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'Let's Bowl': How Minnesota’s weirdest TV game show made it to prime time

courtesy of Tim Scott

courtesy of Tim Scott

It’s spring, 1995. A handful of people file into Bryant-Lake Bowl’s tiny theater to watch a pilot for Let’s Bowl. Through the magic of film, the audience is transported just a few feet away to the venue’s bowling lanes.

The host is Ernie Wilson (John Brady), a smarmy, chain-smoking, Hugh Hefner type. He introduces the crew: affable musical director Trip Stevenson (Drew Jansen); the Prize Twins, two women with big hair, sashes, and tiaras; and play-by-play man Steve “Chopper” Sedahl.

Then color commentator Wally Bungherdt (Rich Kronfeld) shows up. He’s awkward and frantic, gripping the microphone of his headset, nervously rocking back and forth. He announces that the bowling alley gave him “a stool that’s just killing my ass to sit on.”

The show proclaims that people are competing for big wins. The bowling commences. The two bowlers, “J.R. from Minneapolis” and “Mark from Brooklyn Park,” aren’t very good. J.R. repeatedly bounces his ball down the lane.

Wally can’t stop laughing about how “Mark from Brooklyn Park” rhymes, and he makes a few dated “who shot J.R.?” jokes. “He’s got the concentration, but he doesn’t have the skill,” he says of J.R., whom he accidentally refers to as Mark. Steve also screws up a few calls, often suggesting that a roll looks good only to have it knock down a few pins.

The bowlers finish with a score of 123 to 118. Mark from Brooklyn Park wins. Butch Todd (Nick Schenk), a creepy slob in tattered coveralls, brings him his prize: a 2.5-gallon jug of laundry detergent. Taking second place, J.R. scores a four-pound can of Starkist tuna.

photos courtesy of Tim Scott

photos courtesy of Tim Scott

This was the pilot for a show that would eventually make it all the way to primetime on Comedy Central. But first, it needed to make it to a public access channel.

Rewind back to 1986. Tim Scott was working on Bowlerama, a Twin Cities-based show that pit serious local bowlers against each other for humble prizes like Schmidt beer coolers. While Scott didn’t care much for bowling, the gig would send him down a path. “I did like the idea of a bowling show that wasn’t straight and was more like a comedy,” he says.

A few years later, he was on his way to finding his cast. Scott had landed a job as a contributing writer on Mystery Science Theatre 3000. Joel Hodgson, the star of that show, invited him to a party at Rich Kronfeld’s house, where he would find his leading man.

At the time, Kronfeld was known about town for playing “Dr. Sphincter” on Tightline, a local cable access show. The character was a repressed, angry, ultra-right-wing fanatic who would interview guests, typically a fake author, in the style of an intellectual talk show that would eventually devolve into relentless grilling.

“It was kind of like Stephen Colbert’s show, except it was with this real extreme kind of character,” says Kronfeld.

Tightline and Dr. Sphincter caught on locally. The Twin Cities Reader voted it the best locally produced show of 1990, and in a 1992 issue of City Pages Jim Walsh called Sphincter “the king of cable comedy.”

“I thought Dr. Sphincter [would make] a great bowling commentator,” says Scott. “We both gravitated toward the imperfect, flawed, odd, troubled, dark characters in life. The ugly and the strange.”

Kronfeld was on board right away. While Dr. Sphincter’s politics didn’t make it into his new character, Wally Bungherdt (later renamed Wally Hotvedt), the voice and the intensity did.

Next, Wally needed a straight man. On-air personality Steve Sedahl, whom Scott had met while working at Cable Value Network, was their guy. From there, Scott hired a musician (Drew Jansen, an MST3K writer and a musical director at Brave New Workshop), a host (John Brady), and a writer (Nick Schenk).

With the crew coming together, they now needed a location to shoot the pilot. Scott talked with Danny Schmitz at Bryant-Lake Bowl and convinced him to let them film at the venue and screen the pilot in their theater.

While the reception was positive at that test screening, it would be two more years before more Let’s Bowl episodes were made. The next step would be to raise funds.

During that time, Scott continued to work on the project. He found a more permanent film location at Stahl House Lanes in St. Paul, scored use of the TV truck that handled St. Paul Saints games, and secured funds through a sponsorship deal with Special Export beer.

