While I was a teenager, The Playboy Channel was always a mysterious, alluring force on the cable dial. Nestled in between the premium channels like HBO and Cinemax and the “Pay-per-View” channels in which you called a number to have $4 added to your cable bill so you didn’t have to leave the house to watch a movie that had been on video for a couple of months, The Playboy Channel existed in my mind mostly in theory, the scraps of actual knowledge relegated to the scrambled signals of distorted, vertically-scrolling bodies I’d see when I crossed its path.
Even though I grew up in a household that had Cinemax (and their teen-compulsory “Friday After Dark” lineup of bawdy comedies and erotic confessions), The Playboy Channel alluded to something more explicit, something more dangerous. — possibly even genital pairs that could be seen in the same shot. All I could verify is that the covers of the VHS tapes produced by the channel seemed to include a lot of nightgowns.
The truth, as I later learned, was that, at the time, The Playboy Channel was basically just Friday After Dark, but every day, and before dark as well, depending on the time of year. (The channel, at least during my fuzzy memories, started its programming day at 7 pm Central, I guess with the idea that people don’t need sex during the day.) There were sexy comedies, sexy documentaries, and sexy portraits of a sexy Playmate. There was plenty of nudity, but those looking for more explicit outcomes would have to wait a few years.
However, the channel also did have a fair share of original programming, including the UK-produced “Electric Blue,” a softcore anthology that even inspired a movie (1982’s ELECTRIC BLUE: THE MOVIE) and featured several segments directed by Chuck Vincent. In 1991, the channel launched its most ambitious series – a 30-minute show featuring multiple short vignettes by filmmakers in whatever genre they deemed fit. Compilations of the films from that show, “Inside Out,” became a huge seller on the VHS market, spawning four volumes that stayed on the Billboard VHS sales charts for months at a time.
This was a rather astonishing feat, as while “Inside Out” carried the Playboy logo and a pair of breasts were on display in every short, the shorts ranged in type so wildly that it’s hard to imagine those looking for pure titillation buying into the franchise. Featuring work by future well-known filmmakers like Antoine Fuqua and Alexander Payne as well as genre favorites like Sam Raimi, Alex Winter, Tony Randel (HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II), Lizzie Borden (LOVE CRIMES) and Martin Donovan (APARTMENT ZERO), “Inside Out” was a cavalcade of erotic oddities in which the segments are short enough that even a dud won’t take up much of your time.
Tragically, the legacy of “Inside Out” is limited. A complete episode list has yet to surface, and while four volumes, totaling 37 shorts, were released on VHS in the early ‘90s, other shorts, such as Alex Winter’s MEALS ON WHEELS and Lizzie Borden’s BACKSTAGE have been excluded. 74 shorts in all were produced for the series, and save for a one-night retrospective at Los Angeles’s Cinefamily a few years back, there seems to be little interest in revisiting it.
With that in mind, I present my ten (plus) favorite episodes of the series from the 39 I’ve seen, all of which are worth five-to-eleven minutes of your time.
1.1, 1.2, 1.3. The Joe Frank Trilogy
THE HITCHHIKER (On INSIDE OUT 2, Episode 8)
THE PERFECT WOMAN (On INSIDE OUT 3, Episode 4)
JILTED LOVER (On INSIDE OUT 4, Episode 6)
All 3 Written by Joe Frank, Directed by Paul Rachman
The biggest revelation in “Inside Out” is the trio of deadpan comedies written by and starring radio artist Joe Frank. All three segments start out in a very traditional manner as Frank, playing the lead character as well as narrating, delves into a relationship with a woman that becomes increasingly absurd.
In THE HITCHHIKER, shot in black and white with a brooding score, Frank plays a driver that spots a beautiful woman hitchhiking in the beach. When she refuses his offer of a lift, he watches from afar as she continues to refuse the offers of every other driver. His interest in her game soon leads back to her place, where she writes about her experience (while topless, an act that seems mostly due to contractual obligation) and it ends with a hilariously ridiculous climax that nails the deadpan noir tone Frank carefully sets up in the first half.
