When anthropologists someday debate the exact moment when MTV became cool again, they'd do well to consider May 18-19, 2007 -- specifically the 24 consecutive hours (from noon Friday to noon Saturday) the station inexplicably let the players from its sketch comedy show Human Giant take over the airwaves.
Without the aid of psychedelic drugs, viewers were treated to actual NYU debaters orating on the merits of grunge rock, comedian Brett Gelman in a Jew-fro impersonating Billy Crystal, Eddie Murphy's "Party All the Time" video, and Will Arnett dropping by with some "powdered Red Bull" from Peru. "We've decided to make it the most insane night of programming ever," host Rob Huebel said early on, moments before unveiling the results of an Albert Hammond Jr. look-alike contest.
The gimmick was that if Human Giant's players could summon a million hits to its Website, MTV would renew the show for a second season. Though most certainly not legally binding, the telethon was for a good cause. The show is a masterpiece of absurd theater, something like a Mountain Dewed-up version of MTV's mid-Nineties sketch offering The State. Cast members Huebel, Paul Scheer, and Aziz Ansari (all Upright Citizens Brigade-affiliated) took advantage of the premise to invite all of their personal buddies and favorite bands. "Our whole thing was to get the kind of bands we like on MTV," Huebel imparts when it's over, barely standing. "Whether they meshed with the station's core audience wasn't that important to us."
The results can only be described as great television for those who hate the Viacom corporation. Gone were The Hills and Adventures in Hollyhood. Instead Mastodon and the National performed between Human Giant sketches like "Clell Tickle," about an indie-rock marketing guru who threatens to slit a music tastemaker's throat unless he posts a Tapes 'n Tapes MP3 on his blog. When Pitchfork's editor calls the band's album "a little derivative of the Pixies," Tickle's goon, played by Daily Show/Saturday Night Live luminary Rob Riggle, roughs him up and convinces him to name Tapes 'n Tapes "Best Band in the World."
"It's like a big playground," Riggle says from his dressing room, preparing to play an overzealous security guard. "I love all of these guys." A few hours later -- I've learned from reliable sources -- he got drunk, proposed to a member of the studio audience, and announced he was fired from SNL because he was too old. (Flouting ageist conventions was a theme of the night. At one point, Scheer plucked a pentagenarian couple from Times Square and put them on the air, simply on the basis of their age.)
As the old adage goes, MTV is a shitty network run by cool people, and for one day the powers that be permitted Aphex Twin videos; a "Mother" standoff on addictive videogame Guitar Hero II, which played on the Times Square JumboTron; and Ted Leo grinding out a few songs live in a faux den highlighted by a stuffed deer head wearing a trucker cap. Though the Walkmen didn't play, they dropped by to spin the "Wheel of Clips," which clacked past Axl Rose crying, Vanessa Minnillo farting, and Rudy Giuliani with a boner, before stopping on "Fishgasm." (Don't ask.)
Was this the band's first appearance on MTV? "I don't know," says organist/vocalist Walt Martin. "We were on MTV2, maybe."
"I haven't watched MTV in years," confesses bassist Peter Bauer.
The National and the Kane Brothers ably represented Brooklyn as well. (The latter penned the theme music to Human Giant's "Spacelords" sketches, in which a trio of intergalactic villains mistakenly think they will rule the earth by taking over a Weenie King.) Mastodon blew everybody's minds, and Morningwood's bassist came out in a shirt that said "No Guyliner."
It was enough to make even the kids long for another era. When asked for an idea for a new MTV show, a viewer named Nancy, beamed in on a Web-cam, suggested one that featured videos and wasn't on at two in the morning. "MTV executives are coming to your house to kill you right now," Scheer warned her.
"People are saying this is kind of like the old MTV," relates Ansari, checking his handheld for blog reaction during commercial breaks. "Like, they can't believe that these bands which would never get on MTV are actually on here."
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The channel's executives prefer to talk of a paradigm shift. "I feel like a lot more emerging artists are getting visibility in different ways on the channel," says Gina Esposito, MTV's director of music and talent. "Through music placement, bands doing theme songs, things like that." Fair enough, but now that Gilmore Girls is canceled, an indie-rocker needs every opportunity he can get.
The live, mostly improvised Human Giant experiment had glitches, of course. Sample Ted Leo lyric: "Fighting for the smallest goal ... To get a little ... live television ... Human Giant 24.... Let me give you some more.... Can someone bang that pedal on my amp so I can keep playing this song, please?" Rakim evidently slept through his 3:30 a.m. appointment -- a shame, because the show could've used a nonparody rap act. (Not to take anything away from Cracked Out, a duo played by comedians Gelman and Jon Daly, but their best song is one in which they rap/count from one to 100.) A random caller read a poem on the air about his "future black girlfriend," wondering in verse if paying the check would amount to reparations. The hosts pulled the plug on that one pretty fast, though it would have fit right into their UCB shows.
No word on if they got into the powdered Red Bull, but by the 23rd hour, Scheer, Huebel, and Ansari were still going at full speed. "Tell your fans thanks for paying so much above face value," Ansari told the actual Tapes 'n Tapes, bragging he'd made a killing scalping tickets to their previous evening's show. He also suggested they add the words Nick Cannon Presents to their next album title.
In the end, Human Giant got its million hits, and MTV renewed the show. But more important, scores of dreams came true. For long-suffering MTV watchers, of course, but also for Tapes 'n Tapes, who blasted through two songs looking like nothing so much as a bunch of shaggy Minnesota kids who couldn't believe they were playing on MTV.