Volume 6, Number 1 (January, 2009)
Author: Michael Rennett
I. “Reality” TV and Reality
Reality shows are only side effects, if the level of reality decreases from day to day its only because the medium itself has passed into life (Baudrillard, 1997:20).
Reality television is a euphemism. Although audience members may believe they are seeing what happens “when people stop being polite and start being real,” nothing could be further from the truth. A VH1 expose, Reality TV Secrets Revealed, divulges many of the techniques used by the producers of these shows to get the story they want including recreating actions that were not originally caught on tape, combining audio and video from separate times together, and acting out pre-planned storylines. Tellingly, Mark Burnett, the producer of Survivor, prefers to call his own shows “unscripted dramas” rather than “reality TV” due to their highly constructed nature (see The Age, November 13, 2003).
Reality TV viewers and critics, as well as television and media scholars, have debated the reality of these programs ever since the genre became a popular part of the American zeitgeist in the late 1990s. Arlid Fetveit writes that “reality TV comes with a unique promise of contact with reality, but at the same time it promises a secure distance” (2002:130). The audience is allowed to observe the cast members of each reality TV show, but can only see a small group of images selected from many hours of footage. Through editing techniques, the producers can exaggerate elements from an individual’s personality to construct a persona that audiences can rapidly identify. Regarding Survivor, Christopher J. Wright points out that “each 44-minute episode is culled from as much as 72 hours of footage from multiple cameras. Burnett and his team can make anyone look bad and they can make anyone look good” (2006:172).
The discussion of these tactics leads me to a question: if reality television does not present reality, as it purports to do, then what is it actually showing? As Jean Baudrillard notes, reality television [gives] the illusion of a real world, an exterior world, despite the fact that each world is the exact image of the other” (2005:181). By using the words “illusion” and “exact image,” Baudrillard points to reality TV programs as mere simulacra of the real world and which produce a hyperreality – not unlike his famous example of Disneyland (Baudrillard, 2002a:23, 96). Chung Chin Yi expands on this comparison:
Reality television explodes the division between the hyperreal and the real, but what it ultimately represents is the triumph of the hyperreal and the manufactured image. Specifically, when a consciousness loses its ability to distinguish reality from fantasy, and begins to engage with the latter without understanding what it is doing, it has shifted into the world of the hyperreal. The nature of the hyperreal world is characterized by “enhancement” of reality (2007:32).
As Baudrillard argues, hyperreality is created through the process of simulation in which images of reality are turned into simulacra, copies which are so powerful that they erase the original. The constructed character personalities seen on reality TV reflect Baudrillard’s discussion of simulacra. While they may mirror some aspects of a cast member’s behavior, the excessive exaggeration portrayed through editing inaccurately reflect the actual personalities of these people. Additionally, as Annette Hill notes, reality TV participants may be “acting up” to the cameras in an effort to earn more camera time (2005:62-67). Thus, the character seen on screen may have little or nothing to do with the actual identity of their real-life counterpart even though both have the same name and image.
Through the booming success of gameshow-documentaries (“gamedocs”) like Survivor, Big Brother and The Bachelor, audiences and TV producers quickly became aware of the conventions of this new genre. A new group of reality TV show parodies like The Joe Schmo Show (2003), My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé (2003), Straight Plan for the Gay Man (2004), and My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss (2004) emerged. Another sitcom, Comedy Central’s Drawn Together (2004-present), provides an animated parody of reality TV. Long-running cartoon television series The Simpsons, South Park, and Family Guy all created reality TV-themed parody episodes. All of these programs “feature oblivious ‘ordinary’ people surrounded by actors pretending to take part in a reality show, resulting in a new kind of ‘false real’” (Wright, 2006:175). In essence, these shows have taken the simulated environment of traditional reality television and added another level to the formula. Instead of just seeing a simulation of reality, viewers are watching a simulation ofthat simulation while still observing a person or persons who are unaware of the deception. To better understand the levels of reality portrayed on screen, this paper analyzes the first reality show parody series, The Joe Schmo Show, through its presentation of various simulacra.
