A year after retiring from work, I found myself watching a lot of ‘reality’ TV shows. After a while, I began questioning whether these shows were portraying ‘real’ events. I wondered how many wives decide to leave their husbands and children and travel across the country to move in with total strangers. I noticed on Storage Wars that there could be fifty people surrounding an abandoned storage locker, but the same four or five guys always managed to get the winning bid.
I was discussing my suspicion about these shows with my brother Sam, who works in New York. “Listen,” he said. “I have the same feeling that you do. I’m not sure just how real these reality TV shows are. I have an idea. My friend Paul Cox is an associate TV producer for the A&E Network. Why don’t you come up with your own idea for a realreality TV show and I’ll give it to him?”
It didn’t take me long to come up with an idea. I wrote a short summary of what I envisioned would be a true reality show and sent it to Sam. The idea was simple: have a reality show about a regular guy, a retiree, a real person, me.
Sam gave the summary to Paul, who thought it had potential, and asked my brother to have me write a pilot script as a next step. I thought that was funny because the idea behind reality TV is that it is unscripted and the cameras are simply there to follow the subjects in their daily lives. But I am smart enough to know that producers and directors want to have a good idea of what a show is about, even if it is an unscripted one. So I put my efforts into writing a pilot script.
Having never done this before I just Googled ‘TV scripts’ and was able to find one that I used as a template for writing my script. One month later, I sent the pilot script to Paul Cox. Three weeks after mailing it, I was sitting in Paul’s New York office.
A totally unreal experience, me a retired auto parts manager, sitting down with a TV producer to discuss a script I wrote! Paul is a nice guy, very down to earth. We sat across from each other, each with a copy of my script, Paul with a red pen. He took control of the conversation.
“In the first scene of the pilot, you wake up at whatever time you wake up? I think we should have an alarm clock go off.”
“Why?” I asked. “I’m retired. I don’t have to wake to an alarm.”
“It will give the show a little ‘oomph’ to get started. Someone just waking up doesn’t have the same impact as that buzzer.”
“Okay,” I agreed. “I’ll set the alarm but no earlier than 7:00.”
“Now in the next scene, you turn on the coffee and go outside to get the newspaper. That by itself is a little boring. How about if we bring in some rain and fan machines to add a little drama to the weather?”
“Fine with me,” I thought. I was thinking it would really be neat to see how they do those special effects.
“You know, when it really rains, I take an umbrella when I go for the paper.”
“Okay,” said Paul. “Let’s have a tech modify the umbrella so one of the ribs breaks from the wind coming from the machines and the umbrella turns inside out.”
I’m not crazy about getting wet and told Paul I would have to change clothes after getting the paper and he said he wouldn’t film that part. Too boring. ‘Too boring’ became one of his favorite phrases.
After I get the paper, I usually eat a bowl of cereal with milk, so that was in my script.
Paul said it was not a problem, but he would want to see me fill the bowl all the way up to the top so when I bring it to the table, the milk and cereal spill over and onto the floor.
“Oh. I’m usually careful about that,” I responded, “cause I don’t want to spill the cereal. I really don’t want to come across as some klutz that can’t even carry a bowl of cereal to the table without making a mess.”
Paul understood how I felt but reiterated his favorite phrase; it would be too boring for the audience. He suggested we leave something in the middle of the kitchen floor that I trip over, causing the cereal accident, as he now referred to it, and that way it wouldn’t be that I was just clumsy. I told Paul I wasn’t sure I could fake this tripping well enough to make it look real but he told me not to worry. They would have a stunt person do it and shoot the scene at the level of my feet, and have that person wear the same shoes I was wearing. The TV viewer would be no wiser.
“So this is how reality TV works,” I thought.
We went through the script methodically, line by line, with Paul changing almost everything I had written. My only real objection came when we discussed an after-lunch scene when I usually take a little nap.
Paul said, “Yawn!” and I understood his meaning.
I defended my script. “I know it seems boring to watch someone sleeping, but it’s supposed to be a true reality show, and that’s what I usually do after lunch.”
“Tell you what,“ Paul said. “We’ll film thirty seconds of you napping and then we’ll have your dog come in, jump on you, and wake you up.”
“Paul, I don’t have a dog!”
“Not a problem. You’ll have one by the time we start shooting.”
“Are you going to just bring one in for the show?” I asked.
“No, you’ll need to go buy one. If it was our dog and the animal rights people found out you were a fake dog owner, they could cause all kinds of trouble.”
“Do you think I could buy a cat instead? My wife hates dogs. She can’t stand to be around dogs, let alone own one!”
“Nah,” said Paul. “Cats are too quiet. We a need a dog that barks. A big one.”
I could see that my reality show was going to force me to make some big changes and create problems with my wife, but I was thinking the tradeoff would be the money we would make. I started picturing us on the morning talk shows too.
“We haven’t discussed this yet, Paul, but how much money will I make doing this show?”
“If it were an ‘entertainment’ show, you would make $5,000 a week, industry standard. But this is a reality show. The people on reality shows aren’t actors and they don’t get paid. They’re just happy to be on TV.”
I explained my disappointment to Paul about not getting paid. Especially given that we had to buy a dog and all.
“Paul, do you think we could do something to make it an ‘entertainment’ show? Five thousand a week is a lot of money and I could really use that.”
I could see him thinking deeply. After a few minutes his thoughts had crystallized.
“Possibly. We would have to get you an Associate Actor’s Guild card. Shouldn’t be a problem. We could carry the show on the books as ‘entertainment’ but broadcast it as ‘reality’ because that’s where the viewers and ratings are. But we would really need to punch up the script.”
“So this is how I see it: You get up to the alarm; knock it over when you reach for it but it keeps buzzing. You jump up annoyed and stub your toe on the night table. You scream from the pain so loudly your wife is already running to the kitchen to get ice for you. On her way back to the bedroom, she trips over Rusty and now she is yelling from her own pain and cursing and yelling she is going to kill the darn dog. Meanwhile, your neighbors hear the commotion in your house and call the police. The police sirens are blasting away.”
“Wow!” I said. “That sounds exciting.”
“Yeah,” Paul nodded. “There’s just one thing that bothers me. We need the dog. And you’ve made it clear how much your wife hates dogs. She’s cursing it and threatening to kill it. Not good. That will turn off a lot of viewers. We have four months until we start shooting. Do you think you could get a different wife by then?”