In 1993, Monstervision on Turner Network Television in America was mostly a program that aired old horror movies and science fiction with the occasional hosting from magicians Penn and Teller. During the early nineties, many cable channels hadn’t yet solidified their formats, so a lot of the time slots were used on syndicated programs and adult programming, with the occasional time slot devoted to a rare original program here and there. Mainly though, the original appeal of cable television was watching old movies and television shows you couldn’t find on network television. To break up the monotony of airing the same movies over and over, they enlisted hosts to riff during commercial breaks.
So you could either watch “Top Gun” in the afternoon or watch it again with Joe Bob Briggs. Back in the early nineties horror hosts were still ways to fill late night television since most channels couldn’t always afford original programming. What ever money was spent was used mainly on buying foreign programming. During that time, esteemed and controversial film critic John Bloom (known by his iconic pen name “Joe Bob Briggs”), finished his tenure at the Movie Channel, which had also began changing its format for a less underground horror and science fiction aesthetic, and more toward a family friend and mainstream audience.
Briggs was unfortunately released from his acclaimed show where, for years, he introduced uncut movies for his fans with his color commentary book ending the movies. The prologues and closers often featured comedy with the Briggs character, when he wasn’t interviewing genre favorites like Linnea Quigley. He’d also supplied excellent interviews with the surviving cast of “Night of the Living Dead” during his screening of both 1968 and 1990 versions. After leaving The Movie Channel, though, Joe Bob almost immediately jumped over to TNT in 1995 and took control of Monstervision.
Most shows like “USA Up All Night” and “Dinner and Movie” were often impartial with movies they showed. When Joe Bob disliked a movie, boy he let you know it. Sure, the tight wads at TNT would censor or edit the movies, but you know what? Briggs would often be just as outraged as fans were, and would even mock TNT for editing crucial moments in the movies he’d show. Often times he’d even point out what TNT cut out for the various audiences, including swears, and whatever nude shots that were once more memorable instances of whatever movie he was airing that night.
Though all of his interviews indicate that Briggs’ time at TNT was not the most pleasant, his irate often infuriated temperament just made Monstervision so much more worth watching. When he wasn’t groaning about TNT’s tight restrictions, he’d subscribe to the carnival sideshow attitude that made his character so entertaining.
During his screening of “Red Dawn,” he interviewed a World War II veteran who’d consistently undermine or confirm much of the scenes during the Brat Pack action film. He also brought on a pet psychic in one episode, and during the screening of Mannequin II, he taught a summer class about how to build their very own woman. He also visited Wolfgang Puck at his restaurant during the screening of “Willy Wonka,” because why not? And who didn’t love Rusty the Mail Girl bringing him fan letters to read, many of which were often sent from prisoners in local penitentiaries?
But Briggs often reveled in his love for movies, involving fans as much as possible with long and informative interviews with folks like Tippi Hedren, Clint Howard, and Roddy Piper, respectively. Hedren was filled with anecdotes about working with Hitchcock, while Piper discussed working with John Carpenter, and the grueling staging of the fist fight during “They Live” with Keith David. Briggs often used the format to have fun with the movie he was showing, carrying the tradition of the late night movie host, while also lending fans a lot of crucial movie facts, and witty barbs about the folks behind certain movies.
This was during the time when the internet was such a new prospect you couldn’t find on phones or every single household, so Briggs’ knowledge was encyclopedic and fresh for interested movie buffs that wanted to know more about certain films. Briggs’ information and discussion of productions behind certain films were engrossing, and Briggs always understood the films he viewed on some level. Even if he sat down to watch stinkers like “The Howling: Rebirth,” or “Maximum Overdrive,” you were assured a good time with another equally passionate movie fan.
Joe Bob loved movies as much as we did. One of the rare events from Monstervision was the all night Friday the 13thmarathon where Joe Bob relayed the events of Friday the 13th parts one to five right in to the break of dawn. And we loved him for sacrificing sleep to celebrate Halloween. My favorite Monstervision involved Briggs screening The Warriors, and showing viewers a large map of New York, tracking the path of the Warriors as they attempted to make it home to Coney Island from The Bronx.
Often times TNT would delay Monstervision until late in the night thanks to their long legacy of playing NBA Basketball, but Joe Bob would always be there shortly after the game, no matter what, ready to gripe about some foible in society he found irksome. He’d then drop us in to a horror or science fiction movie with a specific theme. Briggs was never shy with his opinions and editorials, and often mocked the censors for banning a certain word he couldn’t say that week, often bantering with the camera man and crew on the set. As a final bid of farewell, he’d also discuss the movies during the closing credits and sign off with a few hilarious few jokes.
It’s a shame, because while the set and format were just generic, Briggs kept his wit and rarely ever kowtowed to TNT. Even when they forced him to air movies like “A League of Their Own,” and “Dragnet.” Though the series ended in 2001, and Joe Bob went back to writing as a film critic for various magazines and newspapers, fans always remembered what Briggs brought in the form of late night entertainment and movie knowledge.
For many he was the gate keeper to fantastic genre films, even if TNT only really gave us the PG-13 version of one of the most influential movie critics of all time. For Joe Bob the Drive In will never die. And for movie fans, Monstervision will never be forgotten.
* Previously published on Sound on Sight November 25h, 2014, and has been edited and altered.