Cult Shot On VHS Public Access Variety Show 30 MINUTES OF MADNESS Gets Revisited with the Full Length Feature Documentary 20 YEARS OF MADNESS! A Most Excellent In-Depth Interview with Main Brain Jerry White Jr!
by Josh Schafer | August 25, 2015
Originally published by Lunchmeat Magazine. Reprinted with permission.
As a little kid I wanted to act and sing and those are desires that have stayed with me to this day. I was in plays and choir growing up and would also do these long-form shows with friends in my backyard. Without an audience and with no one recording us, we just entered the world of a story and then developed it—like improv, role-play serial storytelling. I got into making videos shortly before I turned 15 in the Autumn of 1990. My friend’s dad owned a prehistoric 8mm video camera. Making movies with that camera started me on a path that, despite a lot of twists and turns and detours, I’m still on. Before too long, my parents bought me my own VHS camera and my friend Joe Hornacek and I took classes at the local public access TV studio so we could put our videos on the air. We were all inspired by each other as well as the kinds of shows we loved, like Saturday Night Live, Liquid Television, You Can’t Do That On Television, The Monkees (reruns of course—we were ‘90s kids, not ‘60s kids). The Monkees movie Head is a particularly underappreciated bit of comedy and experimentation, with 4th-wall breaking vignettes and homage to avant-garde cinema, which was something we were kind of stumbling into unknowingly. Each person brought their own voice into the mix, so it was like a band—and we were certainly influenced by the actual music we listened to, as well. Mr. Bungle’s first album blew my mind and I think 30 MINUTES OF MADNESS ended up being a kind of video mixtape: Comedy skits, some experimental bits, non-sequitur in-betweeners, other genre-inspired shorts. I’d watched Monty Python as a little kid, but it hadn’t aired in a long time so I had kind of forgot about it, but I started watching it again and felt like we were, in our own very rough, working class, suburbanite, teenage way, going for some of the things they were going for. Don’t get me wrong, though, we were not high-brow. The early episodes are filled with a lot of us dorking out and being weird all with the simple goal of making each other laugh or making something interesting or cool. I look back and can explain what we were doing with references and influences, but I think the main goal we had was entertaining ourselves and growing our own little creative community. Watching the early shows can be a bit rough—skits often run way too long or just aren’t that strong—but there’s a sincerity and earnestness and genuine goofiness that’s hard to ignore. As we got older, we got better at what we were doing, got more ambitious, and started writing scripts and planning things out instead of always doing improv and making things up as we went along. Though we always kept a heavy improv element in the show.
There was an early core group to the videos we were making. Tim Atwood (it was his dad’s camera we started with), Joe Hornacek, and myself. There was a rotating group of other regulars, and some people who took on bigger starring roles than us from time to time, but it was our triangle first. In fact, Tim and Joe were making vids the summer before I joined them. It was Joe and I who took the public access classes together. Tim’s interest in the show and making movies would kind of come and go, and then he joined the Marines after high school, so he was totally gone. More new people joined, we started making more original music (though still leaned too much on copyrighted stuff, which I regret). In the last couple years, there was something we called “The Family,” which was almost as cult-y as it sounds, though we never took it too seriously. Lethal Finger Productions. The show, though, always pretty much came down to Joe and me in the end. 30MOM was never one organized thing. It kind of boiled down to stuff that Joe shot with people, or I shot with people, or we shot together. The two of us were in some way connected to almost all of the content that got generated, whether in front of the camera or behind it. Making videos became one of the main activities we did when we hung out with each other and other people. Like having a band and jamming in the garage, which we did, too. So we’d record these skits which were like a band’s “demos” almost, then cut them together into the album that was a 30 MINUTES OF MADNESS episode. Having the format of a TV show forced us to start thinking about pacing and get better at editing, which meant improving our shooting, and planning. Before getting into Public Access, we already loved playing our tapes at parties, having edited with two VCRs and all that, so getting our stuff on TV kind of blew our minds. At first. Of course, then you get used to it and compare yourself to “real TV shows.” Still, having the show gave us a certain stamp of legitimacy and excitement that people we never met, and might never meet, would see what we were doing. And, for the most part, the show kept getting better. I know Joe and I both would want to try new things, not just always do one-take improv stuff, but really develop something solid. But we were also slackers, I think. I certainly wasn’t as ambitious or dedicated as I’d wished. We wanted the show to be awesome, but we still did plenty of non-show stuff all the time.
