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Special to the Tribune
August 11, 1999

He looks like the kind of guy who spends sunny Saturday afternoons in a terry cloth bathrobe and brown slippers, yelling at the neighborhood kids to keep off his front lawn.

You know the kind of guy I'm talking about: the stand-up, full-blooded American who insists he likes a good, clean joke as much as the next guy, but quickly mislays his sparkling sense of humor the minute some youngsters come crashing through his row of brushwood.

"I've never heard that one," he says, "although, somebody told me once that I looked like a 6th grade gym teacher.

"I guess that's just 'cause I have short hair and wear a shark skin suit," he appends and then waits an uncomfortably long moment before grinning a wide, wan grin that looks as if it requires every facial and neck muscle to hold in place.

It is a typical understatement -- typical for Ken Mottet, the perfectly square and hopelessly hokey 38-year-old host of cable TV's "The Otherside," atypical for everybody else with regular paying jobs that do not require employees to pull their pants down to their knees when a joke bombs in the office, something Mottet does every chance he gets.

Now in its fifth year, "The Otherside" is a music video show flourising in oblivion. Seen on on Fridays and Sundays in Chicago and on a handful of suburban cable systems, the show is a throwback to the MTV of 1984, back in the days when cheap videos, not slick programming blocks, were standard, and Mark Goodman had steady work and a shoulder-length perm.

"The philosophy for the show is that it should look or rather sound like any sane person's record collection," Mottet says, then begs to clarify. "My ideal show would open with a Dr. Dre video. Then an REO video, then Poison. Then Garth Brooks, then Matchbox 20.

"Remember, there are no bad videos, just bad parents."

The show is brainchild of Mike Hoffman and Mark Mensching, a couple of audio/visual junkies who graduated from Maine West High School and headed straight for the TCI studios in Skokie to further their education in broadcasting.

Beginning as an excuse to showcase videos that nobody else cared to air, "The Otherside" mutated into a hybrid of fringe music and shtick, the kind of thing you'd expect if you combined "120 Minutes" with Steve Allen and served it to urban hipsters who adore obscure videos and plenty of cornball gags that are sometimes so bad, they're actually entertaining.

"To me, when you see a guy who looks square and then he does something weird, that is a very cool thing. Like, if you were watching `Dragnet' and all of sudden Jack Webb started tap dancing, that would be a good thing," Mottet says.

The true story of "The Otherside" unfurls in Mottet's Uptown living room.

"The real reason the show started," Mottet says, "was because the same record companies that were sending all these heavy metal videos to Mike and Mark for their other shows would also send them all these other kinds of videos as well. Country stuff. Alternative stuff. Rap stuff.

"So they created this `alternative' music show to showcase these other videos, named it `The Otherside,' and roped a couple of hosts to serve as VJs. Eventually, one of the hosts had had it and left. Then the other host left. When that other host left, they mothballed it."

Not long after shelving the idea, "TV Mark" and "TV Mike" as Mottet calls them, walked right into his life, back when he was slinging amps at a local music store and wondering what his next move was going to be, if there was a next move.

Mottet already had more than his share of deliberate living in the years that preceded his still-current day job at the North Shore music store. After graduating from the University of Iowa in 1984, he was wasting time around his parents' hog farm in his hometown of Fairfield, Iowa, and smoking cigarettes.

Even then he had the subversive rockabilly look working overtime for him: An Ersel Hickey tattoo on his right bicep, just above an atomic symbol; a skinny Elvis circa 1958 on his left arm, not far below a fiendishly inaccurate inking of Lenny Bruce screaming across his deltoid. All this, packed tightly under a foot and a half pompadour and a whisper of eyeliner, a la Brian Setzer, back when he was the rail thin front man of the Stray Cats.

On a lark, he moved to Chicago and started flinging pizzas. Quickly, he learned he wasn't the only guy in the world who was into the retro revival. Feeling somewhat demoralized at his loss of uniqueness after finding that there were other people on the planet who dug old Chevys, bi-level pompadours and Ersel Hickey tattoos, Mottet was happy to hear from an old Iowa buddy in 1985 who had just landed a gig at a 24-hour UHF station in Anchorage, Alaska. His job? Hosting the "All Night Diner" music video show. And he needed some help.

"This was a golden opportunity for me," he says. "I grew up watching Red Skelton and Ernie Kovacs (reruns), so to be on TV is pretty cool to me. And I always thought music videos were way cool.

"Put those two together and, man, you've got just about the coolest thing in the world." Literally, considering he was heading way north to Alaska. The rush was on.

"I can still remember sitting on the plane, wearing a gray shark skin suit, smoking Lucky's and putting them out in the ashtray in the arm of my seat.

"I fell asleep, and woke up and looked out the window and saw impossibly gigantic mountains covered with snow, and oil refineries wedged between them and I said, `Man, I'm not in Iowa anymore. I've gone to the moon.' "

After about eight months of playing Bruce Springsteen and Duran Duran videos at the "All Night Diner," working under the stage name of Jack Stevens (the name of one of his college professors), a homesick Mottet headed back to Chicago to resume a seemingly go-nowhere life in the naked city. End flashback.

"Mike and Mark were really my lifesavers," he says. "They were always in the (music) store, borrowing equipment, and I just started to bug them. I made a demo reel of the stuff I did in Alaska, and I gave it to them and just kept bugging them.

"One day they came in and said, `Hey, buddy, we used to have this show called `The Otherside.' You want to try hosting it?' "

Producer/director/editor Hoffman had his reasons for knuckling under.

"We thought this guy was either brilliant or dangerous," he says. "Either way, we figured we better give him a show." What Hoffman and his partner soon discovered was that their new host had all the morbid allure of what Hoffman calls, "a good car wreck."

Within a few weeks, Mottet was on camera, doing what he does naturally: amusing himself.

"That is job one. Entertaining me. My favorite moment is when we do a bit, and I pause, and I hear Mike laughing down the hall. If I make him laugh, then I really know I hit it," Mottet says.

Unfortunately -- or fortunately -- there's no surefire way to measure viewership of the program, being that it is a cable access property. No Arbitron. No Nielsen ratings for public access.

"Actually," Mottet interjects, "we do have a Nielsen rating. Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick likes what we do. So we get a one."

The best way for the sharpest square in town to rate the popularity of this woefully under-appreciated program is to simply make his way around the city and notice how many people notice him.

"I'll be at the grocery store and hear, `Hey, you're that guy who pulls his pants down and plays videos, aren't you?' " he says. "If I hear that 10 times a season, I'm a happy guy, whether we get this thing to the next level or not."

The next level being a wider commercial audience -- and a paycheck -- for Mottet for doing the same kind of oddly thrilling things he's doing now, twice a month, 10 months out of the year, for free.

"The way I look at it is, if 50,000 Elvis fans can't be wrong, then 100 Ken Mottet fans are absolutely right.


Only the 100, plus this one, can tell at this point.

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