“Can you feel the expanding madness creeping like a ballooning shadow across the horizen of what never was?”
– Damon Zex via Twitter, April 2009
Let me explain.
No, there is too much. Let me sum up.
In 1984, after more than a decade of bickering in the courts, Senator Barry Goldwater penned the Cable Franchise Policy and Communications Act. It was meant to be a compromise between cable television outlets and municipalities throughout the United States to allow for the allocation of federal funds to provide public, educational, and government access television channels.
And it worked – sort of. It didn’t do much to guarantee the existence of these so-called PEG channels, but it did prevent the cable operators from censoring the content that appeared on them.
Not long after that act was passed, a Columbus native, Ohio State MFA student named Fred Zaner began making live appearances on ACTV (later known as Community 21) and would eventually become known as Damon Zex.
Years, decades would pass; what began (somewhat) innocently as an artist’s foray into a new medium wound up traveling some windy roads. It led Zex through the national talk show circuit, trading jabs with the likes of Sally Jesse Raphael and Howard Stern. More importantly, it anointed him a free speech advocate – whether he liked it or not.
Whether he liked it or not is some matter of debate. People new to his work colored it – and Zex himself by association – vainglorious, tasteless, vulgar. But like all media productions, there was a real person behind the white face paint and black eye shadow and red corn syrup. Just a guy named Fred trying to make some art.
That person remains here, as ever, in Columbus, Ohio. A denizen freak.
ZEX: The first time I was on ever on public access was 1985. It was a show called Smoke Rings. When [public] access started, you could smoke in the studio. I was in thick makeup playing a freaky cult leader, the other guy was a psychologist analyzing me. The first show we did was just the two of us, discussing ideas, puffing away.
I came in as a performance artist. Almost like Linda Montano. Before that, I was into absurdist plays, theater-in-the-realm. I started as a live performer. I didn’t just go on TV to go on TV. I hated video when I was younger. I despised it. I despised doing it. I thought I looked stupid. Compared to a live stage performance, compared to a theatrical performance, I did not want to be stopping taping, re-taping, editing. All the things I’d done before were audience-interactive. I loved the theater of cruelty, the theater of terror.
But I said, let’s investigate this public access phenomenon. I’d been in and made a bunch of music videos, but I wanted to do something like Tomorrow with Tom Snyder. Black backgrounds. Half-hour interviews. For a long time I did Zextalk. I started that in November of 1992, before I did any kind of skit.
“A moment of serene calm before pandemonium strikes.”
– Damon Zex via Twitter, August 2012
What transpired over the next decade or so is now a part of Columbus lore, a wrinkle of the subculture that simply hadn’t existed before then in as vibrant a context as television was.
Zex’s programming beamed into dorm rooms and basements, into the homes of Midwestern blockheads with no filter, no one there to translate, let alone mediate. His massive, white face consumed the screen utterly. He would make claims that he had pictures of you, the viewer, having sex with your pets. He would pour red wine over breakfast cereal and eat it to a soundtrack. He once filmed himself appearing to be snorting cocaine and drinking whiskey while driving along Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. He once performed a skit in which he appeared to be eating a bloody tampon.
It was revolutionary. It was obscene. It was trite and juvenile. It was deeply compelling. It was fun, and it was disgusting. It was, certainly, some kind of art. Even in the moribund MTV milieu of the late 1990s, there was still progress to be made. There were still people to piss off.
ZEX: Chaplin is an obvious [influence]. Peter Sellers. Other assorted things that I liked. I decided to start making visual skits. Got a little group of characters together. In the early phases, I was experimenting…
I love the talking head phenomenon. As a comic book character, like the Joker, just appears on TV and takes over the world, I love that interception of normal narrative programming with the ego.
I love the principle of being a supervillain taking over the media – a comic book coming to life. The whole idea of the villain invading television. Obviously this is the age where, before the Internet, you’re literally living inside your cable box. You’re not on YouTube, there is no YouTube, none of this exists. 1993, ’94, ’95, ’96 – this is it. You know, and it magnetized a bunch of weirdos to the studio. Rivals, problems, issues, and…hundreds of hours of edited. People just living in those editing bays making shows. Living, competing, ‘Oh he’s coming out with that.’
There’s no comparison. It’s apples and oranges, between the cyberworld and television. They’re completely different mediums.
