The Indianapolis Star (Indianapolis, Indiana) Â· Sat, May 20, 1995 Â· Page 44-45
WHAT NEXT?: T. Black (left) and Joe Nickell tape a segment for Rox, a cable access program made in Bloomington.
IN THE REALM OF THE UNCENSORED
The hosts of the cable access show Rox push the envelope of irreverence, then lick the gummy flap, seal it and deliver it to the world.
By Steve Hall
Bloomington, Ind. — "That's the guy who smoked pot on TV!"
The stage whisper of the Indiana University student passing by didn't distract Joe Nickell — known as "J, your bartender" on Rox to Bloomington and American Cablevision viewers and Internet surfers from Seymour to Singapore.
After all, Nickell was making a segment for the weekly cable access series, reportedly the world's first on-demand show on the Internet. Rox is equal parts slacker diary, societal satire and improvisational theater.
Imagine Wayne's World with smarter, more bohemian hosts in their 20s, and style and sophisticated editing unusual for most cable access shows.
Back to the stage whisper: Nickell could have grabbed the guy and patiently explained how the infamous getting-stoned-on-camera incident last year was an artistic statement about actual reality, as opposed to the typical synthesized make-believe reality that TV foists on people every day. But he didn't. Instead, the tawny-haired, bespectacled 26-year-old stood among bright flowers under a blooming dogwood tree on the IU campus, mixing a homemade antihistamine out of sage, honey, pepper, Tavist-D, and an ounce of blackberry brandy. ("This is simulated alcohol, because we're on campus, and we would never break the dry campus policy.")
Meanwhile, "anarchist clown" T. Black — feral stare, clown makeup, a toothpick through his nose — seemingly tried to shove a cam-corder up Nickell's nose.
Obviously, reality is where one finds it.
Rox has looked at subjects as diverse as brewing beer, interning at MTV, having an epileptic seizure in front of an unsuspecting girl-friend, and questioning Thomson Consumer Electronics spending $10 million to change the name of the Hoosier Dome after cutting some workers' benefits.
"It's really a show made by and about young people, just out of college, searching for that life path that many viewers have probably already traveled down," says co-founder/editor Bart Everson, a genial, serious 28-year-old stringbean with glasses and a near-shaved head, at Daisy Brain Media.
Everson — known to Rox fans as "B" — spends more than 40 hours a week editing the show in a small room at the Bloomington art gallery.
"Rox is really about a sense of community," says co-founder/co-producer Nickell, the more laid-back of the two. "Where I come from — Lexington, Ky. — people just stay in their houses and watch TV. What we're trying to demonstrate with Rox is what life can be like if you just get out and meet your neighbors."
A great many more neighbors can now meet Rox. In January, American Cablevision began airing highlights from the show's first three seasons on its community access channel (98 or 99, depending on one's set) at 11 p.m. Tuesdays, with repeats at 11 p.m. Thursdays.
In mid-April, Rox went on the Internet, with computer users around the world able to retrieve the show 24 hours a day from the World Wide Web (http://www.rox.com/quarry/) for repeated viewings. That delights some observers.
"Of the hundreds of people who have passed through here, (Nickell and Everson) have the best chance of making it" to main-stream success, says Michael White, director of Bloomington Cable Access Television. Rox and Greenwood attorney Linda Thompson's videotapes alleging a government conspiracy in the destruction of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco are its most popular shows.
"Quite a few" complaints came in about Rox in the beginning, White says, but the protests eventually died down when administrators of the Monroe County Library, which runs the community access channel, stuck by the show as protected free speech.
Critics are disturbed by Rox's pushing the envelope with scenes of full frontal nudity, foul language and the recreational use of alcohol and marijuana. A year ago, the episode J&B Get Baked with its scenes of a stoned Everson, Nickell and crew getting lost in the woods, received national attention via MTV's drug documentary, The Straight Dope; Howard Stern's radio show; and news media across Indiana.
At the time, Joseph E. Mills III, executive director of the Governor's Commission for a Drug-Free Indiana, wrote a protest letter stating that the show was trafficking in the "overt promotion of anarchy."
Rox's response: An episode titled The Overt Promotion of Anarchy, complete with Mills' letter and instructions on how to cheat the telephone company with illegal long-distance calls.
"Any time that people are teaching ways to get high and take advantage of legal situations is not productive," Mills says a year later. "Just because something happens doesn't make it something that should be shown on TV."
Everson argues that the pot-smoking episode is "completely in this project's context — the continued documentation of real life. If the televisual medium more accurately reflected life instead of showing an artificial reality, then what we did wouldn't attract any attention."
That idea of documenting their lives as a weekly TV show came over beers one summer evening in 1992 to Everson, a Greenwood native with a 1990 degree in general studies from IU, and Nickell, a 1991 Phi Beta Kappa IU graduate with degrees in anthropology and English.
Nickell had the camcorder, a graduation present from his parents. Everson had the editing training from doing community service at the community access channel while on probation for streaking across campus. (The streaking was captured on videotape and later featured on Rox.)
Then known as J&B on the Rox, the early shows were primitive, shot in friends' attics and basements, often lit by a bare lightbulb. Remembers White, "They would sit and pontificate about what p - - - ed them off, and occasionally drop their pants."
Friends on the show
Their friends soon became part of the show as well, with two continuing today as regulars: T. Black, 31, who graduated from Connersville High School and IU, and Rox "tour guide" Christy Paxson, 26, an Ellettsville native and an IU grad with degrees in political science and history.
Paxson, currently working on her master's thesis in education, is also Everson's real-life wife. (Their wedding included a puppet show depicting scenes from their courtship.)
Black's the only member of the video troupe with formal improvisational training and, as such, is excited about Rox as a sort of democratic theater.
"Scenes and skits are developed off-the-cuff, and there's a lot of energy and participation," says the producer of a segment called Anarchist Diary. "I look at this show as a performance outlet for myself."
Rox's principles have a price — its cast is near poverty. Only Everson receives a paycheck from the show. Nickell works part time as — what else? — a bartender, Black works part time at a local kennel. Paxson is interviewing for jobs.
They view placing Rox on community access in Indianapolis as the first step in taking the show regional — and perhaps finding companies and individuals that would contribute financially to the show without interfering.
"We look at it as seeking patrons of creativity rather than becoming an advertiser-supported show," Nickell says carefully. "We want this to be a lifelong project. I'd like to still be making this show when I'm 65.
"Michael Moore and his (NBC show) TV Nation were very similar to what we're doing in terms of a sense of irreverence about large corporations and the government. I think there is a place for us in the mainstream media — but we haven't found it yet."
Media for In the realm of the uncensored:
|ROX Ideas Index