Joe's Apartment is a 1996 musical-comedy film starring Jerry O'Connell and Megan Ward and the first film produced by MTV Films. It was based on a 1992 short film first made for MTV. The film was directed by John Payson, with computer-animated sequences supervised by Chris Wedge through Blue Sky Studios.
The main focus of the story is the fact that, unbeknownst to many humans, cockroaches can talk, but prefer not to, as humans "smush first and ask questions later". They also sing (as they do many times in the movie) and even have their own public-access television cable TV channel. Actors providing the roaches' voices included Billy West, Jim Turner, Rick Aviles (in his final film role before his death) and Dave Chappelle.
Penniless and straight out of the University of Iowa, Joe (Jerry O'Connell) moves to New York needing an apartment and a job. With the fortuitous death of Mrs. Grotowski, an artist named Walter Shit (Jim Turner) helps Joe to take over the last rent controlled apartment in a building slated for demolition. If Senator Dougherty (Robert Vaughn) can empty the building, he can make way for the prison he intends to build there, and uses thug Alberto Bianco (Don Ho) and his nephews, Vlad (Shiek Mahmud-Bey) and Jesus (Jim Sterling), to intimidate tenants.
Joe discovers he has 20 to 30 thousand roommates, all of them talking, singing cockroaches grateful that a slob has moved in. Led by Ralph (Billy West), the sentient, tune-savvy insects scare away the thugs in an act of enlightened self-interest that endears them to their human meal ticket. Tired of living on handouts from Mom back in Iowa and after a series of dead-end jobs ruined by his well-intentioned six-legged roomies, Joe finds himself the unskilled drummer in Walter Shit’s band. Hanging posters for SHIT, he encounters Senator Dougherty’s daughter Lily (Megan Ward) promoting her own project, a community garden to occupy the vacant site surrounding Joe’s building.
A gift to Lily while working on her garden is enough to woo her back to Joe's apartment, where the cockroaches break a promise to keep out of his business and a panicked Lily flees, only to discover the garden she’d worked on has been burned to the ground. During a fight with his roommates over his spoiled romantic evening, the building suffers the same fate as the garden. A mutual truce between our hapless and now homeless roommates leads the cockroaches to "call in favors from every roach, rat and pigeon in New York City" to try to make amends to Joe. Overnight, the roaches scour New York to gather materials to convert the entire area into a garden and take care of all the necessary paperwork to ensure harmony reigns over all.
John Payson originally created the short film Joe's Apt., which aired on MTV as filler in-between commercial breaks. Payson said he was inspired by a 1987 short film called Those Damn Roaches and the 1987 Japanese film Twilight of the Cockroaches, the latter crossing hand-drawn animation and live-action. After the short received a CableACE Award, MTV executives were impressed enough to discuss producing a feature adaptation with Payson. In 1993, MTV made a deal with Geffen Pictures during development to produce films based on the network's properties and release them through Warner Bros.. While Joe's Apartment was put into production with a $13 million budget, a feature of Beavis and Butt-head was also put into development.
Joe's Apartment was the first feature-film Blue Sky Studios was involved in, having produced company logos and animated commercials before. Under Chris Wedge's supervision, Blue Sky produced computer-animated sequences of the cockroaches. However the film also blended them with scenes of puppetry, real cockroaches, and stop-motion animation (including the TV roach porn.) Producers at 20th Century Fox were impressed enough with Joe's Apartment to acquire Blue Sky, and eventually the studio became a feature-animation company.
Even with the enthusiastic billing as "MTV's first feature movie" and the support of the company, Joe's Apartment bombed when it opened on July 26, 1996. Opening to 1,512 theaters but receiving a dismal $1.8 million, the film closed all screenings in the middle of August and finished with only $4.6 million. Warner sold distribution rights for later MTV Film productions back to MTV's parent company, Viacom, not long after.
Reviews were almost universally negative, mostly distaste at the blending of grimy gross-out gags and up-beat musical humor. Roger Ebert's review was certainly scathing, stating "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."
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