Jessica Hahn, the living link between Jim Bakker and Sam Kinison, is standing onstage in the Park Plaza Hotel ballroom, a hairy crowd of leathered headbangers seated in the bleachers on her right. A more subdued, straight-looking crowd--William Morris agents and the like--are seated to her left.
A microphone is in her hand, a pit of mud at her feet.
"Slipping and sliding for She-Rok," Hahn yells, "is Quisha."
Quisha, in a skimpy two-piece outfit, comes bounding out from behind the stage curtains and steps into the mud pit, where she faces the equally underdressed Leslie. Leslie, who the crowd is told represents the heavy metal band Young Gunns, promptly splashes a drink in Quisha's face. The women lock into combat and plop into the mud with Hulk Hogan seriousness. Beyond the mud pit, wearing a headset, peach halter top and black bicycle shorts, is film director Penelope Spheeris, who is orchestrating the action.
The wrestlers, the audience and Jessica Hahn are all part of a pay-per-view TV event--some would consider it a pay-per-view experiment--that is being taped for telecast on cable systems Friday. The show, referred to as both "Thunder and Mud" and the contraction "Thud" by its makers, is a combination female mud wrestling act / heavy-metal rock concert / game show with some comedy bits thrown in.
Perhaps in the future, the rules of "Thud" will be common knowledge. But until then, an introduction: Five obscure metal bands are competing for some undisclosed honor. Each group is represented by a female mud wrestler. A motley crew of five beer-swilling judges chooses a winner from each wrestling bout; up from the primordial ooze and on to the next round. After every match, one of the bands comes onstage and lip-syncs a song. Jessica Hahn and co-hosts Tawn Mastrey and Sam Mann make jokes about sex and the PTL throughout.
The outcome, like every other part of the show, is scripted. Some people will call it exploitive, some will call it dumb. The program creators will say they didn't promise anyone Shakespeare.
But there is more to this than sex and mud and rock 'n' roll. It's actually an attempt to expand the boundaries of pay-per-view television. The program delivery system, under which viewers are billed for each show they order, has hit a major snag. So far, the only types of programming that make money are wrestling and boxing. Attempts to attract viewers with musical events have failed. Most noteworthy was the Aug. 24 Who concert at the Universal Amphitheater in which the legendary group was joined by a supporting troupe of top stars to perform their ground-breaking rock opera "Tommy." Despite gobs of publicity, few TV viewers paid to see the show and it lost money.
The Rolling Stones will try their luck on pay per view in December.
But I.R.S. Media, run by rock impresario Miles Copeland, decided to try something different by producing "Thud." The idea is to lure different kinds of audiences to the same event: metal music for headbangers--as the heavy metal aficionados are known--female mud wrestling for another segment of the TV-viewing public and Jessica Hahn for all the rubberneckers who are curious about Jessica Hahn.
"Straight concerts have not proven to be successful," Copeland says backstage at the Park Plaza. As he sees it, the aspects of a rock concert that are exciting to see in person do not translate to television. The entertainment executive, who managed the Police to prominence and still manages Sting, says he's trying to combine a few disparate elements to see if he can create something larger.
"What we're trying to do is add one and one and hopefully get three," he says.
Outside, before the show is to start, I.R.S. Media President Paul Colichman is working the handpicked crowd that will compose the audience--nodding hellos along the line of guests waiting to get in and glad-handing the VIPs who are immediately escorted inside. He handles the chore with great ease and recalls that he was once a doorman. He also did a stint as a programming executive at Fox Broadcasting; he was the one who developed Joan Rivers' late-night talk show.
It was he and Spheeris, the director of renowned documentaries about the punk and heavy metal subcultures in Los Angeles, who dreamed up the idea for "Thud," he says.
"I knew I wanted to do a pay-per-view event," says Colichman, who runs the film arm of Copeland's mostly music company and produced Spheeris' metal documentary "The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years." But he recognized that only wrestling and boxing were attracting viewers to pay-per-view.
"I thought: 'How can I combine that with music?' " The concept came together when he and Spheeris were at Gazzarri's club on the Sunset Strip and noticed the mud wrestlers hanging out with the metal bands. Voila. When Spheeris agreed to direct the show, that was that.
Colichman and Copeland say that if Spheeris hadn't been interested, they probably wouldn't have produced the show. "When Penelope does it, it's art," Colichman says. "She's a genius."
The first band to hit the stage is Tuff. The crowd reacts slowly at first, except for club owner Bill Gazzarri, the godfather of metal, who's sitting with the head-bangers. Dressed in a white suit, tie and hat, he nods his head along with the rapid beat. After a minute or so, he stops and sticks his fingers in his ears.
