Corey Feldman's cheese blintzes were getting cold. We were sitting at an outside table at Jerry's Famous Deli in Encino, and Feldman was attempting to explain why he'd done "The Surreal Life," a staged reality series debuting Thursday on the WB network.
In the show, seven "celebrities" of some pop culture repute share a house above Mulholland Drive. They stay for a week and a half, never living with fewer than three camera crews. Like most of reality TV, the show borrows from existing formats, including two MTV shows, "The Real World" and "The Osbournes," and "Big Brother," a European invention. .
"The Surreal Life" imposed a variety of constraints on its cast, perhaps none more traumatizing than the confiscation of pagers and cell phones. The house was converted into a modish Hollywood pad, with decorative touches like a fish tank. A gym was installed. And better lighting.
In this "Big Chill" re-imagined as a kind of encounter group for the almost-famous, Feldman shared a bedroom with Vince Neil, singer for the heavy metal group Motley Crue. Gabrielle Carteris, formerly of "Beverly Hills, 90210," Brande Roderick, formerly of "Baywatch," and Jerri Manthey, a former contestant on "Survivor," shared another bedroom, while "Manny and Hammer," as they were known, occupied a third bedroom. That would be Emmanuel Lewis, formerly TV's "Webster," and Hammer, formerly MC Hammer, of "U Can't Touch This" fame.
Feldman, of course, is the former child star ("Stand by Me") turned drug-addicted Hollywood bad boy who faced a very '90s dilemma: Keep drugging or be forced to do "Meatballs 4" sober.
"I will honestly be very upset if [the show] has the appearance of making fun of any of us," Feldman said at Jerry's. At the producers' urging, Feldman proposed to his girlfriend from a pay phone in the living room and got married on the last day of shooting.
What the heck, it was true love, and besides, there were those cameras. He had met the former Susie Sprague in a Hollywood nightclub, Feldman said, and she had a glow about her (and this was before she'd lost weight, he said). He was smitten enough to break two of his relationship rules: Don't date a fan, and don't date anyone you meet in a nightclub.
And so the wedding was held in the backyard of the "Surreal Life" house, in a ceremony jointly officiated by Hammer, who today is a preacher in the Northern California town of Tracy, and a rabbi supplied by the WB.
The rabbi from Feldman's temple wouldn't do the ceremony. "Not because it was on TV," Feldman said, "but because Susie isn't Jewish."
Former somebodies reemerge
For audiences hooked on ABC's "The Bachelor" and Fox's "American Idol," it comes down to this: Would you rather watch unknowns become somebodies, or see former somebodies, like so many Norma Desmonds, stave off the terrifying prospect of once again being unknown?
Anonymity, networks have discovered, is a key component to reality TV's voyeuristic appeal. Plug celebrities into the equation, even the C-listers these shows attract, and the fantasy-camp appeal of the genre dissipates. More than anything, reality TV exists to make instant-oatmeal stars of otherwise unrecognized people, but the formats grow tired so quickly that producers inevitably turn to the famous and/or infamous as novelty contestants.
While CBS balked at a celebrity "Big Brother" because the network couldn't land big enough stars, a celebrity edition of "Survivor" is more likely.
Meanwhile, on ABC, "Celebrity Mole Hawaii," a star-studded version of the reality series "The Mole," debuts Wednesday.
"The Osbournes," whose second season recently began on MTV, remains the model marriage between reality TV and celebrity. But trying to mint "The Osbournes" might be as hard as copying "Seinfeld." For all the talk of its social dysfunction, the family -- heavy-metal dad, tough-as-nails mum, kooky kids -- is a remarkably cohesive show-business unit, exuding both family and lunacy (a redundancy, come to think of it).
By contrast, "The Anna Nicole Show" fails to rise above the Faustian deal ex-pinup Anna Nicole Smith signed with E! Entertainment Television. Clearly damaged and overweight, Smith is held up for camp amusement, a la "The Osbournes," but instead comes off as used and pathetic, and the show at times plays like one long videotaped suicide note. E! recently ordered a fresh batch of 13 episodes.
