When Reality Isn’t Real

“What is going on???”
–Matt Kennedy Gould

I have a confession to make, much like one of those contestant interviews in a reality program; for someone who loves television as much as I do, there’s one type of show I have trouble watching, and that’s reality programs.  This is usually because most of what television calls “reality” really isn’t.  It’s “staged” reality, such as Survivor and The Bachelor, where strangers are deliberately thrown together to generate sparks (or friction).  They are then manipulated through various competitive contests and trials into “creating” drama for the benefit of viewers.  If things are going to be “created” in the first place, then why not actually put in the work to make good fictional drama on television that tells stories, creating emotion in the viewer instead of just “hoping” emotion will happen to those individuals involved when the cameras are around?  When reality isn’t real, what is?

That having been said, a few years back someone came up with the ultimate April Fools joke, and it made for a couple short seasons of rather surprising television.  The entire premise was creating a “reality show” that wasn’t real.  Everyone on the show was an actor, save one person who believed they’d been caught in some kind of strange warped television experience.  That person expected a reality show, and what they got was… The Joe Schmo Show.

The only guy who thinks it's real: Matt

Producers created a fake reality show titled Lap of Luxury, where contestants engaged in oddball contests to determine which of them deserved $100,000.  The trick is, EVERYONE is in on the phony competition except for the one person they’ve already rigged to get to the finale.  It’s now become an exercise to see how far they can push this guy, and what he’ll put up with in order to “play the game” and win the money.  The ordinary “Joe Schmo” off the street put in all of these outrageous predicaments is one Matt Kennedy Gould.

Matt was a Pittsburgh law school dropout who found himself competing with what he thought were a bunch of strangers in contests that seemed to get more and more ridiculous.  The team of writers, producers, and actors on The Joe Schmo Show each tried to plot out every move, convincing Matt to go along at every extreme moment, which was then, of course, filmed around the clock and later shown as part of the series.  And those extremes (and the actors engaging in them) were definitely over-the-top.

The actors (and Matt) in "Lap of Luxury"

Actors were given “typical” reality show archetypes, just portrayed a bit wilder than normal.  They had the supposed “virgin”, a “buddy” character for Matt to confide in, a slightly war-crazed “veteran” with a thing for guns, a pampered “rich bitch” who threw tantrums when she didn’t get her way, and so on.  One contestant was shown to be a violent ass, and possibly a threat to the other contestants (all an act, but of course, Matt wasn’t in on it).  He was supposedly dismissed by the producers for the safety of the others, but a few weeks later was brought back (all scripted) because he “threatened” the network with a lawsuit if he wasn’t allowed back in the “competition”.

The contests on The Joe Schmo Show were as “out there” as the characters.  The very first challenge involved wearing the underwear of one of the others (supposedly), with each person trying to figure out whose it was.  Seeing the other contestants do this, Matt decided to give it his all, modeling to the best of his (not very good) ability.  It was then that the actors realized their job might be both easier and harder than they thought.

“Matt gets up there.  Oh, my gosh, like he’s in, like he’s really gonna play this.  He’s gonna play every single game.  Like there was no doubt in my mind that anything that had been written, he was gonna do.”
–Melissa Yvonne Lewis, playing Ashleigh, the “Rich Bitch”

Of course, the challenges were rigged… and although the producers had to work on the fly and change the answers to make their scenario work, Matt’s first place winning ballot suddenly became last place… and forced Matt to wear the lime green thong belonging to the (supposedly) overly gay guy.  And that was just the beginning.

One of the challenges involved eating strange food, which was presented to Matt as dog feces… which Matt objected to as well, even to the point of addressing the issue with the “network representative” (also an actor, as planned), so Matt was thoroughly convinced that this was a real show with all the backstage trimmings you’d normally never see on camera.

Of course, the actors themselves were walking a tightrope, improvising as they went.  After the quick change on the underwear contest, one of the actors messed up and almost gave the secret away to Matt within the first couple hours of the filming, by commenting he missed the specific question about his own underwear (the answers had been changed, and he forgot which were assigned as “his”).  Although he was called on it by Matt, the others smoothed it over by claiming nerves during the first day and never having been on TV before… but this was hardly a normal TV show.

