When I decided to take a six-month leave of absence from my job as a senior editor at EW, I never expected to be screening footage of a man getting darts thrown at his hairy back. But that’s just one of the many glamorous highlights of my stint as a segment producer for Oddville, MTV, the music channel’s new nightly comedy-variety series.
I had been working in various capacities (set dresser, camera operator, puppeteer) on the program’s precursor, Beyond Vaudeville, a Manhattan public-access cable show created in 1987 by my college buddy Rich Brown. BV’s format was simple: Nervous, myopic host Frank Hope (Brown’s nom de showbiz) and his sphinxlike cohost, David Greene, presided over a panel of genuine eccentrics (e.g., a rapping granny), record breakers (the world’s fastest hot dog eater), fringe celebs (Tiny Tim), even Oscar winners (Shirley Jones). We leisurely shot 80 BV episodes in that 10-year span. So when MTV ordered 65 half hours and needed them in the can in 20 weeks, it was time for some serious talent scouting.
My mission, shared with a veteran associate producer of Ricki Lake and Tempestt: lead a team of researchers on a quest to unearth ordinary people who do extraordinary things. After we scoured dozens of New York area colleges, senior citizens’ centers, open-mike nights, and state fairs, I had to pre-interview guests, fine-tune their two-and-a-half-minute segments, and put together each show’s lineup of oddities. (After evaluating scores of audition tapes, I came to realize that some ”unique” abilities aren’t so unusual after all: Vibrating Eyeballs, Tongue Tricks, and Alphabet Burping all appear to be required courses at 70 percent of our nation’s universities.) To supplement appearances by such BV regulars as firehouse-cook-turned-comic Connie Wallace and musical-saw virtuoso Moses Josiah, I booked the likes of Kamchik, the singing Israeli cowboy; the ultra-flexible Pain-Proof Rubber Girls; and Joanna ”Iron Jaw” Leban, the petite bartender who bites through unopened soda cans.
Then there are the ones that got away: the Bard College sophomore who pulls his uvula (that punching-bag appendage at the back of your throat) all the way outside his mouth, and the handsome young office manager who drinks through his nose. After stellar auditions, both got cold feet and declined to appear on camera. But they weren’t missed nearly as much as BV stalwart ”Trayman” — the gentle, rotund Michael Hirsch (who danced while balancing platters and scarves on his head) passed away just days before he was scheduled to make his national TV debut.
Oh, and by the way, we never booked the hairy human dartboard. Some acts are just too odd.