Geek is good
A local cable-access horror host, comic-book artist and would-be filmmaker named Mr. Lobo understands the true Sacramento zeitgeist: Sacramentans really are a bunch of geeks
TV horror hosts are a strange breed: mellow-mannered Bob Wilkins, who alerted viewers to the dubious nature and questionable quality of the films he presented on local channels 3 and 40. Elvira, that queen of camp whose natural, uh, talent rendered her audience thrilled to have its film interrupted for a few words from the sponsors. The history goes back further, starting with Vampira in 1954. All manner of ghouls, mad scientists, geeks and other creepy types followed. For as long as there have been bad movies, there have been spooky, kooky, silly and sexy horror hosts. Just as low- or no-budget horror, sci-fi and fantasy films have developed a cult following, so have the people who host the late-night television shows that air those films.
On small network affiliates or cable-access channels, the tradition continues across America, as these vampires, ghouls and drag queens put a tremendous amount of energy and creativity into shows that promise very limited returns. Why do they do it? Why spend the precious hours not consumed by their day jobs covered in face paint and fake blood, sitting under hot lights, hamming for the camera? Perhaps there is a magic feeling to being a part of the crazy world of late-night TV, the world where we all learned about the finer things in life: Bruce Lee movies, the amazing products of Ronco, Japanese monsters and gratuitous cleavage.
You can read about these hosts at a number of Web sites, and a group called Horror Hosts Underground maintains a database of current horror hosts. By perusing the impressive list at www.tvhorrorhosts.com, you’ll find the ubiquitous William Shatner, who hosts Full Moon Fright Night on the Sci-Fi channel; the draggerific Peaches Christ, now off the air, who was too hot for even San Francisco cable access to handle; and Sarcofiguy, the world’s only African-American horror host.
And on that list, between Lizzy Killmeister of Athens, Ohio, and Los Angeles’ Kung Fu Horror Theatre host Nightshadow, you’ll find Mr. Lobo, a lifelong Sacramento resident.
Mr. Lobo presents Cinema Insomnia every Saturday Night on cable-access channel 74. Cinema Insomnia is new to cable access, having started on KXTV-10, the local ABC affiliate, but the show’s success may have pushed it right off the air. Lobo continues to shop the program to other local stations while he carries on production with little in the way of sponsors or other financial support. But that’s the kind of guy Lobo is.
Lobo, whose first name is Erik, has been drawn to entertaining since he was a wee lad. “I was very introverted as a kid,” he said, “and I used to draw cartoons. Then, at some point, I got the courage to talk into a tape recorder. I used to take my tape recorder and record kind of funny voices and then pause it and get music off of TV.”
The hobby evolved, and young Lobo was soon producing radio theater for UC Davis station KDVS. “They thought I was a college student,” he said. “They didn’t realize that I was just a high-school student.”
Around this time, Lobo also began experimenting with a video camera. Even then, film was Lobo’s real passion. But neither radio nor the consumer-quality camcorder gave quite the results Lobo was looking for with his screenplays, so he turned to comics.
“The first comic book I did was called Nuke Nova, which was a post-apocalyptic humor publication,” he said. The comics were released under the FAL (Filmmakers At Large) brand, named after Lobo’s true ambition.
Ambitious from the beginning, FAL comics, unlike most independents, were printed in full color. And, thanks to a deal with Diamond Distributors, they were sold around the world. They did especially well in the Bay Area.
Lobo also received notice in the Bay Area for his video documentary, Street Art. In that video, an artist, with help from a few friends in official-looking hard hats, blocks off a street and stages an art show, which ends with the arrival of the police.
Realizing that he had fans in the Bay Area, Lobo packed his bags and headed for San Francisco. It didn’t pan out quite as planned. “We realized that if you don’t have money, that city will eat you up alive!” he lamented.
In addition to the cost of living, Lobo didn’t find the kind of creative community he’d enjoyed in Sacramento. So, when the money ran out, the artist came home.
