overthinking the idiot box

April 18th, 2005

Reality: It's not just for off-camera life anymore.

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Fear and Self-Loathing in Los Angeles1:
A savage journey to the heart of the New American Dream

by The Ashes of Raoul Duke

Part I | Part II


Left to right: Irate Security Guard, Dr. Gonzo-las and the author
We were in the middle of the line, somewhere around the Passions soundstage, when the doubts took hold and I said something like, "Why am I here?" The "here" in question was an open casting call for the upcoming season of a Certain Reality Show, and judging by the lack of response from my trusty cohort, the lovely Dr. Gonzo-les2, I wasn't entirely sure I had posed this existential query out loud at all.

I had told myself that I was here purely for journalistic purposes, as a spectator. After half a decade spent observing the finished product, I had wanted to gain a firsthand perspective of the people who offer themselves up as hooves and snouts to the sausage grinder that is Reality television. What could possibly motivate them beyond the clich■s of fame and greed? I needed to know what went through their minds as they threw their bodies and souls upon the altar of the beast. The only way to get inside their heads was to become one of them myself. The question I had hoped to answer was "Why are they here?" But suddenly, my own motives were no longer clear, and the "they" turned to "I."

Though the "Why" remained an elusive mystery for the time being, the "How" was coming back to me - as in "How did I get here?" Approximately seven hours earlier3 I was at a birthday party playing Karaoke Revolution 3. This is a highly addictive video game where you sing along to songs like "Careless Whisper" or "Beat It" and your talent is judged electronically based on pitch. This game helped me to empathize with the William Hungs and Mary Roaches of the world who delude themselves into thinking that they're good enough to be the next American Idol, because before that night, I suffered from similar delusions. While I never suspected that I was a great singer, I certainly never realized that I was in fact an - as Simon Cowell would put it - "abysmal" vocalist4 (at least according to the highly scientific Karaoke Revolution program).

After the electronic judges wouldn't even allow me to finish my rendition of "Oops! I Did It Again" (I also gained newfound respect -well, respect - for Britney Spears; that song is hard to sing, y'all), I told my friends that I was thinking of going to the Certain Reality Show's casting call the next morning (perhaps I chose that moment to tell them because I wanted to prove that I could, in fact, sink even lower). Not only did they encourage me to pursue this short-term dream of mine, but they threatened to lose respect for me if I chickened out. This is when Dr. Gonzo-les volunteered to accompany me and provide "Immoral Support." This is also when one of the party-goers (a Midwesterner, of course) informed me that that night was Daylight Savings Time5 and I would have less time than I thought to prepare for my audition early the next morning.

I immediately raced home (two hours later6) to begin work on the show's fourteen page questionnaire. The prompts were far more personal and involved than I had anticipated ("Describe your relationship with your mother;" "Describe your perfect day"). Since this particular sho loves to incorporate gimmicks with its casting (in the past, they've sneakily cast unsuspecting exes and long-lost siblings), I tried to decipher what this year's twist would be based on the questions they were asking. (With all their questions about restraining orders, I thought maybe this season they would cast stalkers and their stalkees - which would make for pretty fantastic television.)

I spent more time filling this out than I did on some of my college applications. By the time I'd printed out copies of my driver's license and passport, I only had an hour before I had to be up. With my mind working overtime plotting strategies and fantasizing about what I would do if I actually made it (one of my epiphanies was that I would wear a TVgasm T-Shirt on the show to curry favor with those influential geniuses and keep them from making any homoerotic video montages about me), I didn't sleep a wink.

Driving to the home of Dr. Gonzo-les, I was thankful that the 101 is so empty at 8am on Sunday mornings. I was able to comfortably drive in two lanes at once without so much as a honked horn or a flipped bird. I picked up my sidekick, but not before awakening her dog, and, in turn, her boyfriend. If I couldn't get some shuteye, nobody could! Speaking of sleep-deprivation, it was time to seek some chemical assistance to get myself into peak auditioning condition. I was still coasting on the eight or so ounces of diet cola I had consumed at the party the night before, but I knew I'd need more than that to make it through the day. I quickly ingested a grande light coffee ice blended beverage (no whipped cream) from an Unnamed Mega Caffeine Cartel and we were on our way7.

The casting call was held at studio lot where this Certain Reality Show is shot each summer, which also happens to be my old stomping grounds. In the summer of 2002, I had an internship on a scripted show that also filmed there and had not been back since my tenure there ended. In fact, I first got into that Certain Reality Show (then in its third unheralded season) because every day I would look down upon its compound and its inhabitants (literally) and I thought it was cool that I could then go home and look down upon those same people (figuratively) through my TV box. And I was hooked.

Dr. Gonzo-les and I arrived just before the scheduled start time of 10am and were relieved to see that the line was nowhere near as daunting as the Popstars 2 line had been8, which is actually quite sad when you think about it considering that Popstars was a low-rated show on The WB while this is a fairly high-rated series on The Tiffany Network.

As we made our way back to the line, I received a rare phone call from my landlord. It seems that in all the excitement of April Fool's Day, Daylight Savings Time, and preparing for my Reality show audition, I had neglected to pay my rent. Suddenly the $500,000 cash prize was moving up on my list of reasons for being there, as writing for an upstart webzines doesn't pay nearly as much as you might think (if you think it pays anything at all). Perhaps Greed would be the primary motivator after all.

