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PBS Goes for Laughs: “The Steven Banks Show” of 1994

Steven Banks at the time of “The Steven Banks Show”

With the exception of some carefully chosen British imports, you might not normally associate public television with broad-based comedy.  But, in 1994, America’s own PBS did something that they’ve never done since:  they produced and aired a 30-minute sitcom.

The program, “The Steven Banks Show,” ran for 13 episodes in 1994.  Five episodes of the series are housed in the archives of the Library of Congress having been sent to the Library in 1994 and 1995 as copyright deposits.

As the name of the program implies, the show stars the multi-talented Steven Banks.  Banks, is an actor, writer, mime, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist (he says, “I play… guitar, banjo, bass, harmonica, drums…yeah, I guess eight or so instruments…”).  Along with a scene-stealing turn (as Billy the Mime) in the movie “The Aristocrats,” Banks has contributed innumerable scripts to such animated works as “CatDog,” “Jimmy Neutron” and “SpongeBob.”  Young readers (and their parents) are also loving him as the man behind the “Middle School Bites” series of young adult books.

But Banks’ breakthrough—and eventual arrival to PBS—came via his 1980s one-man show “Home Entertainment Center.”  “Home” told the story of a 30-ish young man arriving home at the end of the day but with a mountain of work still to be done.  Sadly, our hero is very easily distracted—by the clutter of his apartment and his own dreams of rock and roll stardom.

“Home” was a tour de force of music and mirth.  Banks says, “I toured, did the show live for several years.  It was finally filmed as a special and aired by Showtime.”  The Showtime show grew its own cult:  suddenly, a generation dismissed as “slackers” found its voice and explained itself; if you had a low-paying “McJob,” you’d be distracted too.

For Banks, his Showtime success threw him into a Hollywood whirlwind.  He says, “It was so crazy!  I had lots of offers.  I did a pilot for Disney/Touchstone….[Then,] years later, I had a lunch with my manger, Susan Deitz, I think it was about the possibility of a talk show with me, and she was friends with a man named Randy Feldman, who was with a PBS station [WYES] in New Orleans.

“Then it was like everything converged.  PBS was looking to try to do its first comedy and Brandon Tartikoff—who had been in charge of NBC—was now living in New Orleans.  And I had met him after ‘Home Entertainment’ and he was a fan of ‘Home,’… he became an executive producer on the show.”

Largely drawn from the premise of “Home Entertainment Center,” “The Steven Banks Show” starred Banks as a 30-ish young man in a very cluttered apartment and with a serious case of ADD.  Sprinkled throughout the show—as in “Home”—would be various Banks-written musical interludes.

The show was sold, for 13 episodes, for deploying over PBS beginning in the summer of 1994.

But despite high hopes, big names and the talent associated with it, what the newly conceived “The Steven Banks Show” didn’t have was much money.  As Banks points out, “We had no money.  To give you an example, I had done a pilot for Disney and just that one episode was budgeted at $800,000.  Our PBS budget was also $800,000—but for all 13 half hour episodes!”

Due to budget constraints, “The Steven Banks Show” had to keep to a breakneck production pace and workload.  Banks says, “We shot up in this building in Altadena.  We had three cameras:  two on dollies and one on a tripod.

“We would shoot two shows a week.  To give you an idea, on Monday, in the morning, we’d rehearse one episode.  Then, in the afternoon, rehearse the second.  Then on Tuesday, rehearse the two shows.  On Wednesday, we’d camera block the shows.  Then on Thursday, we shoot the first show and, on Friday, we’d shoot the second show.  Then on Saturdays, I’d just collapse.

“I’ve never worked harder in my life.”

Also due to budget constraints, the regular cast consisted of only three performers:  Banks, and actors Teresa Parente and Michael Kostroff.  Though Banks always played “himself,” the lead, Parente and Kostroff would often appear, with the aid of make-up and costuming and their own talents, as several different characters within the same installment.

How low was the budget?  Sometimes Banks even ended up doing the closed captioning for the show himself.  He didn’t mind:  “I’d be able to refine a joke sometimes for the captioning.  Make it work better.”

As if all that were not enough, each episode of the show had to be longer than sitcoms airing network TV; “Banks” aired on PBS and PBS didn’t have commercial breaks.

