Monday, October 26, 2009

Improv Theater

How exactly do they decide what is or isn't a "reality show"? Obviously, it can't be something fictional like Lost or The Simpsons. But why isn't, say, Charlie Rose considered a reality show? Charlie is real, as are Henry Kissinger, Paul Volcker, Warren Buffett, Gore Vidal, and his various other guests. If Charlie Rose is too highbrow for you, how about Larry King Live? Larry's real. All too real, perhaps. And so are all of his guests. Kathy Griffin, Bill Maher, Gloria Allred, Jack Hanna, and Joan Rivers. Joan probably slightly less real since all the plastic surgery. Who Wants to Be a Millionaire is considered a reality show, so why not Jeopardy? Both shows involve real people answering real questions (or, in the case of Jeopardy , questioning real answers) and getting real money if they answer those questions (or question those answers) right. Yet Jeopardy is still referred to as a "game show". I guess because the term "reality show" entered the vernacular around the year 2000, where as Jeopardy, in one form or other, has been around since the early 1960s. Remember Art Fleming? If you do you need bifocals. Then there's American Idol, America's Got Talent, and So You Think You Can Dance. Back in the day those were called "talent shows". On the elementary school level, they're still called that. Anyway, talent is real. Come to think of it, the talent on those shows is sometimes not so real. But unless you're Simon Cowell, you hate to have to tell someone that.

Why am I going on and on about reality shows? I guess it's because of that little boy who was, then wasn't, in that runaway balloon. His mother, who along with his father was once on a reality show called Wife Swap , has admitted the whole thing was a hoax. She and her husband hoped the publicity would get them another reality show. And it did. It's called the news. On some cable channels this reality show runs 24 hours a day. As they were putting on an act, the little boy's mother and father can't properly be called the stars of this show. The real stars were the rescue workers who worked desperately to bring that little boy safely back to Earth. If only there had been a real little boy in danger. This show's not through with reality stars. Expect a judge, DA, and defense attorney. And expect to see a lot more of Gloria Allred on Larry King Live.

The documentary type of reality show seems to be divided between two types. Those with famous people, and those without famous people. As I can always view the latter by simply looking in the mirror, I prefer the former. Lessee, over the last ten years there's been The Osbournes, The Surreal Life, The Simple Life, Hogan Knows Best, Breaking Bonaduce, Being Bobby Brown, My Life on the D List, Celebrity Fit Club, and my all-time favorite, The Anna Nicole Show (the late Anna Nicole will be the subject of a future post.) I always feel we get get beyond the carefully crafted public image and see what these celebrities are really like. For instance, on Bonaduce's show, we learned of his struggle with drugs and alcohol. Wait a second. That already was his carefully crafted image, wasn't it? OK, then, how about that one guy from Taxi ? No, not Danny DeVito. The blond guy. You know, he also played John Travolta's friend in Grease. Jeff Conway, that's it. On Celebrity Fit Club, he seemed kind of stoned much of the time. Proving he's not afraid of typecasting, his next gig was Celebrity Rehab with Dr Drew. I don't know if Conway ever solved his problems, but he's at least now as well-known as Bonaduce. Of course, these reality shows don't all focus on celebrity bad behavior. The Osbournes took a celebrity whose carefully crafted image was that of bat-chomping lunatic, and revealed him to be just a family man, dispensing wise advice to children Jack and Kelly in a Ward Cleaver/Mike Brady/Cliff Huxtable fashion. Unlike Ward's, Mike's, and Cliff's children, Jack and Kelly never acted on that wise advice, probably because it was impossible to know what the hell their father was saying half the time. Jack and Kelly had an older sister, Aimee, who didn't want to be on TV, and moved out of the house shortly before the show began. I don't recall her ever being mentioned on the show, which seemed a little unrealistic. Not even Kelly asking if she could now have Aimee's bedroom. At the height of the show's success, Ozzy and wife Sharon appeared on Greta Van Susteren and was asked about that missing daughter. Ozzy compared her to Marilyn Munster. I think he meant it as a compliment, but I'm not sure. Whatever, mentioning her on the show would have brought a little reality to the reality.

As for reality shows featuring unknown real people, The Real World , now in it's 23rd season, provides the basic template. A group of real people trapped in a not so real house getting on each others real nerves. There are also interviews, or "confessionals", where each real person gets to complain about the others getting on their real nerves. But they're always the victim, never the perpetrator. Later shows such as Big Brother and Survivor (where they're trapped on an island rather than a house) turned the whole thing into a contest, and the real people got even more on each other's nerves. That ol' competitive spirit, I guess. One common criticism of these shows is that people won't act natural if they know they're on camera, that they'll always be on they're best behavior if they think people are watching. I disagree. On these real shows you see real pettiness, vanity, envy, selfishness, covetousness, betrayal, hostility, rudeness, boorishness, obnoxiousness and general stupidity. If this is their best behavior, off-camera they must eat their young.

The one aspect of these shows that I do find unrealistic is the physical appearance of the participants, which is frequently one of complete perfection. Even the midget on The Amazing Race was kind of hot. All the imperfections we associate with real people--you and me--are increasingly absent on these shows. There are no double chins, beady eyes, acne, receding hairlines, big ears, big noses, or weak chins. Nobody even cuts themselves shaving. As the participants, whether they're on an island or in a communal bedroom, are often in various states of undress, you can see they're also perfect from the neck down. Tanned, toned, buffed, and sculpted. No beer guts, no knobby knees, no flat chests, no sunken chests, no love handles, no big asses, no Olive Oyls, and no 90-pound weaklings. No fat, flab, or cellulite. Nothing hangs, sags, or droops. They don't look like real people. They look like stars.

And that, of course, is the whole idea. Once their stints on these shows ends, the participants hope to stay on TV. But the other kind of TV. The old-fashioned TV, where the words that come out of your mouth are written by somebody else. And it doesn't have to stop at the small screen. In fact, a couple of years ago there was even a movie based on The Real World.

From real to reel.


  1. Would Ozzie and Harriet have been considered a 50's reality show? I loved Ricky closing the shows with a song each week.

  2. I've only seen a few scattered episodes of Ozzie and Harriet, but it seems to me that they were reciting dialogue that they had memorized from a script.

    As for Ricky, was he lip synching?

  3. "She and her husband hoped the publicity would get them another reality show. And it did. It's called the news."


  4. Erin, if you're still out there, I'd like to publicly thank you. I think your being a Blog of Note may have netted me a new follower (see lower left hand corner.)


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