At the age of three, a family member went out and rented a copy of the original Child’s Play. I got scared and crawled behind the couch within the first few minutes, and another family member pressured them into turning it off. Either way, the damage was done: I was frightened of Chucky for years. Around the time I turned ten years old, I was watching something on TNT and an ad came on for Child’s Play. Chucky still freaked me out (even to this day, if you catch me off guard with his image, I’ll give a frightful whimper). At that moment, though, I decided it was high time I got over my fear, so I planned to watch it that Friday night as part of some show they had called MonsterVision.
I never realized just how fateful catching that commercial would be. I watched the movie and flipped out the requisite amount of times; but the nice, funny man hosting the show in between commercial breaks must have made the experience a little easier.
After that, I tuned in every Friday night (then, eventually, every Saturday night). That funny host, a man by the name of Joe Bob Briggs (the pseudonym of writer John Bloom), was probably the most interesting, affable, knowledgeable guy who had to do with film. I adored horror films growing up and ate up every last one shown on that show, provided I didn’t pass out first. I was eventually left heartbroken when his iteration of MonsterVision left the airwaves in 2000. Over those years he was on the air, I became a huge fan and he became one of my biggest influences (I most certainly wouldn’t have started studying and reviewing film for as long as I have if not for him) and he became one of my childhood heroes. I have had a deep respect for him and his influence from childhood on into adulthood.
For years after the show was canceled, I wondered what he was up to. I finally found out he ran a website in the late 2000s. In 2010, he took requests for where he should make convention appearances that year; I was one of the ones who suggested an upcoming horror convention that I’d be attending in Burbank, CA. It was there that I had the privilege of meeting him. I purchased a personally signed copy of his book Joe Bob Goes Back to the Drive-In and was able to listen to him speak and ask him questions during a single-man panel.
Over the years, we’ve corresponded a smattering of times through platforms such as his website, Twitter, and, most recently, e-mail. The latter was due to me having found out that a new iteration of MonsterVision, something that had been whispered about for almost two decades, seemed to finally be coming to fruition. Graciously, he allowed me to interview him regarding his beginning influences, how he got his start, how he ended up on TV and in films, and what we can expect from the newest incarnation of his beloved show.
Jacquie Allen: Alright, let’s get rolling. Who and what were your influences growing up? What drew you to film, and specifically, Drive-In culture?
Joe Bob Briggs: When I was a kid, drive-ins were everywhere. (This was in Texas and Arkansas.) My parents loved the drive-in, and I and my two sisters would occupy the back seat. The goal was to stay awake long enough for the second feature, which was always a more “adult” movie, and I would always get there. My sisters, not so much. The biggest influence on me as a kid, though, was being hired at age 13 by the Arkansas Democrat, the afternoon newspaper in Little Rock, as an apprentice copyboy. The title is a little misleading. The paper was so poor that everyone who worked there, including apprentice copyboys, was expected to write SEVERAL articles per day. So this is how I learned to write. I was tossed into writing on deadline at age 13 and have been doing it ever since. I worked mostly in the sports department at the Democrat, went to Vanderbilt University on a sports writing scholarship (the only one of its kind), and ended up bouncing around the newspaper and magazine world in Tennessee and Texas, looking for something “serious” to do.
JA: What makes you so passionate about film and the drive-in? What made you want to make movie reviewing and Drive-In culture your career?