"As dysfunctional as they are, you walk away feeling entertained, you feel pretty good about it," Jeff Gaspin, executive vice president at NBC, said of "The Osbournes." "You watch an 'Anna Nicole,' you don't feel so good."
During his tenure as an executive at VH1, Gaspin developed "Behind the Music," which helped popularize a wave of rise-and-fall and where-are-they-now programming focusing on aging rock stars and former one-hit wonders.
"The ones that keep coming back, you have to assume, they're coming back because (a) they're addicted and want to get a little taste again, and (b) they need the money, they need the job."
E!, available in 80 million homes, is trying out "Star Dates," a celebrity version of the syndicated dating show "Blind Date." The show's opening episode last week starred Butch Patrick, formerly of TV's "The Munsters."
In another era, such opportunities weren't as plentiful for former celebrities drowning in their own irrelevance. The staged reality shows of today have supplanted the game shows of previous decades. But those shows, at least, reinvented minor celebrities as charming parlor players, from Paul Lynde on "Hollywood Squares" to Brett Sommers on "Match Game." Those shows required quick-wittedness, mostly, and were not personally degrading or invasive.
But the celebrities signing up for reality shows have peccadilloes and demands that preclude the sort of blind faith required for a contestant to commit to ABC's "The Bachelor" or "Survivor."
Witness the unraveling of "Liza & David," VH1's aborted reality show starring Liza Minnelli and her husband, promoter David Gest. The series was supposed to be an entertaining peek into the couple's Manhattan lifestyle, but things apparently went badly at a dinner party, when Gest and the show's executive producer, Rob Weiss, clashed over who should get up and sing.
Minnelli and Gest declined an interview request, and VH1 wouldn't allow Weiss to discuss the blowup.
Instead, both parties used tabloid media to get their stories out. "David Gest redefines the term 'control freak.' He was almost insane," a VH1 source told the New York Post. Gest and Minnelli, in turn, went to the National Enquirer and tattled on the crew's poor manners. "I told one cameraman at least 15 times to be careful around a particular Art Deco cabinet in the dining room. Of course, at the end of the night he managed to chip the glass," Gest was quoted as fuming.
And then, several weeks ago, the lawsuit arrived, with Gest and Minnelli alleging the cancellation of "Liza & David" amounts to breach of contract. The suit names VH1, MTV Networks and Viacom Inc. as defendants.
Playing up the contrasts
"The biggest challenge, bar none, was trust," said Mark Cronin, one of the executive producers of "The Surreal Life." "No matter who a person is, every celebrity is completely protective of their image. And they are very unwilling to put themselves in someone else's hands."
Cronin feels the show assembled a cast that will "pop." "We wanted worlds in collision," he said. A former rapper (Hammer) and a heavy-metal guy (Neil). A fast-living movie actor (Feldman) and an actress and mother known for playing a square (Carteris).
There is, of course, another way to spin the celebrities' involvement in the show.
"Does Corey Feldman want to go open a Carvel?" asked Gaspin. For a celebrity like Feldman, "doing a show like [NBC's] 'Dog Eat Dog' or 'Fear Factor,' they're treated really well, they're being handled by producers, they're in their dressing rooms and the audience is applauding them. My guess is for most of them it's a job. They have enough fame that they can actually make money being almost famous."
Feldman is somewhat upfront about it all. Although doing "The Surreal Life" presents ostensible risk (he could come off as a has-been degrading himself for exposure), "it doesn't hurt to make a new connection with the networks," Feldman said.
The art of being in circulation, of reminding potential employers that you're still alive, is a Hollywood strategy -- among the reasons entertainers show up at premieres of movies they're not in and awards shows when they are not nominated for awards.