Another unique feature of the program?  Due to its tight production schedule, the show could not be shot in front of a studio audience.  So, after they were produced, episodes were screened for an audience and their lively, genuine guffaws is what you heard on the episodes.

Even more impressive is the fact that many of the original songs, all written and performed by Banks, and used throughout the series, were freshly composed for specific installments.  He says, “I think there were a couple of older songs that I had had before but most were written for specific episodes.”

Cover of the cassette for “The Steven Banks Show” soundtrack

Though very funny, Banks’ songs should only loosely be called “novelties” as they are extremely catchy, witty and often surprisingly poignant.  For example, “I Miss Paul,” sung in the voice of and from the point of view of John Lennon, is both a funny recap of Beatlemania and a sweet tribute to a lost friend.  And his song “Dear Carol” is both a love song and a lament to a never-was high school love; “yeah, that one’s a bit autobiographical,” he says.  (Later, a cassette of some of the show’s songs became available for purchase.)

The show’s micro budget did not come without a few blessings, however.  Says Banks, “Sometimes you can be more creative when you don’t have much money.”

Additionally, since so little money was on the line, PBS granted Banks and crew great freedom, allowing “The Steven Banks Show” to take risks that no network sitcom ever could.  For example, what network sitcom at the time (or now, for that matter) would dare to center an episode on a Karen Carpenter musical so soon after her passing, like they did on “Banks”?

The budget, or lack thereof, also allowed the producers to bring in their friends for show cameos:  that’s how Penn & Teller and Billy Mumy were able to make appearances.  And, sometimes, they got to live out their fanboy dreams.  Banks says, “I was a huge ‘Mission:  Impossible’ fan so we asked Peter Lupus to come on.  And he did.  I was a Monkees fan and we had Peter Tork come on and he was great!  Gina Schock of the Go-Go’s came on.”  (All the guest stars worked for scale and, at the start of one episode, in an unbilled cameo, director Jon Landis appeared in a gorilla suit.)

Banks’ favorite guest star though was Disney legend Wally Boag who appeared on the show’s eighth episode, “Cowboy Willie.”  Along with Banks, innumerable other comic performers, including Steve Martin, site Boag as an inspiration.

When “The Steven Banks Show” premiered—in most markets in July of ‘94—it received mostly positive reviews with one newspaper calling it “existentially funny.”

Still, finding its audience wasn’t easy.  Banks says, “It was hard.  People were not looking for a half-hour comedy on PBS.  And, with PBS, you air at different times around the country.  You had to find it.  I think one big market showed us Sundays at 10 after ‘Masterpiece Theatre.’  I remember, I think, our debut in LA, was on after a Pavarotti special.”

Later, the series encountered some PBS affiliate resistance due to its outre nature.  It was due to the show’s twelfth episode, “Miss Janie Regrets.”  In the installment, Steve develops a rather mature crush on the female host of a children’s show, Miss Janie.  Later, Miss Janie (played, of course, by Terese Parente) drops by Steve’s apartment.  Though no mention of “PBS” itself is made in the episode, some stations found the Miss Janie character too similar to some of their own children’s programming and refused to air it.  Banks made an appeal for them to reconsider but with little success.  “I was like, ‘But you guys air Monty Python!’  But, you see, Monty Python wasn’t produced for PBS.”

Banks adds, “And I always thought it [“Miss Janie”] was probably our best show.”

Says Banks about the series as it moved towards its season finale, “We had hoped to do more—but [produce] only one a week.  We had hoped to go on location. To meet Steve’s parents….

“Still, in our final show, just in case, we threw everything in it—a dream sequence, a full production number….”

In the end, “Steven Banks’” PBS home, lack of a consistent schedule and, perhaps, its own aggressively esoteric tone, might have truncated its own lifespan but, since its airing, “The Steven Banks Show” has found its place in history—PBS’s and TV’s—and a home among a devoted cult of viewers, old and new.  Of course, it has also found a home in the vaults of the Library of Congress.

 

 

NOTE:  Our thanks to Mr. Steven Banks for speaking to us about the making of his series.

 

Don’t hesitate to contact Ask a Librarian about the availability of “The Steven Banks Show” or any other television shows in our collections.  Before you plan to come in and view any collection items, please get in touch with our reference staff in the Moving Image Research Center.

 

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