JBB: In the early eighties, when I was an investigative reporter at the Dallas Times Herald, I invented my column, “Joe Bob Goes to the Drive-In.” The way it happened is that I was trying to finish a true crime book called Evidence of Love—I actually consider it one of the best things I ever wrote, although the book-buying public disagreed!—and I couldn’t make any progress on it because the editors were constantly sending me all over Texas and elsewhere on assignment. I was always “sliding down the firepole” to cover this or that story. Along about this time my friend the entertainment editor told me that the film critic job was about to be available, so I jumped on that, asked her if I could just do it for a while so that I could remain in Dallas and work on my book. She warned me: “You know you have to watch every film, right?” And I said, “No problem, I’ll watch every film, I love film.” I quickly learned the folly of this promise, as most Hollywood mainstream films were dreck—but I did my duty and discovered that I had a weird cinematic fetish: The only films I truly loved were from the opposite ends of the cinematic food chain. On the one hand, I liked the foreign films—because think about it. There are thousands of foreign films, and maybe one a week makes it all the way to Dallas—obviously you get the best ones. And then the other films I loved were the ones that played exclusively at the drive-in. The Grim Reaper, Graveyard Tramps, Don’t Go in the Woods, Swinging Barmaids. But, unlike the Hollywood films, these were never screened for the press. I started going to the drive-in to review them anyway, and eventually this led to a friendship with Roger Corman, the great exploitation showman and, in my opinion, one of the greatest film producers who ever lived. I had several conversations with Roger about the essential elements of the exploitation film, and I eventually incorporated those principles into “Joe Bob Goes to the Drive-In,” which appeared every Friday in an obscure part of the paper.
You have to understand that at this time newspapers didn’t review these movies. They were considered pornography. Janet Maslin of the New York Times even explicitly called them pornographic. Roger Ebert believed in censorship for certain titles like I Spit On Your Grave. Genre films were thought of as disposable trash. So when I first conceived the idea of a populist film critic who celebrated Grindhouse films, I knew it would be a tough sell within my paper and that I would have to be sneaky about it. Fortunately, I had been around the block a few times and knew the dirty secret of all newspaper editors—they don’t really read their own papers. They glance at the front page, read the top stories of the day, but then they’re done.
JA: How did you come up with the Joe Bob persona, and why did you do so?
JBB: I started looking for a place to put the column that would give me two or three months before the high sheriffs noticed it was in the paper—and my friend Ron Smith, then editor of the Weekend Magazine section—conspired with me. We decided to stick it at the very back of the Friday magazine, wedged in among all the discount furniture ads, and it was decided I would write under a pseudonym because I wanted to do a 19th-century-type literary adventure in the style of legendary newspapermen like Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce and Lafcadio Hearn. I actually wanted to use the name Bobo Rodriguez—I was thinking of it as sort of a multi-ethnic Andy Kaufman “who the fuck is this guy?” character—but Ron said, “No, you can’t use a minority surname, that’s trouble.” So I said, okay, I’ll make it the whitest redneck name I can think of—hence Joe Bob Briggs. This was actually a great decision because everybody makes fun of rednecks, we have no Redneck Anti-Defamation League, so you basically have free rein, comedy-wise.
So our trick worked. The Executive Editor wasn’t aware the column existed for the first three months, but during that time we were getting all kinds of mail and attention from the public. By the time the bossmen read it, it was already established. It was popular from day one, and there was a brief period—maybe two years—in which people were trying to figure out who the writer really was. In this media-saturated age, you can’t really keep a secret like that, though, and so eventually I was outed by some unscrupulous Fleet Street guys who came to cover the 1984 Republican convention in Dallas.
Meanwhile, I’m still the only critic reviewing these movies.
Actually, I should amend that slightly. There was a guy in New York named Bill Landis who was reviewing the grindhouse movies of 42nd Street and Times Square in a fanzine called Sleazoid Express. These were pretty much the same titles I was reviewing at the drive-ins of the Deep South. And our only cheerleader was John Waters in Baltimore—years later I would have him as a guest on my show and we compared notes about those early days when we were still outlaws.
JA: That’s insane that you had to put that much work into it! Is there any way you can give me a bit of history behind Joe Bob’s Drive-In Theater on TMC, such as how it came about, and how it led to you working on MonsterVision?
