Once upon a time, some iconoclastic comic actors and wildly original writers were assembled to copy a hit TV show's style, and despite format limits, managed to distinguish themselves in bleeding edge ways. Staggering under the pressure of performing live with little network support and lots of censor intervention, they eked out three freaky years of controversial comedy before cancellation.
Usually, such shows would be forgotten, but cunning fans with long loyalties and a gift for petty crime kept the memory alive, pirating pieces for their private collections, and, making "Fridays" sketches and breakout bands' TV debuts very YouTubular in later years.
Left to Right, "Fridays" cast: Larry David, Brandis Kemp, Melanie Chartoff, Bruce Mahler, Michael Richards, Darrow Igus, Mark Blankfield. Standing: John Moffit, producer. (Missing: MaryEdith Burrell, John Roarke)
However, after languishing in legal, ego, and licensing quagmires for three decades, sixteen of ABC's late night retorts to "Saturday Night Live" have been released on DVD for the world to see. "Fridays'" bonus materials beyond anything ever bootlegged, radical material that even I had forgotten (and I was in it!), have surfaced (William Shatner first proved he could be funny on "Fridays," Devo's renown ignited there, too), via the fringe TV fans' best friend, Shout! Factory's Richard Foos, who has brought many lost shows to new life on DVD, Blu-Ray, SVOD and AVOD (streaming audio and video on demand). The man midwifes the past into the future in many formats.
Long intrigued by the lore about this progressive, philanthropic folk hero (a Board Member of Little Kids Rock, Government Accountability Project, The Nation Institute, and Chrysalis), I researched Richard to the point of intimidating myself. I spoke with Gary Stewart, pop culture purveyor, ongoing friend and former employee of Foos (and of Apple, Itunes and Liberty Hill) for background.
Gary, you started working at Richard's Rhino Record Store in 1977. What do you recall?
Lots. It was a time when the local scene in LA was exploding, and the guys at Rhino were selling the best of it. When I got out of high school, I hung around that ratty little store so much Richard finally hired me and didn't fire me when he should have. Richard's taste epitomized everything I had read about in fanzines--selling secret The Who tapes, psychedelic tracks, political themed singles, "Thinking Caps"--baseball caps with philosophers' names instead of ball clubs on them. The store started putting out its own novelty songs and albums, and ultimately created the Rhino label in 1979.
Did Richard and Rhino have a vision of taste-making for his generation?
Not really a vision, just a fan's passionate attraction to things they loved, putting out stuff they selfishly wanted for themselves. Richard and his partners were collectors who became grassroots entrepreneurs, who made the marginal visible and publicly accessible outside the province of nerds and geeks. They learned to balance the tension between art and commerce; their groovy good taste, and hippy heart for the underdog, with their need to make money. I think their philosophy evolved into building hits way after the release dates had passed, making the fans work harder to spread their word of mouth after songs and shows were off the air. He started with CD's and moved into DVD's at Shout! Factory. Their first hit was the short lived series "Freaks and Geeks" and he always had the intention of doing it with "Fridays," too.
I met with the man, that fan, who had made "Fridays" available to folks beyond the fringe; the social activist/archivist/anarchist/entrepreneur who, with like minded compulsives, took his bohemian business to the masses with such diverse releases as "The Transformers" and "Power Rangers" for kids, and historical revisits, like "Dobie Gillis," "The Ernie Kovacs Show," and "The Dick Cavett Show" for older kids. The Shout! website overflows with projects like an afterlife library, so historical turning points in TV history and pop culture aren't simply hearsay. (His list also contains two seasons of "Parker Lewis Can't Lose," on which I co-starred for three years. I admit a bit of a pre-bias toward the man.)
Rhino and Shout midwifed so many nearly forgotten properties into immortality, how have your odds been in making them profitable?
One out of three.
Uh, huh. So, are you:
A. A madman genius;
B. A self-appointed savior, with a Robin hood rescue complex;
C. A rabid fan frothing to give favorite projects second life;
D. Someone who shares indiscriminately what he loves;
E. Someone who loathes multiple choice putting words in his mouth?
I've heard the definition of "geek" as being someone who is romantically or erotically aroused by inanimate entities--songs, electronics, shows, movies cars. They comprise your market. Would you agree?
How did it feel when the film version of Nick Hornby's book "HIgh Fidelity" showed the life of a record store so much like Rhino?
Please feel free to give answers longer than my questions.
Oh, okay. It was eerie. We had a guy working for us who looked, talked, acted exactly like Jack Black in "High Fidelity." He didn't sing, but he did become a music executive.
Why did you call your new company Shout! Factory?
Because we're so into what we do, and the stuff we put out, that we want to shout about it!
Great! Tell me what kept you trying for a "Fridays" deal for so many years.
I loved playing in the weeds, I liked the underground stuff, even while I was a lefty idealistic hippy doing community work. Gary Stewart and other friends who were also avid followers would ask me, "Why isn't 'Fridays" out!?" I recall trying to put out a VHS of the series early on. But there were a lot of complications.
I recall all the musical and actor gueststars, and songs needed negotiating. A couple of cast members wanted whole shows aired or nothing. Some preferred nothing.
Right. To their credit, the producers Pat Lee and John Moffit, and (the late producer Bill Lee's son) Chris Lee put a lot of effort into making it work. I think it was the "Fridays" reunion party that got some momentum going.
Right--two years ago. It was intense seeing each other, sharing crazy stories, watching risky stuff we created together thirty years ago.
It still took awhile. I was also motivated because I had a number of weird connections to Andy Kaufman for years and put out his last film "My Breakfast with Blassie" on VHS before I even had a video company. I forgot about it until I went to Bruce Kirschbaum's kid's bar mitzfah about eight years ago, and Larry Charles was sitting at my table (both were writers on the show). Larry reminded me that he used to play poker at my house and I recalled watching him do standup when he first came out to LA in the late 70's. He also said "Hey, you should put "Fridays" out, man!"
And so you did.
Yes! Challenge now is where to sell shows like "Fridays." Walmart's won't carry it, Best Buy maybe, but Barnes and Noble only carries about fifty DVD's, period. One side of one shelf! There's no retail outlets anymore to carry shows.
Physical stores like Tower and Blockbuster used to offer choices. Now there's portals to the Net with its many hidden islands of taste. You need a scandal to get noticed.
We'll have to curate fan clubs because we think this is stuff people need to see. We'll have to find a way to find the fans for our stuff. Meantime, now I've got some projects I want to put out myself---one about Groucho, another about Alan Freed, father of "Rock and Roll."
I knew that --- I was in "American Hot Wax," playing Patience of Patience and Prudence.
(Spoken with a fan's real zeal) You WERE?! I wanna put that one out!