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re-starting real
what a decade plus of reality television has taught me about reality
by jeffrey d. walker
11.9.11
pop culture

I heard this story this weekend on NPR about the “Golden Age” of MTV, in which it was claimed that MTV aired "the first reality show" on television in the early 1990s. That show was The Real World, and the "reality" was that the people were all real people, and not actors; that the show depicted these real people interacting in "real" situations; and the hook, as the introductory credits touted, was that the show demonstrated what happens "... when people stop being polite, and start getting real."

Of course, a huge apartment with a bunch of racially diverse unknowns forced to interact is not that realistic to begin with, even without a camera crew hanging around. From that faulty starting point, even though the people were real, the situations weren't. Portions of the show were altered, and outcomes were often staged either in their inception, or at least via post-production editing. A fake reality cannot be "real."

If "reality" television means real people getting into fake situations, then the first example of reality television was not MTV, but was the 1950s television Game Show, Twenty One, when producers asked contestant Herb Stempel to stage the endings of the show (as was later depicted in the movie, Quiz Show). The audience believed the show was "real", but we now know that Twenty One's producers created a false reality by giving Herbert the answers in advance, purely in the pursuit of entertainment value. This is no different than The Real World's producers setting up false situations for groups of mixed kids for entertainment value.

Compounding the false "reality" is that the "real people" are at all times aware that they are on camera and being filmed for a television show, which surely causes them to behave differently than if they were not being filmed. Everyone acts differently when a camera is on them. Just ask my dogs, or my 6 month old baby.

In more recent examples of reality television, the falsity of the situation is downright flaunted; where Twenty One and The Real World tried to pretend that the situation was real, today's reality openly exploits the contrived nature. Three words: Man vs. Wild. Wait, I can name that tune in two words: Kardashian wedding.

And yet, though we all now know it's false, we watch. Ratings are usually high for shows that allege to depict "reality." We fool ourselves, if but for a moment, that the people on Maury really act like that when they aren't in front of an audience; that Snooki and The Situation aren't playing it up for the cameras; that Doug Hutchinson and Courtney Alexis Stoddard really act like that when no one is around.

I'm not naming names to be judgmental. If there is something wrong with staging reality for spectators, then I am guilty as charged. I have participated in the lie, most clearly by my appearance in Episode 3 of Strange Days with Bob Saget which aired briefly on the A&E Network in 2010; my band is the band that played the toga party. Though none of us explicitly talked about it, there was no doubt that this party was entirely staged by the producers who made sure everyone was wearing a toga from the outset (I talked the producers into excepting the band out of that crap in a hurry). They also made sure we were all "in place" when Bob entered the room, so they got the best shot. Also, there is no doubt that all in attendance were acting a little different than they would in "reality", simply because everyone there knew a television show being filmed.

This non-reality that is inherent in the participation of reality television got me thinking about reality vs. "reality." As a musician who has performed in front of people for, like, ever now, I know I always act differently on stage in real life. My stage life is a "reality" that exists within my own reality. I nicknamed my stage persona "danger"; he is a "reality" within my reality.

So, the conundrum started - stay with me for a second here - but I thought about what is the "real" me in comparison to "danger" when it comes to music? And more particularly, what would happen if I drop the "danger" persona to just plain old "me" as I venture forth in my musical career. And, if in doing so, even if I'm just trying to be "me", by consciously choosing to act in a particular way in the hopes of attracting an audience (ergo, again consciously and purposefully "acting" in a way instead of acting naturally) would my reality then become my "reality"?

As I considered this conundrum, the difference between a real person and a "reality" persona, I thought about the movie Leap of Faith, in which Steve Martin plays "Jonas Nightengale", a Christian profit who employs trickery during revivals to pretend that faith can make miracles happen. He is confronted by what he calls the "genuine article", in the form of a crippled boy who is actually inspired to walk at one of the revivals; a true miracle, not one concocted to have occurred by Martin's character or his accomplices.