JBB: Joe Bob’s Drive-In Theater happened by accident. The Movie Channel was looking for guest hosts, and they happened to see an article I had written for Rolling Stone on Dennis Hopper and the making of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 in Austin. So they asked me to host some exploitation films on four Friday nights—it was just me sitting in the Lazy Boy recliner with steer horns on the back, speaking straight to camera, and we shot it at a tiny insert stage next to the Penn Station railroad yards in Manhattan. After that month was over, they invited me back for another month, then another, and another—for 11 years! Eventually we expanded the set and moved to the old Dumont Network stages in Spanish Harlem, and then, after some of the other hosts were retired from service and I was the only one left, I suggested we ship the set to Dallas and do it there. (Cheaper.) So most of the years at The Movie Channel were at various soundstages around Dallas, including the public TV station, a couple of indie stations, the stage used by the Dallas TV series, a studio where they shot Barney the Dinosaur, and eventually a studio owned by Ross Perot (the one he used when he was running for President). I did 52 double features a year plus specials on both The Movie Channel and Showtime—I don’t know how many hours that comes to, but . . . a lot! Then they decided to “re-brand” the network—this always happens—and so I was canceled. I think I was off the air for about four months, and then TNT called up and asked if I wanted to do a show for them. I didn’t just want to do a show for them, I wanted to do the exact same show, on the same stage, but this time with commercial breaks.
JA: This is all incredibly fascinating to see how everything came about. So, how were your movies decided upon? Did you have any say in what was chosen? If so, was it all you, did you work with a team, or were you told what was going to be airing and just go with it?
JBB: Ted Turner was the first TV guy ever to purchase a motion picture library, so Turner Networks had every MGM movie made before 1982 plus a lot of other libraries plus the newer stuff they would just license for a few months at a time. So the choices were plentiful. Every January I would get this thick book listing every movie TNT had access to, and I would be encouraged to circle my favorites and send those to the programming department. My suggestions were accepted about 20 percent of the time. Usually I would get overruled because a) the movie I wanted was in black and white, or b) the movie I wanted was too old. For example, Turner owns all of Tod Browning’s work but we never showed Freaks on MonsterVision. They would occasionally allow me to show 1950s sci-fi, but only when we had some great promotional hook for it. For example, we would show the giant killer rabbit classic Night of the Lepus at Easter. When we showed Alien, we also showed the movie Alien ripped off—It! The Terror from Beyond Space. (And we proved it was the same plot!) In many cases the sheepish programmers would say, “Would you be willing to host this? We have nowhere else to put it.” Hence The Howling 7, one of the worst movies ever made, the movie that killed the Howling franchise, but we sort of turned it into a cult item—we actually ran it several times because it was starting to become popular.
JA: That’s hilarious; it’s always refreshing to speak with someone who has a similar love of “so-bad-it’s-good” films. Considering I grew up on your stuff, it’s not surprising, but I sure do catch a ton of hell for it. So, how much input did you have in the writing of your host segments and what was the writers room like while working on it? How was your other crew assembled and what was each person designated to do?
JBB: I always did the writing myself. For years I searched for a co-writer who could master my style, but I never found anyone. I did have an assistant at MonsterVision who would take material I had written for print media and adapt it for television, but that was as close to collaboration as I ever got. So…no writers’ room, but the same crew members for years—we very rarely had to replace anyone. It was just a typical three-camera studio shoot, with the director working off stage in a booth somewhere. The set got fancy as time went on, but the basics of how the show was shot never really changed.
JA: One thing that’s always bugged me about MonsterVision: why The Hidden 2 and not The Hidden? The first one is a classic! The second one, well… not so much.
JBB: Why The Hidden 2 and not The Hidden? The same reason we had a Friday the 13th all-night marathon but didn’t show Friday the 13th, Part 4. We didn’t have the license to show it! These licenses are always going in and out as the owner of the film sells them into various windows. You might have a film for June, lose it in July, then have it back again in August.
JA: On a mildly similar note, how did you land that cameo in Face/Off? I distinctly remember my dad pointing it out and having to back up the VHS for me as a kid!
JBB: When The Movie Channel show was canceled, I start auditioning for acting roles. I’m terrible at auditions, but I did get a few roles during that period between the two shows. I actually auditioned to be the prison warden in Face/Off, but they wanted a beefier guy. The thrill of that experience was meeting John Woo. He would come out and bow from the waist and say, “Thank you so much for taking such a small role, I consider it as a favor to me.” Such a polite elegant man. We talked about his childhood in China and then he asked me if it would be okay for me to fall onto a rubber mat when I was shot. He said there would probably be hot shell casings landing on me because the whole set was going to be full of automatic weapons fire and was that okay? What was I gonna say? “No, Mr. Woo, I’ll need a stunt double and a rubber suit”? So, if I remember correctly, Nicolas Cage kicks me in the stomach, I go down, and he escapes in a hail of gunfire. Wait, correct that—John Travolta in the BODY of Nicolas Cage kicks me in the stomach. Was that a confusing script or what?
