“We’re not Satanists, we’re artists!”: The strange, dark world of Joy Farm
From 1988 to ’99, the fringes of Milwaukee’s TV universe were the stomping grounds of Joy Farm, a sketch comedy and performance art troupe that specialized in dark, gothic-flavored humor. Spoofs of vampires and abortion protests were just a few of the weapons in the group's arsenal, along with sketches like “Uses For The Penis” and “Hitler: The Clown Years.” Originally conceived in Kansas City as a music program for some of the era’s biggest alternative bands (Joy Farm footage of They Might Be Giants was used extensively in the band’s 2002 documentary, Gigantic), the troupe moved to Milwaukee and soon became a staple of local public-access television. The A.V. Club recently caught up with Joy Farm producer-director Mark G.E. to discuss the genesis of the group, its run-ins with the law, and the fine art of making love to a ball of raw hamburger.
The A.V. Club: Joy Farm began in Kansas City as a televised venue for alternative music. How did you end up working with such big names?
Mark G.E.: Joy Farm-KC was the only outlet in the city for the cool bands. There was nothing else. Bands were more than happy to be videotaped and promoted on our show. This was at a time when being videotaped was something most bands didn’t have happen. We taped so many bands between 1985 and 1987: They Might Be Giants, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sonic Youth, Violent Femmes, Hüsker Dü, Minutemen, Black Flag, Fishbone, Neubauten, and many more.
AVC: The show eventually moved to Milwaukee and became more of a sketch comedy troupe. How was the initial cast assembled?
MGE: Early on, we just asked our friends to be a part of the show. We sort of approached it like we were starting a band. We were a very close group that created our own world and made weird TV. We all hung out together, partied, and danced together at the Mad Planet, and created lots of mischief offset. At times, the TV show was more of an excuse to see one another.
AVC: How many different permutations of the group were there throughout the years?
MGE: We sort of had three phases of casts. There was the “Original Cast” that started the show. Then there was what I call the “Classic Cast” that really fleshed out and defined Joy Farm. Then there was the later “Professional Cast” of people who knew theater, had comedy experience, and brought the show a very polished look. We really started having fun when Patty Zatty, Russian Wulfgar, and Angel Von Magius joined the cast. Patty’s first appearance involved her putting her head in the toilet as we flushed it.
AVC: The early ’90s were an especially fertile time for sketch comedy. Did you see Joy Farm as part of a movement alongside other groups like The Kids in the Hall or The State?
MGE: We watched those shows, but we were much more influenced by Monty Python, Saturday Night Live, Second City, and ’60s shows like The Munsters, Get Smart, and Green Acres. Many of our writers had a pretty dark, edgy view of the world. We were all fans of science fiction and The Twilight Zone. Also, many of us were interested in film noir and old horror movies.
AVC: What would constitute a typical Joy Farm sketch?
MGE: We included a lot of material on gender-bending, sexual identity, and things that generally make people feel uncomfortable. We did a scene in a sketch where Joseph [Ravens, cast member 1993-99] became intimate with a ball of hamburger. It was weirdly arousing to watch. Another time, the police came to a shoot we had in the Calvary Cemetery saying that we were sacrificing a baby on a spit. They found the cast dressed as Death playing fiddles. The caretaker came out and said, “No, that’s not them.” Apparently, there was some other group doing the movie about a baby on a spit. We’re not Satanists, we’re artists!
AVC: Did you ever make a push for more national exposure?
MGE: We had some interest from national networks and producers. I remember one network telling me that we needed to have a joke every 12 seconds. It made me think of Pink Floyd’s "Have A Cigar": “We really love the band, which one is Pink?” I mean, how could you watch our show and then give notes like that?
AVC: It’s been more than 10 years since Joy Farm last aired in Milwaukee. How did things finally wind down?
MGE: In retrospect, the potential national interest we got may have led to the demise of the “Classic Cast.” We got real serious about the business of the show. Or at least I did. In the mid-’90s, half the cast moved to Chicago and others moved on to their own projects. We went on to create new casts who did incredible and professional work. But, at the emotional level, it may have never been the same for me. It may have been a standing eight: I got knocked out, but didn’t know it for a few years.