A poodle-permed Rosie O'Donnell horrifying John Ritter? John Walsh in full effect? It's all in a day's tele-trawling for Derrick Beckles, aka Pinky, of TV Carnage. Beckles recently agreed to talk about the madness behind his method for this week's cover story on pixel piracy.
Pinky, some of us here have a crush.
Guardian: Earlier this week I was showing the Rosie O’Donnell meets John Ritter part of Sore from Sighted Eyes to another writer at the Guardian and she was crying from laughter. How did you fall into making the TV Carnage videos, and how much time goes into crafting one? I’d imagine it takes more than a while to put one of your comps together.
Derrick Beckles: It’s a multi-leveled task of insanity. I moved recently, but I have mounds and mounds and shelves and shelves of tapes. Stuff I’ve been taping off of TV with a VCR. It’s not so much that I’m always in front of the TV set. I’d just say that I have this divining rod for shit. I just have these psychic premonitions when I turn my TV on.
I have years and years of footage, and some stuff that is more subtle. I pull all of it into my computer and have this mountain of footage there and say, “Now what?” Then I take a swig of whiskey and go, “You’ve got yourself into it again.” I’ll start randomly piecing things together. Sometimes I have a bit of theme already decided on, and other times it comes to me as I go. After that, it takes over my life, and I do its bidding as long as it takes. I have no idea how long each compilation is going to take. The process ends up being a good portion of a year at least.
G: Do the themes reveal themselves over time? For example, A Sore for Sighted Eyes has a lengthy white rap section.
DB: I think that’s the most pronounced theme that I’ve had so far. The combination of making it a bit more obvious and figuring out the direction I wanted to go. The underlying theme for that one is mind control. All elements of it or most elements have to do with some form of mind control – that if you do something enough it becomes normal. The white rapping part is pronounced. I had so much footage of it because I was obsessed with it, and I decided, “OK, it’s time to unleash that beast.”
G: Seeing that part, I was thinking about the way rap has worked its way into everyday vernacular in the media.
DB: There’s usually no good that comes from any of that, but there are some things that are so Exhibit A-ish that I just think, “Ah-ha, you’ve just written my entire thesis for me with this 30-second commercial!” That’s what I go for, and you string it together. I just picture a conveyer belt, and there are just so many lines or points at which someone could have pressed a big red STOP button. But it doesn’t happen. It blows my mind that people are paid for some of these ideas as well.
G: Yeah – just one of the reasons the Rosie O’Donnell-with-Down syndrome footage from Riding the Bus with My Sister is amazing is that Angelica Huston is the director.
DB: That movie was just…I interviewed Crispin Glover yesterday for this new project I’m working on with Vice magazine – Vice and VBS are launching an online station, and he showed What Is It? He’s really excited about the film and the film is brilliantly bizarre. I asked him if he’d seen the Rosie O’Donnell movie and he said that the actors in What Is It? with Down syndrome were offended by it, or they felt uneasy.
It is uneasy to see Rosie O’Donnell do her Pee Wee Herman impersonation and think she’s embodying someone with Down syndrome. It’s the most offensive thing I’ve seen in my life. And John Ritter’s reaction to that is my reaction.
G: That sequence is really well edited. With your stuff and Animal Charm’s at first you’re just laughing your ass off, and then you begin to notice all the work that’s gone into it in terms of editing. The Rosie O’Donnell footage is amazing on its own, but putting it on a TV screen and having John Ritter react to it is what really sends it over. Especially the ‘worst hits’ of clips from the movie you’ve put together.
DB: She’s out of control in that movie. It just blows my mind. There’s this hubris that exists when people become these unattainable spokespersons for others who probably want to say, “Don’t do that – please!”
G: There’s no one saying no.
DB: There’s definitely not a boardroom full of people with Down syndrome saying, “I don’t think you should do that.”
G: It’s interesting that you talked about that with Crispin Glover, though, because he knows a lot about bizarre appearances on TV. I was a fan of his early on, when he was just in things like Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, so when he made that first infamous Letterman appearance (which I think was his second one), I saw it live and could not believe it. I was literally worried and shell-shocked. I was a teenager and didn’t have a keen sense of performance art pranks. Even if you were in on that, it was still sort of shocking that he turned the audience against him so thoroughly.
