Not Ready for Prime time
It's 5 a.m. on a Wednesday. Bobby Jack Pack opens his eighth can of Dr Pepper and slips it into a mint-green coozie.
It's still a few hours before Bobby--who keeps the hours of a B-movie vampire--will go to sleep. And today, Kelly Higgins, his writing partner, has shown up to help work on the script for the next Bobby Jack Pack Show before going to work as a book binder for a graphics design company.
The two sit in mismatched thrift-store chairs at a Formica table in what Bobby has designated as the kitchen of the cavernous warehouse where he lives with his girlfriend. It's one of two air-conditioned rooms walled out from the 10,000-square-foot space. "Kitchen" is only a state of mind in this room, which has no stove, no microwave, and not a box, a can, or a bag of food anywhere--just a battered white refrigerator that holds a nearly empty 12-pack of Dr Pepper, and a few beers. The room's most important appliance is a 20-inch color television in the corner that's playing what Bobby calls "chop-chop"--snippets of '60s movies, television shows, and cartoons that he has edited together. It provides the ambience for these frenetic writing sessions.
For Bobby and Higgins, a slice of Get Smart or a bit from Felix the Cat is food for the soul--inspiration for their campy, quirky half-hour comedy program, The Bobby Jack Pack Show, that can be found--usually--on local cable access Channel 27A, Saturday nights at 10 or 10:30.
"We base everything on B-movies and cheese," Bobby explains.
Indeed, the appeal of the wildly paced Bobby Jack Pack Show is nearly impossible to explain through the printed word. In a sketch called "Tweet Tweet You're Dead," in which four people are surrounded in a house by "flesh-eating, blood-sucking pigeons," a detective peeks out from under a fern and says to the foursome, "Fiddle-dee-dee. The name's Crack Corn. Jimmy Crack Corn."
"I don't care," says a guy who was just pigeon-attacked.
In another sketch, a Mafioso enforcer knocks on a door.
"Who sent you?" says the guy who opens the door.
"Heckle and Jeckle," says the thug.
"Those talking magpies?" the guy replies, his voice trembling with fear. "This is serious."
Awful? Who's to say when a wince or a groan is precisely what you're after? To Bobby, puns are fun, and bad is always better. Accuse the show of being amateurish or say that the actors sound like they're reading from cue cards, and it's high praise to Bobby.
With a loving eye for the bad, Bobby and Higgins have a motto: "Make it worse." And they do: lip movements carefully kept out of sync with dialogue; disorienting close-ups, jump cuts, and obvious gulfs of continuity, such as when a woman wielding an oversized razor blade in a suicide-attempt scene is slender in one shot, nine months' pregnant in the next, and then finds out that she's really not pregnant at all; gratuitous screaming and running from monsters; and anything that mocks mainstream television.
(An announcer's voice with footage of sexy women on phones): "Women talking live! Women talking to other women live! Talking about what women talk about to other women!"
Woman one: "Are you sure you want to take the pumps back?"
Woman two: "Yeah, I'm going to take them back."
Woman one: "You sure?"
(A scene showing a Tom Selleck look-alike directing "some really stupid television program," says Higgins):
Two men with plaid hunting hats are on camera. The first one says, "You know what I saw? Two or three doe."
"See any bucks?" says the other guy.
"Yeah, I saw about 50 bucks."
He stops. "This is too corny," he says.
Says Director "Selleck": "I know it's not funny, and you know it's not funny, but we'll slap a laugh track on this and nobody will know it's not funny."
With a Monty Python-esque pace and the goofiness of Laugh-In, and following a cardinal rule to break all the rules, even its own, The Bobby Jack Pack Show last year won a Dallas Community Television Crystal Award--an Emmy of local cable TV. And it's gaining notice as one of the most original concepts on television--perhaps too original.
"The show is terribly funny and wildly inventive," says Ed Yeager, a co-producer on the NBC-TV comedy The Naked Truth and a former writer for Roseanne. Yeager, a friend of one of the actors on the show, pitched the show to Roseanne and her producers, but they didn't get it.
Still, Yeager believes that there's an audience, albeit a narrow one, for The Bobby Jack Pack Show. "It's ready for late-night television," he says.
