Don’t call it a comeback: Ugly George never really went away. You might say he’s just between platforms.
It’s been more than 30 years since George Urban hit the streets of New York City—outfitted in a silver lamé singlet and a bulky backpack with a shoulder-mounted camera rig that looked like it was swiped from a storage closet at NASA—and began documenting his attempts to pick up chicks and persuade them to undress.
The Ugly George Hour of Truth, Sex and Violence, a seminal DIY cable-access program that stirred the passions of late-night fans and anti-indecency crusaders alike, and turned Ugly George into a New York folk hero.
In the years since, Ugly George has kept at it—still picking up girls, still happening upon celebrities on the street, still looking for truth and sex (there was never any real violence on the show, he notes—only “implied” violence when people would threaten him on the street). He resurfaces periodically in newspaper and magazine stories (like this one!) that herald his return. He was the subject of a documentary, released last summer on DVD, called Boob Tube that celebrates him as a forerunner of reality TV and the exhibitionism of Girls Gone Wild.
But these days, Ugly George wants to talk about media convergence—and he’s got his sights set on a new screen: the big one.
When we met at a café on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, the camera rig (since upgraded with a Panasonic camcorder) sat on the chair across from him. Pasted inside the small satellite dish on his backpack was a flyer advertising “Ugly George’s Pick-Up Line” (the 900 number was blacked out).
Before showing me several clips on his MacBook, Ugly George told me about the test screenings he’d attended recently at multiplex theaters, demonstrating video projectors as an alternative to the traditional film models.
After exhibiting some of his own archival clips at one of those screenings, he came away convinced that audiences would be open to watching (or more to the point, paying to watch) even poor-quality video in a theater—and that now is the time for The Ugly George Hour to return bigger, if not necessarily better, than ever.
“I put on, technically speaking, the worst show on TV,” he said. “Except everybody watched it.”
As evidence, he points to the “amazing number of high-class celebrities [who] contrived to find me and say something outrageous on my show.”
Indeed, the list of luminaries who had cameos on The Ugly George Hour is impressive, from Deborah Harry (scroll down to watch clip) and John Lennon to former president Jimmy Carter’s mother, Lillian, who gamely answered Ugly George when he asked her about the outcry over sex content on television. “Without batting an eyelash,” he recalls, “this [elderly] Southerner says, ‘Why, if it didn’t have any sex, it wouldn’t be any good, would it?’”
Such vintage clips, along with more recent street encounters with the likes of Arthur Miller (just before his death in 2005) and Tom Wolfe (just last fall) are the gems around which Ugly George plans to create a narrative setting for an eventual theatrical release. Though he was vague on the plot details, he described it as “an indictment of New York and phony liberalism.”
But why, at a time when most one-man-band content creators are looking to the Internet for fame and fortune, is Ugly George looking to the multiplex?
“I’m looking at all screens,” he said, though he admitted his Web presence—a bare-bones Website (www.uglygeorge.com) and a handful of clips posted to YouTube and elsewhere—leaves much to be desired. Pointing to his Panasonic, which he says has the ability to emulate film, he added, “Everything I’m doing now can be 28 feet across or 15 inches across or an inch and half across your cell phone. Finally, the long-awaited convergence.”
And he hasn’t ruled out a return to his roots on the small screen, this time “on a well-known telephone company that wants to offer its own public access channels” on a service that “begins with an F-word.”
A spokesperson for Verizon’s FiOS service seemed familiar with Ugly George but said only, “If he is looking for leased-access programming, obviously we’d provide anyone with that information. But I’m not aware of anything to that.”