue point and defend the show.
Our opponent from the city showed up with his friend, the guy who had complained about the “Abbey” live show. Rather than discuss the matter with us, they turned tail and ran like scared rabbits. The City Prosecutor viewed my friend’s show and declared that it was “not obscene — just stupid.” The usual lambasts from the newspapers happened, but that was the last big controversy, and that was early 2004.
There have been a few minor dust-ups since then but I like to think we pretty much ended any hopes the Censorship Crowd had at that time. I think the running impression was that we were knuckle-dragging idiots who did this vulgar kind of programming because we weren’t capable of doing anything else; and none of them were ready for it when we were actually making articulate arguments against their charges.
What does the title of the show “Abbey of the Lemur” mean?
It’s a pun based on misunderstood song lyrics.