Monday, November 30, 2009

Rest in Peace, Ken Ober

In keeping with our recent but solidifying tendency to report news items long after they’ve been beaten into the ground by more timely and better-staffed news outlets, we would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge and mourn the passing of Ken Ober, who died in his home in Santa Monica, California, on November 15, 2009, at the age of fifty-two.

A comedian, television producer, and radio personality, the affable Ober was probably best known for his late-1980s stint as the host of MTV’s game show Remote Control. On the air from 1987 to 1990, Remote Control was a goofy and irreverent homage to (and, later, a component of) pop culture, specifically television. Its oddball categories and characters—Sing Along with Colin, Dead or Canadian, Stickpin the Trivia Delinquent, the Fairy Pixie, Stud Boy, and Beat the Bishop—were funny and entertaining enough to be remembered by plenty of MTV viewers with a thirteen-year-old's mentality, which, of course, made up the bulk of its viewership.1

It’d be more than a little over-the-top to suggest that Remote Control was a cultural landmark—even in comparison to the formidably low standards of MTV, game shows, or television overall—but it was fun, unusual, and entertaining. However, the show also deserves a certain amount of dishonor for its role in bringing to life one of modern television’s most dismal plagues:

The reality show.

At the time Remote Control originally aired, MTV broadcast little to no original programming. They aired plenty of music videos,2 sometimes more or less randomly, sometimes grouped together thematically in shows like Yo! MTV Raps and Headbanger’s Ball,3 but their non–music video content consisted, according to my very hazy memories from twenty years ago, primarily of reruns of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which I for one watched almost religiously.4

Remote Control may have lasted only a handful of seasons, but its success was enough to get MTV thinking that if a more or less first-rate game show could get good ratings, there had to be a cheap ways to get second-rate entertainment out to its mostly undiscerning audience. Eventually somebody came up with the morally dubious but financially brilliant notion of grouping together a handful of young, self-absorbed, questionably mature, personally incompatible, unpaid and untrained strangers, shoving them under a microscope and poking them with a stick5 until they pissed each other off—and then filming the resulting explosions, editing out the parts that didn’t involve real or perceived racism and sexism, destruction and/or reinforcement of broad stereotypes (sometimes at the same time), booze, sex, aggression, narcissism, and confrontation. And The Real World was born.

Teenaged MTV viewers, with their underdeveloped ability to tell the difference between shit and Shinola—it’s science—moved enthusiastically from Remote Control to The Real World, which, after a few years, was followed by MTV’s Road Rules, a groundbreaking, never-been-seen-before all-new kind of reality television best described as “The Real World in a camper.”

Since then, the reality TV phenomenon has exploded like a
gremlin in a microwave
, its roster of shows including but not limited to

American Gladiator; Big Brother; The Apprentice; Celebrity Apprentice; I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here; Survivor; Fear Factor; The Mole; The Simple Life; American Gladiator again, for some reason; America’s Next Top Model; America’s Got Talent; American Idol; American Chopper; American Hot Rod; The Bachelor; The Bachelorette; The Biggest Loser; The Amazing Race; Wife Swap; Who Wants to be a Millionaire; Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire; Who Wants to Desecrate a Corpse; Who Wants to Desecrate a Celebrity’s Corpse; The Anna Nicole Show; and The Running Man.

I’m not about to tell you that any of the above shows6 destroyed Western culture as we know it, crapped on the Constitution, or made Jesus cry—although I’d like to think that Wife Swap, just because of the title, came close—but I’ll be damned if I can find anything in that list that didn’t lower television’s already dreadfully low standards for what passes as quality entertainment.

It’s not fair, though, to pin all of the blame—maybe not any of it—on Ken Ober. Granted, his game show did give exposure to Kari Wuhrer, Colin Quinn, and Adam Sandler, and if Ober were still alive and this thought had occurred to me, I’d probably want to give him some good-natured grief about it. But nobody—and I mean nobody—watching an goofy MTV game show in 1987 could have predicted that it would have led to Little Nicky or Beastmaster 2: Through the Portal of Time, much less to the unholy spawn of reality shows that have been torpedoing IQs and TV standards for the last twenty years.

I’m not about to say that Ken Ober was a towering figure in my childhood, but he seemed like a friendly, funny guy, he hosted a fun show that is and deserves to be remembered warmly, and fifty-two is far too young to go. So a heartfelt goodbye to the quizmaster of 72 Whooping Cough Lane, Ken Ober; we’ll miss you. Na na na na, na na na na, hey hey hey, goodbye.

1. I have a legitimate excuse: I was thirteen at the time.
2. That’s right, younguns, I’m old enough to remember when MTV actually played music videos. Gather ’round, I’ll tell you stories of the golden video days of yesteryear.
3. Which featured VJ Adam Curry, who fit into the heavy metal scene only slightly less comfortably than Downtown Julie Brown or, say, Elton John.
4. I would have had good odds of turning out to be a high school dork no matter what, but memorizing sketch after sketch of Monty Python’s Flying Circus pretty much made it a dead lock. But it was so, so worth it.
5. Apologies for the mixed metaphor here. It’s late.
6. The ones I didn’t make up, anyway.

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