VHS was definitely not a conscious aesthetic choice when we were using it in the ‘90s. It took me years to come around to being able to appreciate it that way. VHS was practically a necessary evil. The Public Access studio had these ¾” U-Matic cameras you could check out, but they were really bulky and generally a pain in the ass to use. Toward the end of the original run of the show, we could check out a fairly high-end hi-8 ENG camera, which we were much happier with than the look of VHS, but it was still a bummer to us—because it was video. We wanted to shoot on film! And we did shoot a little bit on Super-8, but even that was too expensive, let alone 16mm. And forget 35mm entirely. I’m disappointed that I wasted so much time and energy chasing gear and pining for film. I used to tell myself all the time that content transcends media. Part of me believed that, but then I still couldn’t help feeling amateur when we were shooting on video. When we shot the new episode during the doc, I used ancient VHS cameras and even 20-year-old VHS tapes for the show. The result actually looks worse than VHS I shot in the ‘90s because time has worn down those machines. But doing it with intention makes all the difference. I’ve come to appreciate the artifacts and unique traits of VHS video. VHS is like an old girlfriend I’d taken for granted years ago and then one day realized she’d been one of the great loves of my life!
Different episodes formed in different ways, but I think at the heart of all of the episodes was getting people together and having fun. Early episodes were compiled largely from stuff we’d been shooting over a year and half, on weekends, during the summer. The people in the videos was whoever we happened to be hanging around with—or even people we’d randomly ran into while filming. I’m making this too romantic maybe, but there were times after school or during vacations where it seemed like you could drive to one of a few haunts and run into people you knew and just start shooting stuff. Or we’d meet people organically and of course mention our show, so then the next time we met up with them, it would be to film stuff. Eventually, this would result with me in the edit suite. Joe would help sometimes, but I gotta be honest and say it was usually me alone in the edit suite. Whether I was transferring VHS to ¾”, doing the actual edit, whatever. Joe would edit stuff too, sometimes on his own. Years later, Jesus Rivera would sometimes sit in on edit sessions, but watching someone edit is rarely much fun. So I’d be there alone, or maybe with a rare person hanging out, and I’d piece the show together from stuff that had been shot, skit by skit. Before then I’d often go through and outline the skit order, just like the track listing of a mixtape, and revise that over and over until it felt right. All of the editing was done on tape and it was linear, so you couldn’t shuffle the order once you’d started—unless you started over from scratch. I feel like so much of what I would do making movies then was capturing chaos and then trying to find or create a pattern in it during the editing process. Usually whoever was the camera operator was also the de facto director of that skit, though we weren’t all that strict with titles. The style of collaboration would depend on the mix of personalities that day. As John Ryan says in the doc, I’m like the ringleader, so I would herd cats and work to shape our shoots into something cohesive, but Joe would also take the lead a lot, too.
Definitely cathartic. Even then I knew that. When shooting the videos though, it rarely felt like we were “making the show.” That happened later, like episodes 12 and 13 which we tried to make connect more and have a consistent vibe, more or less, throughout the episode. Especially 13, which had all of the skits figured out beforehand so they could link up. Before that it would be us “making movies,” just doing whatever shooting we felt like that day. Or we’d come up with a specific idea for a skit or short and work on that, but the vibe was specific to that project. Joe wrote a script called “Lenny and the Kitchen People” our senior year of high school. We shot it and it’s a fairly long short, and appears throughout episode 7. Working on that film had its own vibe. I’m being pedantic maybe, but my point is that it rarely felt like we were “making 30 MINUTES OF MADNESS” except for episodes 13 and the new one, 15. With those two episodes, even though each skit and segment has its own voice, there was an overall energy of working on the show because of the focused timeframe. So how did we feel when we were “making movies?” So many things… so many different things. I mean it really ran the gamut of emotions because we shot so much different kind of shit. Us sitting around talking. Playing guitar and making up songs. Public Access Studio stuff with chroma key experimentation. Solo stuff… Joe talking into the camera in front of his bedroom door. Me playing my Yamaha keyboard alone in my room. Or me reading awful poetry about whichever girl I had a crush on at the moment. Making those vids felt like… like being a teenager. All of that. Making a skit with your girlfriend, or making a skit with a girl you have a crush on, but she’s dating a guy you don’t really like—who is also in the skit! It was really so many different things. But, for me, there was always some sense that I was capturing something valid and real and even important. Even if it was just important to me. Not all of the footage of course, there’s some really lousy hours of just nothing much of anything happening. But that’s life too, right? Those nothing times. So the vibe of the vids was basicallly: the essence of a majority of my teenage experience. Minus the sex—I didn’t record any of that.
