Click. Like a demented Dinah Shore, the a.m. talk show hostess sunnily introduces today’s topic: “How to deal with a death in the family.” Click. A ’60s nymphet wilts in an afternoon horror movie, Gidget Bites the Dust. Click. The foul-mouthed lead singer of a heavy metal group, Vulcan Death Grip, sticks out a lascivious tongue. Click, click, click. A Bo-Peep storyteller, a sexy TV evangelist, a prim newscaster, faster and faster…
Don’t touch that dial. Your TV set has not blown a fuse. You’re watching Made for TV, a perfect parody of the tube, starring Ann Magnuson, a hot new performance artist hailed as the Funny Girl of the avant-garde. A cult favorite in the chic-to-chic galleries and clubs of New York’s East Village, Magnuson finally hits prime time this week as Made for TV makes its network debut as part of PBS’ new video-art series, Alive from Off Center.
“I have a love-hate relationship with TV,” says Magnuson, 28, who creates a dazzling repertoire of 30 characters from the junk heap of popular culture. “My main purpose is to make people laugh, but I hope that I also can make them think about the manipulative powers of media.”
The suburban daughter of a lawyer in Charleston, W.Va., Ann watched “no more TV than the other kids.” But it sunk in more. On the day that John F. Kennedy was shot, a young Ann made child’s play out of the events that she saw endlessly repeated on TV. “I made a papier-mâché model of President Kennedy, and my friends and I tried frantically to revive him.” Her mother was horrified, but a performance artist was born.
After receiving a degree in theater from Denison University in Granville, Ohio, Ann gravitated to the artistically fermenting East Village in 1979. In the basement of a Polish Catholic church Ann started Club 57, a now-defunct “Dada cabaret.” In 1983 she mounted a “tribute to Muzak” at the prestigious Whitney Museum. Riding up and down in the museum elevator, Ann serenaded passengers with Muzak’s greatest hits. She’s also written a musical about the Manson family. All this from a soft-spoken, doe-eyed redhead who offscreen looks pure Junior League. “It’s like playing dress-up,” explains Ann. “In real life, I’m bland.”
Magnuson lives “very frugally” in a third-floor East Village walk-up, where a painting by graffiti artist Keith Haring, a close friend, offsets the exposed plumbing. It’s not easy finding a boyfriend in the bizarre club scene she frequents. “I’m getting pretty tired of men in skirts,” she says wryly.
To boost her income (performance pieces don’t pay well), Ann has earned extra cash playing “new wave sluts” in several semi-underground films. (She was kissed and killed by David Bowie, “a perfect English gentleman,” in the vampire film The Hunger.) “Ann creates total characters,” says director Susan Seidelman, who cast Magnuson as the hip cigarette girl in Desperately Seeking Susan. “The American public is ready for her style of humor.” Magnuson thinks so too. What she wants most right now is her own television series, something that offers variety, like The Carol Burnett Show. “I want to play all of my characters, not just one,” she says. That should prove a bargain for network moguls: For one contract they get a cast of thousands.