Night Crawler

When James Gabbert bought KOFY TV 20 back in 1980, there was no Nick at Night, Bravo, or E! In fact there was barely cable television at all, and after midnight on Sunday the public stations went off the air. For television-dependent insomniacs these were bleak and lonely hours filled with bad paperback fiction. Something needed to be done to save the TV-viewing audience; Channel 20 rose to the occasion. It stayed on, using that late-night time slot to show old movies and vintage television shows. At the beginning, ratings were less than fruitful, but Gabbert was full of ideas. Drawing on his 25-year career as a DJ for K101, he decided to host the show himself ... from a hotel bed ... in his pajamas ... with his dog ... drinking a beer. The ratings soared. Guests who were invited to appear on the show had to either pull up a chair like a bedside doctor or actually crawl into bed with the host.

It was a hoot for viewers, but aside from an anxious tiger (that turned out to be a bed-wetter) and Carol Doda, who made quite an impression in a skimpy leotard, straddling Gabbert's chest while his dog buried its wet nose in her, um, private bits, many visitors felt a tad uncomfortable with the setting. So Late Night With James Gabbert moved from the Sleazy Arms Hotel downstairs to its current location at the Sleazy Arms Bar and Grill. With more space to fill, the public was invited to join in, live bands were introduced, and the show became one of those quirky San Francisco traditions of which we are all so proud.

Tuesday evening finds us outside the TV 20 studio with about 60 other folks busy filling out release forms excusing the station and Coors Distribution from liability "for any damages or injuries suffered as a result of consuming alcoholic beverages at this event." The taping lasts only an hour, but as cameraman John Schainker says, "That's plenty of time for people to get fucking plastered."

Participants from the San Francisco Fringe Festival have arrived to plug their various theatrical pieces; a couple of musicians sign up in the hopes of being the next band featured on the show. For the most part, though, the crowd is like that at any bar (if a bit stranger) and it consists of regulars who know each other by name.

"Oh, the beer's late," tut-tuts 33-year-old Shane Soderland, who has been coming to the tapings for so long that he now acts as assistant bartender, and boasts some very interesting friends. Among the most interesting? The White Trash Debutantes and Adam McAllister, another regular who slips on his leather and away from his wife once a week for a little stimulation.

"One night," recalls McAllister, "these strippers came on the show who poured beer into each other's bellybuttons and then sucked it out. They had to cut out a whole segment because, you know, a lot of old people watch TV late at night."

Other fans point out that as the show's popularity grows -- slowly, yes, but surely -- the gathering becomes a little less desirable. "It used to be kind of close and cool," says Kenny Garcia, a tattoo artist from the Mission's Frisco Ink. He and his band of tattooed companions have been coming down long enough to spot the change. "It's a little overcrowded these days, but maybe they'll turn it into a talk show. Everyone else has one, why not Jim? They could throw in some bagels or something since I don't drink."

Inside the studio door another warning sign silently relieves KOFY 20 of all liability as the crowd expertly huddles around the bar -- just beyond the imaginary fourth wall of the camera lens. Sean Murphy, the Sleazy Arms' bartender of the past five years, begins distributing cold bottles of Dos Equis and even before "Lights! Camera! Action!" the live studio audience has fallen into boisterous, larger-than-life revelry. Garcia and his crew take up their spots at the pool table; Nude Coffee, a comedy improv troupe comprised of three outspoken girls on crutches, begins hobbling around "studying the effects of negative thinking"; David Landon and his R&B band add a little background music to the scene; and a tall gent tries on a baseball cap usually worn by the moose head that is mounted on the faux brick wall. Meanwhile, the crew alerts everyone about a pesky CHP officer who sits across the street waiting for people to wander out of the building with open containers.

"You know, I have a real job," muses Murphy as he meticulously marks several Gabbert-bound beer bottles with Wite-Out. "I don't work for the station. I wouldn't do this if I didn't love it. None of us would." The marked Dos Equis bottles are surreptitiously filled with Coors Light as Gabbert walks slowly into the room scratching his head. The crowd immediately clears a spot around his barstool and Murphy slides a marked bottle in front of his seat.

Despite a recent ear operation that has affected Gabbert's equilibrium, the host is his usual, slightly unnerving, high-energy self. He smiles and chats with the crowd; he hobbles around on Nude Coffee's crutches; he bounds up to the stage and talks with the band; he bounds back; he cranks a small jack-in-the-box; he humiliates a certain Weekly journalist by forcing her on camera; he chuckles and introduces the night's movies.

An hour later it's a wrap. Despite the fact that Gabbert's ear is troubling him quite a bit, he takes time to shoot a game of pool and suck down another beer with a couple Sleazy Arms stragglers. On my way out he reminds me, "We never edit." Indeed, even a very nude and very fat Chuck Farnam of Live 105 misusing a surf simulator made it on camera. Says Late Night director Robert Twigg, "We just used a wide shot."

Send comments, quips, and tips to crawler@sfweekly.com.

By Silke Tudor

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