"Somebody said to me...so what kind of show do you want to do," says Lane Steinberg, 40. "And I said, I want to put out the sickest shit that I can possibly think of."
He might have succeeded. Arguably the most interesting and disturbing program on cable television these days is Mustafio, which is the creation of Steinberg and his 46-year-old friend and fellow Forest Hills resident, Jeff Pollack.
"This was really born in the outer boroughs," Pollack says, bubbling with laughter.
We're sitting on Saturday evening in an East Village coffee shop, and Steinberg, who has an expressive, friendly face, wears jeans and white tennis shoes. Pollack's a bright-eyed, bearded man wearing an open-necked shirt, his hair blown up into a pompadour. A gold Star of David hangs around his neck. It's a nice sight: straight-up Queens guys as gifted surrealist freakout auteurs.
I've watched a lot of Mustafio, which has been on since 1999, and I'm still not sure how to explain it. But let me try. A disembodied late-middle-aged face dominates your tv screen: expressionless dark eyes under a huge forehead, mouth pursed in what's either a smile or a grimace?you never know. This is Mustafio's face; it never leaves the screen and its expression never changes. Pollack, who performs the videography on home equipment, messes a bit with the image: works in washes of color, psychedelic lights and bead-patterns. Sometimes the face, for no good reason, moves to the left. Or to the right. Sometimes it grows bigger, to fill more of the screen, or else it recedes into the distance. Sometimes there's some ghostly old washed-out news footage in the background. And that's it, visually.
The show's other component is the soundtrack, which consists of relentless stream-of-consciousness monologues, written by both partners and read by Steinberg?he records at home, where he admits he bugs out his young daughter?in a central or eastern European accent, against a disturbing ambiance of satanic-industrial clangings and wind-tunnel moanings.
I know this sounds underwhelming on paper, and it's no use quoting from Mustafio's monologues to prove my point, since they're inextricable from Steinberg's incredible voice?from his rhythms and intonations. But trust me. The show is surrealism of a high order. Pollack and Steinberg cite Duchamp and Buñuel as influences; I was reminded of Bruce Naumann's nightmarish video installations. Mustafio's effect on me was so creepy that I honestly had compunctions about meeting the men behind it, and Pollack laughed when I mentioned that the show?that endlessly declaiming and mirthlessly laughing frozen head?is disconcerting. A bad-trip lava lamp, I suggested to them. "Right! That's really good!" they both exclaimed.
"I would say Mustafio's like a mood ring..." Steinberg elaborates. "It's sort of a reflection. Some people say, this is really horrible what you're doing. Some people are insulted by it. Some people think it's really light?like light comedy. Jeff always says it's a variety show."
The monologues are compelling even apart from the enigmatic Mustafio image?and in fact the partners have released three CDs' worth of Mustafio monologues, which are being played on radio stations across the country, including, locally, WFMU.
"It's great drive-time stuff," Steinberg says sarcastically.
"It would be really great on hold," Pollack giggles.
The partners met through their work. Both are employed as "field retention executives" ("we're bill collectors," Pollack says) by Time Warner cable in Queens. Working for the cable company started both men thinking about getting themselves onto television, and they began playing around on public access.
"It started out as a show where we would interview people who were sort of insane," says Steinberg. "We'd find street people in Queens and we'd interview them with these hypothetical questions about events that really haven't occurred."
"It would be basically dada that we were creating," Pollack adds. "And then we would chop it up in the editing..."
"Right. And there was this weird recurring character, this Mustafio character, someone that would just sort of show up on the show and offer this kind of oblique commentary once in a while, and he just started to take over."
Pollack laughs again. "He basically ate the show."
Both men write the material, whipping e-mails back and forth to each other in what Steinberg calls a "Delphic fury."
But oh man, the flat, gray strangeness of that face. Mustafio's face?which is actually that of a friend of the partners who perhaps wisely chooses to remain anonymous?is, as Pollack and Steinberg point out, a sort of Mona Lisa in its ambiguity. An infernal Mona Lisa. Mustafio even, I suggest, looks dead. It's as if we're looking at a corpse.
"See?" Pollack says, cracking up. "It's a variety show!"
"He might be dead," says Steinberg, shrugging at the possibility.
Mustafio's one of those rare cable access shows that you can imagine breaking out. In fact, I could imagine Mustafio's face becoming iconic, and wouldn't mind a stickering campaign: Mustafio staring from every wall in Manhattan. Someone should make a Mustafio graffiti template.
"We didn't think anyone would actually like the show," Pollack admits, "but it turns out that we get e-mails from all over the country.
Steinberg: "People trade tapes. We'll get a letter from Texas or something, a printed page of just question marks..."
Pollack: "We're getting e-mails from high school students that actually memorized the show and regurgitate the script of the show in school the next day."
And Pollack says, only half-joking: "I think it would do well in France as a cinematic thing."
"Jeff seems to think that France is our destiny," Steinberg responds. "I don't know why. We'd have to get it dubbed or subtitled or something."
"Subtitled!" Pollack's eyes light up.
Meanwhile, life can intrude on art. "I have to explain this to a family court judge," Pollack claims. "Seriously. That's exactly what I'm going to have to deal with. I'm in family court, a custody battle [for] my daughter. And my ex is going to bring the show to family court and play it for the judge."
"I told him he's cooked," says Steinberg.