I always wanted to turn the show “legit.” Start using our own gear, up our game, and get out of public access and onto proper cable television. And not just 30MOM, I wanted to make movies and albums and art, all under the guise of Lethal Finger Productions. As we entered our early 20s, people left, yet more new people came in, but Joe and I were still at the core of this plan. We saved money and with another friend, bought video and audio equipment and moved into a house together, which was also going to serve as production HQ. We built the edit suite in the basement (S-VHS decks and camera…which we were bummed about, but it was all we could afford). Anyway, long story short, not long after we moved into the house all kinds of problems that had been long-brewing came to a head. We were growing up, interests going in different directions, getting sick of each other, dealing with being on our own for the first time. All kinds of shit. If you ask different people why the show ended, they’ll give some similar reasons, but there are also some widely different perspectives on it. Maybe it’s easiest to say that we both grew apart and we just didn’t want this thing bad enough anymore to work through our issues. As for what I did after that? We’re talking 1997-2012, so I did a few things. Moved to Ventura to do tech support, took a month leave of absence to try to get a job on The Lord of the Rings in 1999—I dropped off a VHS copy of 4 episodes of 30 MINUTES OF MADNESS as my “reel.” I don’t think Peter Jackson got the tape or watched it. Struggled to figure out how to do something meaningful with my life, decided to go back to school (in Michigan) so I could get a degree and live abroad. Studied German, spent a year in Germany. Started making movies again—and edting non-linear video on Macs. Made short films in German, some other experimental stuff…mostly stayed away from comedy, but couldn’t help but dabble a bit. Got my BA in German Language and Literature in 2005, graduated magna cum laude with departmental honors, as well as a minor in Video Art. Then I taught English in Japan for about two years. Applied to grad school from there, got turned down. The next year applied again and got into USC—started there in 2008 and finished in 2013. Got my MFA from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts in Film Production. And over those years, in fits and starts, returned to 30 MINUTES OF MADNESS in various ways. Whether it was futzing with a website for it, editing old skits, shooting new videos with people here and there, not knowing if they’d end up on a show or not. Slowly, but surely, talking to my old friends again. Except for a few—and Joe especially. Our falling out was the most intense and we didn’t say a word to each other for more than 12 years. I’m sure I’m leaving a few things out, but this doesn’t need to be a full accounting of 15+ years. I must say, though, there was also a lot of hanging out with friends, reading books, surfing the web, eating pizza, and the occasional romance.
All of the above. And part of the ritual aspect was the fact that a lot of my old friends hadn’t really picked up a video camera in years, so using a VHS camcorder would be way easier than trying to train people on new gear. I really thought about how we used to do things, and while I didn’t want to limit us to exactly all of those same conditions, I thought of it like a recipe. Like maybe having as many of the original ingredients as possible would allow us to get to a cool creative space that, though modern and us now, would still feel truly 30MOM-esque. And I feel we totally achieved that.
In the doc 20 Years of Madness, you talk about “a sense of play” when it comes to filmmaking. That really struck me, and I could totally relate, man. Do you think that “sense of play” correlates with that sparkling energy of wild youth that’s so abundant in 30MOM? Do you think that’s one of the reasons you wanted to come back to it?
The sense of play is something I’ve missed a lot and was certainly a catalyst for the reunion, but it’s also me waxing nostalgic and looking at my past with rose-colored glasses. I mean, it wasn’t all wonderful and perfect back in the day. There were arguments back then too of course, and a lot lousy footage. It wasn’t all purely play, either; there was work to be done. We had to schedule time in the studio or edit suite, fill out paper work, transfer footage, edit with a very tedious system, etc. But you get older and you just remember the play. There is a type of sense of humor, though, that I’ve rarely encountered elsewhere. Maybe it’s a Midwest thing or a Metro Detroit thing. So while I miss the play, I think what I really miss is a flavor of fun that was specific to our humor and vibe. Hmm… but there is something about the play aspect that is often harder to tap into as an adult. We have so much more responsibility. With this group, I think we are more easily able to tap into the play because it’s a language we cemented with each other at such a formative time.