Bobby, 38, is contemplative, shy, and reveals little until he looks up from beneath his mane of wavy, thick gray hair that falls far beyond his shoulders. He seems as gentle as a well-worn stuffed bear, all warm smiles and soft laughs--though he admits he's prone to frequent bad moods and sullen grumpiness. Even though he's rarely on camera, preferring to direct, he named the show after himself, he says, because "it had a nice ring to it." And it does. Bobby Jack Pack Jr., by the way, is his real name.
Where Bobby's sentences flow like slow-moving water, Higgins can be a dizzying whirlpool: quick, articulate--and loud. Brainy as well as brash, Higgins has a mind like a database for Jeopardy; not surprisingly, Higgins watches the game show religiously. Higgins is on screen for most of every episode of The Bobby Jack Pack Show and, at 90 decibels, his scream is a staple, too. When he's not on camera, he's shooting alongside Bobby with the second camera, his own Sony High 8.
Bobby and Higgins' work sessions are as disjointed as The Bobby Jack Pack Show itself. The two communicate like a husband and wife who have been together so long they finish each other's sentences--in their own language.
This morning in the kitchen, they are working on the script for a bit in episode No. 7, called "Planet of 10,000 Women or So," a spoof, in part, of the 1958 space flick Queen of Outer Space, starring Zsa Zsa Gabor, and She-Devils on Wheels, a '60s cult classic.
Bobby: "We need monster claws."
Higgins: "We could shoot and do a cutaway and do a rumble and thwomp!--have one of the disposable characters get squashed."
Bobby: "OK, I'm going to try to get some cheerleader outfits."
Higgins: "We have a bunch of stuff to shoot Thursday. Scene 3--they wake up in the palace, the space girl is exposed as a girl and led off in chains to face the giant spider. The next scene is Dr. Smitty and Dog-uglywoman--a guy in drag--and Heather will be in chains. Hopefully, she'll be in a cheerleader outfit."
Bobby: "Since we're cramming a two-hour space movie into five minutes, we should speed up everything."
Higgins: "They could look at their watches all the time."
Bobby: "They could be captured and be taken to the queen, and in three steps they're there."
Higgins reaches over and turns up the sound on the television, which is still playing chop-chop. "Have you ever heard of Blood Feast?" he asks me.
I shake my head.
"It's the Gone with the Wind, the Citizen Kane of gore movies," he says.
Indeed. I watch the black-and-white footage of a man knocking on the door, walking in and ripping out a woman's tongue. Then the tape abruptly goes into five seconds of Lost in Space. Then, Charlie the Tuna. Then, a clip of a woman in a bikini doing the twist. Next, it's Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.
"This is the idea behind the shows," says Bobby. "Keep it moving with your favorite stuff--the meat of it, the heart of it; that's all you need."
Deconstructed dialogue is lifted from old movies and TV shows, then twisted ever so slightly and put in inappropriate situations so that the well-directed bad acting can shine. The point, after all, is to make The Bobby Jack Pack Show as disconcerting for the viewer as it appears to be for the characters, who always respond illogically to the dilemmas they find themselves in.
When Loretta tells her girlfriend, Anorexis, that she's going to kill herself because her boyfriend, a police detective, was murdered, Anorexis wails, "Now who am I going to date on the weekend?"
After a guy gets amnesia from being hit with a meat cleaver and is then bonked on the head with a bowling ball that rolled off a shelf, his first words to his girlfriend are, "Shut 'cher yapping," to which she responds, "I can say anything I want, when I want."Both lines were lifted from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Bobby and Higgins figure that those who get it deeply appreciate the reference. "You can't place it, it might not even seem familiar, but chances are you've seen it before," Higgins says.
Even if only for a moment. Watching the half-hour show is like channel-surfing on late-night cable television. There's a three-second bite here, a 10-second bit there, and parodies of commercials lopped off at the beginning and the end. Within this framework, there lies a scratch-your-head obscurity that Bobby and Higgins consciously strive for in these early-morning writing sessions.
"We take historical facts and mix them with geological facts," Higgins says. "Juxtaposition is a through line. Who else makes references to 15th-century explorers? In a spaceship scene, one guy says to the captain, 'Do you think you're smarter than Ponce de Leon?' Then the captain says, 'Nobody is smarter than Ponce de Leon.'"
