As We Remember 1993: The Branding of Cool

Justin Spicer / January 15, 2013
conan-letterman
David Letterman appears on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien

One can’t talk pop culture without delving into branding. Scores of youth exist to spit at such an idea, ignoring the fact that their life is swallowed by brand loyalties. From what is listened to and watched, what is worn, what you eat, drive and use as the basis to complete everyday chores—it’s etched from brands and products you’ve grown accustomed to using. Brands equate reliability and predictability and no matter how boring it sounds, we are part of the consumer culture.

As is music. Scoff and scowl if you must but it’s likely you found yourself intertwined in the two if you were young enough to be influenced by any number of fads and fashions during 1993.

The largest needs no categorization. MTV continues to be one of the most recognizable global brands. Even as people asked aloud why the channel insisted on maintaining its name (the Viacom owned channel finally relented in 2010 realizing MTV could be an acronym without old associations for a newer generation), MTV became a behemoth of youth culture. However jaded you are about MTV, it has many iterations worldwide, each as different and reflective of the culture as MTV in the United States. So as people bemoan the explosion of reality-centric TV or the lack of music videos, it showcases the weakness of our brand loyalty: we refuse to let go of an association until we must.

But As We Remember doesn’t suffer under such righteous indignation. We can remember the good times, so let’s do that. We’ll begin by further examining MTV’s pivotal programs in 1993 that continue to hold cultural relevance and go from there.

The Jon Stewart Show

It’s doubtful few know Jon Stewart outside of a few movie appearances and his position as anchor of “The Daily Show,” but truth be told Stewart was positioned as a golden boy of MTV programming in the early Nineties.

MTV’s first attempt to showcase Stewart’s affable personality came with the short-lived program “You Wrote It, You Watch It.” Turns out that MTV’s call for viewer submissions of whacky ideas turned into recreations by a crack staff of comedians (who will get to in a moment) as introduced by Stewart. As Stewart has since put it, people wrote it but didn’t watch it.

But MTV saw something in the strapping kid and gave him his own talkie. “The Jon Stewart Show” launched in 1993 to strong ratings, the show positioned behind only “Beavis and Butthead” on the MTV hierarchy.

 


Weird Al guests on The Jon Stewart Show
The failures of “The Jon Stewart Show” follow a predictable script. It was a hit with MTV’s built-in audience but the network wanted more. The show went to syndication, was picked up by some stations but couldn’t compete with the likes of Leno and Letterman. It was cancelled in 1995.

But the seeds were planted. Now Jon Stewart’s name is synonymous with modern political satire. He took over “The Daily Show” from original host Craig Kilborn in 1999 and helped to transform its platform into a hard hitting expose on current events and the media’s coverage (or lack thereof). Stewart is now seen as equal to Letterman and Leno, as the youthful audience he cultivated 20 years ago has grown up with him and walks in step with his idiosyncrasies and witty personality.

The State

Remember those “comedians” who acted out the sketches for “You Wrote It, You Watch It”? Yeah, that rag-tag band of fresh faced college grads would go onto their own MTV program as well.

 


(Trailer for “The State” on DVD)
Ignoring the cultural impact of “The State” is impossible, even if the original run of the program had but a cult following (one that did deliver the troupe a deal with CBS that only yielded a Halloween special). The members of The State not only delivered three seasons of memorable absurdist humor, many of its stars have infiltrated Hollywood with equally dry and strange movies, television shows and books. As MTV had done with Stewart, they did with the cast of “The State.”

The brand of asinine humor perpetuated by the show is now entrenched in prime time sitcoms. The hapless, half-witted hijinks of shows such as “Community” and “Happy Endings” can attribute their best moments to the strange frequencies of “The State” and its stars. The immediate spin-offs (“Viva Variety” and “Reno 911” most famous among them) further solidified the star-power of cast members Thomas Lennon and Michael Ian Black. Ken Marino was the first to be given a prime time shot at success in the short lived American adaptation of British sitcom “Men Behaving Badly,” replacing Ron Eldard. David Wain has earned a hard fought reputation has a film director unafraid to mix heart-of-the-matter honesty with oddball storytelling techniques, first in the cult (a word to be peppered through this article) film Wet Hot American Summer and now in more popular Hollywood fare such as Role Models and Wanderlust.

 


(The NSFW awesomeness of Paul Rudd in Wet Hot American Summer)
Though triumphs for members of The State came in small, slow doses (many behind the scenes as screenwriters and producers), most of the original eleven now have a comfortable slice of entertainment revenue from audiences both loyal to their beginnings or those just now learning of the group’s brilliance.

