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It's an unusually warm afternoon for a Texas Saturday in December, but inside the AMS Studios in Addison, the air feels cold enough to hang beef carcasses. Nobody feels this more than Rusty the TNT Mailgirl, a strawberry-blonde waitress at Humperdink's in Arlington, who remains here all day and long into the twilight to film Joe Bob's Advice to the Hopeless. That's the viewer-mail segment of MonsterVision, the late-night Saturday movie on Turner Network Television hosted by the drive-in-movie critic from Grapevine, Texas. Rusty wears a leopard-print blouse with a plunging neckline and a tight black miniskirt that look as though they've been painted on her body by the makeup lady.
With about 15 crew people and fans standing in the darkness at the edge of the studio lights, Rusty saunters into camera range, entering the set in black high heels, a mail bag slung over her shoulder. She sits in the lawn chair opposite a black-haired man in a vaguely Western getup, with bolo tie and cowboy boots. Behind the two are the elaborately messy props and flats for the side of a trailer home, with tiki torches and a rusty old refrigerator and a TV tray with a beer can on it. The two performers rehearsed this scene only seconds before the shoot and will wrap it in one take. The dialogue, written by the man in the vaguely Western getup, includes exchanges like this:
Joe Bob: "Rusty, can you read my mind?"
Rusty: "I'm thinking you want to see me naked."
Joe Bob: "How did you know that?"
Rusty: "Because you always want to see me naked."
Joe Bob: "Rusty, would you like to go out sometime and have a soda or a glass of milk?"
Rusty: "You like milk?"
Joe Bob: "I love milk. I was breast-fed until I was 14."
After flubbing a line in another segment, Rusty gamely admits to a crew member: "Well, I wasn't hired for my line readings." That's right, she was hired to be ogled by Joe Bob Briggs every Saturday night between such American film classics as Phantasm II, Maximum Overdrive and The Fog.
Most of the Advice to the Hopeless skits shown during movie intermissions are, to be fair, the unfunniest segments of the six or so bits Joe Bob tapes for each MonsterVision flick. In two-minute helpings, the man can make you laugh with his surgical fusion of highbrow and lowbrow, arcane movie knowledge, and offhand riffing about the criminal-justice system and the concept of male feminists. But he always takes time to say why every MonsterVision movie is special, and his rating system is more unusual than any the motion picture board has ever doled out. Maximum Overdrive, for instance, features: "Twenty dead bodies, one possible breast, one dead dog, six quarts of blood, 12 exploding trucks, little leaguers massacred for no reason, vending-machine fu, bazooka fu, garbage-truck fu." And, of course, the inevitable Briggs endorsement: "Check it out."
But spend a few hours hanging around the MonsterVision set, and you're plagued with one overarching question: Who is this man? He calls himself Joe Bob Briggs for the camera, but you have to wonder if the columnist who began syndicating Joe Bob nationally in 1984, toured with his own one-man show, and hosted nudity-laced trash films for The Movie Channel hasn't thrown his fans for a loop with this version of his creation: He doesn't wear a cowboy hat anymore, his accent has softened, his observations on life in these United States have gone from crude diatribes to philosophical mini-treatises, and he plugs some fairly highfalutin references -- for a loudmouth redneck, anyway -- into his shtick: Aristotle, the film career of Edward Dimitric, the Dorothy Parker biopic Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, performance art, and the sometimes controversial off-Broadway house Manhattan Theatre Club. Are these allusions that your average MonsterVision viewers can hip to?
Those who know that Joe Bob Briggs's real name is John Bloom, and that this Dallas native, now age 45, wrote brilliant investigative pieces for Texas Monthly in the late '70s as well as peerless movie criticism and "Metro" columns for The Dallas Times Herald and D Magazine through the mid-'80s, are burdened with even more confusion. Stand at the sidelines and watch him tape those MonsterVision interludes, and you see this man channel-surf among identities. Witness him between takes on the set, solitary and poring over the pages of his script, and you get a sense of the soft-spoken, somber-eyed, insular literature major who graduated first in his class at Vanderbilt. Notice him pace quietly and intensely with a pronounced limp inflicted by a childhood bout with polio, and you see him as the humble, sagelike member and teacher of the nondenominational Christian group Trinity Foundation, for whom he also serves as national spokesman every week in the "Godstuff" segments of Comedy Central's The Daily Show.
For many who remember John Bloom and the compassionate eye and eloquent voice he brought to his journalism, the question has long been this: Have the fat paycheck and national attention made him cling so long to Joe Bob Briggs, who is entertaining at best and bruisingly repetitive at worst?