While THE HITCHHIKER is good, THE PERFECT WOMAN is arguably the best of the trio, as Joe (Frank) sits alone in his apartment watching a cable access shoe about porn when a 1-900 ad inspires him to call an escort service. When asked what he’s seeking, Joe gives an incredibly detailed description, including that he’d “like her to come from a large family that resides on a sprawling country estate,” that her hobbies include making “carvings in redwood sapling bark,” that she speaks Bengali or Bantu, and that she’s an accomplished seamstress who can set bones. When a woman arrives at his door, she’s everything she wanted – but may not exactly be what he ordered. Again, the climax is too good to spoil, but THE PERFECT WOMAN is a brilliant, clever short film that would be welcome in any self-respecting film festival regardless of the bunny logo.
In Frank’s final film for the series, JILTED LOVER, Frank watches his ex-girlfriend dating another man in increasingly unbelievable situations while narrating with deadpan bitterness. “He’s rented the only Harley-Davidson in L.A. with an automatic transmission, and probably had the salesman kickstart it for him,” Frank opines, mentioning that they look like “escapees from a cheap perfume commercial about to turn into a tampon ad.” This climaxes in Frank getting over his ex with a trio of ladies, including one whom he mentions is “choreographing a ballet incorporating the movement of treadmills, exercycles, rowing machines and free weights in order to bring modern dance to a wider audience” It’s deadpan comic noir taken to perfection.
2. THE FREAK (On INSIDE OUT 2, Episode 3)
Written by Peter Atkins and Tony Randel, Directed by Tony Randel
Contrary to the tag line on the VHS boxes for “Inside Out”’s video releases (“Where the Twilight Zone meets the Erogenous Zone”), the series only delved occasionally into science fiction. THE FREAK is one of those few forays, and with its black and white cinematography and dingy, industrial atmosphere, it’s one of the grimmest episodes of the series.
It’s also one of the most compelling. Twenty years after an alien invasion, humans are enslaved by a species that wears masks as part of a religious rite. A carnival-barker like alien displays a human female (Sherrie Rose) to his fellow conquerors and makes her play the violin as an example of the horrors of Earth music. “The flesh you must not hold!” he demands of his clan. “The body you must not covet! Beware the naked Earth face!” However, the music has the opposite effect on one alien, who visits her in her cell and they make love. This all ends badly, of course – but may signal the start of something greater.
THE FREAK is the sort of mini-movie that, these days, would be notable enough to get a write-up on io9 or some other genre site, but a bleak, dystopian short with some relatively ugly alien sex must have looked out of place on the Playboy Channel. Adventurous viewers, however, must have embraced this gritty little genre work from the writer/director team of HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II, with which this shares some visual traits.
3. I’VE GOT A CRUSH ON YOU (On INSIDE OUT 2, Episode 2)
Written by Temple Mathews, Directed by John Wentworth
Many segments of INSIDE OUT are comedic, but the shorts were at their best when they went straight into absurdist humor. In I’VE GOT A CRUSH ON YOU, Ray (Michael Halpin) is about to commit suicide by jumping off of a building when he spots a topless woman sunbathing. He then falls directly on her, and while he lives, she’s squashed flat and becomes a cardboard cutout.
Distraught, he falls for the cutout, and with the help of a random construction man, places a hinge in her so she can bend at the middle. He takes her to dinner to meet his relatives, who like the girl, whom he’s named “Patty,” quite a bit. In the end, his ex-girlfriend comes back into the scene, but who will Ray choose? The real girl, or the flat one?
Sure, it’s mostly sight gags and goofy puns (“She does look like she’s been under a lot of pressure lately”), but Temple Mathews’ script and Wentworth’s direction sell the premise well enough that you’re just along to enjoy the ride. It’s the sort of pointlessly entertaining fluff that works perfectly well at 8 minutes, even if you can imagine it going viral now and being expanded into an excruciatingly awful feature.
4. MIS-APPREHENDED (On INSIDE OUT 2, Episode 1)
Written by Kenneth Deifik, Directed by Nicholas Brandt
On some occasions, “Inside Out” could get twisted. That’s the case in this nifty desert noir from photographer and music video director Nicholas Brandt in a tale that reminds me of early ‘90s neo-noirs like DELUSION and THE BLUE IGUANA.