“That’s when I got hit in the face with Sacramento-ness,” he confessed. “I’d never noticed that Sacramento had any discernible culture at all, until I went somewhere else and came back. [Sacramento has] a very distinct sense of humor, a regional sense of humor. We’re very smart. We’re a geek market. The X-Files, Star Trek—these things get big here first. You’ve got a lot of schools. You’ve a lot of people in the technology business. You’ve got a lot of people in government. You’ve got a lot of dorks. Dork central. And I’m thinking, ‘Wow, if they get dumber as you move away from Sacramento, I’d better stay. If this represents the smartest America has, I’m screwed. It’s dangerous out there.’ ”
Recognizing his town’s uniqueness and frustrated with being trapped by it, Lobo decided he’d pay tribute while venting his bitterness at the same time. He produced the now-legendary “Sac Blows” trading cards, which depicted local icons like news anchorman Stan Atkinson, whose card described him as “lifelike” and noted: “His voice has been mysteriously different since Muppets creator Jim Henson died.” Other locals depicted included then-Governor Pete Wilson, the back of whose card read: “No data available.” Each pack of nine cards came complete with “stale gum shards.”
You can see the horror-host appreciation in this early work; Lobo stretched the definition of “local” in order to include Creature Feature host Bob Wilkins, who lives in Reno.
The cards were very popular, and Lobo barely kept up with the demand for them. Turned on by the success but burned out on doing cards, he threw himself into writing, turning out short skits for The Moe Better Man Show at Old Ironsides, as well as new radio and stage plays and short video pieces. After a painful week spent trying to get some scripts read in Hollywood, it was back to comics.
The FAL funny pages came out of a collaborative effort between Lobo, Tom Working, Joe Sweden and several other local artists. “I always imagined myself as being part of an ensemble,” Lobo said. “My idols growing up were Monty Python, Saturday Night Live, Second City. I always imagined myself as being in the Super Friends—one talented guy in a group of many talented people.”
The funny pages were distributed worldwide thanks to a relationship developed with Tower Records’ magazine division during the “Sac Blows” project. Despite Lobo’s success, he seemed to have reached a peak.
“I reached a point where I said, ‘You know, there are a lot of people who respect my work in a lot of different areas, but I don’t think they’ve connected the dots to know that it’s all coming from the same person.’ ”
Enter Mike Strange. An employee of Channel 10 and a big fan of the FAL funnies, Strange saw something special in Lobo, and he sought to give him a forum for his diverse talents.
The two began shooting demos on camcorder and playing with the idea of a Wilkins-type horror show. Lobo had landed a job at Channel 10 as well. After noticing the station’s 3 a.m. movie—with six minutes of public-service announcements interrupting the film every 10 minutes—had definite room for improvement, Lobo and Strange pitched their idea for Cinema Insomnia as a better option for the time slot.
The bosses agreed, and a pilot was shot. Lobo and Strange had not intended the pilot to be seen outside of the studio, but surprisingly, it aired. The two scrambled to churn out a show a week in order to keep up with their sudden and unexpected success. This went on for 18 weeks.
Lobo’s comedy material was the kind that keeps censors employed, but no one was censoring. Indeed, no one at the station seemed to pay much attention to what he and Strange were up to at all. And so, the material got funnier and riskier, as boundaries were tested. “Every time we did one,” Lobo said, “I knew it could be the last one. I knew we were on thin ice.”
Around episode 13, the mail began coming in—proof that at least some people were watching. Lobo and Strange were anxious to up the show’s promotion as well as the quality of the films they screened. But when show 18 was complete and an entire season was in the can, Cinema Insomnia’s second season was put on hold by station management. Having brought a dead time slot to the point at which it was earning ratings, generating viewer mail and bringing in advertising dollars, Lobo and Strange felt they’d been a success. Channel 10 apparently disagreed. Lobo and Strange concluded that it was time to move on.
Cinema Insomnia quickly found a new home at cable-access channel 74, where creative freedom and liberty to show whatever films it chose made the show better than ever. Lobo may be fielding offers, but he’s in no hurry; he’s content to let the show continue to develop its comedy and fan base.
Lobo is often recognized now when out on the town, and he has been treated with celebrity status at film festivals and rock shows he has recently been invited to emcee.
He’s had guests on his show, such as his mentor, Wilkins, and documentary filmmaker Michael Moore. Lobo takes no notice of the stigma of being on cable access alongside naked preachers and backyard wrestlers. He’s happy to sit on his stool at the freak show, as long as the audience continues to ogle.