II. Joe Schmo
The concept of The Joe Schmo Show is to place an “average guy” in a fake game-doc titled Lap of Luxury without his being aware of this deception (The Advocate, 2004:22). Joe is forced to live in a house with eight other contestants. The cast has to undergo a series of reward and immunity challenges in order to avoid elimination at an eviction ceremony which takes place at the end of each episode. When the final three contestants are left, the evicted housemates come back and vote to decide who will win the $100,000 prize they have all supposedly been fighting for. In order to successfully fool the unsuspecting Schmo (Matt Kennedy Gould), the producers and writers simulate the conventions of reality TV game-show competitions by parodying the basic formulaic structure and stereotypical character personalities of Survivor.
Chris Wright describes how most reality game-docs follow Survivor’s format: Following Survivor’s huge success, other reality programs flooded the market, many of which have borrowed, to varying degrees, from Survivor, in terms of the use of physical and mental competitions, terminology, being “voted out” in some fashion, editing style, a host who banters with contestants, etc… CBS’s Big Brother features a dozen or so “houseguests” locked in a camera-filled home on a Los Angeles studio lot who must interact, take part in competitions, etc. One by one, they are voted out until one remains to win a large cash prize. So, Big Brother is essentially Survivor in a house, with elements of MTV’s The Real World thrown in (Wright, 2006:175).
Wright continues by describing how The Amazing Race (a world wide traveling game show) and The Bachelor (a dating competition), use the same formula for their respective formats. By copying these conventions for the fictional Lap of Luxury show, the producers of The Joe Schmo Show can play upon Gould’s awareness of this formula in order to deceive him. His familiarity with these conventions and his expectation to partake in these sometimes embarrassing competitions allow Gould to put aside any feelings of humiliation and perform these tasks without a second thought.
Similarly, when Gould is first introduced to his cast-mates, he can instantly recognize the various character types traditionally seen on reality shows. At the introduction ceremony, Matt even outs Kip as “the gay guy” just from briefly observing Kip’s stereotypically homosexual actions. Throughout Matt’s stay in the house, he becomes aware of the other personalities (“The Rich Bitch”, “The Quack”, “The Grizzled Veteran”, “The Virgin”, “The Asshole”, “The Schemer”, and “The Smarmy Host”. Each of these characters fits either a broad reality show personality type or a specific one. Most reality TV programs usually feature a bitch, a homosexual, and a virgin in their cast of characters. Other Schmo characters relate inter-textually to memorable reality TV personalities. Earl Bradford, the “Grizzled Veteran,” directly reflects retired Navy SEAL and popular Survivor: Borneo cast member Rudy Boesch. “Schemer” Gina Price is based on Survivor: Borneo winner Richard Hatch. The connection is made when Gina admits during a challenge that Hatch is her hero and has influenced her tactics and attitude on Lap of Luxury. Dr. Pat, “the Quack,” resembles Big Brother season two winner Dr. Will Kirby, the most famous and popular doctor to appear on a gamedoc to date. Finally, Steve Hutchinson, also known as “The Hutch,” is the “Asshole” of the group. His persona is mostly based on Real World: San Francisco cast member David “Puck” Rainey, whose bad hygiene and obnoxious personality led to his early eviction from the house.
In fact, the only characters to not fit into the stereotypical reality show character molds are Gould – as he is not aware of the role-playing – and “the Buddy,” Brian Keith Etheridge. Brian’s role on the show is to befriend Matt and become a sounding board for him. Since there is no main character on a regular reality TV show, it is thus impossible for “the Buddy” to exist. However, many reality show participants have formed close bonds with each other which have lasted after the end of their season through both business and personal relationships. Brian’s relationship with Matt also allows him to investigate Matt’s awareness of the deception. Interestingly, Etheridge is also a writer of the series, which would allow any necessary changes to be spread quickly and inconspicuously throughout the cast.
Although copying these clichés could make the show seem contrived, it actually adds an additional sense of realism because of the many clones of Survivor which have aired. It would therefore make sense that a new reality series, like Lap of Luxury purports to be, would recreate a similar environment in an attempt to repeat the success of the earlier show. The conventional formula and characters do not alert Matt to the deceptive nature of the show; if anything, they confirm his expectations of what a reality program should be.
