Reality Schmeality

Former Phoenicians amp up the reality TV biz with Joe Schmoe

Just when you thought it was safe to watch a reality TV show or two, television producers and former Phoenicians Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese have revamped the format of America's favorite cheeseball genre. In the duo's Joe Schmoe Show, which airs Tuesdays on cable's Spike TV network, the gimmick is an especially mean one: Of the nine contestants on the show, only one -- Matt Kennedy Gould -- is the real deal. The others are all paid actors impersonating reality-show contestants in an attempt to make a public ass out of poor slob Matt, who thinks he's competing on a program called The Lap of Luxury. I caught up with Wernick and Reese about their nasty little ploy, which is amassing monster ratings at the expense of one Middle American.

New Times: Okay. You guys are mean.

Paul Wernick:No, we're not. Because what's at the core of Joe Schmoe is comedy. What you're overlooking is that we set out to have some fun with reality TV, to send up a genre that started out as over the top and went even more over the top.

NT: Oh, right. It isn't mean to set up this poor loser so that he's making a fool of himself on national television.

Wernick: I guarantee you, Matt had the experience of a lifetime. He laughed; he cried. In fact, we all cried a lot during the whole process. When you look at reality shows in general, there are some mean-spirited reality shows out there. Temptation Island is about breaking up couples. We're sending up the crazy nature of those shows. I mean, Joe Schmoe took some dramatic turns, and it felt a little mean unintentionally. But he had a blast.

Rhett Reese: We knew we were deceiving someone, and okay, we have to answer to that. There were times we felt very guilty and would question ourselves, but we handled it as responsibly as we could. What other reality shows do to people is harsh. On Survivor they literally starve people. On Big Brother, they lock people up for a month. On Fear Factor, they're feeding people maggots and bashing people up against boats. Our guy didn't get anything near that.

NT: Oh, well, when you put it that way . . .

Wernick: On most shows, when reality producers see tears, they're joyful. Because tears make great TV. But when we saw tears, we felt an enormous responsibility to Matt. If we felt the situation Matt was in was taking too dramatic a turn, we dialed it back. Most producers dial those emotions up, but we weren't about "Hey, let's make him cry." We tried to be responsible.

NT: Poor slob.

Reese: Hey, he's a grown man, going on a reality TV show. He knew it was crazy, and he signed up for it. You go on reality TV to get a crazy time, and he got that.

NT: It's obvious that you guys were looking for the biggest goofball in America. What were the criteria?

Wernick: I don't think Matt's a goofball. He bought into the whole thing, but he's actually one of the most genuine people ever on reality TV. He's a bit of a ham, and he played to the cameras a bit, but he made our job hard because he didn't tell us what we expected to hear. He was a star because he's a great listener who picks up on everything.

NT: Well, maybe not everything. He sort of didn't catch on to the fact that he was being made an ass of by about a hundred people.

Reese: Yeah. People are watching, thinking, "How could he fall for this?" But you have to put yourself into that context. Reality TV is all so faked up and weird that it would be difficult for anyone on one of these shows to say, "Hmm, this seems a little odd."

NT: Like the competition called "Hands on a High-Priced Hooker"? The one where you had a naked porn star on a chaise, and everyone had to put their hands on her body? And the last one to take their hands away is the winner? Come on, guys. Even a pinhead would have wondered about that one.

Wernick:(laughing) That was so much fun. But I worked on Big Brother 2, and you have to understand that that kind of game actually plays out on some of these shows.

NT: You guys were screwed when Matt was the first one to take his hand away.

Wernick:Oh, man. It was amazing, because we had obviously written it differently. We'd written four options and the cast's responses, but he took us to none of the above.

Reese: Wait. Go back. I want to say something about how you think it's mean that we faked Matt out, that he was stupid to have fallen for the whole thing. Matt was not at all gullible, he was an amazing listener. It was literally 150 people working to fool this one guy, and he made it enormously difficult. I get bummed out sometimes when I hear people think we were mean to dupe Matt like that. If you watch our show more, and it sounds like you won't, there are more examples where Matt trips us up every time.

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