When Al Goldstein passed away Thursday at the age of 77, the longtime publisher of Screw magazine was recalled mostly for his long career as one of the most notorious American pornographers, and for his various free speech battles, which made Goldstein a First Amendment hero to many.
However, I’ll always remember Goldstein from Midnight Blue, the lo-fi cable access talk show he hosted in New York City from 1975 until sometime in the early 2000s. Despite- or perhaps, because of- Goldstein’s personal repulsiveness, the show was one of the most consistently hilarious things I’ve ever seen.
Like a lot of people who moved to New York City in the last quarter of the 20th century, I discovered Channel 35 by accident. A cable access channel on Time Warner Cable, its after-hours program was a non-stop stream of phone-sex advertisements, with two exceptions- Midnight Blue, which aired on Mondays and Fridays at midnight, and The Robin Byrd Show, on the other nights.
(Apparently accidental discovery of Channel 35 by newly-minted New Yorkers is a well-established phenomenon. On the How I Met Your Mother episode “The Best Burger In New York,” there’s a flashback to Ted and Marshall’s first week in Manhattan, and Marshall- in reference to Byrd- asks “Have you seen this public access show with the old Jewish lady in a bikini?”)
Anyway, I soon became a regular watcher of Goldstein’s show. Filming in a dingy studio somewhere downtown with laughably bad production values, the show mostly consisted of Goldstein ranting against his enemies, both inside and outside the weekly “Fuck You” segment (link NSFW). Regular targets included his four ex-wives, Rudy Giuliani and various other politicians, the cable company itself, and anyone who was ever rude to Goldstein in a store. In the latter case he would often put the name and phone number of the store on the air, a tactic that got him sued repeatedly.
Goldstein got lots of mileage out of a few classic clips, like himself falling out of a chair. Or debating then-culture war commissar Pat Buchanan on CNN, and asking Buchanan if he’d ever masturbated. Or a Conan O’Brien appearance in which Goldstein puffed on a cigar and tried to hold Conan’s hand.
Of course, there were mainstream celebrity guests too; I was shocked, one of the first times I saw the show, to see Penn Jillette – who made news this week for prematurely announcing Goldstein’s death– sitting next to him. And there were porn industry guests too, both Ron Jeremy and various female adult stars. The worst, least-funny segments on Howard Stern are always the ones where Stern interviews/leers at strippers and porn stars; but for some reason it was always a lot funnier when an obese, oft-shirtless old man did it.
Here’s a Gilbert Gottfried interview Goldstein did in the early ’90s. Video is safe for work- no nudity- but the language, very much, is not:
The repulsiveness was the point. Goldstein knew he was the butt of the joke and put himself forward anyway.
The show went away at some point in the early 2000s, between Goldstein’s well-publicized legal and financial troubles and the rise of digital cable putting an end to that particular era of cable access. Screw folded around the same time and Goldstein ended up destitute, and the subject of the occasional newspaper profile about how he’d lost everything.
I met Goldstein a few years later at a comedy show and asked if we’d ever see a best-of-DVD for Midnight Blue; he laughed it off, telling me that he doesn’t own the tapes.However, such a thing apparently did see the light of day eventually.
Granted, I was only exposed to Midnight Blue for a couple of years, so I likely missed out on quite a lot of its history. Midnight Blue came at a time before podcasts or YouTube, Goldstein almost certainly would have tried one or the other if he came along today. I’ll always remember the show as one of the best-kept secrets for New Yorkers to discover on their own, and laugh uproariously at, late at night.