Jean Claude Van Damme is defending himself on trial, thrusting his crotch out at an absurd angle to
a bewildered courtroom. Former NDP leader Ed Broadbent stars in an election commercial where he raps his platform against a Day-Glo orange backdrop. Rosie O'Donnell plays a developmentally disabled person with baffling, offensive vigour.
All of the above are examples of the bizarre, hilarious trash that you can only find on television---and you can thank Derrick Beckles, coming to Gus' Pub on Friday, for dredging it up.
He's the guy behind TV Carnage, a company that produces DVDs that are archives for television at its most ridiculous, grotesque and unintentionally sublime. From positively coital '80s exercise clips to public service announcements, bizarre interviews and cable news screw ups, each collection is a virtual gold mine of TV tragedy unearthed by Beckles, who calls himself a "divining rod for shit." In a culture where viral videos reign supreme, he's a true pioneer. Before Best Week Ever or Tosh.O, there was TV Carnage.
It all began when Beckles ---"a punk kid who hated normal people" and his high school friends started taping awful television on VHS and trading the tapes back and forth in the Ontario 'burbs.
"It was kind of the last of the pre-internet frontier," Beckles says from his office in Brooklyn. "We were always hunting for this stuff. There's something about seeing adults trying to be cool (on TV) that's so awesome---these succulent mistakes that adults make. I didn't have any presumptions about it, though---I never thought it would get as big as it is."
The first TV Carnage tape---Ouch Television My Brain Hurts---appeared in 1996 (and was recently re-released on DVD). Since then, four more compilations have followed: A Rich Tradition of Magic (1998), When Television Attacks (2000), Casual Fridays (2002) and our personal favourite, 2004's A Sore for Sighted Eyes. Beckles estimates that each compilation takes him a couple of years to put together. It's a painstaking process that involves sorting through hundreds of hours of recorded TV (though now, he's got interns to help) and editing. The editing is where the true magic of TV Carnage lies---some editions, like Sore, have entire themed segments carefully cut together (for example, the Ed Broadbent rap is part of a lengthy section dealing with white people and hip-hop, including an old news clip featuring an extremely young Skratch Bastid). It's in these moments that TV Carnage shows how the cheesy awfulness of television can be re-arranged to portray a larger truth. For his part, Beckles downplays his role in influencing this type of cultural meta-awareness, saying the shift was inevitable.
"I go to thrift stores looking for VHS and I see all these nerds there now," Beckles says. "But I always understood that people were doing this everywhere. There's always been too many suburban wastelands, too many funny bored minds."
Beckles' unique vision has not gone unnoticed. He's currently working on projects for Adult Swim and directs music videos. But it's clear that he still revels in the singular pleasure of sharing an awful television clip with a roomful of like-minded people, whether it's Walker, Texas Ranger or Winnebago Man.
"People who show up to the TV Carnage live shows are this extended family of funny people," he says. "It's just like I'm in my living room, showing these videos that I made. It's the same type of excitement you get when you're a little kid."