December 7, 2004

Queer lies for the fake guy

I know lots of people out there hate humorist Joel Stein and his solipsistic shtick. I've always enjoyed it. But in his new L.A. Times column, Stein is trying to break some actual news, and I'm not quite sure he's up to the task.

His premise is not unsound (or unknown): reality TV is largely fake. I'm willing to accept most of his claims: that segments of The Simple Life are scripted, that voiceovers and relationships on dating shows are all phony (I've read elsewhere of actors jumping from one dating show to the next), that the Osbournes has sound effects edited in to boost the humor. Fine.

But Stein leads with what he calls, "the entertainment equivalent of the Pentagon Papers," a 19-page outline for a Queer Eye episode (helpfully posted as a pdf), in which, "every moment is planned in advance, including a few specific lines for the straight guy to deliver."

My very limited experience with reality TV makes me doubt this for two reasons: 1) non-actors who try to deliver scripted lines, no matter how simple, are always terrible; no producer would want to risk that. 2) writing a makeover show in advance is a lot more work than simply shooting it and assembling the storyline in the editing room.

Indeed, what I suspect Stein actually has here is an editing script. Something put together by writers after watching the raw footage. Curiously the response he gets from Bravo doesn't seem to indicate that he actually asked them directly about the outline. Why not?

Defamer, get to the bottom of this!

Posted by Daniel Radosh


The line I find most stupid in this inane column is:

"Once you find out reality stars actually need help to be that dumb, they somehow stop being entertaining"

Uhhh...so when did they start. Being entertaining that is.

I hate to say he's right; I've known people who have written for many reality shows, and provided lines to the participants. Whether or not this turns out to be what he says it is, Stein is really just calling something out everyone in the industry knows about.

But what really gets me is what Radoshes and other writers think they know a lot about film and acting because they've seen some movies. Non-actors are usually fine at giving lines, especially small ones, and especially when they get the line only moments before they're supposed to shoot. Have you ever seen La Terra Trema? Yeah.

Dude, he schooled you and all those other Radoshes.

What's the big deal anyway? Are there some ethical rules of reality television that I'm unaware of? It's television. Who cares whether it's "real" or scripted? The only thing I care about is whether it's good or bad. (And of course, in the case of reality television, it's almost universally bad.) If Carson wants to write a few jokes ahead of time (or someone wants to write them for him), that's fine by me, if it makes the show more entertaining.

Yeah, of course everyone knows reality shows aren't real and no one much cares. I'm actually more interested in the journalism angle: how much legwork did Stein do, and what standards is the LA Times going to hold him to? I'll reiterate, by the way, that I generally like Stein (and briefly worked with him and found him pleasant) and am not acusing him of anything, since I really have no idea what the answers are.

There are ethical rules for game shows, as most people generally remember from the 1950s or Quiz Show, depending on how old you are, and many reality shows (not Queer Eye, but, say, The Real Gilligan's Island) qualify. Whether there should be is another story.

I'm also not saying I can't believe Queer Eye and other shows would deceive us; of course they will and can if it makes sense. I'm just saying that in this case, I don't think it makes sense. For example, the reveal specifies that the subject "is speechless." If a writer came up with that, it means that a writer comes up with every response for every subject, and must work to keep it varied and interesting -- this guy is speechless, this guy screams like a girl, this guy blurts out the F-word and has to be bleeped. Why pay someone to come up with this every week, and hope that the subject is convincing when they do it, when a natural reaction will be equally interesting, easier, and cheaper. It makes much more sense that the writer here has already seen footage of the speechless guy, and is assembling it into a narrative.

As someone who wrote, produced, (and to a lesser extent, directed) television commercials for eleven years, I'll tell you the Radoshes are right. In fact, it's frequently difficult for professional actors to deliver scripted lines and make them appear believable. I frequently worked with non-actors (including professional athletes who were quite used to speaking in front of a camera) and virtually all of them were terrible, even after dozens of takes and having them repeat the lines fed them by an off-stage prompter. Watching Queer Eye, I'm convinced that much of the show--especially the bits with the Queer Guys alone--is staged, planned, and even recreated, but I very much doubt it is scripted the way Stein descibes.

The comment about non-actors speaking scripted lines is dead-on. I'm (suitably ashamed to admit that I am)addicted to American Casino on Discovery & it's obvious these guys are pretty much reading of cue cards.

Omigod, Phyllis, can you believe Michael Tata just died like that! And they never said what he died of. What are the producers of American Casino hiding from us!?!

I take my Radoshes with a grain of salt.

It gives them a little more bite.

You're right, Joel's a moron, at least in this case.
It's an editing script written after filming so the editors can edit 48 hours of footage into a 48 minute show. Why do you think there's so much technical details about how long each segment will last and what footage to use in the pre-commercial teaser? They take hours to shoot each of the shopping trips, a shooting script wouldn't say exactly how many minutes each shopping trip is going to be edited down to on the show.
Plus Kyan (the grooming guy) denied the story on TV and saud basically what I've said, and if you do newsgroups there's a long thread with a whole bunch of details from an ex-employee at Scout explaining it.

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