Guttervision – Review


by William Ham

“It’s weird about this country,” the man known merely as Frank says. “We’re supposed to be the most advanced nation in the world, the place where you can worship who you want and say anything you like. But try and do that on TV and you’ll get shut down for it.”

These are nothing short of fighting words, especially when one realizes how true they are. American television is probably the blandest and safest in the world, reined in by the constraints of nervous sponsors, special interest groups, and marketing consultants. Even the stuff that passes for cutting edge has been blunted, bowdlerized into slick, V-chipped eye pabulum, plentiful but lacking in nutrients. The last remaining outlet for unvarnished video truth-telling lies in the uncharted regions of your cable box on the channels set aside for public access TV. As Frank puts it, “The truly creative people aren’t making $150,000 a year at NBC; they’re the renegades with $100 in their pocket and an idea.” In Frank’s case, that idea has borne bitterly toothsome fruit in the raw half-hour of entertainment known as Guttervision.

The concept can be summed up in three words: “High Defiance Television.” For three years, Frank and his partner, Cameron Smith, have used their tiny North Hollywood studio to present what Frank calls “the most reality-based TV out there. Kind of a renegade 60 Minutes. Most television is like trying to cut a T-bone steak with a butter knife. There just isn’t any satisfying TV out there – I mean, everybody’s seen the Jeffrey Dahmer documentary with the bodies being dragged out of the house. Well, I wanna see what’s inside! We don’t want to editorialize and we’re not doing this just to shock – we just want to show the whole thing. I think people can handle it.”

A typical Guttervision episode is a mind-jumbling cavalcade of quick-cut images, from the provocative to the banal, “borrowed” from the mass media. In between, it showcases people and activities rarely touched by the mainstream – from a male-to-female sex change operation to an interview with artist Robert Williams to “twelve ways to become a serial killer/politician,” topped off with a video that MTV won’t show. Mention of the video-music network sends Frank off on an apparently well-rehearsed rant. “MTV is a good example of what’s wrong with television. It was pretty exciting when it first started out, but it’s just a lifestyle channel now, all lame versions of the same shit that the rest of the networks put out. I mean, Road Rules, what’s that? Do I really wanna watch five people drive 1500 miles to walk someone’s dog? It’s like, how much more pathetic can TV get? I don’t know, MTV hasn’t come up with a new fall series yet.”

Predictably, a show as edgy as Guttervision has aroused a wide range of responses. “Fans will send us weird stuff, stuff that even we wouldn’t show – bestiality and so forth. Not that I wouldn’t show it if I could; I just don’t want the authorities breathing down my neck. And one time we got a package from New York – no name, no return address, just a pair of shoes. I guess that means either we’re on the right track or we should take a walk.”

Currently, Frank and Cam are working on five new shows, as well as pitching their project to HBO, Showtime, and European satellite television. And of course, they’re always looking for more grist for the Guttervision mill. “It’s wide open. Painters, sculptors, musicians, animators, performance artists – this is your forum and you should put it to use. And I’ve got a couple of interview subjects on my wish list – Noam Chomsky, for one, and also the DNA expert at the OJ trial that was considered unreliable because he took, like, 400 acid trips or something. Now that would be an interesting conversation.”

Although Guttervision can be seen in nine markets across the country, most have as yet resisted their clarion call, some quite vehemently. “We were banned in New Jersey,” Frank says. “Don’t ask me why, I guess we’re too heavy for Passaic.” But even if the Smells-Weird State has no truck with the Gutter, that doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t petition our local cable outlets to fit in this wild, unleavened delicacy alongside the buffet of boredom they usually serve up. It may do us some good. As Frank puts it, “If bad TV is cancer, then Guttervision is chemotherapy.”

Guttervision, PO Box 16343, N. Hollywood, CA 91615-6343; (818) 753-6668