Some few words of appreciation for an influential but obscure pop cultural figure of the late 20th century who would be turning 80 today, Ken Shapiro (1942-2017).
Shapiro started out as a child performer, acting in commercials from infancy, then appearing in over three dozen episodes of The Milton Berle Show (1948-49), followed by Startime Kids (1951-52) with Connie Francis and others, and an episode of the show Studio One (1955). In addition, Shapiro possess the greatest Baby Boomer credential of all: his father manufactured coonskin caps.
When Shapiro grew out of juvenile roles, he attended groovy upstate Bard College, where he met Lane Sarasohn and Chevy Chase. These two and Richard Belzer were among his close collaborators on a project called Channel One, which debuted on New York’s Lower East Side in 1966. (The venue where this innovative show was produced, located at 62 East 4th Street, just a couple of doors away from La MaMa, is a rabbit hole in and of itself. It dates to 1890, and has been home to previous tenants and owners ranging from John Philip Sousa to Andy Warhol. You’ll find a billion articles about it on the ‘net; the best one I’ve come across is this one. It is presently the longtime home of The Rod Rodgers Dance Company.) Anyway, Channel One was a cutting edge sketch comedy revue which made use of closed circuit television, making it a very example of video art, bringing Ernie Kovacs style experimentation into live theatre. Basically, the underlying theme of the show was satirical parody of American television. The show was so popular that it was expanded, retitled The Groove Tube, and taken on tour throughout the country over a period of five years, through 1972. It became a college campus phenomenon throughout the United States.
Chase and Belzer went from the live show to performing on The National Lampoon Radio Hour in 1973. In 1974 the principals reunited for a cinematic version of The Groove Tube (directed by Shapiro), and this film version became an influential cult favorite. The following year Chase was part of the inaugural cast and staff of Saturday Night Live, which very much reflected the tone and subject matter of The Groove Tube. Several section of the original Channel One material became short films outside of The Groove Tube, as well. You can see sections of The Groove Tube and Channel One on Youtube. One I particularly liked, which was packaged as its own film in 1968, is called Singing Faces, and it consists of Shapiro and Chase in mime make-up lip syncing to a piece of classical music by Bartok. It reminds me a lot of Kovacs, and it presages the shtick Chase used to do on “Weekend Update” where he made faces behind a commentator’s back. Oh, and by the way, the “Weekend Update” catchphrase, “Good night, and have a pleasant tomorrow”, comes from Channel One. In fact, the entire “Weekend Update” thing seems lifted from Channel One, in which Shapiro had played the newscaster. If I were him, I think I would be fairly galled to see Chase do the same thing on TV, though certainly others had done it before.
Shapiro’s career is an enigma. It seems to me that it would have been natural for SNL to have either employed Groove Tube segments, or generated new ones with Shapiro at the helm. On the other hand, he had made $20 million from the success of The Groove Tube, which he had largely financed himself, so perhaps he felt he didn’t need it. Instead he began to develop a new movie with National Lampoon‘s Doug Kenney as executive producer. Originally called Teenage Communists from Outer Space, it eventually became Modern Problems (1981), directed and co-written by Shapiro. It was Chevy Chase’s sixth starring vehicle, also featuring Dabney Coleman, Patti D’Arbanville, Mary Kay Place, Nell Carter, and Brian Doyle-Murray. It was a modest box office hit, but was critically panned and quickly forgotten in the wake of Chase’s next film, the smash National Lampoon’s Vacation.
Shapiro retired from show business after this. Interestingly, his co-writer on Groove Tube, Lane Sarasohn, went on to write for Not Necessarily the News from 1982 to 1990, among other things. Like SNL, that seems like it would have been an appropriate gig for Shapiro as well. But he quit the biz at age 40, citing his frustration at the levels of approval required in making entertainment in Hollywood, as well as a desire to simply relax and enjoy life. He had, after all, been working in show business since infancy.
But I also can’t help contemplating the differential between the Hollywood of 1981 and the Lower East Side of 1966, he time and the place of America Hurrah, of experimentation and promise? There’s a gulf between them as wide as the Grand Canyon. Shapiro was living in Las Cruces, New Mexico when he died of cancer in 2017. Same year and a favorite place of Sam Shepard, whose early plays all premiered just yards away from where Channel One was playing in the mid ’60s. The culture was onto something in 1966. I’ll always feel that something important from that time , something liberating to the human spirit, was dissipated, was squandered, and that materialism and money above all were responsible. At any rate, it only seems fitting that Shapiro capped off his countercultural credentials with his generation’s definitive response to the crassness of this culture: He had Tuned In, and Turned On, and finally he Dropped Out.
For more on the variety arts, including TV variety, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.