by Simon Parkin
Steve Lookner was already feeling out of place as he sipped a cocktail in Hugh Hefner’s ludicrously draped Playboy mansion when a girl in a bikini beckoned him to come over. “I want you to meet Hugh,” she said, before turning on a stratospheric high heel. It was March 2002, and Hef had invited Lookner and other alumni of the The Harvard Lampoon to a party at his lascivious mansion in California’s Holmby Hills. That night, Hefner was due to join Robin Williams, Kurt Vonnegut, and John Wayne as honorary members of the periodical, America’s oldest continuously published humor magazine (Hefner would be bestowed the woundingly sarcastic honor of ‘The Harvard Lampoon’s Best Life-Form in the History of the Universe’).
The woman was Tiffany Holiday, a member of Hefner’s harem of centerfold girlfriends with whom Lookner, a gaunt comedy writer, had improbably become acquainted while working on a television show about video games. (Holiday, who had ambitions toward the stage, would cameo on the show wearing a rictus grin, peroxide hair, and a string bikini to offer advice on pressing questions of the day such as whether a girl would be more likely to date a guy who owns an Xbox or a Gamecube.) Lookner, who assumed that he had little in common with the lingeringly handsome seventy-five year old soft-porn tycoon, followed Holiday’s waggle dance, while “freaking out” in search of opening gambit. As he extended his hand in greeting, Hefner, ever the gentleman, saved him the bother. “Hey Steve,” he said. “Your show is really funny.”
Lookner had grown used to people celebrating his work as a writer on Saturday Night Live. But it had been a while since he’d worked on that show, and his current project existed on an entirely different end of the comedic spectrum — at least in terms of scale. While, like SNL, Dave & Steve’s Video Game Explosion had also been commissioned by America’s enduring comedy tsar, Lorne Michaels, it was filmed on a shoestring budget (initially with just a single camera) and broadcast on a limited access college TV network. Despite Hef’s TV addiction (a journalist once described the playboy mansion’s vast satellite dish as being “curved like a giantess’s brassiere”) the idea that he had even seen the show, let alone become a fan, was preposterous.
“I can’t emphasize enough how much nothing to do with this show made any sense,” Lookner told me recently. Initially, he and co-writer/ co-presenter David Mandel (Hardy to Lookner’s Laurel), received a call from the Family Guy writer Ted Jessup. “He told us that Lorne Michaels wanted us to do a video game show for Burly Bear Network, a college TV network that Michaels had just acquired. It didn’t make sense. Dave and I had both left Saturday Night Live a few years earlier and Lorne hated us for that. Why did he want us to be on a show? And why a video game show?”
In fact, Michaels’ logic was sound. Burly TV created programs to be aired on college TV networks around America (an audience that no doubt included a large contingent of weed-smoking twilight gamers). He would then buy show time on national TV networks such as TBS, and broadcast the shows as if they were original programming. But budgets were implausibly tight and, rather than hire writers and actors, Michaels approached Mandel and Lookner to both write and star in their show. “His thought process went something like this,” Mandel, who left Saturday Night Live to work on Seinfeld and, more recently, films such as The Dictator, told me. “‘I know nerdy writers that used to work for me. If we hire them to be on screen as talent they will have no choice but to write and ad-lib the show, whereas we couldn’t necessarily afford them as writers.’ We had just enough ego and desire to be on TV that we did it.” Lookner agrees that it was a smart move. “We were terrible on camera, but we do know how to block out a thirty-minute sketch show, write some jokes and have a sense of how long things should last,” he says.
Free from the strictures and sign-offs of big budget television writing, Mandel and Lookner skirted the edges of acceptability. The pilot, filmed in the basement of The Simpson’s writer Billy Kimball’s house, opened with an image of the American flag, and a sombre-toned Mandel and Lookner talking direct to camera.
“After what happened on September 11, 2001 we did a lot of soul-searching,” Mandel said. “Is it OK to even play video games?”
Lookner picks up the thought: “And if it is OK to play them, is it OK to talk about playing games?”
Back to Mandel: “And if it’s OK to talk about them, is it OK to film it for a limited access college TV network?”
It was a scathing send up of the exaggerated sense of self-importance of talk show hosts following the September 11th attacks; Even though the segment was cut from the show that aired, Mandel says he is “as proud of that as I am of anything I’ve ever written.”