JA: For sure. Albeit it’s been about 20 years since I watched it, but still. Thanks for expanding on that. I’d always thought it was so random that you were there. Okay, let me bring the focus back to the topic at hand: how did your experience on MonsterVision differ from your experience on Joe Bob’s Drive-in Theater? Was it better, worse, the same? Was it a positive experience for you?
JBB: I was blessed at both networks because I had very little oversight. Weekend late nights were not a big priority at The Movie Channel or at TNT, so I had no time restrictions and very little censorship. The only time I can remember a reshoot is one of our Christmas shows at The Movie Channel. The idea was that I would bring together all the major religions for a season of peace on Earth—so we had a Baptist preacher, a Catholic priest, a rabbi, and a Unitarian feminist gathered together in a dive bar—and we were supposedly breaking bread together and discussing what we had in common. Then at some point the Baptist preacher says to the rabbi, “We forgive the Jews for killing Jesus,” and he says it very sweetly, and it actually got a big laugh from the crew—and then the four clerics start arguing and it turns into a brawling fistfight. So that was the joke, but the network objected to the one line—“We forgive the Jews for killing Jesus”—and so we had to reshoot a milder version. I would occasionally get called on the carpet for being politically incorrect, but it was a politically incorrect character so that didn’t really make sense, and I would sometimes get flagged for words that were on the Turner Networks forbidden list. If this happened, I would make up a nonsense word to replace it—and then, in some cases, the nonsense word would turn up on the forbidden list! I used to smoke cigars on the Movie Channel show, but all tobacco was forbidden at TNT. But the greatest freedom at both places—I don’t think this exists anywhere on television today—is that I could finish whenever I wanted to, without any set time limit. At TNT we usually had a double feature, and as long as we were done by 6 a.m., they were fine with it. We could finish at 3, 4, 5, or 3:57, they didn’t care. This benign indifference meant the rants could go on forever, the breaks could be as long as we decided they should be, etc. etc. etc. So I was very happy at both places because of a) creative control, and b) minimal oversight.
JA: Were there things you would change about the show looking back? What were some ideas you or others had that were pitched and maybe only used once or twice that didn’t work out, or were nixed entirely?
JBB: The show was so simple that I just mainly concentrated on what I was going to say. I mean, 80 percent of the time I was just staring straight into the camera as I talked. Every once in a while we would try to mix it up—overhead shots, weird angles, the occasional guest who would stay for a few segments—but the audience liked it better when it was “just the two of us.” I always imagined I was talking to just one person. So no, other than movies I wanted to show that were ruled out, we were never denied anything we wanted to try. We even had a nude segment on The Movie Channel—it was New Year’s Day, so I wake up in bed with a hangover, and a toothless-but-topless girl crawls out from under the sheets.
JA: Yeah, I think that’s the reason why I always felt such a connection with MonsterVision: you were so damn personable, and it always seemed like you were specifically reaching out to me. Now, where did the idea for the “Drive-In Totals” come from, and where did you come up with those darn “Fu” designators? I remember some of them being absolutely, insanely long and hilarious as hell. I’ve always wondered how that became a thing.
JBB: When I first started writing the newspaper column, I decided to do a body count on horror films. Then I decided to do a motor-vehicle crash-and-burn count for action films. Then I decided to do a breast count for softcore sex films. It all just kind of naturally evolved, and at the same time I was talking to Roger Corman about the main elements he puts into his movies, and that evolved into the three B’s: Blood, Breasts and Beasts. People seemed to like it, so I started quantifying every single element in every movie, adding “Fu” to indicate violent action of any kind. And I’m proud to say that “Fu” eventually made it into the Encyclopedia of Southern Literature in an entry stating that it was derived from “the Briggsian school of film criticism.”