The elimination ceremony for each episode

This was all presented to the viewers as a peek into how these types of reality shows are filmed, with the audience in on the manipulation of Matt, just to see his reactions.  The amazing thing about the show is, Matt kept his cool through most of the show, and even went to bat for some of the others (whom he still thought of as “real” contestants).  Matt even went so far as to almost give up, not for having to deal with the outrageous actions he was made to go through, but for the sake of another put-upon character, and he sympathetically gave one person the “prize” he’d won after defeating them in a contest.  This led to the producers and actors having to scramble, more than once, to keep up the charade.  After all, the point of The Joe Schmo Show was to see how far they could push Matt WITHOUT his actually losing or quitting… and the show was scripted so he’d make it to the end of the competition, despite all the craziness around him.  But they’d need his ultimate, unwitting cooperation to do so.  A nice bit of drama had been created, with the unpredictability of Matt being the center of it all.

“I’m sure Matt was nervous.  When I pulled up I saw him fidgeting, rubbing his hands together, and I’m thinking ‘You think you’re nervous?  Try being in my shoes, pal!'”
–Brian Keith Etheridge, portraying “The Buddy” character

But it wasn’t just Matt that was involved in the drama.  Like most TV reality series, each of the other “characters” was interviewed along the way individually, except their “interviews” were about what they were trying to do to continue the deception.  They detailed how hard it was to remain in character all the time, to pull the wool over this poor guy’s eyes, and to see his reactions when they either broke their hearts or amazed them with reactions they never expected or planned for.  The actors themselves had quite a journey as well.

Matt loses, learns the truth, and wins the money

The Joe Schmo Show was successful, and although Matt ultimately (after an emotional finale) finished in second place (scripted, of course, to get his reaction to losing)… he was then let in on the entire set-up, with the entire cast and crew there for the revelation.  Everyone shared in Matt’s amazement, Matt was relieved (and shocked) at the reality that these people weren’t the jerks they’d had to be in character along the way, and the show was a hit.

Oh, and Matt got the $100,000 dollars anyway for all his trouble.  But everyone made sure he REALLY earned it, no matter how “faked” the reality show was.

“Will you guys all stop acting like lunatics?  My God!”
–Ingrid Wiese on Joe Schmo 2

So, after 8 successful episodes, what did the producers do next?  Well, how about twice the fun?  Next was Joe Schmo 2 (subtitled The Schmo Must Go On), with the twist being TWO people being the “unknowing” contestants instead of one.  This time, the fake reality series was called Last Chance for Love, and was based with more of a spin on relationship-like reality shows like The Bachelor.  It featured a fake bachelor and a fake bachelorette, both looking for love in all the wrong (scripted) places.  The true contestants were “Joe Schmo” Tim Walsh, a bartender from Washington D.C., and “Jane Schmo” Ingrid Wiese, also from D.C (although they didn’t know each other).

The actors (and Ingrid and Tim, center) for Joe Schmo 2

Again, producers, cast, and crew were all in on the joke, and set out to do their best.  Both Schmos were game, but since the stakes were raised in the sequel, so was the outrageousness, especially when dating was concerned.  Contestants were chained together to dance for the aforementioned bachelor and bachelorette; the show is crashed by a “supposed” former lover of the bachelorette who threatens the rest of the group if they even so much as look at her funny; and ultimately, it all gets so crazy that Ingrid finally voices her suspicions that something isn’t on the up-and-up here….

Tim and Ingrid: Schmo and ex-Schmo

…which gives the producers an opening unavailable previously; rather than lose the emotional depth of a reveal, they decide Ingrid should be let in on the entire set-up, with the promise that she will receive the $100,000 prize.  The catch?  She wins the money ONLY if she can keep Tim believing the show (and the strangeness) is all legit.  Given the opportunity (and knowing about the hoax in progress), she agrees, and the rest of the series is about both how the actors can fool Tim (and his reactions to them) and non-actress Ingrid’s attempts at making it all seem normal (or at least as normal as reality shows ever get).

Replacement Schmo Amanda

The next twist?  A new “real” Schmo,  Amanda Naughton,  is brought in for Ingrid to fool (and to give Tim one more person as flummoxed as he is).  Amanda believes everything is on the level, a lie made even more reasonable by the fact she had met Ingrid at their original auditions!  Ingrid now has to fool someone who’s met her before, and Amanda trusts someone she really shouldn’t.

The series runs to its wild and wacky conclusion, complete with close calls when the game is almost given away by the actors (as Amanda almost recognizes one of the previously eliminated contestants as a comedian she’d seen perform previously) and a finale that sees both the return of the crazed ex-boyfriend and the announcement of the “winners” of the Last Chance for Love that actually involve none of the “contestant” actors.  Tim remains (barely) fooled until the final reveal, and Ingrid (and Tim) win the money… but getting there was a wild ride for all, including the viewers.