III. Simulacra, Exaggeration, and Reality on Joe Schmo
While Lap of Luxury reflects the reality presented on game-docs, the writers and producers of The Joe Schmo Show try to push the boundaries of the formula. Instead of testing his physical strength and mental intelligence to win the challenges, the competitions on Lap of Luxury are designed to humiliate and embarrass its contestants. The first game is a “Pampering Competition” where each contestant has to model the underwear of another contestant, usually someone of the “opposite” sex. They then have to match the underwear everyone is wearing to the owner of that underwear. The person who matches the least correct then has to wear the underwear of the person who matches the most correct for the rest of the day. The game is rigged in advance so that Matt will lose and will be forced to wear Kip’s underwear – a thong. The challenges only get worse for the contestants throughout the series as they are forced to place different parts of their body on a topless stripper who is lying on a table, wear either embarrassing or sexually provocative outfits, and lick dried chocolate off the bodies of topless models. These types of challenges have not been seen on mainstream game-docs and are not likely to appear anytime soon given the censorial culture of mainstream TV.
Likewise, the eviction ceremony is far more melodramatic than its regular reality show counterpart. Of course, this is not to say that regular eviction ceremonies are not often melodramatic. Chris Wright states that “during the filming of the second Tribal Council of the first edition of Survivor – long before it was a cultural phenomenon – one contestant, Greg Buis, began laughing and refused to take it seriously” (Wright, 2006:172). Lap of Luxury further exaggerates the drama of the scene. Instead of just asking the evicted houseguest to leave the set, a la Jeff Probst on Survivor, Ralph Garman’s speech describes how the person must “return to their sad existence working for the Man”. He concludes the ceremony by telling the person “you’re dead to us” and smashing a plate with their visage on it in the fireplace. In fact, the first eviction ceremony was so over-the-top that Brian and the producers were worried that it had tipped Matt off to the true nature of the show.
So why do the producers even insist on pushing these boundaries? Wouldn’t it be easier for them to fool Matt by keeping everything as realistic as possible? Why not actually hire people to play an exaggerated version of themselves instead of asking someone to play a character completely against their personality? The actors playing Ashleigh, “The Bitch,” and Hutch, “The Asshole,” even comment in their confessional interviews just how difficult and tiring it is to play a character who is that mean for the duration of the show. The answer actually returns back to the premise of The Joe Schmo Show – nothing around Matt is supposed to be real. If the actors were merely playing themselves, then this show would be no different from any other reality show. Matt would be living in a house with all of these different personality types, constantly be competing against them in physically and mentally enduring challenges, and possibly be kicked off as he is a dangerous threat to win the prize money.
The exaggeration of these elements also returns this argument to Baudrillard’s discussion of simulacra. He writes that a simulacrum not only is “the reflection of a profound reality,” but “it has no relation to reality whatsoever” (Baudrillard, 1994:6). If the actors were to exaggerate their true personalities, then they would relate back to reality and thus break the complete hyperreality which The Joe Schmo Show is trying to produce. This also marks a key difference between The Joe Schmo Show and reality game-docs like Survivor, Big Brother, etc. While their goal is to produce a hyperreal environment for real people to partake in, The Joe Schmo Show is attempting to construct a complete hyperreality in an effort to see how Matt will react to it.
One noticeable result of this difference is in the presentation of the transpiring events. Whereas Survivor and its derivatives fit under the title of gameshow-documentaries, The Joe Schmo Show is actually an observational documentary. The questions surrounding the show are not the usual “Who is going to win?” and “How are they going to do so?” Instead, the questions relate to Matt’s response to finding out that the world in which he has been living is fake. In fact, the entire series begins with Angela Dodson, the actress who played Molly “the Virgin,” contemplating these questions out loud: “How is he going to react? Is he going be pissed at us because we deceived him? Or is he going to be happy? Or is he going to cry? We really didn’t know how he was going to react” (Curtis, et. al., 2003). By immediately admitting the simulation to the audience, it changes the manner in which the viewer watches the series. Instead of pondering who will win the challenge, the viewer must ask whether Matt will actually participate in such ridiculous games and if, at any point, he will realize the hoax. The viewer is placed in the same position as the cast and crew, and has now unwittingly become a participant in the illusion. Jennifer Friedlander observes how “through a series of hitches and gaffes, The Joe Schmo Show tipped over into something more like trompe l’oeil, enticing viewers to play with their own implication in its ruses” (Friedlander, 2007:9).
