Still Alive: Uncle Floyd

Before Pee-Wee Herman, Floyd Vivino had the "Fake Kid's Show" market all to himself.

A couple weeks ago I scratched a random, 35 year-old itch and drove to Wild West City in Netcong, NJ. It's a theme park in the no-longer-true sense of the term, and it's been in operation since 1957. Wild West City has replicas of 19th Century saloons, blacksmith shops, dry goods stores, etc., with scheduled recreations of infamous, apocryphal or otherwise archetypal scenes from the history of the Old West. As an aging tourist attraction in its twilight years, it's sort of corny and maybe a little depressing, but the theme park is now itself a kind of historical artifact - the kind of outdated, hand-forged place where the live horses, real firearms and REALLY invested actors give the whole thing a seedy edge, the sort of business where you're not sure who's driving the bus, and where occasionally some dark shit goes down. Personal safety aside, it's getting harder and harder to find "anything can happen" entertainment in the real world, and that makes this nasty little place kind of special.

The reason I ever wanted to go in the first place - or rather, why I even knew the place existed - was a TV commercial which aired on channel 5 out of New York over and over during afternoon cartoons in the '80s. The commercial had a simple little earworm of a jingle that, if you start singing it to 40 year-olds in the tri-state area today, nine times out of ten they can finish the song for you.

This commercial fed my curiosity even more back then, as there was no mistaking that piano and voice - it was Uncle Floyd! The Uncle Floyd Show was something only a few other kids at school knew about. You've heard mention of how, in the days before cable, there were only five or six channels, but technically, that wasn't 100% the case. See, television sets had two dials on them - one for VHF (Very High Frequency) channels, and one for UHF (Ultra High Frequency) channels. All the network channels, and the independents (who eventually became Fox/UPN/WB/CW affiliates) were located on the bottom dial.

That top dial? If you had a decent antenna, and were adept at configuring tin foil and wire hangers, you could find some crazy shit on that top dial. On channel 68, around 1980, I found Uncle Floyd. The Uncle Floyd Show was unlike anything I'd ever seen; its closest relatives would have been Zacherley or maybe Joe Franklin on Channel 9. Uncle Floyd (Floyd Vivino) held court over the variety show, ostensibly for kids, but with a rough-looking ensemble cast that redefined "not ready for prime time," chaotically performing skits and songs that seemed to not really be aimed at kids, despite all the colorful costumes and puppets. If this was a kids' show, it was the most punk rock kids' show ever made. And it had really odd guests for a children's program.

Being ten years old, I probably didn't quite understand what I was watching. But from 1974 to 1998, Vivino used the kids' show format (and the relative freedom of broadcasting on the tiniest of independent stations) to zap real outsider art - a stew of outdated song and dance, vaudeville and cutting edge performance pieces - to the living rooms of the masses. Kid-friendly pop culture spoofs (Bruce Stringbean, John Cougar Melonhead) would appear alongside actual recording artist David Johansen, trying to figure his shit out between The New York Dolls and Buster Poindexter. And while the model of "gonzo fake kids' show" had sort of been trail-blazed by Soupy Sales and Ernie Kovacs, Floyd belonged to Gen Xers living in New York and New Jersey. We tuned in not for polish, or even professionalism, but because it was unpredictable, and it was raw, and mostly because it was ours. It aired locally and no one else in the world had it. There was a hip cachet to Uncle Floyd's underground status, and emerging East Coast acts like Cyndi Lauper, Dramarama and a young Bon Jovi were frequent guests. The show was a favorite of then-NYC resident John Lennon, who turned his friend David Bowie onto the program. You probably know or have come across poseurs wearing Ramones T-shirts, but The Ramones wore Uncle Floyd T-Shirts.

And perhaps calling his UHF viewership "masses" is a stretch, but in 1982 The Uncle Floyd Show went into syndication, hitting 17 markets around the country. Many stations put him on after SCTV at 1AM, where stoned teens delighted in the show's rough-and-tumble, anything goes vibe. Uncle Floyd was Adult Swim before there was Adult Swim. His syndication run didn't last long, and Floyd returned to the world of public TV and cable (and live versions of his show at venues like Club Bene in Sayreville) before going off the air in 1998. Then he disappeared - from my radar, at least - and it was very odd to hear mention of Floyd in a David Bowie song 11 years ago. In recent years, Uncle Floyd popped into my head whenever I'd see Craig Ferguson bantering with sidekick puppets on late-night TV. Pee-Wee Herman made it mainstream, and Ferguson admirably keeps the spirit afloat, but it's always saddened me that more people never got to know about Uncle Floyd. He was a legitimate television pioneer and though he was always hard to find, he shouldn't disappear.

But as I walked around Wild West City the other week, Uncle Floyd's jingle bouncing around my head, I was shocked and delighted to see a banner announcing an upcoming appearance by Floyd at the park. Turns out Uncle Floyd is still out there, performing live, occasionally running for governor, and broadcasting on the internet. You can hear his radio show at http://www.unclefloydradio.com/ (there's a new episode going up today!), but I'll be damned if I can find any good videos of his Channel 68 days (below is the oldest clip I could find; most of what's online is from the '90s). Judging from the sparse results, it's possible that his shows from the '70s and early '80s are lost forever.

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