So much of the experience of making the new episode and everything surrounding 20 Years of Madness is surreal. We found footage of me as a teenager saying “Someone should make a movie about us someday.” And it happened! Reconnecting confirmed a lot of choices I made in the past and has actually allowed me to let some long-held things go. Self-forgiveness, self-acceptance. The experience now had a lot in common with the way things used to go. There was the fun and the play and the inspiration, but also the work and stress and arguments—though not all that many of those, all things considered. I was able to test a lot of the progress I’ve made, both personally and creatively. And I’m pretty satisfied with the results overall, though I still have plenty of room for improvement, and I certainly slipped into some old modes on a couple of occasions. I guess that’s to be expected when you surround yourself with so much of your own history, you start to become your old self, too.
We’re currently in the midst of our festival run and are trying to secure distribution. We’ve been in about 20 festivals this year, so far, with more to come. We premiered in January at the Slamdance Film Festival and that was an incredible experience. We’d love to air on a cable network and then land online after that (Netflix, Amazon Instant, Hulu, iTunes, etc.). I’d also love to do a limited theatrical run, or pop-up shows in various towns. We’re open to getting this movie out there in whatever ways people want to see it. For now, the festival circuit is the best bet to see it soon. Keep an eye on our Facebook page and website for announcements. As for a VHS release—I am totally down for a special edition, limited run on VHS. I’ll have to run that by Jeremy Royce, the director of the doc, but I think he’ll give the thumbs up.
Bring on the fresh VHS, man! You know we want it! What’s next for you, Jerry?
My role as producer of the doc necessitates me saying “getting distribution for 20 Years of Madness.” And that’s true, that’s my primary next goal. Beyond that? I’d love to write, direct, and appear in a rock opera, feature film, something with the vibe of 30MOM meets Rocky Horror Picture Show meets Tommy meets Hedwig and the Angry Inch. I’ve started to come up with some music for it… I want to have all the songs together and at least recorded as demos before trying to mount a production. That would be the dream gig, but I’d need to find a way to fund it. Way easier said than done. There will be more 30MOM skits…though I can’t say when a full new episode will come out. Someday! And if I could do 30 Minutes of Madness on Adult Swim or Comedy Central, I’m totally down. Beyond that…I’m a part of the gig economy, so I’ll be out there trying to pay the bills. Ideally through something I’m passionate about. Acting, writing, directing, sound design, editing. We’ll see.
Anything else you wanna shout out to all the analog aesthetic / independent art lovin’ Tapeheads here in Lunchmeat Land?!
The tagline for 20 Years of Madness is “It’s never too late to be what you might have been.” I love this idea. I’m all for being a late bloomer. Don’t wait around to be discovered, though. Make your own thing and love it for its own sake. Don’t chase fame. If you love making music, you can do it. If you love making movies, you can do it. You might not make a career out of it, but you can find a way to make the creative things you’re passionate about be a part of your life. It might wax and wane, but if you care about it, don’t let it go completely. And if you do let it go and want it back, just pick back up where you left off.
We couldn’t agree more, Jerry. That sentiment certainly resounds here in Lunchmeat Land, man, and in turn we give you the most bodacious VHSalute for your perpetual passion and unending drive to make things happen. And make things happen he has, indeed, Tapeheads. Throughout the 90s, Jerry and his raucously creative crew forged a veritable library of insane, zany, sincere and ultimately inspiring art, nearly all captured on the almighty VHS. My fellow Videovores, I implore you to explore the plethora of material available on the Official 30 Minutes of Madness site and 30MOM Facebook, and once you’ve immersed yourself in their signature blend of anything-goes, off-the-wall, shot-on-video insanity, be sure groove on over to the 20 Years of Madness site to see where they all ended up, and how they got back to the madness. It’s nothing less than inspiring, Tapeheads. I GUAR-ONN-TEE.
20 Years of Madness, 30 Minutes of Madness, 90s, Collecting, Groovy Stuff, Music, Screenings, Category_VHS, Weirdness, Comedy, Experimental, Jerry White Jr, Obscure, Public Access, shot on video, TV, Variety, VHS