“Joe’s Apartment”: The original MTV short that first gave us sex, bugs and rock ‘n’ roll

By on December 3, 2015

In 1992, this original short film — a live-action/stop-motion cult classic featuring singing cockroaches, directed by John Payson, MTV’s then-current director of on-air promotion and animated I.D.’s. — aired between breaks in MTV’s programming, and as part of MTV’s Liquid Television animation showcase, and the award winner proved to be so popular that Payson was able to expand his ideas into a full-length musical comedy, MTV Film’s first movie.

Payson has said he was inspired to make his short after watching a short film from 1987, Those Damn Roaches, and another from that same year, the 105-minute Japanese film Gokiburi-tachi no Tasogare (Twilight of the Cockroaches), which combined both live-action and hand-drawn animation.

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Joe’s Apartment later won a CableACE Award, which made MTV executives sit up and take notice, and discuss the idea of expanding the film into a feature-length movie, their first for MTV Film, and in 1993, MTV made a deal with Geffen Pictures, to produce films based on the network’s properties and then distribute them through Warner Brothers Pictures.

Payson — who now had a $13 million budget to work with — spent the next year developing the script, which now had Joe (Jerry O’Connell) moving from the midwest to the East Village into a rent-controlled brownstone tenement building that just happens to be home to 50,000 cockroaches (some might say infested, but hey, these are talking, singing — barbershop quartet ballads, country tunes, gospel, you name it — and break-dancing roaches, so, hey, let’s show some respect).

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Joe’s unscrupulous slumlord landlord (Don Ho — yes, that Don Ho) has hired two vicious thugs to chase all tenants out of the building so the site can be sold to the city for a new maximum-security prison, a pet project of a powerful (read: corrupt) senator named Dougherty (Robert Vaughn), who may or may not secretly be a transvestite, and to complicate things further, Joe also happens to fall in love with the senator’s daughter, Lily (Megan Ward).

This time, Payson’s film — also called Joe’s Apartment — used computer-animated cockroaches, combining it with the stop-motion techniques he’d used before, and he supplemented this with tiny puppets and five thousand real cockroaches, wrangled onset by “roach wrangler” Ray Mendez, who was observed by a representative from the American Humane Association to make sure they weren’t harmed in any way.

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The CGI animation was done with Blue Sky Studios, supervised by animation director Chris Wedge — they’d previously done animated company logos and animated commercials — worked from storyboards, and among the voice actors who provided the voice of some of the cockroaches were some familiar comedians/actors Dave Chappelle, Tim Blake Nelson, BD Wong, and Rick Aviles (they’re among the lesser-known roaches, though, and don’t even get names), along with the ringleader cockroaches, played by “Futurama”‘s Billy West (he’s Ralph), Reginald Hudlin (he’s Rodney), and Jim Turner as a cockroach named Walter Shit. You might also recognize Paul Bartel, Moby, Vincent Pastore (Big Pussy from “The Sopranos”) and David Huddleston among the cast (or possibly just their voices).

Unfortunately for all of the parties involved, Joe’s Apartment bombed at the box office when it opened on July 26, 1996, making only $1.8 million at the box office before the movie was pulled from theaters in August. Warner Brothers sold the rights for its distribution back to future MTV Film productions back to MTV’s parent company, Viacom.

Critics were particularly harsh in their reviews, and Roger Ebert famously even wrote, in his August 1996 review: “I am informed that 5,000 cockroaches were used in the filming of Joe’s Apartment. That depresses me, but not as much as the news that none of them were harmed during the production. I do not like roaches, and I wonder if they even like themselves. Although it is said that after a nuclear holocaust they would inherit the earth, my guess is they would still scurry out of sight even when there was no one left to see them. “Joe’s Apartment” would be a very bad comedy even without the roaches, but it would not be a disgusting one. No, wait: I take that back. Even without the roaches, we would still have the subplot involving the pink disinfectant urinal cakes. Not everybody’s cup of tea.”

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Chris Wedge is probably best known today as a director, producer and voice actor of animation (he was a principal animator on the 1982 Disney film Tron), with an impressive résumé that includes the movies Ice Age (Blue Sky’s first computer-animated movie, directed by Wedge), Robots and Epic.

Apparently producers at 20th Century Fox were so impressed with Blue Sky’s work that they later aquired the Blue Sky feature-animation company.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.