July 28, 2003
Reality TV as Sitcom: 'Green Acres, We Are There'
By BILL CARTER
New York Times


OS ANGELES, July 25 — Just when it seemed as if reality television might succumb to endless variations of the dating, talent and survival show, a batch of ambitious producers have discovered a new twist that they hope will inject freshness into the genre: the reality show as sitcom.

This new wave, which will be well represented on both broadcast and cable television in the coming months, is devoted not to finding the next easy-listening singing star or a mate for a former N.F.L. cheerleader. Instead, the overriding goal is to generate the kind of laughs that situation comedies once did much more consistently.

While comic elements are present in many reality shows, this variation on the genre builds comedy into the concept. "Average Joe," NBC's comic take on the dating format, follows the quest of a group of overweight, balding, nerdy guys to win the affection of, yes, another former cheerleader, accompanied by depictions of their accidents on the tennis court, belly-flops in the pool and misadventures in tanning.

Fox's "The Simple Life" is "Green Acres" as reality show. Two Beverly Hills "celebutantes," as the show calls them — Paris Hilton, an heiress to the Hilton hotel fortune, and her friend Nicole Richie (daughter of the singer Lionel Richie) — try to make a go of living with an Arkansas farm family, which means milking cows and cleaning up a lot of road kill.

ABC, which has steered clear of reality to this point in the summer, will jump in next week with "The Real Roseanne Show," a video-v้rit้ chronicle of the comic Roseanne's efforts to start a cooking show on a cable channel.

And Spike TV, formerly TNN, has "The Joe Schmo Show." It is a full-blown satire of reality shows that centers on one unsuspecting contestant in a faux reality series. The contestant obliviously performs gag challenges ("Keep One Hand on the High-Priced Hooker") with a cast of comic improvisational actors who try to keep him from discovering the joke.

"Comedy is the next logical evolution of the reality show," Jeff Zucker, the president of NBC Entertainment, said.

NBC executives are so high on "Average Joe" that instead of beginning the show in the summer, as they had originally planned, they are saving it for the regular prime-time television season.

Last week, after hearing some enthusiastic early opinions on "The Simple Life" at a session with television critics here, Fox decided to do the same thing. "It really was playing like a terrific comedy," Gail Berman, the president of Fox Entertainment, said. "The response from the critics confirmed what we'd been feeling about the show, that we could save it for the season."

Ms. Berman said the seven episodes of the show were likely to be shown after Fox's coverage of the World Series.

"What's going on," said Mike Darnell, who is executive vice president for alternative programming at Fox, is simple: "People woke up to the fact that in the reality genre comedy is always there. They were singling reality out as a separate, limited genre, but it's really anything you want to make it to be." Mr. Darnell has introduced shows like "American Idol" and "Joe Millionaire" and is considered a master chef of the genre.

"The Simple Life" was always devised as a pure comedy, he said."That's the whole goal," he said. "It's just taking the reality elements and cutting them like a sitcom.'

He noted that the format of "Simple Life" was "a natural comedy premise: fish out of water." And, he said, the success of the production has reinforced his conviction that "any fictional, over-the-top comedy premise" can be turned into a reality comedy.

Fox has already bought the rights to "The Brady Bunch" from Paramount. "It's such an obvious title that we figured we might as well try it," Mr. Darnell said, without being specific on how it would be used. Fox is also considering a reality version of "Gilligan's Island."

The idea that reality shows can be funny is not new, of course. Only two years ago, MTV's "The Osbournes" was proclaimed as a new form of sitcom. That show proved that even the basic interactions of a family — admittedly an eccentric one — could be mined for laughs through skillful editing. But "The Osbournes" took a serious turn in its second season when the matriarch of the clan, Sharon, learned she had cancer, and the show's ratings dropped.

Bravo's new show "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," in which five stylish gay men make over style-impaired straight men, is played for laughs, too, and it has given Bravo, a cable network, its highest ratings ever. (NBC, Bravo's sister channel, even imported a half-hour version of the show last Thursday, putting it after "Will & Grace" in its "must see" comedy lineup.)

"Joe Millionaire," the Fox dating show that worked both as a real dating contest and as a satire, seems to have inspired a subgenre. "We're part of the evolution of the `Joe' shows," said David Stanley, a managing partner, along with Scott Stone, in Stone Stanley Productions, the producers of "The Joe Schmo Show."

Spike TV executives have enormous expectations for that 10-part series. "What we're going to do to the reality genre is turn it upside down and blow it up," said Albie Hecht, the channel's president.

The two creators, Paul Wernick, a former news producer, and Rhett Reese, a screenwriter, hatched the idea of a fully scripted reality series filled with actors and one game but a gullible "real" person. They pitched it to numerous broadcast and cable networks for almost two years. "Some of the executives were literally crying with laughter when we laid it out," Mr. Wernick said. But they passed on the concept, fearing the risk that the show could fall apart if the real contestant caught on in midgame.

Finally, Spike TV, looking for a defining new show for its relatively new identity as a cable network catering to young men, agreed to carry the show. "Joe Schmo" trades humorously on one element most of the previous reality hits have contained: personal humiliation.

In the show, a law school dropout turned pizza deliveryman named Matt Kennedy Gould thinks he is competing for $100,000 in a reality show called "Lap of Luxury." At one point, he winds up handcuffed to another "contestant," dipped in honey and is forced to roll around on a pile of money. Each episode ends with a "Rags to Riches" ceremony in which the pompous host tosses an evicted contestant's nameplate into a fireplace while intoning: `Ashes to ashes, dust to dust; `So and So,' you are dead to us!"

The producers said Mr. Gould became totally committed to the game, to the point of weeping when one cast member whom he had grown to consider a friend was tossed out. "We got gold out of that guy," Mr. Reese said. `Matt Kennedy Gould is funnier than all get out."

"What's great about this one," said Mr. Stone, the Stone Stanley partner, "is if you love reality shows you're going to love this show. And if you hate reality shows, you're going to love this show.`

Mr. Gould may not agree. Although he signed a release granting the show the right to use his image in any way it chose, he has refused to help with the show's publicity. The producers declined to describe how he reacted when he learned he had been duped for the sake of comedy.