A giant shift happened in my show in 1996. It’s kind of like The Beatles. Any band, really. Pink Floyd. It was a paradigm shift. I had made all kinds of crazy skits. I came up with a cop character, an Adolf Hitler president character, a weird stock of characters.
Then, I decided to take the show in the direction of the Demonic Infomercial. This is the infomercial age. My first infomercial was a 1-800-WEED show. Split screen: one guy getting stoned, nearly passing out, the other guy making sales. And I like that sales component and the whole selling, infomercial thing as a talking head type of video. That was a big component.
Thus, F*ck for Drugs. That was a Sesame Street character, teaching the construction of a sentence.
That was 1997, ’98, ’99. The whole Sally Jesse Raphael thing, that was 1999. I really was put through holy hell at our studio. I mean really ridiculous. Where they act like they’re the law, like they’ve arrested you. You were dragged out of the studio, put back in the green room, in interrogation.
Truly what happened was the complete erosion of the freedom of speech.
“And now prepare to watch a power plump pigeon wither into a tired dead balloon bubble bursting glandular abomination.”
– Damon Zex via Twitter, July 2013
Cable outlets throughout the U.S. were opting out of their obligation to provide PEG channels. Worse, a man by the name of Howard Luken (AKA Angsto the Clown) had drawn the specific ire of the powers-that-were-at-the-time and upset the apple cart. The result was a federal case concerning obscenity filed by the management of the station and funded by the City of Columbus.
More bickering in court. The initial case was dismissed, but that didn’t stop the station from refusing to air Luken’s show. In response, Luken filed a Common Pleas case against the station and got to yell at Mayor Michael Coleman on camera for a while.
The station managed to get the original case transferred back to Federal Court. Zex was called to testify.
ZEX: What happened was this: The judge didn’t want to rule. Luken had to be shown to be obscene in this case because otherwise, the Mayor would have to be brought in. All of a sudden, ACTV was violating the federal guidelines of public access. That was the point of this case. They had to prove he was obscene. It was all nonsense. They brought in a jury of old ladies, and that was it.
After that, it was a reign of terror. Like the French reign of terror.
During this time, the shock and awe was over. Everyone was talking about Y2K, they’d had this court case, and I did a show called New York TV Apocalypse. I kept saying, “The 21st century is not going to matter. It’s not going to be what you think it’s going to be.” In a world where language – and you can’t find this tape anywhere. But trust me. This is the kind of thing –
Literally, I made it right around New Year’s. I said, if we are no longer able to be free, and this system is this uptight, something’s gonna happen. There’s going to be some sort of chaos. So I had this vision, with the Trade Center in flames, my face in blood, like I’m some kind of guru in an apocalyptic age…
My show got bicycled around. They had to fill space. My tapes went around to Manhattan, Washington D.C., Seattle. A lot of cities would accept an out-of-state show.
I’m like Emmanuel Kant, the philosopher…he never went fifteen miles from his home. Ohio is a breeding ground for freaks.
“Don’t get caught with your pants down during World War III. Refinance now while you still have a home. REFI OR DIE!”
– Damon Zex via Twitter, December 2013
These days, Zex isn’t so different than he ever was. He’s a loan officer now. A loan officer. He considers it a very intense form of mind control. He is still into fitness, philosophy, art, surrealism, coffee, chess, women. He bent my ear for a good long time over these topics, testing my ability to catalog his thoughts.
He’s working on projects. A book, mostly. Graphic dream states, female demon-atrix characters, scathing sociopolitical commentary – nothing out of the ordinary. Not for Zex.
We spent time lamenting the death of public access, which ultimately kicked the bucket in 2004, long after it had lost its initial luster. We agreed, however, that even today, there’d be a line around the corner with people desperate to get themselves on television – public or not.
ZEX: You open up a TV station, and tell a bunch of people they can go on TV for free, and see what happens.
If I could go back on TV, if they re-opened public access, I’m sure I would return to the talk show medium. Do you realize, this last decade of the public access shut down, how many things have been missed? Look at all the things that have happened in this country and all the debates, and none of it has been expressed. Parody is parody. I like the Orson Wellesian, War of the Worlds, you know…pushing the theatrical limit as far as it can go to be so close to life that you don’t know – you don’t know if what you’re doing is real or theatrical.