Reality Schmeality

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.

NT: Earth to TV Land! You think I'm going to miss a single episode of a show where people are paid to make fun of someone?

Wernick: It's more than that. Reality TV has set the bar so high that it's harder to fool people. On every reality show from now on, contestants are going to say, "Am I on The Joe Schmoe Show?" We've changed the whole genre, because now everyone will think, "Are they fucking with me? What the hell is going on here?"

NT: I think Matt's first tip-off should have been that all the men on your show are dogs. Hasn't he noticed that reality shows always have buff guys?

Reese: (laughing) Hey, you're the first person who's said that to us. We gotta write that down! "Get buff guys."

NT: And the collectors' plates with the faces of the contestants on them that you smash into the fireplace whenever someone gets voted off. I mean, it's all brilliant, but it's so obviously contrived.

Reese: As is all reality. We wanted to make it as serious as possible, to the point of complete ridiculousness. All of the ceremonies, the music, the set direction, the tone of the host's voice. We were shooting for parody.

NT: So the other contestants are all actors playing contestants. Did it ever occur to you that Matt might recognize some of them? I just saw Brian in a pizza commercial. And Franklin Jones, who plays the old guy contestant, was on The West Wing.

Wernick: It was very risky, and led to many sleepless nights. We tried to find talented, undiscovered actors. But then the actor playing Hutch was on Six Feet Under, one of Matt's favorite shows. Another one of our contestants played Rachel's boss on Friends, another show Matt loves. It was a huge risk, but we were hoping that out of context, the actors wouldn't be recognizable to him. We spent millions of dollars on the show, and Matt could have come in and said, "Aren't you the guy from Six Feet Under?"

NT: Another risk was putting the fat, ugly contestant in a G-string. And, hey, does the guy playing the homo have to be such a screamer?

Wernick: But there are characters exactly like that on reality shows. The extreme gay guy is a stock reality-show character. He's not a comment on homosexuals, but on reality TV characters.

NT: What does it say about people that we want to watch reality shows?

Wernick: It says that we could do quality TV with the best writers and actors and subject matter, and people would rather watch car chases on the news. Because on a scripted show, you know how things are going to end, but with reality TV, you don't. Which is appealing to all people.

NT: Okay. But what will happen to reality TV once you guys run out of gimmicks?

Wernick: We've taken the first step with this show. First, there was reality TV, then there were the reality shows with a twist, like Joe Millionaire. We've taken the twist to the next level, and it will have to evolve from here. But I promise you, reality TV is here to stay. It's cheaper to produce than The West Wing, and it gets ratings.

NT: Here's my theory: I think the real punch line to your show is that the joke isn't on Matt, it's on the viewers. I think Matt is an actor, too.

Reese: And you're wrong. He's a real guy. I think as much fun as it is to put one over on the guy in the show, it wouldn't go over to try and fool an audience member. I'd be outraged if I were the viewer and that happened to me. I'd be outraged if I were watching this show and then I found out that the producers had tried to fool me.