Sex, Lies and TV Talk
At first glance, the East Valley slackers who call themselves Timmy and Roberto wouldn't seem likely candidates to appear on a TV talk show. Both high school graduates, the young men apparently possess the normal number of chromosomes. As far as anyone knows, neither has been romantically involved with a blood relative. Furthermore, both are still equipped with the same genitalia with which they entered the world.
Despite these severe handicaps, the dysfunctionally challenged pair are nevertheless seasoned vets of TV's trash-talk trenches. Assisted by a rotating-stock company of duplicitous friends, the pranksters have successfully crashed the daytime-chat circuit, posing in such disparate roles as bickering gays, lowlife womanizers and peeping Toms.
Currently negotiating an appearance on a show that, for obvious reasons, must remain nameless, the intrepid impostors already have a collective seven shows under their belts. Over the past three years, they've lobbed their salacious--and totally spurious--grenades from such shock-talk outposts as Jenny Jones, Mark Walberg, Charles Perez and, most recently, on an episode of Carnie Wilson taped last fall.
"All my life I've amused myself by telling people pointless stories just to see how far I can carry them," reports Roberto. "Thanks to these shows, now there's a payoff. I'd never be able to afford to fly to New York or Chicago, stay in a fancy hotel and order $18 banana waffles from room service." In the process, he's creating McLuhanesque performance art--like the tape of his gay makeover on Mark Walberg; a surreal spectacular in which he flamboyantly flounces across the screen in lumberjack gear while a voice-over solicits phone calls from viewers who are "pregnant and battered."
But the curtain is fast falling on Timmy and Roberto's peculiar brand of guerrilla theatre. With the exception of Ricki Lake and a sprinkling of other survivors, there are few new beachheads to conquer. Plagued by scandals, lawsuits, gun-shy sponsors and an audience rapidly being talked to death, many talk-show ringmasters have folded their tents or, like Oprah, shifted to less exploitative topics.
Yet during their glory days of chat-show chicanery, Timmy and Roberto developed keen insights into the inner workings of TV's most-maligned genre, confirming what many viewers have long suspected.
"Most of these shows are complete and utter bullshit," says 24-year-old Roberto, a Tempe record-store clerk with a long history of pranks. "Practically anyone could con their way onto one of them."
"The level of trust is incredible," agrees Timmy, who is also 24, but won't say where he works because he'd like to keep his day job. "It's been my experience that the producers of these shows are pretty much willing to believe anything you tell them. If they didn't, I don't know how they'd ever find any guests."
Hard-core hoaxsters with chutzpah to spare, Timmy and Roberto probably underestimate the ease of crashing a syndicated talk show. According to Chicago-based host Jerry Springer, only one person in 150 who phones his program's guest hot line is ever flown to Chicago, limoed from the airport and put up at a luxury hotel at his program's expense.
In late 1994, Roberto found himself among those chosen few. It happened the same day he and friend Johnny were marveling over the jaw-dropping array of lower-echelon humanity assembled on an episode of Springer's program.
"We were watching the show, wondering what sort of freak detector the producers used to find these people, when they announced a phone number to call if you wanted to be a guest," recalls Roberto. "I figured, 'Why not?' How difficult could it be to copy the stuff you see on these shows--or even improve on it?"
Ringing up Springer's guest hot line (1-800-29JERRY), Roberto found himself listening to a prerecorded menu of touch-tone dysfunction: "If you have a wedding horror story, press 1. For 'Why did you turn gay on me?' press 2," and so forth.
Recognizing that a faked wedding horror story would mean producing catering bills, photos and home videos, Roberto kept listening until he heard a far simpler topic that just screamed to be scammed: "To get revenge on an ex, press 3"
Covering up the receiver, Roberto hollered, "Hey, Johnny--wanna be my ex?"
Then, on Springer's answering machine, Roberto outlined a totally fictitious scenario in which he would extract revenge on Johnny, a former gay lover who'd made his life miserable since their messy split. A spiteful sort, Johnny had broken into Roberto's house while he was at work, turned on all the faucets and flooded the two-story townhouse! Posing as an employee of a herpes clinic, the vindictive Johnny had also phoned a number of Roberto's friends and co-workers, informing them that he'd named them as possible sexual contacts! Was it any wonder that Roberto wanted to confront this monster on syndicated TV, announcing that he'd arranged to have him fired from his job in front of a live studio audience.
Less than a day later, a breathless Springer staffer phoned back and, according to Roberto, practically salivated over his fabricated tale.
"It immediately became apparent that I had 'em hooked," reports Roberto. "One of the first things she wanted to know was what airport I'd be flying out of if I were to come to Chicago to tape a show. Here she was, already making travel arrangements--and she hadn't even talked to Johnny yet. I knew we were home free."
When another friend caught wind of the hoax and asked whether he could join in the fun, the plot sickened--much to the delight of the show's producers, claims Roberto.
