The Boston Phoenix
October 28 - November 4, 1999


Something shocking

Cunnilingus on chickens! Circumcised hot dogs! The uproar over Crapfest, Cambridge's most controversial public-access show.

by Jason Gay

Crapfest Few television shows are more appropriately titled than Crapfest, the half-hour comedy program that airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on Cambridge Community Television, a public-access station located in Central Square. In the almost-three-year history of the show, Crapfest co-hosts Colin Sullivan and Scott Taylor have, among other things, used bubble wrap and an uncooked hot dog to show viewers how to enlarge a human penis; demonstrated a penile catheterization with a cucumber and a piece of aquarium tubing; performed a mock golden shower on Taylor with yellow-colored water; pretended to smear fecal matter on Taylor (it was brownies); did a Dawson's Creek satire in which a young woman simulated oral sex on Sullivan; and devoted a graphic series of segments to venereal disease, titled "STD of the Week."

But nothing in Crapfest's 100-episode-plus repertoire produced a reaction quite like what greeted the "Chicken Episode." First aired on August 25, 1999, the Chicken Episode featured Sullivan and Taylor performing a variety of acts upon a rotisserie-cooked Cornish hen, which was used to replicate a woman's vagina. Over the course of 15 minutes, the Crapfest duo bluntly showed a) how to insert a tampon and use a sanitary pad, b) how to cleanse a vagina, c) how to remove ovaries, d) how to reach the fabled G spot, e) how to use a vibrator, and f) how to stimulate the clitoris. The latter of these acts was demonstrated by Taylor, who gently massaged the chicken's backside between his thumb and forefinger. "Not too hard," he cautioned, "because it is a pleasure button."

Whereupon Scott Taylor leaned over and tongued the chicken.

Had the Chicken Episode merely run in Crapfest's usual evening time slot, it would probably have fallen, unnoticed, into the deep chasm of unwatched television entertainment, right next to Cop Rock and The Byron Allen Show, never to be seen or heard from again. But unfortunately for Sullivan and Taylor (or fortunately, depending on your view of things), the episode was rebroadcast the following morning at 11 -- peak TV-viewing time for toddlers, kids on summer vacation, and senior citizens. Innocents surfing through the cable box en route to Teletubbies or The Price Is Right instead came upon Scott Taylor suggestively licking poultry.

A Cambridge controversy was born. Jaws dropped, tempers flared, calls were made, complaints were registered. A handful of disgusted residents contacted Cambridge city councilor Sheila Russell, who publicly denounced the show and proposed that CCTV's leadership come before the full council and explain how such a show could get on the air -- particularly at 11 a.m. A local newspaper, the Cambridge TAB, devoted a cover story to the episode. FOWL PLAY AT CCTV, the headline blared.

"I will never look at a chicken the same way again," a mortified viewer told the TAB.

"These guys," says Sheila Russell, "are just trying to rattle everyone's cages."

Of course, Colin Sullivan and Scott Taylor are loving every minute of this. The controversy is exactly what the two 19-year-olds have craved ever since they launched Crapfest (originally titled The Half-Hour Happy Hour) as seniors at Cambridge Rindge and Latin. It's as if they'd been making fart noises for years in the back of the classroom without anyone caring, and finally the teacher turned around.

"You do this stuff for more than two and a half years and someone's recognized it," says Taylor, who works as a courier at Massachusetts General Hospital.

In fairness, Crapfest isn't just a bunch of juvenile dick jokes. The show is an uneven but occasionally extremely funny mix of commentary, running gags, and videotaped segments, many of which cleverly and self-deprecatingly poke fun at the co-hosts' foibles with women, jobs, and family. Both Sullivan (who sports a shaved head and a bushy red beard, and dons a National Honor Society graduation gown for his segments as "Professor CoSu") and Taylor (a dead ringer for actor John Cusack) have genuine on-screen presence. Sure, some of their material is tasteless, but it's not nasty or mean. Let's put it this way: if a cucumber catheterization is what you're jonesing for, Crapfest will deliver as sensitive a portrayal of a cucumber catheterization as you could hope for.

And if you've followed Crapfest for any period of time, you can understand why Sullivan and Taylor might be a tad surprised by the vociferous reaction to the Chicken Episode. They've been playing around with hot-dog penises for years; all of a sudden, they finger a chicken and they're a bad influence? "It [the Chicken Episode] was nothing more than what we usually do," says Taylor, who adds that the show has run in the morning on many occasions.

But Sullivan and Taylor admit that it's nice to be seen as a little . . . dangerous. The Crapfest duo say they feel they now have a bad reputation to live up to every time they go on the air. People are out there, they believe, hoping to be offended. "That's not our main goal," Sullivan insists. "But it's good to see what pushes the buttons."