The low-budget production and seemingly low stakes allowed the pair to do things like ridicule their sponsor, the soft drink-maker Sobe, and even the network on which they appeared. In one later episode, the pair review a World War II-themed first person shooter game, set on the D-Day landings; Mandel exclaims that because the game is so easy to finish, he simply doesn’t understand what war veterans keep “bitching” about. Not infrequently, they would have video conference calls with Japanese video game designers as if they were thousands of miles apart, but when the interview concluded, the designer would step out from behind the set to shake hands with the Mandel and Lookner. “It wrecked working in TV for me,” Lookner says. “That freedom is never going to happen again. There was literally no supervision and no co-workers to compete with for jokes.”
The show’s irreverence paid off with the sundown college audience. “We said and did whatever we wanted,” Mandel says. “Now that’s somewhat commonplace in the world of YouTube, [but] the fact that we were on TBS at one in the morning doing whatever we wanted was kind of exciting, and people responded to that.” They received fan mail and irate letters, which were promptly ridiculed — Mandel would routinely criticize the popular Tony Hawk skating game series, which drew the most ire from viewers — and, in 2002, Mandel and Lookner were listed on Entertainment Weekly’s It List. “I think our ratings to expenditure ratio was probably higher than any TV show ever,” Lookner says. “We were spending a couple of thousand dollars on each half hour of national television.”
Midway through the season Mandel received a call from Michaels, congratulating him on how the show was going. “It was odd to get a call but it seemed heartfelt and I appreciated it,” Mandel recalls. “I also appreciated the fact that Steve didn’t get a call.” But just as ‘Dave & Steve’s Video Game Explosion’ was gathering praise and profile, the network was sold. “We had an offer to do another twelve episodes,” Lookner says. “We even signed a contract to do them, but when Burly Bear got sold that went away.”
There was, however, some desire to keep the show going, even after the sale. For around a year or so after the first season they would receive calls about recording a follow-up. But the potential new proprietors didn’t understand the presenters’ appeal. “These idiots who didn’t understand why we were on started thinking about putting some good-looking people on camera,” he says. “The show that they wanted to do drifted away into something else. Every now and again people tell us that we should do it on YouTube. But we were barely playing video games back then and I’m an old man now.” Mandel and Lookner, who were essentially filming the episodes in their free time, moved on and the show was lost to the ether until, a few years ago, all twelve episodes, including two that never aired, were uploaded to YouTube.
Today, the low-budget, basement aesthetic of Dave & Steve’s Video Game Explosion defines a generation of YouTube shows. “We were ahead of the curve,” Mandel says, “but we didn’t have the internet as a potential delivery mechanism. Had we come along a couple of years later — perhaps we’d be living in whatever special homeless shelter those stars get to live in now.” Lookner adds, “It was this weird place where the internet wasn’t good enough yet to support this kind of programming; it was the one nine-month period in the history of the world when a show like that could wind up on real TV.”
The pair remain immensely proud of what they achieved, from fondly remembered moments (“the time we went to a Star Wars convention and I pretended to choke on Boba Fett’s missile and a guy thought I was having a real heart attack,” Mandel recalls) to validation from Hugh Hefner (Lookner got along with Hef so well that he was invited back to the mansion the following week to celebrate the septuagenarian’s birthday). “Look, none of it made any sense but you can’t argue with the fact that Lorne Michaels discovered the original Saturday Night Live cast,” Mandel says. “He put Conan on TV. He put Fallon on TV. And he put Steve and me on TV.”
“I do think, in thirty years, when he’s older and has maybe a few weeks to live, and he’s sitting in bed thinking about what he’s really accomplished in life, Lorne will look back at Dave and Steve’s Video Game Explosion and say, ‘That might be the best thing I did,’” Lookner says.
While both men drifted away from video games following the show, Mandel admits that he is “on the cusp” of getting back into it, as his children grow up. “We’re playing a lot of arcade-like games on the iPad and they’re just getting ready for some of the Lego games,” he says. “I’m stunned the steps things have taken forward… But I’m also still shocked at how the same mistakes are being made. Basically, endless cutscenes. Maybe that will be the resurgence of the show? Me reviewing games from the perspective of a father. And Steve reviewing them from the perspective of someone who watches child pornography.”