The audience can thus elicit various pleasures from viewing the text. On one hand, seeing Matt participate in the humiliating challenges and be completely taken by the simulation allows the viewer to not only laugh at Matt, but feel satisfied that the ruse is working. This occurs not only when Matt is playing the games, but when he adheres to the generic expectations of the game-doc and begins strategizing with the other participants about how to vote during the elimination ceremonies. However, he does not always make the traditional choices of reality show participants. Friedlander writes that the viewer is taken out of the hyperreality the show produces “as a result of his (unintentionally) disruptive actions; Matt took the show’s fake premise more sincerely than participants of actual reality TV shows do. Indeed, the show’s co-creators, Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, were so troubled by the depth of Matt’s “investment in the show and the people around him” that they tell us, “there were times we wanted to stop the show” (Curtis et. al., 2003). Perhaps the toughest incident to get through was Earl’s eviction as he and Matt had formed a strong father-son bond. She continues:
The show continued with the aid of a series of emergency meetings in which ideas were discussed for recalibrating the narrative in the light of Matt’s unpredictable behavior. Thus, rather than sustaining the split between ‘knowing’ and ‘acting’, Matt’s involvement in the show led to its suturing. Our ‘knowing’ (that Matt is a reality TV participant like all the others) was troubled by Matt’s ‘authenticity’ to the point that it came into coincidence with our ‘acting’ (as if we were indeed watching someone’s genuine actions…) (Friedlander, 2007:10-11).
Scrutinizing The Joe Schmo Show for these authentic, realistic moments is yet another way for the viewer to derive pleasure from the text. During one early challenge, Hutch is ordered to give Earl a foot massage. While doing this, Hutch breaks character and begins cracking up uncontrollably. The viewer can laugh along with Hutch as he has to perform this disgusting act. Similarly, Matt’s unprompted generous acts, such as giving an all-expense-paid vacation he won to Dr. Pat after accidentally injuring her in a challenge, demonstrate his kind heart. This deviation from the reality TV formula allows the audience to see a “real” act of kindness that would usually be cut from the show.
These chinks in the armor of the various simulacra on The Joe Schmo Show demonstrate the persistence of reality against the hyperreal. The simulated enhancements on the show, especially the stereotypical reality TV characters, do not completely fill the conventions of the original – in Baudrillard’s terms – they take us further from it (1998:115). The actors sometimes fall out of character and risk revealing the simulation to the person who is meant to be deceived. Much like the film The Truman Show (Peter Weir, 1998), a major source of inspiration for The Joe Schmo Show, these actions may be as potentially threatening to expose the hoax as the movie-camera light which falls from the sky and alerts Truman Burbank to the simulated environment around him. While certain simulacra may be able to erase the existence of the original, others fail to completely destroy reality. Due to their fallible nature, cracks may begin to appear, and the subject may become aware of the simulation. Much like a photocopy, there is a generational loss of quality from one copy to the next. In this case, the simulation of a simulation, there are already inconsistencies among the copy. As Baudrillard says, “when reality merges completely with the idea [of the simulacrum], it’s the end. The game is over” (Baudrillard, 1993:2005). When the truth of Lap of Luxury is at last revealed to Mattat the final ceremony, the simulated environment of that show is dissolved. Matt is now conscious of the purpose of the actual show and is aware of his starring role as “Joe Schmo” before finally returning to his real life outside of it.
Although this discussion has covered the various ways that The Joe Schmo Show has simulated reality television shows, the question remains as to its relationship with reality itself. Is the series so far removed from reality that it is impossible to get any meaning from it? Is the show just another meaningless simulacrum of reality or is there something more to it? The meaning of the show can, in fact, be derived from its differences from reality TV. Friedlander points out that,
…as viewers, we know that reality TV is, in fact, a sham. Through a combination of casting decisions, generic conventions, celebrity aspirations, etc., the participants of these shows are, in effect, not acting ‘authentically,’ but are rather ‘playing roles.’ Nevertheless, we enjoy watching them as if we think of them as ‘real people’” (Friedlander, 2007:10).
What Joe Schmo does is to call attention to this contrivance and allows the viewer to consciously realize that we are watching actors performing on a stage.