So on subsequent Crapfest shows, Sullivan and Taylor haven't backed down a whit. They mock the outcry over the Chicken Episode. They promote their Web site, They howl at suggestions that they are giving good people bad ideas. To demonstrate how absurd they think this allegation is, one recent Crapfest segment showed Taylor's 73-year-old father watching the show, retreating to his kitchen, removing a chicken from the refrigerator, and massaging it with a vibrator. In another segment, Taylor revealed a T-shirt that read: I PERFORMED CUNNILINGUS ON A CHICKEN AND ALL I GOT WAS THIS LOUSY T-SHIRT.

You might think that when a controversial public-access show comes under attack, the first people in line to defend it would be other public-access advocates. After all, public-access TV is about the First Amendment, right? Freedom of speech! Yeah! Wooooooooooh! Down to City Hall!

But no one's really rallying behind Crapfest. Turns out a show like Crapfest irritates public-access proponents as much as it does the people who saw the Chicken Episode and called the station to complain.

That's because Crapfest puts public-access advocates in a tough spot. It's one thing to support someone's First Amendment right to use live television to criticize the government or show a controversial piece of art. It's another to support someone's First Amendment right to use live television to blow a chicken.

"It's difficult for me to have to defend a show like Crapfest," says Susan Fleischmann, the executive director of Cambridge Community Television. "I understand that there's humor involved, and that some people find it humorous. But some people also find it offensive, and it's difficult to defend a show that I, too, might also find to be offensive."

But given its First Amendment protections, the rules surrounding public access are few. Some stations offer their own guidelines, but by and large, only a few things are out of bounds. Libel. Sedition. Outright commercial material -- you couldn't, for example, devote a public-access show to promoting a sale at a local hardware store. Finally, obscenity, which is chronically impossible to define -- and chronically impossible to prosecute.

In a sense, public access -- which began in the early 1970s, when the first communities being wired for cable successfully lobbied for it -- is television's Wild West. But public-access advocates say problems are few. "There's about a million hours of public-access, educational, and governmental television, and about 10 hours of it is contentional," says Margaret Juliano, communications director for the Alliance for Community Media, a public-access clearinghouse in Washington, DC.

So it really burns public-access advocates when purposefully offensive shows such as Crapfest attract publicity. Public access is a world of minimal funding, minimal ratings, and minimal publicity, and it drives advocates bonkers to see the crude and sensational stuff get headlines and public interest while well-intentioned and award-winning programs struggle for a few crumbs of attention. "It's disappointing," says Mimi Graney, executive director of Somerville Community Access Television, who'd prefer to talk about her station's cultural programming and award-winning shows such as The Mirror Project, in which inner-city youths use video cameras to present their lives.

Still, even if people don't like it, no one's saying that Crapfest doesn't have a right to be on the air. CCTV's Fleischmann has moved Crapfest to a later time slot -- from 7:30 to 9 p.m. -- and junked the show's morning repeat runs, but she has no plans to pull it. "If someone wants to take it to court and a judge rules against it, that's how I'll pull a show," says Fleischmann. "I'm not going to make those judgment calls."

And though it's a cliché by now, public-access advocates point out that irate viewers can always watch something else.

"I think the First Amendment is what's important here," says Glenn Koocher, who hosts a CCTV political talk show that was once nominated for a Cable ACE award for a program on Robert Mapplethorpe. "I feel very strongly that the best arbiter of this is peer pressure -- and the decision of individual viewers to change the channel. If we try to deal with this through legislation or regulation, we risk making martyrs out of fools."

So the fools go on. Despite the complaints, Scott Taylor and Colin Sullivan -- the newly minted enfants terribles of Cambridge public access, Damon and Affleck on crack -- vow to continue the shit storm, er, crap storm, they've whipped up. This is what they do. "Really, all of it is about expressing ourselves," Sullivan says. "The only way we can express ourselves is through humor. We're not really politically motivated."

And so the offensive will continue. On the latest episode of Crapfest, Taylor and Sullivan show viewers how to circumcise a penis, using a hot dog and a razor blade. Sullivan peels and, later, Taylor licks. It's giggly, amateurish stuff, straight out of a junior-high-school cafeteria. The technicians in the control room next door laugh so hard that they shake in their chairs.

So it's not what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they drafted the First Amendment. But so what, ask the co-hosts.

"We may suck," Sullivan says as the episode closes. "But at least we're consistent."

Jason Gay can be reached at jgay[a]

| home page | what's new | search | about the phoenix | feedback |
Copyright © 1999 The Phoenix Media/Communications Group. All rights reserved.