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MTV Remote Control Retrospective

Contributed by Darren Kane

remotelogo“Kenny wasn’t like the other kids…TV mattered, nothing else did…”

Via the ’80s stand-up comedy boom, college kids were getting the exact brand of humor they wanted; wry, sarcastic, ranty, self-aware, and what I call “smart stupid.” That is, sophomoric comedy infused with brains, elevating it to the “…that’s actually quite clever” category. On network TV, it was epitomized by Late Night with David Letterman, which was of course then residing at NBC’s 12:30 slot…

…by the late ’80s, MTV had evolved to the point were it was ready to produce original programming. Leading that initial wave of original MTV shows was Remote Control, the be-all, end-all of offbeat game shows; comedy-driven pop-culture trivia, college-age contestants, in the comfort of host Ken Ober’s “basement.”

In 2006, I started pulling together a Remote Control retrospective…I was (and still am) a huge fan of the show, and conducted interviews with RC’s co-creator Mike Dugan, head writer Mike Armstrong, and the three main on-air players of Colin Quinn, Kari Wührer, and Ken Ober. And man, did they come back to me with great material.

The feature was originally intended for a print comedy magazine, which…well, it went away, as has been the case for so many print pubs during the digital age. So, the Remote Control interviews then sat on my hard drive for close to four years. Then, this past October I took another look at the material, and thought it’d be a shame for this stuff not to see the light of day; I’d find some online venue to post it…

…then as I re-started working on the piece, the very sad and unexpected happened in mid-November: Ken Ober passed away, at his home in Santa Monica. He was 52.

Out of respect, I let the piece sit again for a bit. Then recently took another look, and came to the same previous conclusion; it’d be a shame for this stuff not to see the light of day. So, as a fan of ’80s comedy, MTV, and Ken Ober, here is the MTV Remote Control Retrospective from the 2006 interviews, as a tribute to a (now classic) game show and its host…

ORIGINS OF THE SHOW, and GETTING THE GIG…

Dugan: I have to give a lot of credit to MTV’s Doug Herzog for the show. The mid-80′s were heady times at MTV. We were all young, horny, and single.

Doug knew he could exploit this, so he invited a dozen of us guys and girls to a soundproofed motel room in a questionable section of town. By the end of the weekend we had all really bonded. (Co-creator) Joe Davola said something about playing some kind of TV trivia game while sitting in a Kraft-Matic adjustable bed.

Colin: I landed the gig only because I had a distinctive voice from three packs a day. I was doing stand-up comedy and Dugan and Joe came to see me.

Armstrong: Writer and character actor John Ten Eyck and I actually got the job together because we knew Doug Herzog. Perhaps we really were talented, but I still think we were hired because we had gone to college with Doug.

My first thought upon arriving at MTV and seeing all the young women was, “What a bad time to have a girlfriend.” My second thought was, “How can I get rid of her.” My third thought was, “What if I get rid of her and I still can’t get laid.” My fourth thought was, “Better leave well enough alone.”

Colin: Mike Armstrong was a typical Canadian in that he was a funny writer and a great guy, but a boring and awful personality on the surface.

Ken Ober at the Remote Control podium.

Ken Ober at the Remote Control podium.

Armstrong: Finding the right host was the most memorable part of the job for me. We had some people show up who were absolutely dreadful. I guess we had all been fans of game shows, but we really didn’t appreciate that hosting one isn’t something that anybody can do.

Ken: I was working as a stand-up comic in New York City. They really liked me so after a million auditions it came down to me and Danny Bonaduce.

Armstrong: Ken Ober, of course, was perfect because he had this great combination of comedic ability and a slightly disrespectful attitude towards the whole strange pageant. Watching him, you were never quite sure that he wanted to be there, which I think is the most natural and honest reaction to hosting a game show a human being can have.

KARI JOINS THE SHOW for SEASONS TWO and THREE…

Colin (warming up his voice) with Kari.

Colin (warming up his voice) with Kari.

Kari: Well, at the time of the “audition” for the coveted hostess role, I was a born again Christian attending an all-girls Catholic college on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

I was a bit concerned with the material, I mean, these guys weren’t exactly altar boys, and I didn’t want to be employed as an object, but I was nonetheless intrigued. And I needed the money. Not that MTV ever paid anyone in cash. I mean it was more swag and connections that kept us fed. But I still felt the pull of the Devil, and sure enough, he got his claws into me on my 21st birthday.

Colin and Ken threw all kinds of fastballs my way and I was ready with the goods. Even if I didn’t have any breasts…yet, I had God on my side.

Ken: No matter what Kari says, she walked into that room and was so stunning that it took five full minutes for all of our brains to process her. She had the job while she was getting dressed that morning at her apartment.

ON THE CATEGORIES…

kengameboard

Ken at the Remote Control "pick a channel" control board.

Armstrong: My favorite category was “Brady Physics,” in which we would set up a really obscene scenario involving those lovable Brady Brunch characters and use it to ask a math question. Something like, “If Marcia has a twelve hundred pound horse suspended six feet over her bed and the rope breaks, how much force will she experience.” Or, “If Alice is settling the grocery bill with the delivery boy on top of the kitchen table…” Some of the questions were so funny that I would wake up laughing in the middle of the night. Unfortunately, they were never the ones that I had written.

Dugan: A classic example of censors actually helping the show: We originally wanted to do category called “Roll the Pope”, in which a guy would come out dressed as the Pope and run through an audience who’d been instructed to mug him. The lawyers were afraid the Pope would sue. But we could use a bishop if we wanted, because there are hundreds of bishops, so no one bishop could prove we were defaming him. Jokingly we fired back, “Can we call it ‘Beat the Bishop?’” and they said fine. Thus was born a game whose title was a clear reference to jerking off.

Of course “Inside Tina Yothers” was filthy, too. Like I said, we were all really horny, all the time.

Ken: There was one category I can’t remember what it was called…but it had unanswerable questions. Like advanced theoretic physics and molecular shit. One day a kid answered the question. He was the only one to ever get one right in that category. He had had the question on a Physics final two weeks earlier.

Kari: I really loved “Sing Along With Colin.” It annoyed everyone so much when I would jump in and try to steal his spotlight. I don’t know what I was thinking, but Colin only hit me once. And I kinda liked it.

ON THE CHARACTERS…

Adam Sandler as "Stud Boy."

Adam Sandler as "Stud Boy."

Colin: My favorite characters were “Stud Boy,” “Bossy Boy,” and my “brother” who would fight me, played by Denis Leary.

Armstrong: Coming up with the characters was the most fun. John Ten Eyck’s characters were all inspired by bits he would do around the office either to crack us up or annoy people in the elevators. He would laugh to the tune of songs on the way to lunch. Hence, “The Laughing Guy” was born. He also liked to make fart noises and I seem to recall working that into the show somehow, but I might be wrong. Putting his bizarre talents to use was especially gratifying for me because I had known him for many years. It was as though we had finally stumbled into a receptacle for all of his weird bits.

(Interview continues, just click below!)

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