Jack E. Jett, born Jackie Dale Pinson, son of Texas, Playtex glove lover—internationally renowned as supermodel “Jhett”—is a fascinating and important figure in the histories of television, comedy and the LGBT rights struggle.
With a twinkle in his eye Jack assumed the mantle of the world’s first openly gay talk show host at a time when LGBT rights had hit a bewildering plateau in the decimated post-AIDS era. Gays, lesbians, trans—we were outcasts living a weird gray market existence during the George W. Bush years, still fighting for basic legal protections. Anti-queer hostility ran rampant as the Neocons and 9/11 paranoia raged.
Jack was one of our guiding lights, taking on “the man” in his own house—in the very spot from which the propaganda emanated: cable television.
I worked for Jack on his pioneering cable program, The Queer Edge, which featured co-host Sandra Bernhard and a cavalcade of quirky celebrities Judy Tenuta, Alan Cumming, Charo, Munster Butch Patrick, Donald Trump apprentice Omarosa Manigault Newman, Keegan-Michael Key and seemingly every breakout reality star who streaked through the Millennial heavens.
But where did Jack come from exactly? Dallas—well yeah, okay. But how did this homosexual Max Headroom—this “aging TV manwhore” as he called himself—so suddenly pop into prominence on the national stage? Had he attended some secret TV talkshow summer camp? The man was absolutely unflappable and knew everyone.
Unfortunately Jack died of a heart attack in 2015 at age 58 so there was no way to ask him the deets (if he’d give me a “straight” story anyhow).
After chasing Jack’s backstory for years I’m happy to say I’ve finally discovered some answers.
Meet Chris Rentzel, director and producer of Queer Edge precursor program, public access cable’s The Jack E. Jett Show. Chris was a key contributor to and shaper of The Jack E. Jett Show, where Jack established his surreal and stoner-friendly brand of TV comedy.
In 2021, Chris has begun a program of posting classic Jack E. Jett Show episodes on YouTube for the first time. These drug culture-inspired comedy mini-masterpieces haven’t been seen since the show’s 2001-2004 heyday, and they’ve never been online. Chris and Jack and a small inner circle of Dallas friends created a brand of video comedy that took over the world—well, Adult Swim certainly—in the late 2010s.
The Eric Andre Show, Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis, Check it Out! with Dr. Steve Brule, On Cinema at the Cinema, Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!… heck, just about every single video Eric Wareheim and especially Tim Heidecker have ever released owes an outsized debt to Jack E. Jett who did it first and—I don’t feel like I’m going too far out on a limb after watching Chris Rentzel’s Jack E. Jett Show postings—the best.
Meeting and talking to Chris Rentzel has been the highlight of my quest for Jett. Besides being a co-creator of Jack’s cable chaos, Chris is a genius in his own right.
Chris’ “Triangle Woman”—a recurring character he has developed over the last several decades—is an exceptional creation that bridges art movements like Dada, Surrealism, and Pataphysics with David Lynch-style dream logic, and a heavy dose of absurd and slapstick comedy. Much like his collaboration with Jack E. Jett, Chris’ Triangle Woman is hilarious, mischievous, bizarre and kind all at once.
The full-length Many Strange Stories of Triangle Woman (starring Vivian Jimenez Hall) is a tale of non-sequiturs arranged with jewel-like precision. Just released for on-demand viewing after many years of unavailability, the Triangle Woman feature is a remarkable DIY movie achievement. Comedy vignettes crest into waking dreams—or nightmares. All the action is professionally captured: cinematography and sound are crystal clear. In fact, Rentzel never once falls back on the “look how kitschy and amateur we are” crutch that so many low-budget indie directors use—a device that would only remove the viewer from the delectable weirdness unfolding on the screen.
The high level of quality that Chris maintains makes the The Many Strange Stories of Triangle Woman’s strangeness more intentional and, well, strange. It’s unconventional in a purposeful way—and pretty freaking funny.