Says Bobby, "Einstein was too obvious."
A scene from Flipper pops onto the TV screen. Bobby and Higgins both pause to say, in unison with the woman in the water on television, "That's not a shark, that's Flipper."
In an instant they are back to the space skit.
Bobby: "I want a giant spider to go on her."
Higgins: "There's no reason she can't have rabies, too. Look at that spider;it's foaming at the mouth. You are now the proud owner of rabies."
They both crack up at the reference to a scene from one of John Waters' films, Desperate Living, in which a nurse says the line after injecting a rabies-filled syringe into a woman's bottom.
After a few hours of planning the space segment, the sun rises, and it's time for Bobby to go to bed and for Higgins to go to work. Bobby will sleep until 1 p.m., then hit the thrift stores in his girlfriend's car in a quest to find cheerleader outfits for the space women.
So far, six episodes of The Bobby Jack Pack Show have been produced, but it's a miracle that the show gets put together at all. There is virtually no budget other than what Bobby makes bartending one night a week at Bar of Soap, a combination bar and laundromat across from Fair Park. All of the actors are volunteers, and all of the props--costumes, hats, furniture--either have been fished out of trash bins, donated, or scavenged from thrift stores. Crew members and actors often bring blank videotapes, beer, chips and sandwiches and Dr Pepper to shoots.
"It sounds hokey, but if we need something, it just sort of shows up," says Bobby. "It's like a potluck dinner. Everybody brings stuff and makes it happen."
Besides his beloved High 8 camera, Bobby owns a good editing deck, which he keeps in his bedroom along with a wall of videotapes of Ed Wood movies, The Three Stooges episodes, and '50s and '60s cartoons. But when he started work on The Bobby Jack Pack Show two years ago, he didn't have a camera or, for that matter, a clue about how to put together a television show.
Bobby was working as a photographer during the day and a bartender at Club Dada at night when he decided to produce his own television show. As he poured drinks, he talked about his vision. The word spread, and he soon had a cast.
The show has come a long way, but the term "low-rent" still applies. It's not uncommon to call Bobby and find that his phone has been disconnected. He's had his electricity cut off before, too, because he has put the money into the show, instead. He recently had to sell his 1960 sea-foam Chevy station wagon with "bat wings" because he was three months' behind on rent.
But the show, of course, goes on.
Although the first episode of The Bobby Jack Pack Show took nearly a year to complete, these days Bobby is working on a three-month turnaround per show, with an average of 30 volunteer actors involved in each episode. Although some are local professional actors wanting to hone their craft, most are literally walk-ons. Conrad Thomas is a 44-year-old insurance claims adjuster. David Morales drives from Denton, where he works as a vascular technologist. Warren Nash works in records management at NationsBank. Denise Carlin, 29, is a film and video production assistant and a songwriter.
"The Bobby Jack Pack Show allows me to be as goofy as I want to be," says Carlin. "It's great to be involved in a project that is all-accepting."
What holds the cast members together is a shared off-centeredness, for lack of a better term, that is a prerequisite for starring in or, for that matter, appreciating The Bobby Jack Pack Show.
When Bobby Jack Pack was 17, he and two friends from high school in Azle, Texas, pooled the money from catching mussels for two summers at Eagle Mountain Lake and bought a Super-8 home movie camera. They'd spend afternoons making films and show them at parties on the weekends. The short films that he and his friends produced 20 years ago are not unlike The Bobby Jack Pack Show.
They'd use stop-action to film beer bottles marching down a road as soldiers or to show boxes of detergent talking at the laundromat, their flaps moving for mouths. They experimented with animation, doing out-of-sync lips, like the old Clutch Cargo cartoons.
"I grew up sitting in front of the TV, saying, 'That's fake as fuck, fake as fuck,'" says Bobby. "It was always a game I would play:How many mistakes could I find? I could turn on just about anything and find something wrong with it." In Gunsmoke, the young Bobby Jack Pack would delight in finding boom-mike shadows and revel in keeping track of the inordinate number of shots coming from the six-shooters. He hasn't changed much.
"What cracks me up in sitcoms is people always say 'hi' to their brothers and sisters when they walk into the kitchen from the living room," he says. "Nobody does that in real life. Am I the only one noticing this?"
