Today’s television viewers take a lot for granted. The hundreds of channels offered to cable and satellite subscribers are something we’ve grown accustomed to, but it wasn’t always the case. I remember growing up in rural Kentucky in the 1970s and only having the “big three”: ABC, CBS and almost always, but not on stormy days, NBC. Of course we also had the local PBS affiliate, KET, but who counts educational public television?
But aside from the choice of channels, something else has changed about television since those days…what we can and can’t see on it. Television programs have always had some form of censorship applied to them, whether it was the chaste way that June and Ward Cleaver slept in separate beds, or the fact that even the most hard-boiled detective never went beyond an “Oh darn!” when the bad guys got the drop on him. Some would argue that this kind of censorship is necessary, even essential, as part of a decent society. Others would say that the constitutional right to freedom of speech should trump censors’ power and allow the networks to air whatever the market will accept. I don’t know which is truly right; as a writer though, I lean away from artistic restriction.
But things have changed, dramatically, in what can and cannot be said and done on television. Jim O’Rear and Bryan Wilson may have something to do with that. At least that is the premise of their film UNDERGROUND ENTERTAINMENT: THE MOVIE. It is a documentary of sorts, following their early years working together on the small, syndicated cable television program “Underground Entertainment” in the early nineties. While the show was low on budget, it made up for a lack of funds with an abundance of energy and with Jim and Bryan’s almost manic desire to push the boundaries of what they could get away with on TV.
Fart jokes, “F” bombs, spanking the monkey – these were all sources of laughter for viewers and the cause of frequent calls to the station manager’s office. But the show wasn’t about obscenity and pushing the limits; it was about what we know today as fandom and pop culture. Their show was a pioneer in the coverage of things like anime, sci-fi, horror and comics. They introduced the world to the “con” and managed to have guest appearances by everyone from A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET’s Robert Englund, to half the cast of “Star Trek”. In fact, “Underground Entertainment” was one of the best sources for that kind of fan-based coverage in the pre-internet world. Though the subject matter wasn’t controversial, their delivery was as they used off-color jokes, questionable language and as much sexual innuendo as they could get away with.
UNDERGROUND ENTERTAINMENT: THE MOVIE takes a look back at Jim and Bryan’s show on its 20th anniversary. The film is filled with nostalgic clips from the original show, as well as tongue-in-cheek interviews and skits featuring some of today’s horror and sci-fi stars. The humor in the film, like the original program, sometimes doesn’t aim very high. However, it still tends to hit the mark. The movie also manages to make its two hour and twenty plus run-time flow. Of course, the movie isn’t for everyone, especially as one of its driving themes is Jim and Bryan’s fight against censorship. There is little the pair don’t try to lampoon so the faint of heart should beware; there will probably be something in it to set your teeth on edge. In fact, their crusade against censorship resulted in the first scheduled premiere of the film to be cancelled… when the venue decided the film was too risqué for their taste. Still, if you’re up for it, UNDERGROUND ENTERTAINMENT: THE MOVIE is a fun film, especially for people like me, who grew up in the pre-internet world where you had to work a little harder to find all the stuff you loved for horror, science fiction and the like. The film also doesn’t take itself too seriously as Jim and Bryan try to prove that without their little show everything from the first amendment to Dragon Con would not have existed. Then there is the show’s death curse…I mean it’s only been 20 years, but people who’ve been on the show have died…can you imagine that!
UNDERGROUND ENTERTAINMENT: THE MOVIE also filled with cameo appearances by some of genre cinema’s biggest names: Robert Englund, Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman, GHOST BUSTERS’ Ernie Hudson, and a hundred other faces you’ll recognize even if you don’t know their names. If you’re a fandom freak, a child of the 80s or 90s, or if you just want to see a funny mockumentary with lots of interesting guest stars, check out UNDERGROUND ENTERTAINMENT: THE MOVIE and remember, there may have been TV before Jim and Bryan’s show, but was it really that much fun to watch?