Just after the New Year I caught up with Chris Rentzel for what ended up being the most mega of interviews—and one of the best 90 minutes of my life. We laughed, I cried, I Jack’d. I learned a lot about both Triangle Woman and Mr. Jett, and the cosmic crossing of both their bizarro paths that unleashed a video revolution from Dallas Community Television that resonates through our culture still.
Now I share this with you—enjoy:
Hi, Chris, thanks so much for talking with me about producing and directing The Jack E. Jett Show. I wanted to start with the basics—I know you currently live in Portland, but you have such a warm Texas accent—did you grow up in the Dallas area?
Yeah, I grew up in Dallas, just like Jack. I went to college for photography for a year and a half. I didn’t like college. Partied a lot. I was kind of lost. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. And moved back to Dallas, got a regular job and did art artistic endeavors on the side, like, I was in a band. I wrote songs on the side. Then I was also into horse racing, believe it or not. I loved trying to calculate (mathematically) the winners of horse races.
How successful were you with that?
If you define success as a profit, not very. But it’s where I learned to manipulate spreadsheet data so I could do my calculations automatically. And then that led to database development, which led to jobs. And at the time I met Jack, I was working at Southwest Airlines as a database developer. And on the side, I was doing my music and short films including Triangle Woman.
I am a Triangle Woman super fan—I want to ask you more about that in a bit cuz that’s major. But let’s focus on Jack for the moment. How did you originally meet him?
My mom actually saw a classified ad in the Dallas Observer. Jack had put in an ad saying that he had a public access cable TV show and was looking for short videos. My mom mailed it to me—this is before email—before she had emails, put it that way. So “thank you” mom!
I had a couple of these short Triangle Woman films that I shot with actress Vivian Jimenez Hall. I submitted them and Jack basically said, “We’re on the same wavelength—I’m gonna play your stuff.”
And then we started talking about everything. He suggested that he needed some help. He wanted to do some producing outside of the cable access studios, which requires you to reserve the time and compete against other people using the studio.
So I went over to his house and did those Triangle Woman shorts episodes in his living room. I filmed them and edited them with Adobe Premiere or something—that’s how we started producing together.
What was your initial impression of The Jack E. Jett Show?
Jack was a unique character, but I initially laughed because of Paul Watts’ reactions. He’d play weird samples on his little keyboard and he would always roll his eyes at Jack. That was really funny to me and endeared me to the show.
What was Jack’s goal with The Jack E. Jett Show?
Have fun, be quirky, be yourself. His vision was to create some funky content that was not out there—something that he would want to watch. Same for me. I’m editing the shows because it’s making me laugh out loud in my apartment by myself at two o’clock in the morning. I’m having a fucking lot of fun with it. So hopefully someone else will laugh too.
I definitely do think that Jack wanted to climb the ladders of the gay TV talk show circuit which is something that barely existed, or did not even exist at that time. And I think he really wanted to do exactly what he ended up doing which was having a show in L.A.
Was The Jack E. Jett Show broadcast weekly?
From what I recollect it was a weekly show. And when I came on, Jack was sending out VHS tapes to L.A., New York, Boston, Chicago, a couple other places—to their public access TV stations which ran the show. So he was seen weekly in these other markets too. And when we were working together, we probably produced three shows a month. Later for PrideVision, we knocked out 10 or 12 shows in two different weekends of filming. And then I spent probably two or three months editing.
How many episodes of The Jack E. Jett Show—the public access cable version—did you produce?
Probably 30 to 40 shows between 2001 and 2004.
Where was Jack recording the show before you came on?
It was all done at DCTV (Dallas Community Television) studios. By taking classes, which he paid for, he was able to have free use of the equipment studio, the staff, etc. So it was a good setup for him. Then, after we did our at-home filming, Jack continued making some shows at DCTV. And I came in as kind of a director.
Because these were all shot and edited live, I was back in the control room saying, “…just keep the camera A on… now camera B,” just like that, and we’d have a controller that would cut between them. So those DCTV shows were all edited live.
The cable access technicians who are working on all these kooky cable access shows—they get kind of jaded, right?