In his own show, you can't help but notice. There's always something off-kilter, and if you don't catch it, well, then you're probably asleep. Or dead. A black newscaster interviews a man-on-the-scene and the cutaway close-up shows a Caucasian hand holding the microphone. The sound of a slap on the face precedes the hit. A guy gets blasted with machine-gun bullets through his chest and falls down dead; then, the next shot shows his hand letting go of the telephone in the booth.
Then there's the just plain goofy. For a bit on hair aerobics, Cynthia Cranz has her hair up in pigtails (one tied to a wire held up by a pole overhead). Her pigtail goes up. "Up and hold, hold, hold...release," she says, with a fake-o aerobics-instructor smile and exaggerated breathing.
Cynthia drives every week from Fort Worth, where she works as an apartment locator and as an actress. After one visit to a shoot, which she had heard about from a friend, she was hooked. "There's no other acting experience like it. Every time you come, it's a different type of atmosphere. I think of it as hanging out and having fun, but, oh my God, he's so talented."
It's a reason many people give for working with Bobby. They believe he'll be the next John Waters (Serial Mom, Hairspray, Pink Flamingos)--or, more likely, a modern-day Ed Wood. You get the feeling that either one would be fine with them.
"It's silly, it's absurd, but there's definitely some artistry," says Higgins. "I feel like, when I look back on this, I'll say I was working with geniuses."
Scott Parkin is a professional actor who has been involved in the show since nearly the beginning. "It's cheap laughs, and the timing and pacing is thrown off so far, it's ridiculous," he says.
But Parkin, like the rest, keeps coming back simply because it is so over-the-top. A successful commercial actor--he starred in the Southwestern Bell mobile-telephone commercials as the guy who catches the phone with a baseball mitt--Parkin is one of the show's most recognizable regulars. He also is its self-appointed and unofficial public-relations flack:He regularly sends copies of The Bobby Jack Pack Show to the networks, and hypes the show locally every chance he gets.
Yet Bobby, himself, may be the show's biggest barrier to even moderate fame. He's scared that success would ruin the concept. "Money would corrupt it like it's corrupted every rock band I've seen," he says. "For me, obscurity and cult status is coolness. Overpopularity in the public eye will turn on you."
Parkin and Higgins, who occasionally donate money as well as time to the production, disagree. "I think money should come into the show," says Parkin. "The show would stay the same with money. The only thing that would change is it would be faster."
It's hard to conceive of the show being faster. Editing The Bobby Jack Pack Show is laborious; sometimes it takes as much as a week for Bobby to put together one minute of final footage. It's a slow process to produce video that moves fast.
A breather to the show's rapid-fire approach that blasts viewers along at the speed of light is provided in the form of a regular soap-opera segment, "Shadows and Objects," which is a reference to the grave keeper's speech in Ed Wood's Orgy of the Dead. Like the rest of the show, the soap is a nonsensical, illogical romp.
"We don't show any kissing and don't show anybody in bed," says Bobby, who claims each show must pass the "mommy test," which means it should be something he wouldn't be afraid to show to his mom. "But we show as much trauma and total upsetness as we can. It's kind of a soap opera on a teen-age, 'wear my high school ring' level."
Buddy Hickerson, the nationally syndicated cartoonist of the "Quigmans," is a regular in the soap. He plays record executive Buddy Burbank, whom he describes as a "boozing, oily, slimy, drippy pustule of a human; this armpit of an individual who, if he crossed the street, would leave so much oil, there'd be a traffic accident. He's a scam boy and he also has weird powers, a superhuman bizarre ability to detect human vulnerability."
Hickerson says he sticks with the show because he appreciates Bobby's perspective, which is not unlike that of his own rather twisted comic strip. "He seems to revel in the bad, the crude, and the unpolished," says Hickerson of Bobby."And I think some of the best things are the kind of off-beat moments where things drag on, those sloppy things where things don't end clean--kind of scraggly, like life."
"Look at this," says Bobby, excitedly, holding up a yellow-satin two-piece pants and top set. "It's the queen's outfit. I got it for a dollar."
It's Thursday night, and he never found cheerleader outfits for the space girls. Worse, two of the actors that he was planning to shoot haven't shown up. So the space scene will have to wait. Instead, he decides, the 10 people who did come will help make props and costumes.