Now that they had more cash, Scott was able to bring the crew back for new episodes. A few minor changes were made, too. Since filming the pilot, Brady had moved to L.A., and Jansen’s character was renamed Ernie. The “Prize Twins” became the “Queen Pins.” The extra money also allowed for musical guests, including the VibroChamps and Interstate Judy. There was also money for a new segment, called “Inside Bowling.”

Rick Kronfeld and Steve Sedahl

Rick Kronfeld and Steve Sedahl

“‘Inside Bowling,’ to me, was really the heart of it,” says Sedahl.

Some “Inside Bowling” segments looked into the bowling world or went behind the scenes. Sometimes they had nothing to do with either of those things; one skit reflected on Wally’s time in Flock of Seagulls while another was a montage following the two commentators as they terrorized the city on Halloween.

The most notorious “Inside Bowling” segment was the one where Wally and Steve demonstrated how to properly dispose of a bowling ball. Methods included throwing the ball in a ditch, painting it like a soccer ball, throwing it in a lake, and putting it on a neighbor’s sewer vent.

Segments like these really let Kronfeld go wild as Wally, where he would do things like fight people on the street, eat an entire sheet cake, or destroy the bathroom while touring a bowling-shoe factory.

“Kronfeld would nail that every time,” says Scott. “He could do that range of sad, pitiful, desperate, angry, and flying off the handle.”

Jansen also got to demonstrate his chops in one of the show’s most beloved bits, “The Many Loves of Ernie Jansen.”

“They rented this huge house out in Eden Prairie or somewhere in that area, and they had this woman, an artist from Excelsior named Phyllis Weiner, of all things, and they decided that she was my sugar mama,” he recalls.

In the skit, Ernie shares all the things he loves in his life, including his new wife, his new SUV, his turquoise rocks, his spoon collection, the traps he sets up in his backyard, and his voiceover work for adult videos. The segment ended with a passionate makeout session.

In these new episodes, the show was also more creative with the competition part. There was an episode where two convicts, watched very closely by guards, bowled against each other for prizes they had no chance of using. First place was dinner for two at Old Country Buffet, and second place was 20 pounds of spuds.

In another episode, a regular guy and a dude dressed as a gladiator bowled against each other—and no one acknowledged the gladiator’s attire. Another had a 6-year-old kid bowling against a professional.

The bigger budget also meant they could add a mascot.

“We searched for the worst costume we could find,” remembers Scott.

What they found was a pig costume. No funny bits or cutesy details, just a pig.

To fill the costume, they recruited Matt Sarazine, whose mom, Berni, worked behind the scenes on the show. “We don’t care,” Scott told Sarazine of his job duties. “Just walk around in the background. Don’t even do anything that remotely looks like a mascot. Sit around, walk in the frame, and just stand there motionless, like a ghost.”

When Scott took these episodes to channel 23, original home of MST3K, he was turned away. Next, he tried KXLI, channel 41. The station agreed to air the program if they could keep the revenue from 10 commercial spots.

Now that Let’s Bowl was an actual television show, they needed to find an audience. They decided to try some tech-savvy promotions.

“The internet at that time was very new, but I went out and I got the domain letsbowl.com,” says Sedahl.

A superfandom soon formed. A fan club, dubbed the Alley Cats, helped build a community around the program. Viewers could also talk to Scott directly; the phone number displayed during episodes was actually his home number. Scott says the messages left on his answering machine were mostly positive, though he’d occasionally get something along the lines of, “If I meet you I’m going to punch you in the face.”

After building up a catalog of seven episodes on channel 41, Scott and Kronfeld began pitching to bigger networks. They took the show to Comedy Central, HBO, and others, but no one was willing to buy it.

Not ready to give up yet, they found another pitch they could make. Nate Dungan, frontman of the band Trailer Trash, had previously helped the show secure advertisers. He knew of a big opportunity: The media wing of the Anheuser-Busch corporation was coming to the Twin Cities to meet with radio and TV stations to figure out their advertising for the year.

Since Special Export had been helpful through their early episodes, the Let’s Bowl crew were hopeful that Busch could provide more funding. “The meeting agenda looked something like: Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Vikings, KQRS, Let’s Bowl,” Scott recalls.

“By the end of that day, they are spreadsheet- and numbered-out,” Dungan warned them.