Yeah, I think actually they looked forward to The Jack E. Jett Show because every other show was pretty painful. They were either Christian shows or educational shows. So you know, when you have male strippers come in and dance and kind of ruffle some feathers a little bit it’s pretty fun. Although I know for a fact Jack always butted heads with the director at DCTV. She was a very conservative religious woman. And, you know, it was public access, so anybody can have access. So it was always a struggle to get things approved with her from what I understood at the time.
What was your take on Jack as a person? What was he like to collaborate with?
Definitely gregarious, easy personality to feel welcome around. And definitely didn’t take life very seriously. Our sense of humor was very much alike. So that was obvious right off the bat.
Did you know that he had lived in L.A. and been a high fashion model—as “Jhett”—and all that stuff?
I basically found that out within the first month. How he was on tour with The Go-Go’s and everything that entailed.
We talked all the time—even when I moved to Portland in 2008, we were probably talking on the phone once a week up until he died.
Jack was really close to Belinda Carlisle too. And so he talked about her a lot—I would always hear the salacious details of Belinda’s life. Because he had to have somebody to tell it to! Belinda would confide in him, and then he would confide in me. So, you know, that was always a trip.
When I first met him, it’s like, oh, he knows Belinda Carlisle—wow, impressive. And then, you know, by the time you get to know him, she’s just like the neighbor down the street.
Even though I only was in contact with Belinda just a couple of times, you know, around the time he was sick, or had the heart attack and then died, but so I’m sure she knew who I was, and vice versa. But yeah, Jack definitely had an interesting young adult life.
Did Jack have any kind of profile on the local gay scene—did gay folks in Dallas know who he was?
Not that I know of. We got some press. Dallas Voice and Jack would eventually author an opinion column in that newspaper, so there was that. Jack’s notoriety was mainly within the TV world—thanks to cable access. And I believe that’s how he got a guest host appearance on Cheaters. Did you know about that?
Yes! I’m not supposed to ever put it online but… maybe it’s time?
It’s kind of funny. Because, you know Jack. It was funny to watch that one.
Who were the other regular collaborators on The Jack E. Jett Show? There’s Paul Watts playing keyboard. And you and Jack. Who else was contributing?
John Gennusa who was Jack’s partner. In the early early shows before I came on, John helped out with content and made copies of VHS tapes to send out—a lot of behind the scenes stuff. He was in a few shows too, incognito. But by the time I started producing or co-producing, John was helping out—but not as much.
Did you know the person that played Sistah Billie Freakazoid?
I was going to ask you about her. She gave me a nightmare when I first saw her. Who is that behind the mask?
That was Jack’s childhood friend, Billy Ricketts. They grew up together. Billy’s partner also helped out—Mark Burnworth. Occasionally you’ll see a show that says ‘Shot at Burnworth Studios’ which is basically Billy and Mark’s living room.
Billy and Mark and Jack and John were all best friends. They did everything together. When Billy Ricketts died in 2012, Mark had troubles dealing with it and, long story short, moved to Europe (I think, but am not totally sure). He didn’t talk to anybody else again.
Some others that come to mind that contributed quite a bit are Jason Bromberg, Hunter Nolen, Jimmy Jenkins, Lori and Fred Kern, Randy Crabtree, Mark Sanford, and Kent Sylvester. I know I’m missing others, but check out the credits on the shows.
Which are your favorite episodes?
The one that I first put up with the Dallas TroCars with the hearse video and Jack serenading that skeleton.
Yeah, that’s good stuff. I took a lot of liberty with editing and I would put in little sounds or little clips floating around the air, stuff like that. Those were a lot of fun to work with.
And the Edna Jean Robinson character—Richard Curtin—was always good. She was so on. And she’s still a well-known Dallas icon.
Then there’s Tracy Shook, the ventriloquist, who’s my favorite guest of all time.
Tell me about Tracy.
He appeared in several of them because he was a guest twice. And I cut up his footage a lot and did some reversing and a lot of fun stuff. He was clueless about everything. You can see him in the behind the scenes video. He’s the red haired guy who looks like he’s lost.
