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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!)

I remember sitting with Adam Sandler trying to make sense of this character he was pitching called, “Stud Boy.” I didn’t quite get it, although the audience seemed to love everything he did (and this was before he owned his first 747).

Ken: My favorite characters were anything that Sandler did. He did about seven different characters. They were really all the same impression, he just made a different face. Who knew?

Kari: “Stud Boy” was always a good time. A bit embarrassing, but we enjoyed laughing at him behind his back. I think Adam Sandler was a friend of Colin’s or something because he was just so bad. A talentless hack, really. Someone was sleeping with someone there.

HIGHLIGHTS and ANTICS…

Armstrong: There was a lot of tinkering with the premise during the first season. We were always fighting with Davola because he continually wanted to dump things on the contestants. We all thought it was a dumb idea. And of course it was. And yet when we did, it was funny. Hmmm.

"Sing Along with Colin."

"Sing Along With Colin."

Colin: Just having all those kids coming on the show and busting our balls and letting us bust theirs was amazing. Plus when it became so big that the Bradys and Danny Bonaduce and a lot of the people we talked about came on.

Dugan: My fondest memories involved taking Remote Control to Spring Break in Daytona. While it may not be ethical — or even legal — to date a contestant, that didn’t stop us from trying. I was doing my best to console a young lass who had lost on the show earlier that day. As I made my way to the bar to get drinks, Colin swept in and made off with the girl. And he drove her back to the hotel in the car we had ALL taken to the nightclub…stranding all of us in the middle of godforsaken Daytona. When he returned to his room at 5 AM, we were all waiting for him. In our kangaroo court he was tried and convicted of second-degree abandonment, and first-degree cockblocking.

Armstrong: I was made head writer for the second and third seasons (I think), which meant that I was also the judge. I can honestly say that in the storied history of game shows, there has never been a worse judge than Mike Armstrong. I never knew what the hell the right call was. I remember one time Ken looked over at me for a ruling and, faking it as I always did, I said “Give him the points!” And Ken looked at me — and this is in the middle of a show — and said, “Are you serious?” And so I said, “Okay, don’t give him the points!” I could see the producers slapping themselves in the forehead. Ken and I just looked at each other and laughed.

Ken: We had the Red Hot Chili Peppers on. That was cool. And Bob Eubanks…that was a lot of fun. There was a show where the contestants were so dumb, we kicked them off and chose three people from the studio audience. We also had some of the Brady Bunch on. And I got a date with Eve Plumb out of it. I think we went pillow shopping.

Adorable Holiday Kari.

Adorable Holiday Kari.

Dugan: Do you have any idea how many times I’ve seen Colin’s cock? It’s unnatural for straight men to take their cocks out of their pants in public as often as he did. We’d be sitting at a nice restaurant, in mixed company, and next thing you know, Colin’s dick is in the pudding. I’d be standing in the make-up room, going over notes with Kari, all of a sudden Colin is banging out Led Zeppelin songs on his metal locker. With his cock.

And of course there was the Christmas episode, when one of the Three Wise Men got yanked off the set…Colin did some yanking of his own, slapping the helpless, strapped-in wise man with his now familiar unit.

Kari: I could party them all under the table, dated more contestants, and showed my penis way more than Colin! It turned out, I was the best object for the job.

GREAT MEMORIES and the SHOW’S IMPACT…

Ken pondering a Remote Control question.

Ken pondering a Remote Control question.

Colin: The reason we look back on it so happily was because it was like Henry Hill says about the mob in Goodfellas; it was before Appalachia, before Crazy Joe started a war by taking on a boss. For us it was before there was such a serious attitude about show business. It was us and the heads of MTV and the interns and everybody would go to the same parties and hang out together, and it was very informal and nobody made money, but we went to concerts and clubs together and on the road. It was very family-like and it is great to know that it can be like that in show business.

Armstrong: I don’t believe that anybody really expected the show to take off the way it did. What I loved about the show was the strange group of people who worked on it. We were all so different. Some of us, myself included, were actually somewhat disturbed, which made the socializing we did together that much more fun.

Dugan: I think the best thing about the whole Remote experience was that none of us had ever produced, or written, or hosted a television series before. We had no idea what we were doing. We just did shit that made us laugh. Thank God MTV was too cheap to hire professionals. I love all of these bastards, and I’ve never had more fun.

Kari: I just wish people would give me some privacy already! It’s been twenty years…holy shit, really? Twenty years…Christ. Nothing has been the same since. To be a part of MTV’s original journey…wow. I am grateful to have had the experience and to have seen those crazy minds in action. Everyone was so young and full of shit. It was awesome!

Ken Ober in 2004.

Ken Ober in 2004.

Ken: I loved doing the show, Working with Colin and Joe and Dugan and Kari and Doug. I will be lifelong friends with those people. I truly love them all. The success of the show still baffles me. I couldn’t go anywhere that people didn’t know the show. I was in London and some Belgium kid asked me to sign his backpack. Now that I think of it, maybe he thought I was someone else.

My career took off after RC. I got a series on NBC (Parenthood) literally two days after we decided not to do another season. Then I did a bunch of shitty game shows. But I wanted to be an actor. That was a dumb idea. So I kept going out for dumb sitcoms.

Doing Remote Control was good. I also love writing jokes. When I was doing stand-up, I liked writing the jokes and seeing if they worked, but I never got off on being in front of a crowd, I never needed the validation. Now that I am behind the camera…which I am not really, that makes me sound like I am a camera operator…anyway, now that I’m no longer IN FRONT of the camera (that’s better) I really do not miss it. I just finished writing on a CBS sitcom and to hear one of your jokes get a huge laugh is such a rush. It’s maybe the best rush I’ve ever gotten…it’s better than when I was telling my own jokes.

Armstrong: I always considered Ken Ober the ultimate host. In fact, I had him host the reception at my wedding, and he did a terrific job. Colin, on the other hand, never even answered the beautiful invitation we sent him. We had a place setting for him and everything. His meal cost almost a hundred dollars! Beef filet, new potatoes and some kind of spinach thing. Not even a phone call. Nothing.

More info / resources:

Thanks so much to Mike Dugan, Mike Armstrong, Colin, Kari, and Ken for providing such great interview material for this retrospective, back in 2006. (Also credit to Kari Wuhrer Online for select Remote Control screen grabs.)

Ken Ober is greatly missed; among the many pieces written about him, is this MTV News piece, which includes tributes from Adam Sandler, Denis Leary, and Kurt Loder…

…and embedded below from YouTube is a full Remote Control episode (split into three parts) from late-’88ish, complete with vintage commercials. Not only is Marvel movie screenwriter Zak Penn a contestant (a USC student at the time), but the episode also includes “Sing Along With Colin,” an appearance by Adam Sandler’s “Stud Boy,” and of course, the hosting greatness of Ken Ober…

2 comments to MTV Remote Control Retrospective

  • “Smart stupid” – well said! :)

  • Barry

    I am grateful that you posted this video. This episode was on in the Fall of 1988. My fraternity brothers and I used to watch every episode. Also, a good friend of mine died not long after this episode, and seeing it again made me think of all the good times I had while having the privilege of being her friend. Thank you.

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