Explaining how talk-show producers routinely keep in daily phone contact with potential guests (a gambit apparently aimed at neutralizing negative input from skeptical families and friends), Roberto had big news for the producer's next call.
While hanging out at a Valley gay bar the night before, Roberto told the producer, he'd struck up a conversation with a young man named J.D.--who just happened to be Johnny's latest ex! Comparing notes, the two scorned lovers were shocked to discover that J.D.'s missing dog--the object of a neighborhood reward-poster campaign--had actually been kidnaped by Johnny, who had the animal put to sleep at the pound!
Shocked, appalled and more intrigued than ever, the producer reportedly wasted no time in booking J.D. a seat on Roberto's flight. The evil Johnny, meanwhile, had been sweet-talked into flying to the program with the vague promise of being reunited with someone from his past.
Looking back, Roberto can't understand how anyone could seriously swallow the coincidence-laden fabrication he and his pals had cooked up.
"The weird thing was the crazier our story got, the more stoked the producers seemed to get," says Roberto. "It was almost as if they were encouraging us to keep embellishing with ridiculous details. The story eventually got so insane that I wondered how we'd ever be able to pull it off."
As it turned out, he had good reason to worry--but not for the reasons he suspected.
In the end, it wasn't the ever-escalating implausibility of their tower of lies that tripped up Roberto and his fellow poseurs. Instead, the scam collapsed when a Springer staffer--while searching through Roberto's hotel phone records to find the phone number of Johnny's boss--discovered that Roberto had made a number of long-distance calls to the hated Johnny from his hotel room the previous night.
Remembering his confrontation with furious producers, Roberto says, "I felt like the captain in the boiler room as the room's filling up with water. They were swearing at us--'You pricks! You little bastards! You lied to us!' Well, they lied to Johnny. They had him fly out, knowing I was going to have him fired."
So how closely do producers check the veracity of a potential guest's story?
While that's certainly an interesting question, it's apparently one of the very few queries in the trash-talk universe that doesn't deserve an answer. For people who work in an industry fueled by cheap talk, explosive secrets and bombastic confession, talk-show insiders are an amazingly laconic lot.
Mark Walberg did not return calls about Roberto's 1994 "Wild-to-Mild Makeover."
As for Roberto's experience on Jerry Springer, a spokesperson claims she's unable either to confirm or deny the incident because the producer of the segment is no longer with the show. Asked about the show's general screening policies, she explains that it would depend on exactly what the would-be guest had to say.
Over at Jenny Jones (where the shadow of last year's much-publicized "talk-show murder" still hangs over the studio), a staffer is only slightly more instructive. "We look at all the ID the people have, including driver's licenses, we interview them and we substantiate our guests' stories with other people," says Steve Maiman. "It's a very thorough process that gets better every year."
"They didn't try to verify anything," counters Timmy, who parlayed one of his Jones show appearances into a National Enquirer item, as well as a clip on Talk Soup, a talk-show digest that runs on cable.
Sitting in front of a TV set as one of his videotaped talk-show appearances unfolds onscreen, Timmy ruminates about his urge to dis and tell.
"Going to another city and essentially being paid to scam 20 million people is the ultimate high," he says. "To me, that is the ultimate amusement, having a dump truck full of shit pour out of your mouth knowing that it's feeding 20 million people all at the same time. They're all vicariously hating, through you, whatever it is they're hating about their lives."
While his pal Roberto has a lock on impersonating over-the-top gays ("If you tell them you're a homosexual, you get bonus points on these shows," explains Roberto), Timmy specializes in trailer-park Lotharios who treat women worse than dogs. Witness this partial transcript from a 1993 appearance on Jenny Jones that was excerpted in the National Enquirer.
Jenny Jones: Tell us [Timmy] about the woman you were with that you were trying to buy the car from. She wanted $1,800 for the car. How did you get a better price for the car?
Timmy: I brought her up to orgasm, then negotiated the price of the car down to $400.
Just as a member of high society can never be too thin or too rich, a daytime talk-show guest can never be too abrasive or too belligerent.
"The more confrontational you are, the better they like it," advises Timmy. "If you're serious about getting on one of these shows, give 'em what they want, push it to the limit, never give an inch."
Case in point: While Timmy was dissing women on Jones' show, an angry guest demanded to know how he'd feel if someone treated his mother that way.
"Everyone expects me to say, 'Oh, that's different,' right?" asks Timmy. "Uh-uh. Instead, I said, 'Hell, if my mom's stupid enough to be taken in by some guy, she damn well deserves it!' Of course, that's exactly what those producers want you to say. They loved it!"
A master of audience-baiting antics--on Jones' show, Timmy also boasted that he regularly serviced his much-older, female Wal-Mart boss in a Volkswagen parked behind the store--Timmy proved to be such a crowd-pleaser that the program's producers invited him back for two follow-up shows.
Tossing the tabloid aside, Timmy rolls his eyes.
"For God's sake, look at me!" he says. "I'm not a great-looking guy; I'm not Brad Pitt. For me to use women like I said I did is silly. And for someone to believe me is even sillier."
