My day at the first school in the world dedicated to art of appearing on reality TV shows. (Yes, this actually exists)
I wish I could tell you that the New York Reality TV School fought the good fight, and that the students in attendance were not a collection of mostly desperate people whose desire for fame burned more strongly than their sense of dignity. I wish I could tell you that, but the entertainment industry is no fairy-tale world.
Thanks Red. Now, if you, the reader, would be so kind as to click through to the article, it would mean a lot to me. Not because I get paid more for click-throughs (I don't; AOL pays me a flat rate of 60 cents plus a pound of corn husks for every post I make, regardless of the number of clicks), but because I spent three hours attending the inaugural class of the NYRTV school last Saturday. I just couldn't take it if the end result of that is an article no one reads...
Before we begin this thing, a disclaimer: it's written in chronological order from my perspective. I'm not going to lie to you, I spent the first ninety minutes of my time there trying to figure out a way to sneak out politely. Seriously, I thought my brain was going to melt. Things took a dramatic and unexpected 180 during the last hour when actual information started being presented. If you get tired by the length and/or tone of this article, I suggest you just skip on down to Part Five, where I report on that information free from the ballast of my own perspective.
That being said, light your Survivor torch, grab your Bachelor rose, and join me in the Real World confessional. We're taking a trip to the New York Reality TV School.
Part One: If this is your first night at Fight Club ... you have to fight.
Your first reaction upon hearing that someone has started a school teaching people a) how to get on a reality TV show and b) how to maximize your exposure on the show once you do get on is probably similar to mine: oh, good, the world is ending; I guess not paying my taxes was a good move after all.
I honestly didn't believe a school like this could actually exist; I thought my editor Keith was joking when he repeatedly told me that he'd like me to travel to New York to cover the first day of classes. I mean, how could this school exist? Were there really people willing to pay $139 a piece to learn how to lose their dignity on national TV?
Apparently, the answer to that is an emphatic "yes". I opened the door of the assigned classroom and found twenty such people. And, to make matters worse, they were dancing.
I had walked in right as they were beginning one of those "loosen everyone up" exercises. (Five more minutes of Lincoln Tunnel Traffic and I would have missed it entirely, but nooooooo, I had to hit New York on the one day every street was moving smoothly.)
The school's founder (Dean? Principal? Provost?), Robert Galinsky -- all bearded, sweaty energy -- cut through the dance circle and grabbed me immediately.
"I don't care if you're from the press. Everyone participates!"
He wanted me to dance. I couldn't have been less enticed had he offered me a chance to dip myself in honey and then speedbag a beehive.
Luckily for me, I've had a lifetime of gentle rejections from girls I asked to dance, so I'm rather an expert at saying no to a dance request. I smiled and said, "Sure, I'll dance, just let me put down my jacket." He nodded and left and I managed to find a corner where nobody bothered me again until after the dance exercise was over.
Robert was everywhere on the dance floor, exhorting the students to "find like energies." It seemed to me that if you defined "energy" as the "willingness to spend money in the hopes of achieving a cheap fame-grab" then all the dancers had found like energies simply by being on the dance floor. Saying that would have been cynical, of course, so I said nothing.
After the music stopped, Robert got the students in a circle and asked them to give a reaction to the dancing exercise. What did it teach them? How was it effective?
Here's an amazing thing: the students answered. And, instead of saying what immediately sprung to my mind -- the dancing was an effective way to kill ten minutes of a promised three hour course that cannot possibly have three real hours of content in it -- they all shouted back actual responses ("It loosened us up!"; "It freed our souls!"; "It got us ready to share!").
I had learned my first lesson of the day: the kind of person who pays $139 for a course on reality television is not the kind of person who experiences life through cool ironic detachment. These people believed in things, no matter how transparently useless those things were.
In a way, I was jealous. The next few hours were going to be torture for me and an adventure for them.
Part Two: Roll Call!
After the dancing, Robert got everyone in a circle and had them introduce themselves. I kept a running tally of the given occupations (note: not everyone gave theirs). See if you can find a pattern:
"Actor/Puppeteer"; "Actor"; "Relationship Expert"; "Writer"; "Out of Work Actor"; "Writer/Actor/Singer"; "Actor"; "Actor/Writer"; "Writer/Filmmaker"'; "Actress"; "Actor/Writer/Producer/Director".
Eight out of eleven described themselves as an actor. Now, I'm not going to doubt their ability to make a living as an actor (after all, I'm a comedian that nobody has ever heard of, currently making a living on the ha-ha circuit; I'm used to people doubting comedy as my full-time vocation simply because they haven't seen me in my own sitcom), so let's assume that everyone there was really what they said they were. Further, let's assume that the self-proclaimed double, triple, and quadruple threats are all making their living in the creative field.
Here's the question: why would all of these creative people want to be on a reality show? Why were there no plumbers in attendance? Why no laser hair removal specialists? Why no frumpy housewives, put-upon dog owners, successful businessmen seeking love, chefs hoping to be crowned the next Top Chef, restaurant owners in desperate need of Gordon Ramsey's advice, kids whose parents seek to control their dating habits, or drunken college students who are intensely curious to see what happens when seven strangers stop being polite and start getting real?
After all, those are the contestants that we see on reality TV. Why the incongruity? Could it be that maybe most of the people we see on reality TV are actually actors and not what they claim to be?
As Ricky Bobby would say: Does that blow your mind? That just happened!
Four things I have to mention about the role call:
1) There were several members of the press there, including a fellow blogger from MSN's TV Filter; a Swedish radio host (!?), and Shallon Lester from the New York Daily News. Shallon was there to cover the event, but was also there as a student because she had just signed to be the star of a reality-show pilot for VH1. She described the show as being kind of like The Hills. It came into existence because she leads an interesting life "dating hockey players and musicians." I bring this up because some of you might have thought that a lot of reality shows are created on a flimsy premise ... and, uh, you would be right. Moving on...
2) The people in the circle applauded everything. When someone introduced himself as a "newlywed", the other students greeted the news much the same way New York greeted the news of VE day. I half-expected them to start throwing ticker-tape.
3) Actors have no shame at all when it comes to mentioning their successes. One woman mentioned her recent national commercial no less than four times during the course of the day. This was not a place for humility and restraint.
4) One of the women described herself as a "brain-damaged recovering alcoholic." I'm not going to make fun of this woman (though she said I could if I plugged her blog); I mention her because her candid revelation of what I considered some deeply personal issues was not met with any kind of discomfort whatsoever. In fact, later on in the course, Robert encouraged people to find these deeply personal issues and refine them for the cameras. I found this sad and evil on so many levels that I was almost moved to write an epic poem about it, Dante-style. Maybe I'm alone here. Maybe everyone in the world looks at their personal tragedies as a source for fun and profit. It kind of made me miss the fifties, though, when men wore hats, ladies wore pearls, and tragedy only existed as the secret source of your Scotch drinking.