I wrote this a few years ago about the popular Abbey of the Lemur show on Fayetteville's Community Access Television.
Lunch with the Lemurs
Fayetteville's "Abbey of the Lemur" entertains, educates and rocks sensibilities
Written by Richard S. Drake
The flickering world of the Abbey of the Lemur, a program on Fayetteville's public access channel, has gone through a startling metamorphosis over the years. Sometimes looking like an underground film from the 1970s, sometimes using a call-in format, other times just using video footage the crew have shot around the area, or simply one person looking into the camera, ABTL covers a broad spectrum of subjects.
Sometimes risque (showing a fake penis being a case in point), sometimes satirical skits - both risque and not - and often coming forth with straight political and social commentary, the show has captured the imagination and loyalty of many late night viewers. Along the way, of course, it has also garnered its share of detractors.
Such is the show's reputation, that political activists have used the show to educate some viewers.
Sitting down with any of the folks responsible for Abbey of the Lemur (shown late Saturday nights on Fayetteville's Community Access Television) can be an intellectually intensive experience. Between jokes and talk of politics - both local and national - even a casual observer would be forced to conclude that they are a force to be reckoned with. (At this point I should point out that I am president of the board of directors of C.A.T.)
Between mouthfuls of food, coffee, water and wine, the conversation is sprinkled with cultural, pop and political references covering the events of the past few decades.
For seven years, the Lemurs have entertained the viewers of late night television. And over the years the show has evolved into a potent forum for satire and political comment. When those in the city administration disparage content on C.A.T., it is invariably this program that they choose to criticize - on all too many occasions, taking things on the show totally out of context.
"I couldn't believe what I was watching," seems to be a major theme of several of the complaints about the show. Oddly enough, many of those complaining about the late night show seem to watch it in its entirety. There is a certain sameness to some of the complaints, almost as if some coaching has been going on behind the scenes.
Created by Chuck Roberts and Andrew Lucariello, Abbey of the Lemur the has been at the forefront of late night programming on C.A.T. There is little programming actually generated by C.A.T. itself; public access programming is largely produced by members of the community.
Roberts says that he and his video partner, "Just ran around and taped things for about six months before we decided to do a show. We really had no idea of what we wanted to do, and this thing just kind of evolved as we ran around taping."
Roberts goes on to say, "Andrew and I were sitting around in our apartment watching lots of movies. We'd be watching everything from old classic movies to avant garde cutting edge stuff to Z grade 70s zombie flicks." All of that and more fell into their filter, and ultimately influenced the program. "A video Hamburger Helper," Roberts says.
Jet Black, another Lemur conspirator, laughs as he adds, "A casserole of crap culture." A good analogy, someone else at the table agrees.
The name of the show itself is play on words, based on a misunderstood lyric from a Marilyn Manson song. Roberts laughs when he says, "It sounds like a church based around these little big-eyed monkeys. We laughed and joked about creating this ‘Abbey of the Lemur," and revolving a show around a fake cult, and the fun that they encounter on their road to world domination.
"That was only ever a nebulous idea, and the show became a polyglot of anything that fell into our filter."
Shannon Caine, another of the on air Lemurs, adds, "That's why it's so difficult when they ask, ‘What is the Abbey of the Lemur about?'" She says that it varies from day to day, and month to month.
When asked if the shows follow a basic theme, Black says, "If not a theme, more of an aesthetic. Probably a follow through from the Dadaesque art movement into the underground 60s psychedelia movement. And continuing on through the underground funk movement of the 1980s, with various artistic and counter-cultural concerns."
But are they surprised when viewers don't recognize the style they using at any particular time? Roberts says no. "Not everyone in the world is going to be versed in the Dada movement or have seen the early films of John Waters, or know what sitituationism is."
Imagine Laugh-In with a much harder edge, and you can come close to ABTL. But the format seems to change as often as the subjects it tackles.
Like Chuck Roberts and Andrew Lucariello, Shannon Caine and Jet Black are solidly working class. And like those involved in the early modernist movement, the Lemurs are everyday people creating art for their own reasons. Black points out that "Those who make ‘Abbey of the Lemur' are average citizens, factory workers, people who work in retail, the average Joe, creating their own programming from their own hearts and minds, in a desire to create art."
