When I was a kid, we had cable, but as I recall, our subscription was intermittent. We had it for part of the 80s, but not throughout. Nevertheless, when we did have it, one thing I used to do as a regular ritual was turn into USA Network to check out what was playing during Night Flight. I think anyone younger than 40 probably doesn’t even know what Night Flight was. You can think of it as a precursor to Adult Swim or Nick at Nite. It was a long block of late-night programming specifically oriented around the bleary-eyed dream-state of late-night TV watching. Where Night Flight broke the mold was by focusing more on music and animation rather than just genre B-movies. And oftentimes it would broadcast a lot of behind-the-scenes information that you couldn’t see anywhere else.
The thing about Night Flight is that the format was so broad you really didn’t know what you’d get. It was very much a pot-luck or Secret Santa experience. Sometimes there would be a lot of unwatchable junk, enough to cause me to channel-switch or just go to sleep, and other times something really cool would show up. But it was this no-holds-barred ecclecticism that made it special, as you wound up being exposed to truly oddball or avante-garde stuff.
One thing I specifically remember off of Nightlife was Ricochet, which documented David Bowie’s Serious Moonlight tour. I had gotten into Bowie after the tour had wrapped up, so this was the kind of thing that I was fascinated to see:
I got the sense very early on that Night Flight truly understood the mind of Generation-X insofar as its relationship with pop-culture. Gen-X was a TV-junkie generation, which meant we were fed this endless diet of reruns, old-movies, and the veneration of 60s and 70s classic-rock. The end result is that we were the first generation to be highly pop-culture literate with an encyclopedic knowledge that stretched back decades. All that simply happened through osmosis.
I think today especially there is more of an “out with the old, in with the new” mentality, whereas something old isn’t worth enjoying unless it’s been refreshed or reimagined (perferably with shaky-cam, lens-flare, T&A, and swearing). This is due to the fact that the total weight of preexisting entertainment is so far above and beyond anything anyone could ever watch that people simply have no choice but to be more selective. It’s sheer information overload, plus lower and lower attention-spans. But back in the pre-VCR era, if it was on TV, we watched it, on the basis of least objectionable programming. Having cable increased our choices, but nothing like the exponential choice we have today. While yes, it did mean we watched a lot more junk than we should have, just because it was on, we also absorbed more variety of entertainment with a wider variety of viewpoints than today where people can simply lock themselves into silos.
The irony is that it’s so much easier and more convenient to find and stream down a vast array of entertainment stretching back 100+ years, and yet I suspect most people choose to discriminate against things they deem as “old-school”. This is especially true for properties that have seen multiple attempts to reboot them and make them more contemporary.
Anyway, you could say one reason why I started this blog is that I was raised on the refuse of of pop culture in this way. You could say Andy Worhol was the first person to really reframe pop culture as art.
Night Flight was sort of an evolution on that theme, sequencing pop cultural refuse into sort of audio-visual mixtape.
It was a curious mix of treating the past with respect (or humor, where appropriate) but also urging serious appreciation for (then) contemporary music and fringe cinema.
As the 80s gave way to the 90s, Night Flight had trouble adapting, since it was so much of a product of the 80s mindset, right down to its early CGI opening graphic. Rather than having the good decency to just die, it transformed into USA Up All Night with Gilbert Gottfried and Rhonda Shear.
These two are far more offensive today than the worst of Robert Smith’s 80s hairstyles.
It’s strange how, when culture reaches an inflection point, you can kind of see/feel/taste it. The world didn’t just wake up one day and say that skinny ties, baggy pants, shoulder-pads, and pastels were suddenly out of style. It just kind of happens. The transformation of Night Flight from something that seemed in some way culturally significant into something that was hardly more watchable than an infomercial was kind of symbolic of the cultural wasteland of the early 90s.
The Night Flight archives have now been embalmed for posterity at this subscription video streaming site. You can see that Night Flight itself has been deemed a pop culture relic as its episodes sit side-by-side with fossils like Gumby. I’m tempted to subscribe although some bits and pieces of old Night Flights are streaming here and there anyway, like this one, which seems to carry the running theme of videogames. If you want to get a real feel for the stream-of-consciousness style of Night Flight, wait until Saturday night and stream this one fullscreen and zone out for a few hours.