In 1970, philosopher Marshall McLuhan expanded upon his notion of the global village by introducing the concept of the global theater. He writes:
Since Sputnik and the satellites, the planet is enclosed in a manmade environment that ends ‘Nature’ and turns the globe into a repertory theater to be programmed. Shakespeare at the Globe mentioning ‘All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players’ (As You Like It, Act II, Scene 7) has been justified by recent events in ways that would have struck him as entirely paradoxical. The arch of satellites is that the young now accept the public spaces of the earth as role-playing areas. Sensing this, they adopt costumes and roles and are ready to ‘do their thing’ everywhere (McLuhan and Watson, 1970:9-10).
The actors and staging of The Joe Schmo Show call attention to the theatrical aspects of ‘reality’. As Baudrillard points out in The Impossible Exchange, “there are no longer either actors or spectators; all are immersed in the same reality, in the same revolving responsibility, in a single impersonal destiny which is merely the fulfillment of a collective desire” (Baudrillard, 2001:138). The Joe Schmo Show involves viewers in maintaining the falsehood of the show. The audience moves from spectators to accomplices and a plays the role of “schemer” in the overall plan. What The Joe Schmo Show teaches us is that if all the world’s a stage, then we are not merely its players, but also its directors and stagehands.
What Baudrillard calls the “confusion of existence and its double” (Baudrillard, 2002b:177) is thus extended and our ability to resist “reality” TV is further diminished beyond even what Baudrillard completely foresaw. For him humans in reality shows have seen their prototype in Duchamp’s bottle rack, the readymade, the tele-spectator transferred from silent mass to the other side of the screen, the challenge of the masses, the challenge of silence is now cancelled when people are assigned to speech (Baudrillard, 1997:22).
Finally, what does the existence of The Joe Schmo Show say about the sociality of humans? Is it merely further evidence, as Baudrillard said of Loft Story “like all reality TV, proof that human beings are not fundamentally social”? (Baudrillard, 2005:181). The Joe Schmo Show seems to push us, as Baudrillard wrote: “beyond the panopticon [where] the public has become big brother (Ibid.:182)
About the Author
Michael Rennett is an Adjunct Professor Film Studies at Moorpark College in California. He graduated with a B.A. degree in Media Theory and Criticism and a minor in Jewish Studies from California State University, Northridge, in 2004. He received his Master’s degree from Chapman University in the field of Film Studies in 2006. He is a current contributor to the academic media blog Dr. Mabuse’s Kaleido-Scope.
Jean Baudrillard (1993). Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews (Edited by Mike Gane), London: Routledge.
Jean Baudrillard (1994). Simulacra and Simulation. (c 1981) Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Jean Baudrillard (1997). Art and Artefact. New York: SAGE (Edited by Nicholas Zurbrugg).
Jean Baudrillard (1998). Paroxysm: Interviews With Philippe Petit. New York: Verso.
Jean Baudrillard (2001). Impossible Exchange. London: Verso.
Jean Baudrillard (2002a). Cool Memories IV: 1995-2000. New York: Verso.
Jean Baudrillard (2002b). Screened Out (c 2000). New York: Verso.
Jean Baudrillard (2005). “Dust Breeding” in The Conspiracy of Art (Edited by Sylvere Lotringer) New York: Semiotext(e).
Chung Chin-Yi (2007). “Hyperreality, the Question of Agency, and the Phenomenon of Reality Television.” Nebula, Volume 4, Number 1.
Michael Curtis, J. Holland Moore, Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick (2003). The Joe Schmo Show: Season One Uncensored! [Episode 1-1.] Spike TV, September 2 DVD.
Arlid Fetveit (2002) “Reality TV in the Digital Era: A Paradox in Visual Culture?.” In Reality Squared: Televisual Discourse on the Real. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.
Jennifer Friedlander. “No Business Like Schmo Business: Reality TV and Fetishistic Inversion.” International Journal of Zizek Studies. Volume 1, Number 3, 2007: 9. http://zizekstudies.org/index.php/ijzs/article/viewPDFInterstitial/60/122
Annette Hill (2005). Reality TV: Audiences and Popular Factual Television. London: Routledge.
Marshall McLuhan and Wilfred Watson (1970). From Cliché to Archetype. New York: Viking Press.
The Advocate (2004). “On with the Schmo.” Issue 916, (June 8).
The Age (2003). “Surviving and Thriving.” November 13: http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2003/11/12/1068329621438.html
Christopher J. Wright (2006). “Welcome to the Jungle of the Real: Simulation, Commoditization, and Survivor”. The Journal of American Culture. Volume 29, Number 2 (June).