DGC

The initials DGC brought their own brand of cool. Founded as an offshoot to the eponymous Geffen Records by David Geffen (always the acolyte of narcissism), the label founded in 1990 pushed cool from its first year of operations. Sonic Youth, John Doe (X) and The Posies were just some of the first bands to populate the label. And Geffen, ever the consummate professional (minus his legal tussle with Neil Young in the early 80s) with an ear for upcoming acts, listened to that roster of cool to land his big fish, Nirvana, at the behest of Thurston Moore.

 


(Aimee Mann – “I Should’ve Known”)
That bought DGC and Moore further carte blanche and both used it in spades by 1993. The previous year was quite for the label, but with the breakthrough of the Counting Crows’ debut August and Everything After , the hype of Chaz Bono’s band Ceremony and the signing of new Moore suggestion Cell, DGC was raking in the cool points. Though it would be one year later before the release of treasure compilation DGC Rarities Volume 1, it was a release overflowing with B-sides from ’93 (“Mad Dog 20/20” from Teenage Fanclub, “Einstein on the Beach (for an Eggman)” from Counting Crows and “Open Every Window” from The Posies to name but a few), it spoke to the power of DGC and its roster that a rarities release would be highly anticipated.

 


(Hot Topic’s first commercial, originally aired in 1993)
 

Hot Topic

It took until 1993 for Hot Topic to make itself known via commercials and it’s likely you’ve never seen a Hot Topic commercial because it’s unnecessary. The retail chain established its brand wisely, entrenching stores in every community mall that could appeal to teens in identity crisis. Daphne Carr explored the phenomena of Hot Topic in her 33 1/3 tome concerning Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine, tying the outlet’s success to the gothic and industrial trends carved out in the alternative market.

But when hasn’t black and band t-shirts not appealed to teenagers? It’s an outward sign of rebellion and uneasiness with aging; logos and band paraphernalia an open sign of cultural norms for the scene that best describes the emotions and situations of daily life as imagined by youth.

Hot Topic latched onto that early-life ennui and gave it life. And the company still does it today, forever ahead of the trend and always tracking the tragedies of growing up. Audible scoffs are going off across the readership and though I never wore a piece of clothing from Hot Topic, I know its power. I’ve witnessed it, you’ve witnessed it and there is no shame in admitting that its influence helped sustain a musical movement in an era when consumerism was a fickle beast. Hot Topic helped fight the beast bubblegum until it was time to give up the ghost.

The Late Night Wars

There’s a generation blissfully ignorant to the war waged over The Tonight Show and the duplicitous nature of the entertainment business. But it became a public war in the early 90s thanks to NBC executives promising two top-notch personalities the same position: the new host of the storied late night variety program.

Best summed up by Bill Carter’s book The Late Shift, Jay Leno became the villain for many and David Letterman, the supposed barb became a momentary hero. The fallout came to a head in 1993 when Leno assumed hosting duties at The Tonight Show and Letterman left NBC for CBS and his own late night program, “Late Show with David Letterman,” which upon its debut on August 30 officially launched the late night wars.

Though other late night hosts had come and gone (Arsenio Hall, Joan Rivers, Pat Sajak) and some had struck fleeing success, Leno and Letterman were often viewed as the top two pillars upon their ascensions by the end of 1993.

 

(David Letterman appears on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien)
Letterman’s absence in NBC’s late night slot opened up new competition but Conan O’Brien, a former writer for “Saturday Night Live” and “The Simpsons” and relative unknown, was tapped to replace the talk show vet at the behest of Lorne Michaels. His debut on September 13 was a disaster, as were many of the first few weeks as O’Brien adjusted to the format, as he and the show’s staff dealt with critical pressure and audience expectations.

 

(Conan O’Brien’s cold open from his debut episode)
It took time to find and attract his audience and the public was witness to the O’Brien, sidekick Andy Richter and the writing staff figuring out their voice every weeknight for the better part of a year, O’Brien became a late night staple and the go-to alternative talk show host. His show gave rise to the whole of the Upright Citizen’s Brigade (featuring a young and unknown Amy Poehler) and Jack McBrayer later in its lifecycle. And as history often does, O’Brien became the new foe for Leno to tackle during the mess of “The Tonight Show” 17 years later.

The Leno versus Letterman fiasco blew open the flood gates of late night. The aforementioned Jon Stewart is now a part of the fracas with “The Daily Show,” and the trials of Conan O’Brien has led him to an 11 P.M. slot on cable station TBS. The recent move of Jimmy Kimmel’s ABC program to 11:35 P.M. and the emergence of Chelsea Handler has given rise to a crowded late night market (not including the successes of O’Brien, Craig Kilborn and Craig Ferguson in the later slot).

What is cool is always up for interpretation but the above examples had their cache, whether immediate or cultivated over time.

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