DB: Yeah – he did it, he actually went through the process. Everyone was so stupefied. And that’s what TV Carnage is to me – it’s my way of screaming!
I question people’s motives about so many things. There are so many ways that people misinterpret things and then assume that they’re interpreting it properly. Then hey put that forward as their ideal of what they want to represent and you think, “Jesus Christ, you’re so far off the fucking mark it’s not even funny!” It’s back to egos being so out of control.
G: There's the old true cliche that TV is a drug and people want to be on it.
DB: It’s this drug and it’s also this tool that people use. People learn from TV. I see more and more kids that have TV as a parent. I’m just like, “Oh my god, you’re parent is so bankrupt it’s insane.” It’s become more and more of a carnival freak show.
I’m fascinated with the way things evolve, the way people act when they get in front of the camera. I’m serious about it, but I can’t be dogmatic, I have to use humor. People can take away what they will from it.
One of my favorite things is when people say, “Ah, it’s just a bunch of TV thrown together.” I laugh my ass off and go, “Yes, it is.” It’s not even worth trying to explain.
G: Yep, it’s that simple.
DB: If only.
G: What people were or are inspiring to you in terms of doing TV Carnage?
DB: I started doing this years and years ago in high school. Then I went to film school and worked for MGM for a good few years, so this has been my catharsis as well, because I was in the belly of the beast turning out shitty TV and laughing at it.
I’ve always actually been attracted to exorcising my own demons with television. I was always watching it when I was a kid. When I was making compilations with friends I didn’t know other people were doing it. Then I discovered more and more – I came to appreciate other people’s work afterward.
When I started doing it I was just really naïve.
I don’t want it to be overly analytical, or this discourse. To me it just becomes tedious and I start to feel like I’m in a lecture class I didn’t volunteer for, or in someone’s therapy that I didn’t volunteer to be in either.
G: In Casual Fridays there’s a section devoted to children being adults and adults acting like children. That’s a great phemomenon to have singled out.
DB: There are always these precocious children on TV, the kind that I’ve never met, even as a kid. Or if I did, they didn’t last more than two or three days at school before being pummeled and forced to be kids again. Then there are adults that constantly have to know what’s going on with kids – and you know, teenagers don’t even know what’s going on with teenagers. From day to day, things change. One, you can’t keep up with it, and two, why do you want to? The reason kids are doing what they do is that they don’t want to be anything like an adult -- adults are their ultimate enemy. Adults are fucking idiots. Kids are like al-Qaeda – they’ll shift their plans every day to keep you wondering.
Then when you try to give it back to them, they’ll shift around even more. It’s a real cat and mouse game – good luck adults, you’ll never figure it out. You can slap on as much makeup as you want and squint your eyes and act like you’re not 35 but actually 18. I’m obsessed with teen shows where the hosts are, like, 30: “Hey, how’s it going!” I just fall on the ground whenever I see that.
G: Some people on MTV are really working their hairpieces.
DB: You can just feel them trying to make their mortgage payments: “What are kids doing now? Slitting each other’s throats? Great! Let’s do a show about it!” They’ll jump on any fucking bandwagon – and way too late.
It’s that desperation that kids can sniff out so quickly.
G: Can you give some background about the “swearing sandwich” in your When Television Attacks video?
DB: There’s this ad on TV for the American Cancer Society in which this guy opens up his fridge and this sandwich is telling him to drink a certain amount of orange juice per day. I just thought there are a lot of problems with that. A: if I opened up my fridge and my sandwich was talking to me, I’d check myself in or run out of the house screaming. B: if you take it in stride, now you’re taking advice from a sandwich. I thought, you know, if I was going to take it in stride, the kind of advice I’d want to hear from a sandwich – or the kind of advice a sandwich should be giving, because it’s in a refrigerator waiting to be eaten, so it shouldn’t be in the greatest mood – would be different. So I took audio from Winnebago Man, that tape where the guy is swearing: “Look, I’ve got something to say here, I’m not going to take any more bullshit. There’s going to be no more fucking around!” Then I kept cutting back to reaction shots of the guy nodding as he listens to the sandwich.
It kind of encapsulates my worldview. People who are into self-help – they might as well be taking advice from a sandwich.