I can remember being in the green room and shooting that and watching Tracy watch Edna Jean Robinson come in. And he’s like got his finger in his mouth thinking, “what the fuck did I get myself into?” [Laughs]
He wasn’t a good ventriloquist. And Jack would say, “Oh, I didn’t even see your lips move.” And his lips were moving the whole time. [Laughs] “How do you do that?”, Jack would ask. You know, Jack had a way of making fun of someone in front of their face, but without making them feel bad. It’s cringeworthy sometimes because you feel sorry for some of the people. But this was just very borderline and it worked. So that was one of the special gifts that Jack had—he could be sort of sarcastic and kind of bizarre, but he really had a lot of heart.
There is something about Jack on your shows—in contrast to The Queer Edge episodes I worked on in 2005-06—where I see a caring and warm-hearted side of Jack.
Yeah, totally. I mean, 100% agree.
So you made all these shows, and then PrideVision swoops in from Canada. What was that all about?
As I remember, PrideVision was the first actual cable channel in the world that was dedicated to gay and lesbian programming and it was in Canada and either Jack sent them a show or they found out about the show and they commissioned Jack to produce 8 to 10 episodes. I was sick as a dog the first day we were shooting and I considered not being there, but there was no cancelling at that point. I spent the next couple of months editing and Jack eventually shipped off the shows to PrideVision and they aired them on a regular series.
Wow—moving on up! How was it compared to what you aired on cable access?
It was essentially the same but a little bit more polished editing-wise. Jack had hired a professional video editor and producer to come up with the intro for the shows.
Do you have copies of these shows? Do they exist?
Yeah, I have most of them. One of the ones I don’t have is the one with Erasure.
That probably ended up with John Gennusa and who knows what happened to Jack’s stuff.
Well it’s a good thing that you’re putting these tapes online. I feel like you and Jack were really ahead of your time. I mean, look at Adult Swim—Tim & Eric and Eric Andre. They basically create a faux version of The Jack E. Jett Show, down to the mess ups and technical glitches and the awkward camera switching.
Dr. Steve Brule?
Totally. Oh, my God.
I think he’s hilarious. But when I first saw that, you know, I realized he was purposely making himself look like he was shot in the late 1990s, early 2000s. I mean, that is sort of the some of the content you might have found back then on some of these cable shows.
What Jack did with people—regular people that somehow Jack was able to bring something out of—to make them fun in a way that not necessarily making fun of them, but having fun with them.
How did your TV collaboration end with Jack? Why did you not move to QTN when the show became The Queer Edge with Jack E. Jett?
Well Q already was already recording shows in studios in Fort Worth. Jack hooked up with them. I’m not sure how that happened or what the deal was—I don’t know the details.
Originally I went out there when they were doing auditions. Jack wanted to give me the opportunities to be involved to continue doing what we were doing. Because I think he knew we made a good team and we had fun. But, you know, I had a job with health insurance and all this kind of stuff. And I was considering it. I just bought a condo in Dallas and, you know, driving out to Fort Worth at eight o’clock in the morning is like a 60-minute proposition.
Not only that, but meeting Frank Olsen gave me a bad feeling. You remember when I was telling you about how Jack was with Tracy Shook? Jack would ask questions, and maybe it was a little cringeworthy, but it didn’t ever go over that line where I felt Jack was trying to hurt somebody’s feelings, or was a bad person—ever. Never. But with Frank… different story. I felt I didn’t want to work with Frank.
So they did quite a few shows out there [Fort Worth]—they might have shot live. Jackie Enx came on. Jack loved her a lot. I don’t think Jack had his own show. But there were like news reporters and sports reporters and I think Jackie read the sports news. It was a pretty nice looking studio. And I don’t really remember how it got moved to L.A. but obviously that’s a good place for getting more people in for interviews and appearances.
Post-Queer Edge Jack wanted to make his own little videos—I don’t know if it was just for his own amusement or what, but while he was trying to figure out the next step. So we shot some stuff where he wears this curly wig and sometimes plays a science character. I don’t know if you’ve seen any of those?
Yes, Mimi Snow sent me some footage. Watch the video above.
That’s the last footage that we shot for TV together—sometime in 2006.
Let’s shift to Triangle Woman, shall we? I want to hear about the genesis of Triangle Woman: how, when, why?