Everyone stays even though the taping has been turned into a mindless work detail. No one complains about the stifling heat in the warehouse, or the cricket infestation. Everyone grabs a can of beer and gets to work.
A majorette hat, some silver tape, and a cap from a bourbon bottle become the bad queen's headdress. Puffy, silver pipe cleaners twist into a tiara for a space woman, and a plastic plate and the domed top of an Icee are transformed with glue and gold spray paint into a flying saucer. Three people sit on the concrete floor, while the crickets hop around them, and paint color blocks for a backdrop. Others glue glitter on medallions for the good and bad queens' necklaces.
In the kitchen, Bobby and Higgins punch up lines for the on-location space scene, three days away.
It's all show biz.
"Anyone can come," says Bobby. "Everyone's invited. It's totally open-door. I don't care if you can act or not. I haven't turned anyone away."
They just come and memorize their lines from Bobby's handwritten scripts, then read them over and over until Bobby is satisfied with the take. Most of the actors have been coming for two years. "It's sort of like a softball team that you see every Thursday night," Scott Parkin says.
On a Sunday afternoon, in the 100-plus-degree August heat, a dozen cast members arrive at a shimmering construction site at Central Expressway and Northwest Highway where mountains of gravel and sand resemble--at least to Bobby's eye--the "Planet of 10,000 Women or So."
About half the cast members--the astronauts--are dressed in white lab coats, space suits, and plastic toy helmets, all spray-painted silver.
Bobby recruits me to be one of the space women, and when I warn him that I have no acting experience, it only seems to please him.
I slip into a filmy, teal top and pants, which, if not for the silver "space belt," would look like something from I Dream of Jeanie. I have "space bracelets"--two chunks of cardboard tubing, spray-painted silver, and a "space medallion"--a glitter-covered disc with plastic stones hanging from a plastic chain around my neck. Like the rest of the space actors, I wear knee-high black boots, into which my harem pants are tucked. The pipe-cleaner tiara is on my head. I carry a staff--a red light bulb atop a cylinder taken off a thrift-store trophy, with pink plastic beads wrapped around the base.
The plot is straightforwardly nonsensical:The earth astronauts are litterbugs, and we space women are going to capture them. They have landed, after all, on our desolate planet.
Bobby is on the top of a hill of road-construction rock looking through the viewfinder at the astronauts.
"Shake your beers before you open them," he orders.
They do; the beers spew all over their faces, and the astronauts pour them into their helmets. Then, in some of the best acting on a recent show, they pass out.
"Now, the space women," Bobby says.
The evil queen is played by Carla Adams, a massage therapist in real life. Dressed in a shiny, disco-era silver dress, a glitter-covered hockey mask, and the silver-taped majorette hat, she leads us into the pit. She stomps on an astronaut's wrist so he can't reach for his gun, shoves her staff into the rocks, and cries, "Reba, reba, eye, yie, yie!"
We space women shake our staffs and do the same. "Reba, reba, eye, yie, yie!"
I ask Bobby later what that means.
He is visibly disappointed that I didn't get it.
"It's from The Three Stooges," he says. "You remember when they were captured on Venus and the space women came up to them and bit them on the cheeks? They said, 'Reba, reba, eye, yie, yie.'"
Oh, yeah. Now I get it. Sort of. I feel a bit better that one of the other space women thought it was a reference to a Reba McIntire commercial for Fritos corn chips.
After nearly three hours of shooting, we are hot, we are smelly, and we are thirsty. The litterbug astronauts consumed all the beer. As the sun goes down and we're walking to our cars, I ask Bobby if he's pleased with the shoot.
"Yeah, but I could always get more," he says, looking down at the ground and pushing it with the white rubber toe of his faded black tennis shoes. "More cutaways, more close-ups. I'm going to wish I had more when it comes to editing, but it's always like that."
"Hey, look at that," he says suddenly, pointing with his toe to a spot on the ground where air bubbles left holes in the sun-scorched crust. "Craters," he says.
He grabs his camera and kneels down to get a close shot. He carefully tips the camera toward the ground until the lens touches the dried mud. I realize he's probably simulating the crash of the spaceship into our planet. A satisfied smile spreads across his face. "Let's go get some space water.
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