AS THE audience sitting on cushions on the floor of the mock living room section of Groove Tube's Video Theater batted a bunch of complimentary balloons back and forth, a middle-aged man sitting against the wall across from the Pepsi-filled refrigerator turned to his wife to say "I'm glad we got here early ... It's half the fun." Groove Tube is at least as much fun as playing with balloons. Its 72-minute repertoire of video-taped comedy sketches, visual one-liners, and TV parodies is, with some exceptions, pleasant, if light-weight, entertainment.
Kenny Shapiro, who directed, promoted, and (with Lane Sarasohn) wrote the show, honestly enough maintains that "There isn't anything to lampoon" on television. "The things I hold up to ridicule are ridiculous to begin with." Working on this philosophy, Shapiro draws most of his takeoffs on TV programs and commercials well beyond the point of closely imitative parody; so far beyond that point, in fact, that they become low comedy in their own right.
Groove Tube's version of the perennial Cheez-Whiz with what-have-you creation of the Kraft TV Kitchen commercials makes the food preparation demonstration into a culinary slapstick. When the frantic hands of an unseen cook have finished rubbing Kramp Easy-Lube Shortening into a bowl of apples and mashed potatoes, and when the finished casserole has been brought forth from the oven, the unruffled, marshmallow-toned announcer proclaims the creation of a Kramp first, "Fourth of July Heritage Loaf," appropriately garnished with "a min-i-a-chure American Flag."
Fortunately, a few of Groove Tube's commercials go beyond this kind of pleasant but pointlessly low humor, to probe deeper into the diseased minds of Madison Avenue with careful, closely-drawn parodies that are scarcely distinguishable from the originals. The new-car ad, for instance, uses a standard, wide-angle shot-sequence of a chromium monster gleaming in the middle of a desert, a sequence taped from an actual commercial. The dubbed-over pitch makes the claims about the car that, in an ever-tightening ring of circumlocution, the promoters of Fords, Chevrolets and Pontiacs have been working towards for years. "This car protects you from the outside world. Here is the car that supports the illusion that you are important."
Too many of the television satires in Groove Tube are half-funny situation comedies that were most likely hatched when someone asked "Wouldn't it be a riot if the camera stayed fixed on the face of a news announcer after he finished reading all his news," or "wouldn't it be funny if a jiggling, big-nosed little puppet named Safety Sam, delivering a public-service commercial about V. D., turned out to be an appropriate piece of anatomy in disguise?" The best answer to these questions is "No, not really."
During the Safety Sam episode, the middle-aged woman told her husband, "That isn't very nice." The problem with this kind of humor isn't so much that it isn't nice, but that it isn't worth the extended treatment Groove Tube lavishes on it. A joke that is very funny in a ten-second quickie sequence can fade after twenty seconds, and be simply annoying after two minutes of development.
Groove Tube's saving-grace exception to this kind of tired and often insulting joke is a brilliantly conceived and brilliantly performed take-off on kiddie-shows, "Ko-Ko the clown," Ko-Ko squeals and prances his way through the usual Saturday morning routines until "Make-Believe Time," when he tells the boys and girls to make sure that all the "big people" are out of the room. When Make Believe Time finally gets started, Ko-Ko takes off his rubber nose, lights a cigarette, matter-of-factly announces "We have a request from Ricky Allen of Maplewood, New Jersey for page 43 of Philosophy of the Bedroom by the Marquis de Sade," and starts reading.
COMMERCIAL television has persistently hung on to the few, tired formulas and techniques for broadcasting that are supposed to guarantee, no matter how dull and repetitious they are, maximum profits for the sponsors. Pro football coverage, with its development of such things as isolated stop-action telephoto instant-replays, has undergone more innovation in the video medium than any other kind of broadcasting; the changes it has fostered are indicative of the kind of possibilities the medium has. But aside from these, the possibilities for innovation are still virtually unexplored. Groove Tube is, for the most part, produced in amateurish, satirical imitation of television's empty tradition, but it does make a few experimental steps beyond the limits of normal use of the television camera, and these steps are, if not quite revolutionary, at least indicative of what should be forthcoming from the future efforts of Shapiro and other video experimenters.
For instance, in several sequences the Groove Tube camera plays cleverly with fingers that walk around like the Yellow Pages fingers; it follows them with close-up as they mimic perfectly the actions of a man meeting a woman on a stroll, in one sequence, and in another, they imitate a ballet dancer roaming over hills. In both sequences it's an interesting idea that is executed well-but Groove Tube's leering humor makes the first sequence depend on the appearance of a thumb between one pair of finger-legs and upon the inevitable seduction, while in the other sequence the cleverness of the finger ballet yields to a punch-line based on the revelation that the hills on which the fingers dance are the contours of a woman's body. Without these glad-handing denouements, the sequences are enormously interesting dramas in miniature; with them, the sequences lose their simplicity as the end-result detracts from the interesting means used to achieve it.
A less ingratiating, and considerably more imaginative attempt at putting the possibilities of the TV camera to work is a simple, musically-accompanied coverage of a pinball game; the camera, inside the machine and on the same level as the ball, catches the action in unique perspective with occasional shots of the agony of defeat on the face of the downward peering player.
GROOVE TUBE is a collection of some of the more successful short works of a pioneer in a new form of entertainment: video-tape theater. The fact that all the sequences are, in effect, experiments in this kind of underground television is the only thing that holds them together. What makes Groove Tube look good (and this is really the only thing to recommend it) is the fact that it makes commercial television look very bad by comparison. But everyone knows how bad commercial television can be; Groove Tube needs only to offer a half-decent alternative to look better.