JA: I didn’t know that last part! So, where did you get your information and facts from? Pre-internet, it boggles my mind to think of how much time, how many people, and how many other sources would need to be tracked down in order to get all of that information, especially when it came to the more obscure films that were shown.
JBB: A lot of times we couldn’t find any information on the film at all! This might seem absurd today when you can Google-search almost any title and any director, but sometimes we couldn’t even be sure the names in the credits of the movie were actual people. So we sought out magazine articles, books, old archives of Variety and Hollywood Reporter, and sometimes we made phone calls to people in the industry who knew the people involved. The Italian-made films were especially messy. The Italians used fake credits all the time, and a director might work under five different names, and in some cases, we didn’t know which one of the five was the real one.
JA: Good lord, that sounds ridiculously complicated. How were you able to land some of the guests/interviewees you’d have on from time to time?
JBB: The guests were easier to wrangle. We paid them, of course, and most of them knew me in one way or another. I was especially proud of getting Lance Henriksen to come on—he rarely does interviews of any kind—and Brad Dourif went beyond the call of duty when he agreed to do voice for an interview I did with Chucky the doll. I implied during the interview that Chucky’s fame was due more to Brad Dourif’s voice than to any acting ability, and Chucky sneered, “FUCK BRAD DOURIF.” One of my favorite guest moments. One thing the guests tended to dislike was my no-retake policy. We shot everything in one take, and some of the most accomplished actors—I won’t name names—were terrified by that idea. We only had to make exceptions twice—for Gary Busey and Sally Kirkland—because they were just sort of out of control. And not just on the set.
JA: This may be a ridiculous question with an obvious answer, but as a kid, I could have sworn that when you were on during your regular seasons, that everything was done live. Looking back now as an adult, it seems unlikely, but my nostalgia is nagging at me to ask. Am I mistaken and remembering this incorrectly, and was everything taped beforehand?
JBB: I would have loved to have done the show live, but you’re correct, it’s prohibitively expensive and, given the companies I worked for, logistically impossible. What I did instead was make sure that, before every segment, I knew exactly where we were in the movie, then enforce a one-take rule on the crew. If we made mistakes, the mistakes stayed in. So it was “live on tape.” It was as close to live as I could make it. I’m sorry I have to admit this because it disappoints people. Bottom line: it was cheaply produced, so our budgets wouldn’t have allowed for a live show.
JA: Well, at least I wasn’t the only one who thought that! What a bummer you didn’t have the budget, but that was a clever way of going about it. During the last two or so years MonsterVision was on the air, I noticed a rather large shift in the genres of films that were shown. What exactly happened there? Was that something that was forced on you? Do you think that this was the reason behind the show’s eventual cancellation, or were there other factors at play?
JBB: In the late nineties Turner Networks went through what they called a “re-branding” of TNT, and they wanted to make the network more “female-friendly.” Guess who had the most lopsidedly male audience? So they suggested that MonsterVision should be moved from Texas to Los Angeles, start booking more movie stars, change the set to be less southern, and start showing mainstream movies. I was not fond of the idea, but I was powerless to affect the decision. There was nothing wrong with the show, it was still attracting a large audience, but we did make that move to Burbank, and although we did some of my favorite shows out there—including my interviews with Clint Howard, Tippi Hedren and Joe Flaherty, who agreed to come on as “Count Floyd”—the hardcore fans sensed that something fundamental had changed. The network was looking for a reason to get rid of the show. This was the beginning of the “We Know Drama” era and my show was just too goofy and off message for the new improved upscale female-friendly TNT. (One example: the marketing staff hated the mail girl, thought the idea of a mail girl was totally sexist, and forced the gradual diminution of her role.)
JA: Speaking of the mail girls, I’ve always been sort of fascinated with the fact that they never seemed to stick around for more than a couple of years. I remember watching once and there being the longtime girl one week, then a new one replacing her the next week, smackdab in the middle of a season. Do you have any idea what that was about, or am I remembering certain details incorrectly?
