I no longer want my MTV.
I didn’t have MTV in the early ’80s. When I graduated college and moved into my first apartment in 1980, I couldn’t afford cable, and didn’t even own a working TV for a year or so somewhere in the early part of that time frame. But I saw MTV when I visited my parents in Syracuse, and I was in favor of the concept. All rock videos all the time? Yeah! Sure, I wished there was greater (or, y’know, some) representation of The Ramones or British Invasion or The Monkees instead of so much Billy Squier and Pat Benatar, but I would nonetheless watch MTV into the wee hours on the rare opportunities I had to do so.
Plus Martha Quinn was just as cute as a button, man.
I missed a chance to see my Syracuse pop heroes Screen Test compete on MTV’s Basement Tapes in 1983; my fiancée Brenda and I wandered from bar to bar in our Buffalo neighborhood, trying to find a drinking (or any) establishment willing to let us watch a half-hour’s worth of MTV, but to no avail. In 1986, MTV started playing reruns of The Monkees. That was, in a way, the network’s first step away from its original raison d’être, although The Monkees’ romps were at least still music-related. No MTV for me yet, but my upstairs neighbor Cheryl invited me to join her for occasional Monkees viewings, so I got my random Micky-Davy-Peter-Michael fix that way. By the the time I could finally budget cable into my monthly expenditures in late ’86, The Monkees were nearing the end of their MTV honeymoon; an unpleasant divorce from the network followed in 1987, as The Monkees were banished from MTV and relegated to the kids’ network Nickelodeon instead.
It took a long time for MTV to evolve (if that’s the word) from music programming. Most would trace the beginning of that path away from music videos to the 1992 debut of the reality series The Real World, and run through subsequent programs like Beavis And Butthead and the current plethora of trash-TV that’s as palatable to me as Kryptonite is to Kal-El. But I have to admit that MTV’s very first venture into non-music programming was, in fact, a show I enjoyed quite a bit. It was a game show called MTV’s Remote Control, which debuted in December of 1987. Somewhere around 1989 or ’90, I tried to become a contestant on Remote Control.
Do you remember Remote Control? I tell ya, the show was kind of a hoot, a too-cool-for-school game show that didn’t allow its own self-awareness to succumb to detachment or to (hardly) ever get in the way of its sense of goofy fun. Its high-concept foundation was that host Ken Ober had always wanted to be a TV game show host when he was (theoretically) growing up. Now, he’d made his dream come true by setting up his own game show in the basement of his parents’ house at 72 Whooping Cough Lane. Let hijinks ensue! The show’s theme song laid it out:
Kenny wasn’t like the other kids
TV mattered, nothing else did
Girls said yes, but he said no
Now he’s got his own game show
With images from classic game shows–George Fenneman and Groucho Marx on You Bet Your Life, the logo from Truth Or Consequences, Monty Hall on Let’s Make A Deal–flickering on a TV screen as Ken grows from boy to man, the intro gives way to the show’s announcer, comic Colin Quinn:
And now it’s his basement, it’s his rules, it’s his game show. The quizmaster of 72 Whooping Cough Lane, KEN OBER!
Ober was a stand-up comic, so Remote Control‘s vibe was willfully snarky. Three young contestants were strapped into La-Z-Boy chairs, given TV remotes, and directed to compete in TV trivia. Each channel on Ken’s old Zenith offered a different TV trivia category. Six Feet Under. Celebrity Flesh. Babes And Assassins. Private Dicks. Brady Physics. Dead Or Canadian. Ober asked the questions, and his on-screen comrades–Quinn, musician Steve Treccase, and a hostess (originally Marisol Massey)–participated when appropriate. Channels such as Shakespeare TV required Colin Quinn to ask the question in the form of a comic performance; similar channels called for recurring characters played by Adam Sandler, Denis Leary, and John Ten Eyck. After the first two rounds, the contestant with the lowest score was eliminated, with his/her recliner physically ejected from the set, the luckless player still strapped to it.
Goofy. And fun. I wanted to be a part of this!
I’ve been trying to remember precisely when I auditioned for Remote Control. I was just this side of too-old to compete; the show’s rules said all contestants had to be under 30, or maybe under 31. If the latter, my try-out was in 1990, some time after my thirtieth birthday. It’s a young man’s (or woman’s) game, sure. But I was gonna try my hand nonetheless. I spied a notice that an open audition would take place on campus at Syracuse University. I arranged for a day off from work, and I was there. REMOTE CONTROL!
Brenda had zero interest in appearing in a game show, but she accompanied me to offer moral support and for the experience itself. I wish I could remember exactly where on campus the audition took place. Both Brenda and I recall it as a lecture hall, though I don’t think it was a particularly large room. Upon arrival, we were informed that there could be no guests, that only potential contestants would be allowed entry. Brenda shrugged and agreed to try out.
There was, I’m sure, some disappointment among the assembled hopefuls that none of the show’s on-air talent was present at the audition. Orange Nation did not have the chance to welcome Ken Ober, Colin Quinn, or Steve Treccase to the ‘Cuse. Nor did we get to see Kari Wuhrer, the pretty young actress who had replaced Marisol as Remote Control hostess. My pesky memory insists that the woman in charge that day was Shannon Fitzgerald, who would go on to become a pretty big-deal producer and executive; I can’t find anything online to specifically connect Fitzgerald with Remote Control, so I can’t state for the record that my pesky memory hasn’t been drinking. But Fitzgerald’s name sticks in my recollection, right or wrong.
