I Want My MTV: Looking Back At REMOTE CONTROL - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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I Want My MTV: Looking Back At REMOTE CONTROL

Kenny wasn't like the other kids.
One of the criticisms leveled toward MTV since the turn of the Century is that it rarely plays any actual music videos. Given that "wall to wall" music videos was its unique selling point when the channel launched back on August 1st 1981, it's easy to see why some people have beef with the line-up and scheduling of shows like The Real World, Cribs, Teen Wolf, 16 and Pregnant, and Jersey Shore. But, in all honesty, MTV began deviating into actual programming not that long after its inception. They just did it so well during the 1980s that it didn't feel like the channel was turning down its music output a single notch.

Scripted music shows like Profiles in Rock and Fast Forward, talk shows including Andy Warhol's Fifteen Minutes and Mouth to Mouth, and news strands focusing on both music and culture, all helped lead the way for MTV's later deviation. And during those early years, MTV even turned its hand toward one of the great American TV show formats, the game show. One which was produced in such a way that it fitted the channel perfectly, and the result being so successful that in its final season it switched from the cable channel to syndication. That game show was Remote Control.

Running on MTV for four seasons from 1987 until 1990 (with a concurrent fifth syndicated version of the series running during the 1989-90 season), Remote Control was MTV's first original non-musical program. Created and developed by producers Joe Davola and Michael Dugan, the anarchic game show hosted by Ken Ober, and featuring Colin Quinn as his announcer/sidekick, saw three contestants answer trivia questions on movies, music, and television, many of which were presented in skit format. Among the performers who would come on to deliver the question or perform the skit were Dennis Leary and a very young Adam Sandler...

Remote Control's premise was that Ken Ober desperately wanted to be a game show host and so had set up his basement as a television studio, complete with a washer and dryer, bric-a-brac, and a giant Pez dispenser that resembled Bob Eubanks, with shows often interrupted by the disembodied voice of Ken's mother. The contestants sat in leather La-Z-Boy recliners with seat belts (for reasons we will get to), facing host Ober and his retro-styled Zenith television.

Behind Ober were autographed pictures of his idols, game show hosts such as Eubanks, Bob Barker, Bill Cullen, Bert Convy, Monty Hall, and Tom Kennedy. Being MTV, there was also a musician on hand in the form of Steve Treccase, who set up his keyboard behind a cluttered bar, at which Quinn and the Remote Control hostesses usually sat for the duration of the show. Because, of course, Kenny had glamorous assistants, just like any classic game show would. Although they changed across the seasons; with Marisol Massey, Kari Wührer, Alicia Coppola and Susan Ashley all keeping Quinn company at different times.

For the main Remote Control game, the three contestants would select one of nine channels on a big-screen television that stood beside Ober, using their TV remote control units; each channel represented a subject having to do with pop culture, including "The Bon Jovi Network", "Brady Physics", and "Dead or Canadian". Contestants answered a series of toss-up questions from those subjects to earn points, and lost points for an incorrect response. Most channels contained three questions of increasing value, although certain special categories would have either one or two questions. With one of the more popular recurring question segments being "Sing Along With Colin"...

In the first round, the three questions in a standard category were worth 5, 10, and 15 points, in that order. Point values were doubled for the second round, with a new set of nine channels in play. The contestant who answered a question correctly could either stay with the current channel or select a different one; after the last question in a channel was asked, it was taken out of play for the rest of the round. So far, so game show, right? Well...

At the end of the first round, the contestants were treated to a snack; however, as they were guests of an unconventional host, the snacks were delivered in unusual ways. In the vast majority of shows, the contestants were provided with bowls which they held over their heads to catch the snack, which was dumped onto them from above. Occasionally, though, they were hit with a pie in the face. Ah, the classics.

Now, how about those seat-belts we mentioned? Well, after round two the TV went "Off the Air" (accompanied by a siren sound effect and the studio lights flashing on and off), and the contestant in last place at that moment was also thrown "Off the Air" and eliminated from the game. Eliminated contestants were removed immediately through a breakaway wall behind them, chair and all (hence the seat belts), with the audience singing a goodbye song, typically "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye," "Hit the Road Jack," or "Hey You, Get Off of My Show" (to the tune of "Get Off of My Cloud"), while said contestant was being ejected. After a contestant was ejected, he/she would be tormented by stagehands administering various annoyances behind him/her while an unrealistic screaming sound effect played. 

To keep things MTV fresh, the format was mixed-up occasionally and a variety of additional rounds were featured across the seasons, including a Final Round where the contestants could bet an amount of their current winnings on one last question, similar to Jeopardy. A lightning round called "This, That, or the Other Thing" saw every question having to be answered with one of three similar-sounding choices, e.g., "Andy Taylor, Andy Warhol, or Andy Rooney". And just to add to the anarchic MTV feel, on more than one occasion, the contestants performed so badly that Ober decided to have them all yanked "Off the Air". The scores were reset to zero, and three new contestants took their places to complete the game.

For the four seasons on MTV, the Grand Prize round saw the final remaining contestant strapped to a "Craftmatic adjustable bed", facing a wall of nine TV sets (including two turned sideways and one placed upside down) that were each playing a different music video simultaneously. The contestant had to identify the artists in the videos; each correct response awarded a prize and shut off that TV. Correctly identifying all nine artists within 30 seconds won the grand prize, usually a car or a trip.

Remote Control proved so popular that the format was sold oversees, with countries including Australia, Brazil, Greece and the United Kingdom all producing their own version of the game show. The British version of the show aired on Channel 4 between 1991-92, was hosted by Factory Record's Tony Wilson, and featured comedians Phil Cornwell (Stella Street) and John Thomson (The Fast Show) plus early guest appearances by the characters Frank Sidebottom and Mrs Merton.

There's no doubt that the success of Remote Control inspired MTV to branch out into more original programming, but for me it's a shame that whilst doing so the channel gradually lost its anarchic streak. MTV's appeal back in the 1980s was not dissimilar to Remote Control host Ken Ober, as explained in the theme tune for his game show - it wasn't like the other kids.

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