Speaking of the complaints, which seem to crop up on a regular occasion, Roberts says, "That opens up a whole can of worms." A Fayetteville police officer once came down on a regular basis to complain on the air about the show, taking advantage of a service C.A.T. offers called "Short Takes" - in which citizens can talk for up to five minutes about anything of their choosing.
At least one complaint made it all the way to the city prosecutor's office, but to no avail. The show has also been attacked in newspapers, most notably by a columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and a former C.A.T. board member. Some see the attacks on ABTL as not so thinly veiled attacks on public access itself, which has been a powerful tool in the hands of political activists over the years.
Others dismiss the sometimes lurid coverage of the show on "slow news" days.
Caine says, "What is so truly surprising about the complaints, besides just witnessing stupidity in motion, is that some of the things that we put on thinking that they might offend people, were not the things that offended anyone. It is the little stuff we don't even think about, the small references. The things that should have gotten people up in arms just float right on by."
The Lemurs as a group (at least those attending lunch this day) agree that most complaints about their program are taken out of context. Jet Black says, "I have a slightly different take on it. I'm not so surprised at the people who get bent out of shape who are just regular citizens. But I am always surprised at the sort of media attention it gets, and from the people in government or police department.
"It's not surprising to me that people get bent out of shape about adult humor, or adult activity. I mean, there are people who stand out on Dickson Street in sandwich boards, who are completely upset in 40 degree weather because people are having adult fun in the bars. But people on the city council aren't talking about that. But if you have it on TV, of course some may get bent out of shape about it, but I am surprised that they are doing stories about it."
As a result of the various attacks on the programs, most of those responsible for the show have become adept at defending their efforts, using both their forum on C.A.T., and letters to newspapers. As a result, they have become more knowledgeable about First Amendment issues.
One public critic posited the question: "What if a young executive and his family were staying at the Radisson, and they saw this? What would they think of Fayetteville?"
Shannon Caine's response? "They might see there was art in this damn town! That argument has always struck me as blatantly bogus. What if somebody saw it? Well, they might think that gee, we're not a one horse cow town."
And Roberts feels that a lot of people might be attracted precisely because of the art scene in Fayetteville. "A lot of executive types are also attracted to cutting edge music and counter culture."
Caine says, "Nobody wants to move to a town that doesn't have an underground art scene."
"Alternative venues don't raise the value of the real estate," Black says.
The Lemurs have also been especially critical of the administration of mayor Dan Coody, who has risen to the bait by occasionally criticizing Community Access Television for content reasons. Roberts says that he has been told that some higher ups in the Coody administration were behind one of the most recent complaints.
Black says, "Reporters will focus on a couple of details within a particular work so therefore anything could be taken as pornographic by those standards, out of context."
Caine adds, "Thy don't understand that not everybody has to watch shows suitable for five year olds. There is a population that enjoys adult shows."
Criticism of the show has worked to the benefit of those who might prefer to see public access - which celebrates 25 years on the air in April, 2005 - replaced by an "arts channel." This despite the fact that public access serves as an arts channel already, as well a medical channel, political channel, et al. Some fear that such an arts channel would be much blander fare, and emphasize the work of better known artists, and not avant garde or working class efforts.
Several of those involved with ABTL are also involved with other video efforts. Shannon Caine, for example, also hosts an interview program on C.A.T., The Caine Interviews, in which she has talked with a wide range of guests, including religious leaders, artists and politicians.
Chuck Roberts works nights in a local industrial plant, and also has some experience in publishing small literary magazines.
Jet Black plays in a band, The Rude, and has made independent films.
They all agree that the world has changed for artists since September 11, 2001. Caine says, "Free speech is seen as more dangerous than ever before. You are suspect if you don't do things exactly as the Joneses do."
Fayetteville is symptomatic of the changes in the country, they all feel., and that the criticism of some of the adult content on public access television reflects a desire for sameness, and a fear of the different.
Many feel that public access television is a tapestry of the community, showing the community in all of its diversity. And part of that diversity is the underground art scene, which utilizes public access very well indeed. If critics of programs like "Abbey of the Lemur" ultimately have their way, the art shown on television in Fayetteville might be "prettier" and safer, but far less dangerous and far less interesting.
Little Rock Free Press - 2004