Some time after Tuff's performance, Gazzarri, camera in hand, approaches the band's lead singer, Stevie Rachelle, and asks to have his picture taken with him. Snap.
Spheeris is in constant motion as she works behind a bank of TV monitors, directing all the camera crews, gesturing to the audience to stand up and shout, signaling to bring on the next pair of wrestlers.
Production staffers wander through the audience handing out free beer.
Up on stage, amid the pink leopard-skin print carpeting and the giant silver-stud wall mounts, Hahn motions to the crowd on her left.
"I wish the camera could get a look at this," she says, "because this looks like the PTL squares over here."
Before the night's taping ends, there is much mud flinging and performances by the bands Nuclear Assault, She-Rok, Grave Danger and Young Gunns. When the show finally ends, the crowd starts to file out, everyone still pumped up with energy and ready for more. Crew members congratulate each other. In a back room, the wrestlers drink beer and kick back.
"I love heavy metal," says wrestler Leslie Lessin. "It's radical." She thinks the metal-mud combo would make a great weekly TV series.
In a small editing room at I.R.S. headquarters in Universal City, Penelope Spheeris is going through the "Thud" footage, piecing together the parts that will give her the look she wants.
"This looks too phony," she tells the tape editor who sits beside her at the console. One mud wrestler is hurling herself at another. "Let's cut to something else right . . . there," says Spheeris.
Actually, phony is part of the look she's trying to get. But this particular move just looks too cheesy. The film director says she spent hours studying World Wrestling Federation shows to gear up for this directorial task.
"Why does the American public get into this phony violence?" she asks. "Ask anybody that's a WWF fan--they know everything is fixed. And still they get in there and yell and cheer for the guy they like. It's bizarre. I don't even like games when they're not fixed, so I really don't like them when they are fixed. But I was intrigued with this show because I really like heavy metal and rock 'n' roll."
Spheeris won critical acclaim with her 1979 punk documentary "The Decline of Western Civilization" and last year's metal sequel. She's also made a series of generally dark and violent feature films, including "Suburbia,"' "The Boys Next Door" and "Dudes." She also scouts bands for MCA and had signed the band Grave Danger, which appears in "Thud," to the record label.
She recognizes that her involvement in a heavily sex-oriented special might seem strange to some people, but says she isn't concerned.
"I really like this music," she says, "and whatever it takes to make it happen is fine with me, even if it's selling some sex with it."
She's excited that the unknown bands appearing in the show will get worldwide exposure.
"I was never a flag-waving feminist," says Spheeris. But she adds, "I believe that I am doing my role quite efficiently in breaking new ground for women because I'm sticking in here with this job of directing when women get paid one-fifth of what male directors get paid. So somewhere down the line, what I'm doing will help other women who are going to be directing someday, hopefully."
Spheeris also sees the "Thud" show as a chance for her to prove she can direct comedy and crack a market that has eluded her. For all the acclaim and attention she's received through her film work, Spheeris has been unable to land mainstream directing jobs. While it would appear that she only works on special projects that interest her, she actually has undergone long periods of unwanted unemployment.
"I can't get my foot in the door of straight television," she says. "And I would love to. I'm trying to with Dick Clark. I'm trying to at Fox. I've been in meetings at all the networks. I'm trying. But in the meantime, what am I supposed to do? I would right now be directing episodes of 'L.A. Law' if they would let me. That's where the money is. That's where the security for my daughter is. But they won't let me."
The show is over. The audience has cleared out. Jessica Hahn can finally put up her feet and relax for awhile. She sits up in the bleachers, with her brother, Spheeris and Colichman. She is talking about the PTL and Jim Bakker and says she doesn't mind all the joking reference about them in the "Thud" show.
"People are going to yell and scream and say, 'Didn't you use the PTL to get everything you have in life?' " she says. "And I'll tell you something: Everyone has started from somewhere and where they start does not matter."
As for doing the "Thud" show, she says, "I enjoy heavy-metal people. Theses are people that have been more honest with me than any preacher I've met in my life. When they shake your hand, there's no (hidden) motive. It's not, 'Let me be nice to this person. I'll be passing the offering plate later.' This is the beginning of something completely different for me in my life."
What does she suppose this will lead to, then?
"I can't see myself becoming a secretary again," says Hahn. "I could see myself doing a cameo somewhere or having a walk-on here or there."
"After people see her in this show," says Colichman, "she'll have so many offers she won't know what to do."
"When you've got thunder and you've got mud," says Spheeris, "you've got it all."