Back in 1963, Andy Warhol pointed a small movie camera at his friend John Giorno, recorded him sleeping for six hours and released it as a six-hour film called Sleep. Warhol shot eight hours of the top of the Empire State Building and called it Empire. He filmed close-ups of two friends kissing for Kiss and 45 minutes of painter Robert Indiana nibbling a mushroom for Eat.
Long before Seinfeld created his show about nothing, Warhol was playing with the idea. But truly nothing. No script, no stars, sometimes no people, often no dialogue. Warhol's films ̶ he made 80, clips of which are on YouTube ̶ dared the viewer to accept that the ordinary, once it's run through a camera lens, becomes something to watch. Hour after nothing-filled hour.
His films are emotionless, with forced naivete - like his own personality. Warhol once told an interviewer that a moviegoer could leave one of his films in progress, get a cup of coffee somewhere, come back and not have missed a thing. He also said he dreamed of creating a TV show called The Nothing Special. It would be about his favorite subject.
Now entire channels are devoted to nothing special. Andy Warhol, reality TV pioneer.
Look at what's on TV now through a Warholian filter. It's everything he did in the 1960s and '70s, just slicker, in color and interrupted by Cialis commercials. What is Big Brother if not a mash-up of Sleep, Kiss and Eat, with the occasional homage to Blow Job? (Another Warhol classic that's just 35 minutes of a man's face filmed while he's receiving, supposedly, pleasure down below.)
In a clip from Warhol's Poor Little Rich Girl, his muse, society waif and hardcore drug user Edie Sedgwick lolls in bed, tries on clothes from her own closet and chats with Warhol, who's giving directions off-camera. She's what Paris Hilton was (briefly), what Lindsay Lohan tries to be and isn't and what Bravo reality show style maven Rachel Zoe wishes she had been. You can see traces of Lady Gaga there, the real pop culture love-child of Andy and Edie. You know he'd have put Edie in a meat dress if he'd thought of it.
Part 7 of Warhol's Poor Little Rich GirlThe more I study Warhol's early years (the book The Life and Death of Andy Warhol is a good start, if you're interested), the more I'm awed and amused by his profoundly prophetic take on art and entertainment. Andy Warhol died in 1987 at the age of 58, but his uncredited influence is all around us. His silkscreened portraits predicted Photoshop. His obsession with celebrities predated TMZ.
Decades before the Internet, YouTube and American Idol proved it, Warhol predicted that "in the future, everybody will be world-famous for 15 minutes." Had he known what was to come, he might have said everybody and their cat who haz cheezburger.
Warhol, the highest paid, most famous artist in the world when he died, loved TV, even bad TV. He did a Burger King ad and briefly hosted his own show, Andy Warhol's Fifteen Minutes, in the early years of MTV. In 1985 when he appeared on ABC's The Love Boat, playing himself opposite Happy Days actors Tom Bosley and Marion Ross, it was when that show was dying in the ratings. Didn't matter. It was American culture at its trashiest and emptiest and that was Warhol's thing. In the 1975 book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, he's quoted as saying "I always like to work on leftovers, doing the leftover things. Things that were discarded, that everybody knew were no good, I always thought had a great potential to be funny. It was like recycling work. I always thought there was a lot of humor in leftovers."
Andy eats Burger King
There's nobody like Andy Warhol today. I wish there were, just for the grins. (If you say James Franco, you were born after 1980 and don't know your Warhol.)
If Warhol were alive, he'd be 83. I'd like to think he'd be the same old Andy, ravenous for banal cultural diversion and spitting it back with evil, clever twists. Warhol exalted boredom. Boredom was great. Everything was "great" when you asked Warhol about it. When he said "great," his tone communicated exquisite ennui.
Here are the TV shows Andy Warhol might consider great right now: • Jersey Shore, MTV. Snooki and her pals are like creatures right out of the Warhol Factory, ugly-beautiful, a little stupid and utterly unaware of the world around them. They are famous for being famous, a status Warhol perfected. • The Real Housewives of New York, Bravo. Andy Warhol loved rich bitches. He played to their narcissism and made a fortune selling them cheaply produced silkscreened portraits of themselves. He'd be stuck to Jill Zarin like Velcro. She'd have an 8-foot Warhol of herself in her living room. • Access Hollywood and all the other infotainment shows. Warhol, obsessed with celebrities, made voyeurism chic. He founded Interview magazine, which let stars interview other stars. • American Pickers, History channel. When Warhol died, he had a vast collection of vintage cookie jars. He made Brillo boxes, Coke bottles and Campbell's soup cans into iconic pieces of art, so wouldn't he love watching these guys go through other people's old stuff looking for choice pieces of Americana? • Work of Art, Bravo. Warhol was doing this 50 years ago, making art out of ordinary materials overnight. I think they'd hire him as a judge. • Project Runway, Lifetime. What is Tim Gunn but a more polite, fatherly Andy Warhol? Again, a judge's chair awaits. • Autopsy, HBO. Warhol had a thing for death. One of his earliest successful series of paintings came from a news photo of the electric chair. He'd probably dig a show that digs around inside dead bodies. • Home Shopping Network and QVC. Hour upon hour of nothing but the hawking of cheaply made consumer items nobody needs. "An artist is somebody who produces things that people don't need to have," said Andy. So if there's a Warhol heaven, this is it.