As weird as the very existence of Fiction by Louie is, it may not be as weird as it seems.
I require a quote from Tim Schafer that I’ve reprinted once before. Speaking about the difficulties studios face in retaining talent when the work fails to satisfy, Tim warned that "really creative people will drift to other mediums where they can express themselves. They'll write books, pen movies, or play Jazz on street corners."
Or start a cable access show, perhaps? Though Tim was speaking in quite a different context, to make an altogether different point, I think he hit upon a truth about the restless spirit of creative types. Even when the day job is a dream job (not to mention one where all-nighters are less than an anamoly), the appetite to make stuff doesn't end when you punch out.
And filmed entertainment isn't an entirely unexpected vineyard for such talent to want to toil in after dark. An incredible video you may already be familiar with, internally produced at LucasArts around 1990-91, suggests that a few frustrated film makers were roaming the halls of the studio.
This series of mock ads, presumably created for no other reason than self-amusement, is a testament to what can be wrought when employees of a George Lucas-bankrolled game studio gain access to some above-average A/V equipment while the grownups aren't looking. It is also kind of a priceless artifact, showing a number of developers and office staff whom many of us grew up knowing as pink names on a CRT screen in the flesh, and at mortality-affirmingly young ages. These include:
- Paula Hendricksen and Judy Allen, of Administrative Support
- Producers Shelley Day and Greg Hammond
- Designers Ron Gilbert and Larry Holland
- Mike Stemmle, Sean Clark, Tim Schafer and other scripter contemporaries not far removed from their "SCUMMlette" days.
- Carla Green from Product Support, the namesake and visual reference for Carla the Swordmaster.
- Far too many to count in that "I Want to Buy the World a Coke" parody at the end. But man, those T-shirts they're wearing would fetch a king's ransom on eBay.
But how did Fiction by Louie begin? And when, exactly? Says Dave:
It was Jesse's idea. He and I had been interested in doing some writing together, and at some point he became aware of the public access station as a possible outlet. My admittedly shabby memory tells me that this would have been while Day of the Tentacle was in the late stages of production, because I think my response was something like, "that sounds fun but I have no free time until this project is over." So we'd have started writing in '93 I guess. It was just the two of us for a while before Dan and Mark joined us and we really made a group out of it. But, we must have started shooting sooner than I thought, because I can date the second episode by the length of my hair and it must have been shot around 1995, maybe early '96.
The team put together five scripts, thinking this down payment of material would be necessary to get the doors of Marin Public Access opened to them. This turned out to be an overestimation of the station's gatekeeping standards, however, and the team soon found themselves with poorly chaperoned access to the equipment needed to put on their no-budget hooliganism, which was taped on location rather than within the station walls.
Said equipment was gloriously retrograde. Dave recalls that the first three episodes were shot on Hi8 tape and then edited onto U-Matic tape (colloquially referred to as "3/4 inch", its identifying width), which was a largely abandoned master format even in the nineties. "Then I bought a digital camera and we stopped using the ones at the station," remembers Dave, "so the last two episodes are shot on Mini-DV and edited digitally on a Mac. At the time the flexibility was mind-blowing! The video quality was way better, too, though we still had to copy to S-VHS for broadcast so the viewing audience only saw some of that improvement." As the surrounding pictures indicate, the do-it-yourself spirit of the show extended to the props. And the public eye was not always blind to the shenanigans, as Jesse Clark attests:
I forget whose idea this was (though I’m pretty sure it wasn’t mine) but at one point we all put on hazmat suits and grabbed one of those big rubber inflatable physical therapy balls and drove down to a little shopping plaza in Marin. We got out of the car and started walking to the plaza and bouncing the ball around and people were staring at us and it was causing confusion and a little anxiety. I don’t think we had any plan about other than we agreed not to verbally interact with each other or anyone else. Anyway when we got to the plaza we just kind of naturally spread into a circle and started kicking the ball back and forth. Someone said “they’re hacky-sacking!” and at that there was kind of a gasp of recognition from the onlookers. Everyone watching relaxed. We kicked the ball around a bit and a few teenagers even joined in and it was fun.
Rounding out the core team was Shelley Saylor, a local who produced the first few episodes. Her contribution appears to have been indispensable; as Dan puts it, "We would still be working on the first episode had she not joined." Because everyone involved had day jobs, the episodes were produced gradually over a period of four or five years. When pressed for dates, Dave did a little research for us:
There are dates written on the 3/4" masters in my office closet, some of which claim to be original air dates, and some of which seem to be when the tape was finished. Some uncertainty and discrepancy, but the original air dates would be approximately
#1: Feb 1996
#2: Nov 1996
#3: Sep-Nov 1997
#4: early 2000
#5: mid to late 2000
So there's a rough timeline, anyway.
While Fiction by Louie's terrestrial life doesn't seem to have travelled beyond the provincial market of Marin TV, it made enough of an impression there to garner WAVE Awards for its first (1996) and third (1998) episodes, respectively. "There was a very modest awards event put on in LA," remembers Jesse, "and in order to attend the gang crowded into a rented Lincoln town car for a road trip. The main thing I recall about the trip was that Dan and I got in a heated argument over the cultural impact of Tupac Shakur. It took me around twenty years to admit he was right."
The “public excess” show also scored a spread in the Marin Independent Journal, viewable below (first three images), while the Lucite benediction of the WAVE Award earned acknowledgment from the prestigious Channel 31 newsletter (fourth image). Beyond re-runs, tapes of the first three episodes were circulated at Video Droid, a rental outlet with seven locations throughout Marin and surrounding counties. The director of Marin Public Access was also one of the founders of Earthnoise, which is how it became the show's streaming host -- at least until it went under.
Youtube entered the scene during the tail end of Fiction by Louie's broadcast run, but in those days the service had a 10-minute limit on uploaded videos that precluded it as a viable hosting platform. Ultimately, the show disappeared even from the incredibly limited consciousness it entered, but the master tapes have lived safely in Dave's closet ever since, waiting for some insufferable busybody to ask after their fate. Setting a terrible precedent, Dave was affected by my pushy inquiries into the show's availability and decided to reach out to the members of Fancushion to see if a consensus could be reached about liberating the episodes.
"Maybe we'll put them on YouTube after all, a few decades late," teases Dave. We can only hope that comes to pass, someday. Until then, let it be enough that Fiction by Louie has been brought to posterity’s awareness, now known by eleven people instead of six. It's way ahead of Paul Parkranger, is what I'm getting at.