The Man Who Put the First Gay Dick on TV
Background notes for the How to Have Sex in an Epidemic video interview clips that follow this post.
In April 1983, as Michael Callen and I were nearing the completion of How to Have Sex in an Epidemic, I got an idea while watching Men and Films, Lou Maletta’s pornographic, all-male, public access cable TV show. At the time, many sexually active gay men I knew still didn’t want to hear about AIDS, so I was thrilled when Maletta started talking about it on his X-rated show. I thought, “Why not call him to see if Michael and I could promote our booklet on his program?” Prime time TV wasn’t ready for safe sex, but Men and Films sure was.
Men and Films began as a gritty, weekly review of the newest releases in hardcore gay male pornography; it featured graphic video clips accompanied by Maletta’s tawdry, sex-soaked, voice-over commentary.
Raised in working class Brooklyn and clearly untouched by higher education, there was something unabashedly “dirty-old-man-ish” about Maletta’s talking style, a lurid tone and twang you might hear at a 1970s sex club, but startling when it was blaring from the TV in your living room — just a click away on your remote control from CNN or Pat Robertson. In fact, in a 1995 Calvin Klein TV commercial featuring half-naked, post-pubescent teens, Maletta’s X-rated drawl was featured in the ad’s voice-over – a juxtaposition so jarring it led to accusations of “kiddie porn” and enough public outrage to get the ads pulled from the airwaves — mostly because of the way Lou sounded. The ensuing media firestorm, which was better advertising than any TV ad could hope for, was even covered by the G-rated Entertainment Weekly.
Although Maletta later expanded his programming to LGBT news and profiles of underground artists, when Men and Films began, it was interviews with porn stars. Lou could always be heard off camera, flinging salacious questions or pressuring his guests to pull down their pants and show what they were known for: a bubble butt, a big dick, etc. It was scandalous TV even for Manhattan cable public access, and many NYC activists were appalled that right when AIDS began, Maletta’s garish, weekly porn revue took off and bloomed at the same time.
Lou was a great self-promoter: He generated juicy, first Amendment press coverage in the Village Voice and other media when some of his segments ran into censorship problems over video clips that included “penetration.” Lou was being forced by the station to cover the offending shots with a digital black dot, but in his effort to salvage every square inch of naked skin that he could, he made the dot so small that whenever the actors’ fucking moved left or right, the dot had to move and follow along too. It didn’t take long to realize that Lou needed target practice. In clips where the actors were getting close to orgasm and their movements quickened, it got so dizzying to follow the dot back and forth, that some of the penetration could be glimpsed for a second, but by that point I was laughing hysterically with friends who called to make sure I was watching this First amendment insanity.
Whenever Lou had to air a censored segment, he ended it with the station’s phone number along with text urging viewers to call in to protest. Was he serious? Call a station manager to complain about not being able to see the entire dick going in and out on the 11pm broadcast? Many gay men were so uncomfortable with Lou’s depiction of sex that they were more likely to call and ask that the show be taken off the air, in part, because it could be viewed by anyone in Manhattan who had cable TV – even by kids whose parents had yet to figure out the new adult content controls. Men and Films was so accessible, it inspired a pop-cult satire on the TV show, In Living Color — a series of offensive but hilarious skits called Men on Film.
To conservative, assimilationist gay activists out to prove to America that all gays were just like them, Maletta was a nightmare; but since the new breed of AIDS activists felt the same way about Callen, me and We Know Who We Are, I called Maletta with a mounting sense of empathy.
To my surprise, Lou and his apartment-based studio were across the street from where I live. He agreed to do a segment on “How to Have Sex in an Epidemic,” with one condition: First, I had to get him an interview with Dr. Joseph Sonnabend who was showing up on the local news: The building co-op board where Joe had his medical practice refused to renew his lease because he was treating people with AIDS. It became a landmark court case that established the nation’s first anti-discrimination protections for PWA’s, and Lou’s coverage was among the best. (That clip is coming soon.)
It was a cloudy day when Michael Callen and I went to Lou’s 5th floor tenement apartment to be interviewed. There were S/M accoutrements scattered about, huge shelves of boxed porn tapes and lots of video editing equipment. After gazing around the apartment and meeting the S/M loving Lou, the S/M loathing Michael wanted to leave. I convinced him to stay, but he managed to extract a moment of humorous revenge: During the first question in part 2 of the interview, as Lou fires off a list of kinky sexual activities, Mike makes a comical hand gesture toward me, as if to say, that’s Richard’s area of expertise.
Lou and I bonded that day. I began producing weekly reports on safe sex issues and co-anchored a weekly LGBT news segment as the half hour Men and Films expanded into the hour-long Gay Cable Network, which segregated the porn into a separate show, away from the political and cultural news. By 1991, when Lou retired, he had created the most extensive video archive of LGBT life in the 1980s. It was purchased by New York University’s Fales Library for preservation before he died.
The two-part interview with me and Callen are in the next two posts.