Painter, philosopher, clown, politician, nudist, and cable access firebrand James Spagnola, much better known as Jim Spagg, died in his Portland home Saturday. Spagg's long-running late-night cable television show had a loyal cult following in Portland for years. Thousands of Portlanders of all types stumbled across intimate videotape of Spagg's genitalia while flipping through the channels late at night. His show also featured a never-ending supply of young women who danced naked while Spagg played air guitar on a piece of plywood in the rough shape of a guitar. Canned phrases such as "jumping geehorsey farts" and "yowza! wowza! bowza!" danced across the screen in random order and rainbow colors.
One of Spagg's most famous bits was a long-running feud with a neighbor. Spagg set up a camera in his living room which later captured video of Spagg being punched in the face by his neighbor in the front yard. Skeptics speculated that the feud was a ruse to get laughs, but other fans insisted that the assault was real.
Several times over the years, Spagg was taken off the air (and each time somehow returned) as community outrage and negative media publicity ebbed and flowed. His program was most recently suspended from Portland Cable Access Television after Spagg was found to have violated copyright laws on one of his programs. Some people, most of all Spagg himself, felt that he was really cancelled for airing an episode of his program that featured graphic video of Spagg defecating on-camera.
When I saw the program in question, I happened across the show and decided to stop and watch for a minute. Seeing a bowel movement on television left me both aghast and exhiliarated, laughing hysterically. After all, a dump is one of the most primal of all human activities, but also one of the most private. I remember relishing the thought of all the squares in Portland who happened to witness the same moment. Wouldn't they be outraged!
To his credit, Spagg warned his viewing audience several times that he was "going to take a sh*t on-camera" and repeatedly offered them the opportunity to change the channel before seeing the act.
Throughout the life of his show, Spagg displayed his home phone number on the television screen. He would collect voice mails from fans and foes alike and play the best ones on the air. He maintained an email list with an unknown number of recipients to whom he would periodically send copies of his computer artwork or his latest philosophical musings or diatribes.
Some thought Jim Spagg was a tedious hack and a shameless exhibitionist; others see him as a free speech pioneer. Regardless of opinion, Spagg pushed the limits of free speech and led many citizens to realize the existence and special value of local cable access programming. He proved how easy it could be to produce and air a television program using the costly cameras, production studios, broadcasting facilities, and volunteers of cable stations funded by cable subscribers as part of their monthly service fees.
Two email notices of Jim Spagg's death received on Saturday, May 8, 2004:
From Q Madp:
It is with sadness that I announce that the infamous JIM SPAGG has died this morning. Jim Spagg was a pioneer in cable television when it comes to free speech. He truly believed in free speech and pushed lots of buttons during his time on local cable access. A tribute will be posted on his site in the near future. Funeral information will be posted once known at http://www.JimSpagg.com
From P'town Ad Group:
Today between 8-9am, Jim Spagg died in his home.
The cause of his death is still unclear.
More information when available.