So they decided to go big.

“We went into the room early and we hid all our props behind sofas and in the closets,” says Scott.

Sedahl and Kronfeld, in character, gave the presentation. “I was doing the straight bit and Kronfeld was doing this whole convoluted slideshow complete with a projector and slides,” Sedahl recalls.

“I was complaining about my neighbor,” Kronfeld says, “because he kept leaving his garage door open and it was driving me crazy.”

“Sedahl had to grab the remote control for the slide projector out of his hands and speed through all of Kronfeld’s slides that he put in that were showing bombing runs on Dresden,” says Scott.

The bold move worked. They were invited to Chicago for another meeting, where they eventually procured $30,000. The money bought them six new episodes, but also gave them some additional leverage in negotiating.

“Just on a whim I took it to KARE 11,” says Kronfeld, “Surprisingly, I got a call back.” The director of programming liked the show, and wanted it to run after Saturday Night Live. Because KARE 11 had a Busch advertising contract of their own, they let the show keep more of the advertising slots than a show of Let’s Bowl’s caliber would typically have been able to ask for.

Now that Let’s Bowl had a bigger following and a shiny new pilot (featuring musical guest Soul Asylum), Scott and Kronfeld went back to Comedy Central for their fourth try, and they were finally picked up.

“They said it tested better than any pilot they had ever made at that point in time,” says Kronfeld.

It was exactly what the network was looking for. “[Comedy Central] wanted a game show, and we came along at the right time,” he says. “And we were super cheap compared to their other shows.”

Let’s Bowl was picked up for a 10-episode season, airing at 9:30 p.m. on Sundays, right between The Man Show and South Park. It had originally been slated for a late-night slot, but the numbers from the test audience were enough to push it into primetime.

But with the better time slot came more expectations. To the cast and crew, Let’s Bowl was always a comedy/variety show that happened to be in a bowling alley. Comedy Central, on the other hand, viewed it as a comedy sports show. This meant the competition had to carry more weight on the new installments. The executives, enamored with an earlier episode where a divorced couple bowled to see who got possession of their microwave, decided they wanted the program built around two people settling some sort of dispute, People’s Court-style... with bowling.

This handcuffed the creativity of the show, says Kronfeld. “We never should’ve front-loaded that pretense onto it, because it was better if every match was different and kind of just ridiculous and meaningless.”

While Kronfeld remembers the network meddling with some of the material they wrote (“We would do things that weren’t anywhere near as risqué or obnoxious as South Park and they would say, ‘No, you can’t do that.’”), Comedy Central’s money also came with perks for the cast and crew.

“Comedy Central was the only time I got paid,” admits Sedahl.

While they had to make some concessions with the network, they weren’t completely under Comedy Central’s thumb. One way the show was able to keep out of the network’s complete grip was by filming in Minnesota. While Ernie’s intro claimed the show was broadcast “from the fabulous Stardust Lanes in Minneapolis, Minnesota,” all of the episodes were actually shot at White Bear Bowl in White Bear Lake.

Not only was it harder for a coastal-based network to be heavily involved, it meant that the program could keep relying on Minnesota for its humor. “Let’s be who we are,” Sedahl recalls Scott telling everyone. “We’re from Minnesota, we’re proud of it, let’s do it.”

The contestants were all local, and prizes included things like fishing excursions, memberships to the Herring of the Month Club, and trips to places like Duluth and Door County.

When the show transitioned to Comedy Central, it also went through another casting change: The Queen Pins were played by Amanda Brewer (now Amanda Brewer Valley) and Lisa Bartholomew (now Lisa Given).

“It just seemed like the best job on earth,” Valley remembers. “It was taking the piss out of something that’s an American institution: the game show.”

For years, women on game shows were often just silent creatures in cocktail dresses. Valley and Given had a different mission. Together the two women worked on subverting traditional gender roles in television. “These were girls who seemed like one thing on the outside but they’re really something else. They’re really much more calculating than you think,” says Valley.

The best example of this was an “Inside Bowling” segment that explored what the Queen Pins did when they weren’t working on the show: run a bait shop. Every item is overpriced, but fishermen flocked to the store, as the Pins regularly restocked items on low shelves, giving customers a lewd view.