I started drawing that character, when I was probably 11 or 12 or 13. I’ll just give you the key moments. But I remember in ninth or 10th grade. We were waiting for the physics teacher or math teacher to come in. And remember those sliding chalkboards? So you had a hidden chalkboard behind the front one?
Oh, yeah—I totally remember those!
I would go up there maybe once a month, and draw the Triangle Woman character on the back one, and then close it. And the teacher, sometimes in the middle of the class, she would be on the board and she would slide it open and she would see the character. And she would turn around very slowly and put her glasses down over her nose looking like, who did this? It was just so funny.
So that got some laughs, you know, and then I think I didn’t do anything with her until I was with Southwest Airlines in about 1996. I would draw the character digitally, have a colored background and a quote. And I would send it to a couple of friends and they would laugh. They would be bizarre! So that eventually became the “quote of the day” where I would send out a new one every day—to about 30 people within Southwest Airlines.
In 1999 I made short films based on the bizarre attitude and quotes of Triangle Woman and used a real actress—Vivian Jimenez Hall—who is now one of my great friends! I’m not sure which ones you’ve seen. But I think there’s one on Jack’s channel right now. That was the first short film—it was about 20 minutes. And then there’s another one that Jack wanted to show as well. We did a Jack E. Jett Show where he and Paul commented while watching. We would also insert 30-second Triangle Woman quotes in the Jack E. Jett Show.
Then I produced a couple of others short films—Triangle Woman at the gym and stuff like that. So 2006 comes around, I’ve already gone through the whole Jack E. Jett Show experience. Jack’s already back in Dallas from L.A. and The Queer Edge. And I’m feeling the need to get out of my job and take a risk. So I write a feature film and figure out how to do it. At the time I had about a hundred grand in my 401k. And I decided to quit my job, cashed my 401K, and I spent about forty grand on the film. And I took two years off.
So it was a risk to not work for anybody while I made the film, trying to get a distributor and making enough money where I can do another film, and I thought maybe that would snowball into something. I spent a lot of time on it and I’m really proud of the film. Obviously, not everybody likes it. But I still get people that email me and say, “I love it! We quote it all the time.”
What happened was, I did get a distributor. And they got it on Netflix. So at the time in 2008 Netflix was not streaming—you got your DVDs in the mail.
Yes, I remember that haha.
But wouldn’t you know, two weeks after it was on Netflix I searched for the film online. There was page after page after page on bit torrent sites to download it. Now this is the reality of musicians and filmmakers in today’s world. And I never made a penny. I vowed never to make a film again.
So I moved to Portland and I’ve written a few short musicals—quirky, short musicals with a small theatre company. 10-minute musicals—I have five of them. But that kind of got to be old hat after about three years. I actually co-wrote one with Jack.
And then I decided to write a full length musical with a co-writer that I met in the theatre company named Gayle Towell. And it was based on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—it was a serious musical with a lot of beautiful music and that kind of thing. We wrote the first act and had a few public performances for feedback. We took six months off and wrote the second act, had a public performance and got some feedback. And then COVID hit. My co-writer has a husband and three kids, they all have to be homeschooled. Needless to say, the musical is on hiatus.
Back in September, I was thinking to myself, “I’ve gotta I gotta do something. I’m not gonna just wait around for COVID to be done.” I’m “retired” if you want to call it that. I’m partners in a cannabis farm and I’ve got an investment property and have a good enough income where I’m not gonna sail around the world every year but I can feed myself and do projects. So I was doing art back in March and was enjoying it—it’s encaustic work, which is with wax if you don’t know what that is. And I thought, “why don’t I just do some Triangle Woman quotes using encaustic and some iconography from Oregon or, you know, geared towards visitors that come through town and make it quirky and, well, why don’t I have a gallery?”
Triangle Woman Gallery—I’m very excited to hear how that turns out. Thanks so much, Chris, for the fabulous interview. I’ll end this post with the last video you shot with Jack—from 2013—before he passed in 2015. You and Jack bring so much fun to our video screens. Thank you very much for that.