JBB: You’re pretty much remembering it correctly. The original mail girl was a blonde named Honey (her real name), and she was probably the most popular one—she was there for many years, beginning on the Movie Channel show, and was only replaced because the TNT marketing staff didn’t like her. Reno was the next one—she was a brunette Dallas actress who held down the job until she was called away to other, more lucrative acting jobs. The third mail girl was Kat, another blonde, a friend of mine who was only there for about eight weeks (I call her the Curly Joe of mail girls). She was deemed “too old” by an especially disagreeable TNT executive, even though she had been the goldang Playboy Playmate of the Year! (Doesn’t that earn you a few more years of mail girl bodaciousness?) The final mail girl, a redhead, was Rusty, who turned out to be an Air Force veteran, something we didn’t find out until we filmed a show at an air base in Southern California, and the F-16 pilots started making shop talk with her and it was revealed that she was the pilot for General Schwarzkopf in Desert Storm.
JA: That’s super cool. Any idea about any of their whereabouts these days?
JBB: Both Honey and Rusty […] became lawyers.
JA: I remember there being all-nighter episodes from time to time, such as the ones done on Friday the 13th where you would show six or seven Jason films, or the 1997 Super Bowl show that went for sixteen hours straight. How big of a challenge was it coming up with that amount of content? How much time did you have to prepare for something of that magnitude?
JBB: First of all, the reason we were at the Super Bowl every year is that TNT was the home of Sunday Night Football. Why they wanted ME there, I’m not sure, but I would always go and do seven or eight sketches that I would mostly just write on the spot. No script, I would just run lines in my head. My favorite one was the time we went onto the field in the Super Dome in New Orleans on Photo Day. There were a hundred photographers out there and they would go up to the players and get them to pose in various ways. So I would walk up to the player and say “Can I get a photo?”—and they would say “Sure!” And I would hand them the camera, to take a picture of me. And what’s amazing is that THEY ALL DID IT. Not one of them refused. And then at the end we compared all the photos and wouldn’t you know it—the worst ones were taken by the punter. We did a “swimming with dolphins” show in Miami that I also remember, because I didn’t wanna swim with the damn dolphins.
As to the marathon shows, the most famous one, I guess, was the Friday the 13th marathon which, at the time, I thought was kinda hokey. If you’ll recall, I was being pursued by a subjective camera throughout the marathon, and then at the end you find out that the person trying to kill me is Ted Turner. What took the most time was moving that subjective camera all over the set. Those TV cameras were HUGE.
JA: Now onto the big question: What can you tell me about the new series and your return? I’ve heard rumors for years of the show coming back in some way or another, but they always seem to have fallen through. Can you expand on any other deals that were once rumored or possibly in negotiations that didn’t come to fruition? I know it’s in the early stages, but I need to know!
JBB: Every year someone comes to me and proposes a new show at this or that network, or for YouTube, or for a streaming service, and every year I say, “Sure, set it up,” but I never really expect anything to happen. So the good news THIS year is that the high sheriffs at Shudder have authorized a 24-hour horror marathon to air sometime this summer, and it’s pretty much a reboot of the old MonsterVision format. I guess it’s kind of a tryout. If people show up for it, they’ll probably authorize more shows. So I’ll be putting on the bolo and the hat and getting out there and ranting my butt off. And we’re going to interrupt the movie for commercial breaks, and Shudder has no commercials, so it might be TV history—the first time anyone has used totally gratuitous commercial breaks for no motive other than to spout some drivel about the movie. It’s called The Last Drive-In, and a big reason that we’re able to do it is that a lot of fans sent in testimonials. All-night viewing parties are being formed, so please plan one for me—you’ve obviously got the expertise!
JA: Well, that’s all I have for now. Big shoutout to Joe Bob Briggs for doing this. Thanks so much for your time!
Anyone else out there reading: you heard the man! MonsterVision is coming back as The Last Drive-In, so be sure to catch the 24-hour horror marathon on Shudder this summer! (Editor’s Note: on 6/25/2018 a press release was published stating that The Last Drive-In will be returning Friday, July 13th.)