The story itself is relatively standard. Roy (Bruce Glover) and Melanie (Tane McClure) pick up hitchhiker Tim (Michael Griffin) on a deserted road. Roy claims that the pair are husband and wife, but when he leaves to take a whiz, Melanie tells Tim that she’s actually been kidnapped, and needs his help in order to get free.
That’s not all there is to the story, of course. In a brisk 11 minutes, MIS-APREHENDED sports enough turns to fill an anemically-paced feature, and the quick running time leaves no lags that would leave the audience disinterested. Add in a great, scene-stealing performance by Glover and you’ve got a gritty, clever little thriller would have felt at home included in the middle of any Cinemax Saturday night programming.
5. LOVE THE ONE YOU’RE WITH (On INSIDE OUT 1, Episode 8)
Written by Mark Haskell Smith, Directed by Adam Friedman
As I’d mentioned, “Inside Out” is great when it uses absurdity to dissect various social and sexual constricts, and this brief segment, written by PLAYING GOD’s Mark Haskell Smith and directed by TO SLEEP WITH A VAMPIRE’s Adam Friedman, is one of the best. The story is a basic one of a couple meeting at a bar and then going back to his place to have sex, but all the dialogue is descriptive, as characters simply say the general idea as to the conversational volleys they’re serving.
It’s an idea that’s been done before, but a short film like this is a great format for it, with the duo having dialogue such as “polite question regarding frequency of visits to current surroundings” answered with “vague answer.” The nature of the show makes it perfectly reasonable to have an absurdist condom discussion and lines like “comment regarding displacement of fluids in vaginal canal!” during intercourse itself. It’s quick, silly, and hugely entertaining.
6. MEALS ON WHEELS (On YouTube)
Written by Alex Winter and Tom Stern, Directed by Alex Winter
And then there’s just outright insane. I don’t know what Playboy was thinking when they hired FREAKED and “The Idiot Box” filmmakers Alex Winter and Tom Stern to do an erotic short, but I’m sure as hell glad they did. In MEALS ON WHEELS, Alex Winter plays what would be known in the golden age as a “spazz,” a wild-eyed young man with grotesque teeth in a hoodie sitting on a park bench in wet cement. He spots a beautiful woman and begins following her.
The following five minutes have to be seen to be believed and our lead pursues her around town, interacting with skateboards, dumpster people, severed heads and more as a relentlessly upbeat score plays. The final joke is a perfect capstone, and the whole thing is a must-see for FREAKED fans.
In this rare case, it’s even a can-see, as it’s available on YouTube! (Not safe for work, though, for Playboy Channel reasons.
7. BUSTY GUSTY: THE ANATOMY OF GREATNESS, THE GREATNESS OF ANATOMY (On INSIDE OUT 2, Episode 5)
Written by Steve Vickery, Directed by Yuri Sivo
Who doesn’t love Francesca “Kitten” Natividad, the buxom star of Russ Meyer’s UP! And BENEATH THE VALLEY OF THE ULTRA-VIXENS? No self-respecting genre fan, that’s who, and a Kitten fan owes it to themselves to seek out BUSTY GUSTY, a short presented as a parody of PBS documentaries starring Kitten as the, er, titular queen of burlesque.
“She called her left breast ‘fame’ and her right breast ‘fortune,’” the narrator exclaims, taking us through the ups and downs of the life of our fictional heroine with input from her parents and her first agent. Her desire to be a musician is overcome by her more notable assets, she has an affair with JFK, appears on “What’s My Live,” rooms with Agnes Moorehead and becomes a feminist radical at Berkeley resulting in a tragedy that seems inevitable when you come to the understanding that every joke relies on boobs in some way.
The humor is juvenile and goofy and most of the gags looked aged when they were uttered on stage at a vaudeville show in 1947, but BUSTY GUSTY is short and quick enough that you won’t care. It’s always great to see Kitten enjoying the hell out herself, and when surrounded by jokes run fast and furious even if they don’t always fly, BUSTY GUSTY is one of the breast segments on the show. Check it out — It’ll leave a lasting impression in your mammaries.