G: Can you tell me a bit about your next project?
DB: Yeah – the new one I’m doing is called Cop Movie. I’m taking 101 cop movies and making a full-length feature from them. It’ll be completely schizophrenic. I’m just completely obsessed with that genre. The same script has been used for hundreds and hundreds of cop movies – they just change the character’s names, using a name that sounds dangerous and slightly evocative of freedom or something.
There’s always a vigilante aspect to cop movies that people really celebrate. I don’t know if you want your law enforcement people to decide they’re going to do whatever is necessary to take the "bad guy" off the street – even if it means killing 80 innocent people. At the end, as long as the bad person is caught, everything is forgiven. I’m thinking, “You drove your car through countless homes looking for this drug dealer – are those people thankful?”
The reason I’m using 101 movies is this ridiculous mathematical thing that I’ve figured out. If I take a certain number of seconds from each movie it adds up to 66 minutes and 6 seconds, and the whole construct of 666 makes me laugh.
This is the most ambitious one I’ve done so far.
G: You’re working within more rules – which is kind of great considering the theme that you’re working with.
DB: Yeah, and I wanted to step away from the randomness of TV Carnage. It’s not completely random but I didn’t want to put out something similar again. In the evolution of taking it way too seriously I decided to put out the cop movie project.
I’m going for the cop movies that take themselves seriously – it’s always a cop who just recently to get divorced or a cop who is about to retire and has a "last big case."
G: I’d imagine it’s going to have big finale.
DB: I’ve already cut together a part where a guy gets hit by a car and there are five different people being hit by the car within four or five seconds. It goes from a blond guy getting hit to a black guy rolling over the car to a guy with red hair on the ground to a guy with a mullet being checked out by the cops, and it flows seamlessly. It’s a real acid trip. It’s kind of a psychological experiment.
So, after I finish it, I’ll probably just pick out a casket and go to sleep for a hundred years.
G: You’re working with Vice as well?
DB: We started this TV thing, so I’m doing this on-air stuff. I’m going after stories that are semi-serious to me, such as environmental issues, and also adding my own approach to the more bizarre things that I see in the world. Basically, I’m lucky enough to find employment in being a jackass.
G: Since you’ve worked in the entertainment industry, I’m wondering what kind of reaction TV Carnage has gotten from people within the industry, from stars to others.
DB: There’s a funny story. A friend of mine directs TV. He does a lot of stuff. He does videos fro bands that are half decent, but ultimately he’ll admittedly sell his soul and make horrible movies of the week. He’ll call me from sets – and I get this from other directors too who want to get in touch with me – saying, “I just made the worst movie in the world!” like it’s a badge of honor.
My friend Chris said on the set of one movie – it might have been the Showtime Queer as Folk – an actor did a scene and his delivery was particularly bad.
G: Yeah. I believe it.
DB: Weird, huh? Anyway, the actor said, “I wanna redo that!” My friend Chris said, “I think we’re ok with that take,” and the guy snapped, “I don’t want this to be on TV Carnage! I want to redo this!”
G: I had a bad experience in Toronto walking down Church Street – my boyfriend and I almost got corralled into a crowd scene for that show.
DB: You should have just gone to the craft services table and eaten tons of food and then split!
I also got this email from the US military once, I’m not shitting you. It was from the Entertainment Division of the US Military. I thought, “What’s more entertaining than the US military? They have an entertainment division on top of that? Wow!”
G: It’s working overtime now.
DB: They were interested in getting TV Carnage to show to the troops. I was like, “Mm-hmm, I’m sure you are.” They sent me this document with all these questions like, “What is the motive behind your TV Carnage? Is there any underlying thesis or message you’re trying to get across?” It looked like someone had slapped together a bogus logo on some letterhead, but it was a real government division – I looked it up online.
The questions were so specific about TV Carnage, and so eerily “Feel free to narc on anyone!” that I didn’t respond. I never heard from them again. I showed it to a bunch of friends, and no one thought, “Oh, they probably want to show it.” They all thought it was creepy.
G: What else are you working on?
DB: I recently did a documentary called Strip Club DJs, about the DJs that work as strip clubs, that will come out under the TV Carnage banner. And I want to go on tour with TV Carnage.