Travel back to June 30, 1984. It’s pitch-black outside, you have a cable subscription, and you’re bored. Maybe you’re in New York and just made your way back, bleary-eyed, from a late-night movie and want to keep the buzz going. Maybe you’re a teenager in Ohio, flipping through the channels after your parents have gone to bed. Maybe you’re a kid up a little past your bedtime on the West Coast, where cable channels with only one transponder, like the then-fledgling USA Network, air their late-night programming in prime time.
If you’re looking for something out of the ordinary, all roads lead to one destination: Night Flight, which for seven years aired on USA in the wee hours of Friday and Saturday nights.
This particular night — a typical one, if that’s the right word — Night Flight’s informative, never-seen host Pat Prescott introduces a bunch of music videos themed around sex. “Freud showed us that a candle is not always a candle, a fig not always a fig, and the Empire State Building is not only a symbol of urban architecture,” he explains. “Music videos use phallic and vaginal symbols to strengthen the connection between sexuality and music.” The episode ends with the 1980 short film Speed of Light, almost certainly the only national exposure given to the Texas filmmaker Brian Hansen, a favorite of Jonathan Demme. Sandwiched between them (alongside ads promoting “coffee achievers” and Playboy subscriptions): a World War II-era film about the dangers of booby traps, an excerpt from an unidentified (but wild-looking) gangster movie, and many more music videos, ranging from mainstream acts to performers you’d seldom see anywhere else.
Anything could pop up on Night Flight, and did. Tune in one hour and you might find a themed block of music videos. Drop in a little later and you could be greeted with a low-budget monster movie starring Bela Lugosi, or a documentary about reggae, or old cartoons, or movies that essentially never aired anywhere else, like Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains, a 1982 film starring a teenaged Laura Dern and Diane Lane alongside various members of The Clash and the Sex Pistols with a cult following that stems almost entirely from Night Flight’s middle-of-the-night airings.
Giving much of the country its first exposure to outré punk, cult, and stoner-friendly programming, Night Flight was like a rebellious MTV (but not so rebellious as to avoid ZZ Top or John Cougar Mellencamp) as programmed by that one video store clerk with the Hüsker Dü shirt and the edgy haircut. It’s a project that could only have existed during the Wild West days of cable, when simply filling the hours could be challenging. Fittingly, Night Flight went off the air in 1988, near the close of that era. Apart from some syndicated best-of reruns in the early ’90s, the show all but disappeared.
Then, weirdly, unexpectedly, and almost stealthily, it came back.
In 2015, a Night Flight website popped up featuring show excerpts and articles putting them in context. March 2016 saw the premiere of Night Flight Plus, a video subscription service featuring old episodes and an impressively deep selection of the sort of programming that either aired as part of Night Flight — or could have aired as part of Night Flight, had the show stretched into the ’90s and beyond. Two years later, a much-abbreviated version of Night Flight returned to cable on IFC. The world might have changed, but the guiding sensibility remained the same, no doubt in part because Night Flight creator Stuart S. Shapiro was behind the return.
But it might never have happened if not for a Night Flight fan.
“There was a Yahoo! Night Flight user group that used to trade VHS tapes of the show for years,” Shapiro says by phone from his New York office. “One day a guy tried to reach me through it and said, ‘I’ve got the Night Flight library.’” He didn’t mean the VHS dubs others had been trading, either. He meant a warehouse filled with videotapes that his Oklahoma-based company had acquired with some other distressed assets.
The reunion was years in the making. Burnt out, Shapiro had left the show in late 1986. “We were living a crazy life. It was analog days,” he says. “It ran 52 weeks a year for years. I was the lead producer, and editing and directing, and I had to get out of bed in the morning and go to the office to work on acquisition. It was brutal. And there were a lot of drugs.” Wanting to move on for the sake of his health and family, he sold his stake to a partner who subsequently lost control of the assets after Night Flight’s cancellation.
Shapiro, who began his career as an independent film distributor in the ’70s and recently published the memoir Identifi Yourself, still speaks of his departure with regret and sounds grateful for the second chance created when he obtained the show’s library in 2008. He likens reacquiring the show to losing “a right arm, and then 20, 30 years later, someone dug it up.” But what could he do with it? For a time, nothing, apart from digitizing the old tapes. But with the plethora of streaming services popping up in the mid-2000s, new opportunities presented themselves.
Is the fact that Night Flight’s interests and aesthetics remain rooted in a particular time a feature or a bug? Night Flight Plus — a subscription-based app and website that allows customers to access the show’s archives and a plethora of simpatico films, TV shows, and other items — does feature some music docs and other items that look beyond Night Flight’s ’80s heyday to explore hip-hop and indie rock. But you’re much more likely to find programming devoted to Bob Marley, Devo, the Us Festival, and the Church of the SubGenius. Partnering with distributors like Something Weird, Full Moon, Blue Underground, and Arrow Films, it also offers an intriguing selection of cult and B-movies of the variety the original series might have shown (and precious few produced after Bill Clinton became president).
True to its name, it resembles the old show, plus more. The jewel in the crown, however, remains material from the original run, from hours of uncut (and commercial-filled) broadcasts to New Wave Theatre (a showcase for ’80s Los Angeles acts) to a stand-up special featuring a babyfaced Chris Rock and Rosie O’Donnell. For pop culture archaeologists, it’s like finding the intact temple of a disbanded religion.
Yet in an age when virtually everything that ever aired can be found online, is such a service really necessary? “YouTube is a big black hole that you have to go into and really search [for] what you may want,” Shapiro says. “It’s not curated. The world of programming and the world of intellectual pursuit is a curatorial world. People are willing and want to pay for curation.”
Shapiro likens streaming services to satellite radio. As anyone who’s been paralyzed by the choices offered by Spotify or Apple Music can attest, sometimes you want to play music, but sometimes you want someone to find and play music for you. Shapiro believes Night Flight can find an audience by serving a specific audience: those looking for a smart, focused selection drawn from a particular strand of weirdness and cutting-edge music circa 1981-88 (one that also draws on the counterculture of the preceding decades and looks ahead a bit to subsequent eras).
The vision for a Night Flight of the streaming era involves a scenario in which consumers can bundle together services for a flat rate. But any forward-looking pragmatism doesn’t get in the way of a loftier vision that depends on the community spirit and good will of subscribers.
“You’re paying not just for the ability to know you can find something,” Shapiro says, “you’re also part of an intellectual and cultural community of like-minded people that you know are watching similar stuff that you feel willing to support. It’s sort of like, why do you pay a museum membership when you may only go one or two times a year? You feel good about supporting that museum. When there’s a good exhibition, you go. When you have a couple of hours, you go to it. Sometimes you just go for the sake of going.”
It might not be a traditional museum, but if Dr. Ruth talking to LL Cool J on an advice show for teens, a London-based martial artist breaking a towering block of ice accompanied by Captain Beefheart music, and music videos featuring dog police don’t deserve preservation, then what does?
Keith Phipps is a writer and editor specializing in film, television, and other aspects of popular culture. He lives in Chicago with his wife and daughter and does not currently moonlight as a masked vigilante. Find him on Twitter @kphipps3000.