Still, why argue with success?
On the mend after a nasty fall, Timmy was at home nursing a broken arm when Carnie Wilson issued a call for guests one afternoon several months ago. "Would I like to be reunited with a one-night stand?" Timmy asks. "I looked down at my cast and said, 'Well, of course I would.'"
Using his fractured wing as a springboard, Timmy concocted a wild tale of an insanely jealous woman with whom he'd had sex, who, after finding him in bed with another woman at a party, attacked him with a Louisville Slugger. In his phone pitch to the show's segment producer, Timmy didn't ask for much--only that the "crazy bitch" get down on her knees and beg his forgiveness "in front of Carnie, Carnie's crew, the audience, God and the United States Coast Guard."
"They couldn't wait to get me on that plane," says Timmy, snickering.
When he arrived at the New York studio where Carnie Wilson was taped, Timmy delivered the goods in a big way.
Sprawled back in his chair, he defiantly told the audience that, sure, he and his off-stage date had enjoyed an evening of wild "animal sex." But what of it? If she didn't know the difference between true love and a one-night stand, that was her problem, not his.
As the audience gasped and jeered, Carnie introduced the wronged woman, a Michelle Pfeiffer look-alike who pretended to be stunned to see Timmy as she walked onstage. The young woman immediately won over the audience's heart when the loutish Timmy hurled a bouquet of flowers at her, barking, "You owe me an apology--big time!"
Lurid as his story was, the show's producers couldn't resist the temptation to goose it up a notch. During Timmy's on-air confrontation with the bat-wielding ex (in reality, an actress friend he'd recruited for the part), Carnie told the cheering audience that the woman had actually been aiming for a more private portion of his anatomy.
"I never told them that," grouses Timmy, whose attempts to rectify the error during the taping were drowned out by the cheering studio audience. "But what do you expect from a show where they're holding up cue cards that say, 'Call her a bitch!' These were the same people who kept telling me, 'Remember, stand up and shake your hand at her. Don't be afraid to use profanity."
Asked whether he thinks the producers truly believed his story, Timmy shrugs. "I've asked them that myself--'What if I'm bullshittin' you?' One woman told me, 'At this point, Timmy, I don't even care.' See, once you're there, it's no longer their job to care. At that point, they're playing their cards like you are telling the truth 100 percent."
Timmy and Roberto aren't the first people to con their way on to a talk show--and they almost certainly won't be the last. And if the deceptive duo aren't exactly breaking any new ground, they're at least following in some well-worn--and highly publicized--footsteps.
In 1988, a Chicago-based actor and actress rocked the talk-show universe when it was revealed that they'd faked their way through the Sally/Oprah/Geraldo trifecta, posing in such disparate roles as a sex surrogate and a frigid housewife. After some initial mumblings about filing criminal charges, Geraldo followed Oprah's lead and decided to take his lumps quietly.
But Sally wasn't about to let anyone pull the wool over her famous red-rimmed spectacles. Doing what any ratings-hungry talk-show host should have done, she invited the impostors back for an inflammatory on-camera showdown in which she charged that the hoaxsters had single-handedly betrayed the audience's trust, as well as besmirched the integrity of all 7,728 guests who had previously appeared on her program. In the bargain, she argued, the impostors had also transformed the talk-show genre into a "joke."
The gag was not lost on a quartet of impostors--two men and two women--that scammed its way on to Jerry Springer last year. Amid much sobbing and shouting, the foursome enacted a pair of intersecting love triangles in which a woman learns that her husband is having an affair with the couple's baby sitter. Rounding out the torrid triad was--gasp!--the baby sitter's boyfriend.
When it was later revealed that the cheating quartet was actually a Canadian comedy troupe called the Blockheads, an outraged Springer announced that he was filing a $200,000 suit against the performers, claiming they'd lied when signing documents testifying to the truth of their story. The action was later dropped when one of the actors promised reporters that what would come out in court would be a better "circus" than anything Springer had ever put on the air.
Timmy and Roberto, meanwhile, will continue signing their names to anything a producer might toss in front of them.
"Those statements don't mean crap," insists Roberto. "What are the producers going to get from people like us? If they try to sue me, I can guarantee they wouldn't get so much as an 'I'm sorry.'"
"If they're putting these ridiculous stories on and they're trashing people's lives, they should expect to get a few people like us on there," argues Timmy.
Having outlived half the shows they've scammed--both Carnie Wilson and Charles Perez were canceled earlier this year--Timmy and Roberto would appear to have reached the end of the talk-show road. Still, neither is ready to bite his tongue just yet.
"I want to write a book," says Timmy, who hopes to crash a few more shows, including Ricki Lake, before sitting down at the keyboard. "I've still got a few chapters to go."
Roberto, meanwhile, would love another crack at Jerry Springer.
"I wish they'd do another show on liars," he says. "I mean, come on--who better?" Roberto says, smiling slyly. "Besides, I've got a lot of unresolved talk-show issues that need closure.
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