Both shows featured relatively unknown actors (obviously, it wouldn’t do for Matt, Ingrid, or Tim to recognize anyone), but some of them have gone on to other, bigger roles.  From the first season, “Dr. Pat” the relationship therapist (with multiple marriages!) was played by Kristen Wiig, who’s become famous as one of the regular players on Saturday Night Live! David Hornsby played the “Asshole” character who threatened the fake series with a fake lawsuit, and he later went on to both produce and appear in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

Derek Newcastle (Ralph Garmin), the host

During the second series, Jon Huertas was “The Playah”, a Latin Lothario hoping to score the relationship with the bachelorette.  He later went on to a regular role as Esposito on the hit series Castle.  The only holdover between the two casts of Joe Schmo was narrator and “host” of the fake reality shows, Ralph Garmin, although he played himself in the first series, and had dyed hair, false teeth, and a horrid British accent as boorish “host” character Derek Newcastle in the second.  He was, if possible, even more smarmy in the second show than he was in the first… and that’s saying a lot.

Like most regular reality shows, however, some members of the cast become famous anyway.  The original Joe Schmo Dana Kennedy Gould actually received a deal from Spike TV to help with more shows, and to do promotional appearances.  He was involved in the creation and production of Joe Schmo 2, and helped the producers plan out some of the plot arc they hoped to put the Schmos through from the point of view of someone coming from the outside looking in.

Some believed that this added even more to the second series, plus the twist of having one of the Schmos become one of the “actors” (even though Ingrid had no previous acting experience) led to a much more exciting and unpredictable series… which is pretty good, considering the first one was hard to top in those respects.  Ultimately, although the original goal may have been to spoof “reality” shows and their tropes, the success of Joe Schmo was in seeing the “real” people and their own emotions and feelings triumph over (and in spite of) the outlandish scenarios put in their way.  And good drama is always about heroes overcoming obstacles and either succeeding or learning from their efforts, so maybe reality shows have a place in the landscape of television.  It’s just better if they know what character they’re telling a story about from the beginning….

Last Chance at Love? Not really, but fun while it lasted.

It doesn’t do a lot of good to list “cast” on a supposed reality show.  Other than the actors I’ve already listed, it’s probably better to let the supposed “real” people remain that way, in their blessed obscurity.  The two series, however, are famous enough that the original Joe Schmo series was placed on a list of the 50 best DVD TV series of all time, and that was before the second series DVD came out (and thought to be even better).  Both versions have extended cuts of episodes, but if you don’t want to deal with DVD sets, episodes are available (in chunks, of course) on YouTube here.  There is a fan site or two (developed during the run of each series) with pictures and reviews of each episode. Versions of Joe Schmo made it to New Zealand, France, and Spain, with more poor Schmos fooled and more reality shows spoofed.

The producers of The Joe Schmo Show later tried an even bigger trick, attempting to prove the old adage attributed to P.T. Barnum about “You can’t fool all of the people all of the time.”  They tried a series called Invasion Iowa starring Star Trek‘s William Shatner and the small town of Riverside, Iowa (the supposed future birthplace of Captain Kirk).  The idea was that Shatner and his film crew would come in to make his “epic” SF feature using people from the town, and then make outrageous demands along the way, seeing how far the town would go to cooperate for their moment at fame.  Shatner and company were more than surprised when Riverside turned out to be full of such genuine, honest, and helpful people that they cut the entire gag short, as they just couldn’t bring themselves to continue fooling such hardworking and trusting individuals.   They ended up giving the town a generous grant and throwing a celebration, not of their being fooled, but of them being just who they were, the tremendous reality of their own selves.

In other words, celebrating the best part of reality… each other.

Vital Stats

The Joe Schmo Show
8 episodes — none unaired — extra footage available on DVD
Spike network
First aired episode:  September 3, 2003
Final aired episode:  October 23, 2003
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  No, it’s usual time slot was Tuesdays at 9/8 Central, but being on cable, it was rerun at various times and days.

Joe Schmo 2
9 episodes — none unaired — extra footage available on DVD
Spike network
First aired episode: June 15, 2004
Final aired episode:  August 10, 2004
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  As with the first show, the same time slot, but all over the map afterwards.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

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