The concept of supporting local television seems to be an obtuse one. The benefits aren’t as tangible, say, as eating locally (tastier chicken) or shopping locally (employed neighbors). But on Friday night at First Avenue, during the taping of Drinking with Ian, that’s exactly what local talk show host Ian Rans was urging the local live studio audience to do. Then he urged them to drink more beer.
Have you ever been to a talk show taping before? I mean, one of the real national talk shows: Leno, Letterman, or Conan (I guess Kimmel counts too). They kick things off with some “wacky” out-of-work stand-up that warms up the crowd by talking really energetically, and doing bad fart jokes and tossing everybody free Snickers bars before the “wacky” announcer introduces the star of the show and the band cues the theme music. Going to a taping is okay, but unequivocally, sitting at home on the couch watching the show in your underwear is a more pleasurable experience. Without the annoyingly energetic warm-up act and bright red “applause” sign, there’s a lot less pressure on the material to be funny. Sitting on the couch in your underwear, your expectations are lower than when you’re sitting under the hot lights in the middle of a mob that’s high on celebrity and gorging themselves on free candy.
The problem with this analogy is that I can’t decide if I’d like watching Drinking with Ian better at home in my underwear or the way I watched it at First Avenue, gorging myself on beer and free UV Vodka shots. I’m unsure because I’ve never actually seen the show on cable access, and watching the show in person was like being in the middle of a swirling, nightmarish bacchanal. There wasn’t an applause sign, but there was a big crane and a busy crew of professional-looking camera people with headsets running around filming everything, and crowd wranglers making sure no one wandered into a shot. The crowd was made up of Ian acolytes who knew when to cheer or jeer at the appropriate times. But there seemed to be something extra riding on this shoot: when Ian thanked the crowd for showing up, he offered a profane prayer about “hopefully never going back to the Entry, like a bunch of losers.” Ian himself is a goofy-looking bastard, with the bad tie/jacket combination and permanent smirk of a used-car salesman. He’s clearly going for the Conan thing with his floppy red cowlick, but he doesn’t have the Harvard Lampoon five-jokes-a-millisecond wit or the spazzy good nature of Conan. Instead, he substitutes the leering menace of a carny barker, and drinks and swears like an angry waitress.
And it works. Well, at least the format works. Although the fact that it seemed to get progressively more enjoyable as the night went on might well be due to all the drinking. (In all fairness, the free shot budget is a fair equalizer for the national talk shows’ staffs of well-paid professional joke writers.) Ian taped three shows back-to-back-to-back, and this is how it goes: Ian opens without a monologue, going right into a taped segment; last night’s first show began with a bit where Ian interviewed the people waiting outside First Ave. for Prince tickets (not bad). Then Ollie the bartender makes the “shot of the night” with the crowd hollering out the recipe along with Ollie, then the crowd toasts Ian right before he brings out the guest. After a few minutes of awkward conversation, Haiku Jim comes out and reads a funny Haiku. My favorite from last night tied the ethanol production companies profiteering to the rise in beer prices:
Dear hybrid driver
I hope you have insurance
You just wrecked my buzz
After Haiku Jim is another segment of taped funny bits, fake commercials, and sometimes a series of surreal audience-submitted fifteen-second videos. The grand finale is the musical guest.
Like most national talk show hosts, Ian’s biggest weakness is his inability to engage a guest in entertaining conversation. He’s stuck in the rut of making wisecracks while the guest stammers through an account of working on whatever book or art project they happen to be working on. Other than that, he’s a canny ringmaster, ceding his monologue time to the local actors, amateur filmmakers and just plain local exhibitionists who send in the filmed segments, and the local bands that play at the end of the show. He is a smirky host, but he’s smirking for good reason: he knows that what everybody really wants is to be on TV. And if you’re a Minnesotan, Drinking with Ian is probably as close to real TV as you’re ever gonna get.
I need a drink.