“We were coming on right after The Man Show at that time,” says Valley. “That segment in particular piggybacked off The Man Show ethos, but it kind of did it in a smart way. These weren’t girls jumping on trampolines, being overtly sexual for no personal gain. We knew what we were doing.”

Another part of the gig was to dance as the balls rolled toward the pins and, in some cases, to taunt the bowlers when they failed. Their dance moves were often unconventional, such as pumping invisible kegs.

The only hard part of the job was standing in a small circle at the end of the lane all day long. “If you had to go to the bathroom, you had to plan it,” says Valley. “Somebody who had better shoes and not stupid lucite high heels like we wore had to come out and help us down the lane.”

A few Hollywood pros also joined the program. Danny Breen, a veteran of HBO’s Not Necessarily the News, helped write and produce the series, as did Mike Nelson, another MST3K alum.

New segments were added, too. Commentators would now visit the contestants at home or at work in order to go further into the dispute that would be resolved with their bowling match. Wally would ask inappropriate and off-topic questions, while Steve tried to better understand the players’ conflict.

In a segment called “In the Pin,” Wally and the two contestants would be locked into a large bowling pin where he would interview them in close quarters. Here Wally would do things like share daiquiris with the contestants and take off his shirt if it got too hot inside.

“We wouldn’t tell the contestants [what we were going to ask],” Kronfeld remembers. “I think I sort of scared this one kid... I kept asking him if he liked to party.”

Before the show aired nationally, TV Guide ran a multi-page preview, and both People and Entertainment Weekly gave it extended blurbs. The reviews were mixed, but full of bowling puns.

“Bottom Line: Leaves the tenpin,” said People. They did appreciate the Minnesota vibe, admitting that “there’s something to be said for any show that so relishes middle-American oddity.”

The cast also remembers Dennis Miller saying good things about the show, but fellow Comedy Central employee Jon Stewart was not a fan.

“Oh, he despised it, which I love,” says Jansen.

Still, there was enough goodwill toward the show that it was picked up for a second 10-episode season before the first had even aired.

After the initial surge of press, Let’s Bowl continued as any other show on Comedy Central, airing in its time slot and popping up in reruns and marathons on occasion.

“But the ratings did go up and down a bit,” says Kronfeld. “I had a bad feeling about it.”

Let’s Bowl never made it past its two 10-episode seasons. There was no dramatic fight to stay on the air, and no sudden cancellation. The show just wasn’t picked up after its second season.

“It should’ve stayed in late night,” Kronfeld says. “That’s where its humor would’ve been appreciated.”

It was more than just inconsistent ratings that had brought the program to an end, however. Mike Maddocks, its original supporter at Comedy Central, was no longer in a position to trumpet the program. “We knew that there had been a change at Comedy Central and that the new team in charge of programming didn’t care for the show,” says Jansen.

“Comedy Central was emerging from a quirky little boutique network to a massive one,” says Scott. “The campy, crappy shows were no longer the flavor.”

After cancellation, everyone went their separate ways. However, decades later, the show continues to follow them.

Sedahl, now living in North Carolina, recently learned that one of his co-workers got through his wisdom teeth removal by watching a Let’s Bowl marathon. Jansen, who tours with a Chicago-based Carpenters tribute band, learned that one of his bandmates, who had no idea that Jansen was on Let’s Bowl, used to watch the show. “You feel like a rockstar for a nanosecond,” he says. “Then you realize you’re in a hotel in Terre Haute, Indiana.”

Kronfeld’s current line of work is running Kronfeld Motors. Among the company’s inventions is a “human-electric hybrid vehicle” that can reach speeds of up to 90 mph. People still come up to him and do his character’s voice, which he appreciates.

“It was like going to summer camp every day, except at our summer camp you stood underneath lights and you got to do a TV show,” says Valley. “And you didn’t have to make any shitty crafts.” She says that she is so fond of her time on the show that she wants it mentioned in her obituary.

Would a show like Let’s Bowl even be possible today? “At that time, [getting on national television] was sort of the pinnacle; that was what you strove for,” Jansen says.

Kronfeld thinks something as “off-off-Hollywood” as Let’s Bowl could find a place on a streaming service now.

Until that happens—if it ever does—the world will have to settle for YouTube clips.

“It ran for two seasons; most shows don’t make it to that,” says Drew. “For a weird, cheap, delightfully crappy show, that’s a pretty good legacy.”