8. DOUBLETALK (On INSIDE OUT 1, Episode 3)
Written by Allison Adler, Directed by Jeff Reiner
DOUBLETALK comes from an interesting pedigree – writer Allison Adler is now a writer/producer on “Supergirl,” having also worked as producer on “Glee,” “The New Normal” and “Chuck,” so it’s not too surprising that it’s significantly more clever and insightful than the average segment. Marta Kober (FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2’s female shish-ka-bob victim) and Mark Pellegrino (Lucifer on “Supernatural) play a couple who’ve come back to his place at the end of a date, but mixed signals keep getting in the way of initiating anything physical.
These mixed signals are represented by the duo constantly breaking the fourth wall and talking to the audience about their intentions, such as the woman talking about the mise en scène of the film they’ve just scene, coupled with her talking to the camera about his pecs. This concept would have been enough to be mildly entertaining, but Adler’s crisp writing ensures that the actual dialogue the characters speak to each other is just as clever as the distinction between the inner and outer thoughts.
“I hope you like country,” he mentions, putting on the stereo. “I like diversity,” she responds with a slight surliness in her voice, clinched by her line to the audience – “What next, clog dancing?” It’s not just a reluctance to communicate thoughts, it’s a failure to grasp signals that are clearly out there to be grasped, and once the sex is actually initiated, it’s hard not find some kind of identification with the awkwardness on screen even if the concept behind the presentation is so unreal.
9. MY CYBERIAN RHAPSODY (On INSIDE OUT 4, Episode 10)
Written by Mark Romanek, Directed by Nigel Dick
Two directors primarily known for their music videos teamed up for the dystopian, BLADE RUNNER-esque MY CYBERIAN RHAPSODY to present a relatively unappealing vision of cyber-sex. Released from prison after ten years, Johnny Lamonde (singer Sanford Clark) decides on trying “Cyberia,” an underground cyber-sex business, because “it’s better than spanking your own pig.” After a lengthy interview process, he hooks up the VR machine, genitals and all, and finds that the vision of the future still has some technical issues to work out.
The music video influence is heavy, with the future filled with trenchcoats, neon lights, smoke coming from nowhere and even a lava lamp. The story doesn’t break any particular new ground, but it feels as though it’s taking place in a fully-formed world. Even though only two characters appear on screen (three if you count the contents of the cyber-sex), you get the sense that this could easily be another story in the same universe as CAFÉ FLESH. Technical failure is just par for the course in a doomed, smoky future.
10. THE PORTAL (On INSIDE OUT 3, Episode 3)
Written by David Lawson, Directed by John Wentworth
A gardener spots a group of elderly people in white garments disrobing and jumping nude in a pond. He follows them in his boxers and discovers that going through a bright portal allows the older man to be switched into a young, fit body surrounded by other young, fit people. He joins them, but where does it all lead?
A short segment presented with no dialogue, THE PORTAL is the type of erotic entertainment that viewers may have hoped for from the “Twilight Zone-meets-the-erogenous-zone” premise. It’s a simple tale, presented beautifully, with a slight twist ending that seems more thoughtful than tacked-on. It’s no surprise that director Wentworth was one of the more prolific helmers of shorts in the series, as he seemed to have a good eye for the combination of sexy and whimsical that served as the bullseye for what “Inside Out” aspired to. While the series produced plenty of segments that were worth viewing for either entertainment or nudity-laden reasons, THE PORTAL is one of the few that hits both, in a setting that comes off more as poetry than a sexy story needing to be shared.
THE WET DREAM (On INSIDE OUT 3, Episode 9)
Written by Mitchell Stone, Directed by Nigel Dick
BACKSTAGE (On YouTube)
Written and Directed by Lizzie Borden
MY SECRET MOMENTS (On INSIDE OUT 3, Episode 5)
Written and Directed by Alexander Payne
Tags: Alex Winter, Alexander Payne, Allison Adler, Antoine Fuqua, Kitten Natividad, Lizzie Borden, Los Angeles, Mark Pellegrino, Mark Romanek, Marta Kober, Martin Donovan, Nigel Dick, Playboy, russ meyer, Sam Raimi, Softcore Week, Tane McClure, Tony Randel