After hanging up on my landlord, I got my first glimpse of these aspiring sideshow freaks. I was like Jane Goodall among the gorillas - if Jane Goodall had herself been a gorilla.

The demographic breakdown of these people was similar to that of the Madonna concerts I've attended (with only slightly more ethnic diversity): 49.5% Women in Hoochie Clothes, 49.5% Flamboyantly Gay Men and 1% Me. In fact, most of the Flamboyantly Gay Men appeared to have come with their own Women in Hoochie Clothes, proving that where there's a Will, there's a Grace.

I know as a journalist9, I should have asked these people why they were there and given them a chance to speak for themselves. However, I was so disgusted with all of them (and by "them," I mean "myself") that I couldn't bring myself to actually talk to any of these people. Instead, I judged them based on appearances and what little of their conversations I couldn't help but overhear(essentially recreating the at-home experience of watching a Certain Reality Show).


Parrots Hilton (artist depiction)
The attention whore10 immediately behind me in line was Parrots Hilton11, obviously a devoted Paris-ite12 with poorly bleached blonde hair and that unhealthy, L.A.norexic look. She was accompanied by her very own Tinkerbell (him representing the other 49.5% of th crowd) and they wore matching T-Shirts. At first, these shirts appeared to be emblazoned with gibberish, but as she explained to anyone who would listen (or not help but overhear), this was actually some code for circumventing text message obscenity regulations and in fact it spelled out "Hot Bitch."13

In between going on about her cryptic fashion statement, Parrots sprinkled the expressions "Loves it" and "That's hot" liberally throughout her conversation in an entirely un-ironic manner. To be fair, she mixed it up occasionally with a variation I'd never heard before: "Lovers it." See what she did there? She made it her own, as Paula Abdul might mumble incoherently between pill bottles. Perhaps I should refer to her as Paraphrases Hilton instead?

I'd had about as much as I could take of this episode of The Simple Line behind me, so I turned my eavesdropping ear to the group of (what I thought were) aspiring Reality stars in front of me where yet another Reality show was being invoked. Apparently a real live Reality vet had been standing before me this whole time, but due to the fleeting nature of the genre's fame, his face failed to register on the star-sighting portion of my usually adept brain. As soon as I heard him dishing about his time on the gold standard of Reality series, Survivor, I started racking the recesses of my mind for some remnant of this mystery castaway's identity.

The thing is, I've watched every episode of every season of Survivor. Without hesitating, I can name all 16 contestants from that first watershed season (in the order they were banished and most of them with first and last name). So how could this guy completely escape my memory? It seems to be proof of my Theory of Reality-tivity: With each passing season of a Reality show, the contestants' fifteen minutes of fame tick away faster and faster. This being the sixth season of the Certain Reality Show, all of these people lined up there can only hope to be recognizable for about two and a half weeks after the season finale. So I think we can knock fame down on the list of motives.

But just who was this Reality star standing before me? Why was he there? And most importantly, why was I there?

To be continued...

1 Note, this title is the first of many journalistic liberties to be taken by your humble columnist. Though this grisly journey does begin and end in the City of Angels, the bulk of the fear and majority of the self-loathing actually take place just north of our heavenly metropolis, in Studio City. However, poetically speaking, "Studio City" sounds nothing like "Las Vegas." Any further exaggerations and inaccuracies will be noted, except when they are not. I trust this clears up any confusion.

2 Dr. Gonzo-les is neither a PhD nor a licensed medical practitioner. However, every journey of fear and loathing requires an ethnic sidekick. As my token half-Mexican-American friend, I've bestowed upon her an honorary doctorate of Gonzology.

3 Actually, it was eight hours earlier, but I lost an hour in there somewhere.

4 Incidentally, I narrowly averted shattering this delusion four years ago when I gave up and got out of the ridiculously long line for the Popstars 2 auditions. My cowardly retreat was captured on videotape by Dr. Gonzo-les and would prove to be a strong motivational force when the fear and self-loathing started to set in during this Reality audition.

5 That's where that lost hour went.

6 Actually, it was three.

7 It should be noted that caffeine does strange things to my body and mind. My freshman year in college, I once thought I'd invented my own religion after devouring several handfuls of aforementioned Unnamed Mega Caffeine Cartel's chocolate-covered espresso beans.

8 See footnote 4.

9 I know I am not really a journalist.

10 She may very well be a whore for other things, but I can only attest to her whoring for attention.

11 All names have been changed to prevent fame-seekers from prematurely achieving said fame. And also because I didn't bother to find out their real names.

12 At that moment, it occurred to me that Paris Hilton has replaced Britney Spears-Federline as the premier role model for tomorrow's young women today. I wrote in my notebook that Ms. Spears-Federline "needs her own Reality show to reassert cultural dominance over the distaff youth of America (and the world!)." Not two days later, it was announced that she would indeed be getting such a platform.

13 The real Miss Hilton probably would've been proud except that I assume she's no longer a fan of text messaging.

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Return to Vol. 1, Episode 2.