Before there was Jackass there was Ralph Zavadil. His cable-access television show, The Cap’n Video Show, ran in the US from 1990 to 1995, spawning a small but loyal cult following.
Each week Ralph performed a series of idiotic and occasionally dangerous stunts, challenging the sensibilities of his small audience for five seasons. With the advent of the internet and reality television still years away, his unique brand of gross-out stunt comedy was truly ahead of its time. Twenty years on, with a sense of nostalgia, Ralph decided to give Cap’n Video one last shot for the same cable station that cancelled him years earlier.
Beauty Day is a feature-length documentary chronicling the life and times of Ralph Zavadil. Mandy Nolan grabbed a chat with this very fascinating subject.
Ralph were you a born daredevil or was it an aberration that occurred later in life? I was adventurous as a child but the daredevil stunts started growing as my Cap’n Video character developed. It started off with roof-top tobogganing and then I had to top that one, so telephone-pole sledding was a natural progression (in my mind anyhow). I think I knocked some sense into my head with the failed Pool Plunge though.
Do you lie in bed at night thinking of weird shit to do? While I lay in bed I mainly like to sleep or screw. The weird shit comes to me as I go about life thinking of ways to make mundane chores more exciting, such as shaving the hair off one’s face with flaming alcohol or having a healthy breakfast in 30 seconds by snorting eggs.
Why do you think human beings want to watch other human beings do wacky dangerous stuff? I’m pretty sure the reason that hairless monkeys enjoy watching others do goofy dangerous things (especially when they fail and get injured) is to live vicariously through these actions and feel better about their own banal existence. Much like slowing and gawking at a car accident; they say to themselves ‘WOW… good thing that wasn’t ME…’ and drive on feeling better about life.
What made you do it? Laughter. I enjoy hearing people laugh and knowing that I’ve (hopefully) brightened someone’s day.
What about your mum? She must have been a nervous wreck! My Mom Rocks! She didn’t really know what I was up to until my show aired on TV, until the Pool Plunge (where I broke my neck and she was notified by the police) so I smartened up after that. I didn’t know how negatively that skit affected my parents until I saw Beauty Day, so now I feel a bit ashamed at all the bullshit I put them through.
Are you frightened of dying? I mean do you ever think ‘fuck it, what if I stuff this up’? I’m frightened of not living! Too many people are afraid of taking chances and trying something new. I learned at a very early age to appreciate every second that I am given, and you can’t do that if you travel this journey with your head up your arse.
How did breaking your neck break you into a wider market? The local cops made a copy of the accident (1995) and took it to a convention in NYC where Real TV took a look and licensed it from me (1999). After it hit the airwaves it ended up on YouTube (2005). My show had been off the air for 10 years so it really didn’t do anything for the ratings.
Did the advent of the internet and the popularity of shows like Jackass make you feel a bit pissed off that you were ahead of your time? I’m not one to look back into the toilet and check out my shit; I like to look at the buffet table in front of me! In this electronic world, everything old becomes new when it is rediscovered and I hope that Beauty Day brings laughter and my insanity to an even larger audience.
What’s your limit? In comparison to what they show on Jackass etc do you believe you actually went too far with the puppy stuff? Perhaps outline to the readers a little what happened… Unlike the Jackass guys, I won’t play with faeces or urine or stuff things up my arse… but all power to them… they made a lot of money and became successful doing that.
I got kicked off local Cable 10 (as a volunteer… it actually cost me to put on my show) after my Easter show. I decorated my house by hanging a bunny up on bungee-cords and made chocolate Easter puppies by squirting chocolate sauce on their backs and licking it off. They were never in danger (as none got close to their mouths) and if it had, they would have had to ingest half the bottle to bring the theobromine level up to toxic levels. The details are in Beauty Day.
What did you do in the years when you weren’t doing your cable show? I was videotaping rock bands until I found out they had no money to pay me, so I switched to weddings. I also went to theatre school for three years, and grew pot.
As people get older they tend to get more conservative; what happened to you? Did you ever see Benjamin Button ? Seriously though, I saw lots of my friends becoming ‘normies’ and conforming to what society expected them to be. I promised myself that I wouldn’t lose my joy for living and start chasing after shiny shit. So far it’s been a blast!
How did you meet Jay, the director of Beauty Day? I joined Wastebook to see who was pirating my videos and Jay Cheel got hold of me there. He was a fan of the show while growing up and wanted to do a 15-minute short on the Pool Plunge for the internet. I thanked him for his interest but declined, whereby he continued to pester me for a year with new ideas. We finally sat down together; he showed me a demo reel and I agreed to do one interview. After he cut together a very cool blurb, I could tell that he was ultra-creative and, with the help of Primitive Entertainment, his internet short turned into a full-length feature. Whooda thunk?
How has the doco been received… I mean docos have a lot of serious credibility! I saw Beauty Day for the very first time with 400 strangers at Hot Docs in Toronto and the response was overwhelming! People were gasping, gagging, clapping, but best of all laughing till tears were spurting out of their eye sockets. I hadn’t seen that reaction to my stuff since 1988 when I used to play my videos on the big screen at a local bar, so it was very rewarding. Jay Cheel turned my fart into art!
People who have seen the movie have not asked for their money back so I guess they enjoyed it, but there’s not a lot of money in documentaries. With a limited advertising budget not many people were aware of the movie, so it’s great that festivals like Byron Bay pick up the slack and bring non-mainstream films to life.
Does Captain Video have children he doesn’t want to try this at home?! Sorry, don’t wanna spoil the movie.
Do you think we have a whole new generation who finally gets it – showed my kids, they loved it! I really hope so! I don’t hang out with any 12-year-olds but I hope they put down the mind-numbing video games, get outside and create their own games. Life is too short to be stuck in front of a screen, unless it’s to get inspired by Beauty Day !
Beauty Day is one of the extraordinary must-see documentaries screening at the Byron Film Festival. It screens on Byron Bay Community Centre on Monday, March 5 at 7.30pm. For more information about sessions go to www.bbff.com.au.