Leap of Faith's whole premise relies on the audience being duped by Nightengale's smoke and mirrors, vs. the actual reality of the "genuine article." In short, they are opposites; Nightengale is the "black", to the crippled boy's "white." Nightengale's trickery-based revival is the "realty show" to the crippled boy's "real" miracle.

Of course, life is more complex than movies. In life, no one is the "genuine article."

I met Herb Stempel during my tenure as an attorney for the City of New York from 2001-2005; recall that he was the original "real" person who altered his behavior for a producer on Twenty One in the 1950's. Herb was not like the man depicted in the movie Quiz Show. He was a man who, basically, performed in a particular manner for entertainment value, though he knew the act to be false. In the Leap of Faith framework, then, Stempel would be Jonas Nightengale.

Only, unlike in Leap of Faith, there is no crippled boy equivalent to whom we can ascribe to the pedestal of "white", so as to make Herb Stempel "black" by comparison. In real life, as soon as you participate in the production, you are agreeing to participate in the end result for the entertainment value. There is no concept of reality television where someone can act "honest" on camera, but for an example like Candid Camera, where the person being filmed doesn't even know it. Once the participant knows he is part of the show, he cannot be the innocent "white" of the crippled boy.

Nor even can the audience be thought of as the "white"; the audience watching participates in the same lie for entertainment value. Jerry Springer's studio audience would not start yelling "Jerry! Jerry!", in perfect unison, if they weren’t prompted by the staff and a flashing "applause" light. They are also participating in the lie for the entertainment value. So are all audiences who suspend reality to believe the "reality" as presented by the show's producers. All who are participating are accepting the fake "reality."

But, if this is the case, if there is no truth in performing for purposes of an audience, then, can anyone performing as "themselves" for people ever be "real"?

Perhaps the answer is "no." I'm starting to think that's true. But, if there is a "yes" out there, to be a genuine performer, then I believe that the way to get there may be through the careful study and dissection of what "reality" is as depicted by television. To cite another NPR article from a couple years ago, originally aired 9/11/2009 as part of This American Life, Episode 389, "Frenemies", almost every modern reality show features some exclamation by a participant that: "I'm Not Here To Make Friends!" As that NPR story notes, almost anyone who utters this phrase usually fails to capture the ultimate prize for participating in the reality show (note: prizes for participating in reality is another feature that proves that reality television is not "reality").

So, using this information, how do I make my reality real? By admitting that I am here to make friends. By being clear that I want others to be happy, and enjoy themselves (especially while listening to my songs). By striving to involve and attract those around me, instead of pushing them out of the way and pretending that this is all about me. This is actually about us sharing, and coming together. That is a reality we can all engage in.

As I endeavor to re-invent myself as a more honest performer and musician, I may fall short of being a "genuine article." But it seems to me after thinking about it, the illusion of there even being a "genuine article" might be the greatest fabrication the media has ever created.


ABOUT JEFFREY D. WALKER

A practicing attorney and semi-professional musician, Walker writes for his own amusement, for the sake of opinion, to garner a couple of laughs, and to perhaps provoke a question or two, but otherwise, he doesn't think it'll amount to much.

more about jeffrey d. walker

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COMMENTS

dan gonzalez
11.11.11 @ 1:59a

I commend you for writing this, even if I only read the first 7 paragraphs.

Apparently it's going to take me several more days to complete it.

And I will. No matter how many times you plug the fact that you are in a 'band', or are a 'musician', I know you took this seriously on a philosophic level and I want to walk with you on that journey.

In fact..... hey.. wait a moment....

Since you agree that being on a reality show most likely effects the behavior of the participant, givening them pause to embelish, would you also say that being a regular columnist on a website might effect a writer to over-indulge?

jeffrey walker
11.11.11 @ 10:42a

of course it does! Or, at least, if you are doing so in a format where people ACTUALLY reply and comment. If I had only been blogging, and no one ever replied or posted, and I had no stats of page hits, I might not have any sense of my own writing. but, now I have actual proof that: I've been read 138501 times, discussed 1445 times, and critiqued 229 times. Almost every instance of that impacts how, why, and what I write -- especially the critiques and discussions.



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