(Kari Wuhrer, with whom much of the male portion of Remote Control‘s fanbase was duly smitten, left the show following its third season. Whenever my audition was, we did not yet know that Kari was gone, or if in fact she was gone at the time. Fitzgerald–and let’s presume it was Shannon Fitzgerald runnin’ the show at SU that day–made some kind of comment about Wuhrer, but I can’t pinpoint the specifics in my mind.)
The auditions were held in three parts. The first part was a written test, a series of TV trivia questions, with no multiple choice. I wish I could remember some of the questions, but I do remember that they seemed easy enough. I aced the written. Brenda didn’t, but no one was asked to leave. The folks in charge needed an audience for phase two: the live audition.
The live audition was crucial, a test to see if Shannon and company felt we were sufficiently bubbly and effervescent to appear on TV. No, not just TV–MTV!! I want my MTV! Can’t just fold up like a dyin’ Pac-Man here. You want a TV personality, an MTV personality? Awright. I could do that.
No, really. I could.
I can be shy in real life. I don’t always know what to say, or how to act. But on stage, or in front of a microphone? Yeah, not a problem. Years later, I would often tell my daughter that you need never be afraid of an audience; the audience should be afraid of you. This mundane planet is one thing. Performing is quite another. Show business! With the few minutes before my name was called for my live audition, my mind worked out what I had to do.
Hey, that’s me! I strolled to the front of the little lecture hall, smiling and waiving at the assembled hopefuls. Yep, I was definitely the oldest guy there. I could work that. I was given, I think, two minutes to dazzle and impress. I wouldn’t need that long. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but here’s a reasonable approximation:
Hey, how’s everyone doin’? Good? My name’s Carl Cafarelli, I’m from right here in Syracuse, NY, the town so nice they named it. A giggle from somewhere. Good. And I tell ya–this thing today is my LAST SHOT. Really! That’s it, man. I’m 30 years old. I am just shy of bein’ put out to pasture. MTV don’t want no thirty-one-year olds. MTV looks at 31 like it’s in dog years. “Jeez, this guy’s like two hundred and ten years old? Can’t we just get him some moss for his north side?” A couple more laughs. But I wanted to quit while I was ahead. I get it. It’s a young person’s world. I’ll go coffin shopping tomorrow. I’m just glad I had this chance to see you all here. I wanted to close by singing, like, my all-time favorite TV show theme song, “The Batman Theme.” Yeah! But I can’t remember the words. Can you help me out?
Quietly but immediately, a few kids in the small crowd began to sing, Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na…. I whooped my own approval, That’s it! More joined in, and the whole damned crowd was singing, Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na BATMAN! I pumped my fist in the air, That’s it! Thanks! Thanks so much everyone! I walked back to my seat to the sound of applause. Like The Beatles before me, I had passed the audition.
The third and final part of the try-out was a practice game of Remote Control. The remaining hopefuls were divided into groups of three to compete with each other in abbreviated Remote Control contests. I had a buzz of confidence, anticipation…
…And that’s where I crashed.
In that long-ago, prehistoric, low-tech world, back when future Vice President Al Gore was still workin’ the kinks out of that Internet thing he’d invented, mock game shows in Syracuse University lecture halls didn’t have a Remote Control set with La-Z-Boys and remote controls to play with. No, we had classroom desk-and-chair combos; if we wanted to be the first to try to answer a question, we were instructed to slap the tops of our desks to ring in (as it were) in the absence of actuals buzzers to use. Surely this ain’t how Ken Jennings started!
It wouldn’t have mattered anyway; at 30, I was the oldest guy in the game. Regardless of whether I was armed with a buzzer to buzz in or a hand to slap on a desk, my reflexes were already slower than those of my college-age competitors. When I couldn’t slap fast enough to answer a Monkees question–A MONKEES QUESTION!–I knew I was toast. (Oh, for the record, the question was: “The Monkees gave good movie in this, their only feature film.” The Monkees’ Head is one of my favorite movies, and I’m still kicking myself for being too slow to answer that one.)
I swallowed my disappointment and went home with Brenda. It’s a young person’s game.
So I never got to be on MTV. I’ve never appeared on a game show, and I likely never will. I continued to watch MTV’s Remote Control. Kari Wuhrer was replaced by Alicia Coppola, who was herself replaced by Susan Ashley. The show ran for a total of five seasons, and Al Gore’s brainchild informs me there was also a syndicated version. The final original episode aired in late 1990 (calling into question the timeline I’ve detailed for my audition. Maybe I was only 29? Jeez, you’d think my reflexes woulda been faster at 29…!)
Colin Quinn went on to join the cast of Saturday Night Live, and so did Adam Sandler. Still, the only time I ever liked Sandler was…well, no, I didn’t like him on Remote Control either, but his movie The Wedding Singer was surprisingly charming. Denis Leary also found fame, and Kari Wuhrer actually had a ton of acting roles, many of which called for her to remove her shirt. Alicia Coppola also has a long string of TV acting credits, but neither Marisol Massey nor Susan Ashley managed to score more than a handful of roles (at least according to IMdB). Ken Ober, the heart of MTV’s Remote Control, had a few more hosting gigs (on MTV, USA, ESPN, and Comedy Central), some radio, and worked as a producer on the CBS sitcom The New Adventures Of Old Christine. Ober passed away in 2009. He was 52 years old.