"The Surreal Life" is a more direct hit, giving Feldman exposure on the WB, whose core viewers are 12 to 34. Feldman says he did the show to promote his rock album, "Former Child Actor." And the show "re-establishes me in middle America's minds" -- people, presumably, who remember that Feldman was in "Stand by Me" or "The 'Burbs" in the '80s and '90s but, for all they know, has been managing a Sherman Oaks Baja Fresh ever since.
It never came to that, although Feldman refers vaguely to lean financial years as his career fizzled. He did straight-to-video movies, played barrooms with his rock band, and refused jobs that offered real money but that he deemed too low on the dignity meter -- like the $100,000 offer, he claims, to box Corey Haim, his co-star in "The Lost Boys," on E! Entertainment Television's "The Howard Stern Show."
Feldman is still, in a way, the same cute child who got his first acting job at age 3. At 31, he has blond highlights in his hair, a growth of beard on his chin and a still-boyish face. To call him a has-been, while accurate in terms of his fame, is also to suggest that he has fallen from the heights of a great talent, which he has not.
There is nothing, in other words, that is sad about Feldman's doing "The Surreal Life," in the way, for instance, that it was sad to see former heavyweight champion Joe Louis resorting in his later years to working as a celebrity greeter at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. For Feldman, "The Surreal Life" is a job like all the others. Who knows, wasn't John Travolta's career revived by Quentin Tarantino, who took Travolta's camp appeal and reinvented him as a heavy in "Pulp Fiction"?
Variations on a theme
"It's waning," Mike Darnell says of reality shows that stunt-cast celebrities. "Like any other part of this genre, you do it for a while and then you move on."
As head of Fox's alternative programming and specials, Darnell is the man behind a number of outlandish TV stunts, including "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire" and "Celebrity Boxing," which is based on a simple, vaudevillian concept: Two washed-up celebrities duke it out in the ring, their careers in such tatters that they're forced to pummel each other on national TV.
In this modern-day version of a medieval circus, Darnell has mostly been able to buy off the infamous: Joey Buttafuoco versus female professional wrestler Chyna, for instance. Darnell also did the battle of the TV nerds -- "Welcome Back, Kotter's" Horshack (Ron Palillo) versus "Saved by the Bell's" Screech (Dusty Diamond).
Trashy as it is, the show has never failed to give Fox a ratings boost. But, says Darnell, "there is a limited pool" of willing participants. "For celebrity boxing, infamy is great. And I also like kitsch.... Horshack against Screech. That was the most popular fight. People really wanted to see that."
Feldman says he wouldn't do "Celebrity Boxing." Nor would he show up with his band at a Christmas party on "The Anna Nicole Show."
"I won't stoop to that level," he said, adding: "Anything that says, 'Where are they now?' is low on my to-do list."
But he did provide "The Surreal Life" with a denouement of sorts. On the day of Feldman's wedding, guests arrived as twentysomething crew members busied themselves around the house. In the living room, Hugh Hefner, an invited guest, killed time on a cluster of sofas with six of his girlfriends. Earlier, he had been asked to say a few words to the camera; what came out of his mouth sounded almost profound. These days, Hefner said, celebrity seems "based on very little else than showing up and being on TV."
Now, as the wedding approached, Hammer, looking vigorous in a tuxedo, emerged from his bedroom.
The TV version of the Hammer story goes as follows: Kid from Oakland grows up to be one of rap's first mainstream stars, under the stage name MC Hammer. Thanks to several chart-topping albums, he becomes rich beyond his dreams, but then buys too many cars and such. When the hits stop coming, he is forced to downsize his posse and ultimately to declare bankruptcy.
But wait, there's a third act (or is it a fourth?): Hammer is a minister now, singing Christian music.
"Hammer is very, very smart," "Surreal Life" producer Cronin said. "And he's a man. He's been through hell. He's been on top, he's been at the bottom. He's a guy with a story to tell."
It is impossible to stand next to someone like Hammer and not want to say, excitedly, "Hey, you used to be MC Hammer!"
But you don't. Instead, you ask him what it was like to be in a house for 10 days with six other stars. You ask out of some weird deference to the used-to-be-famous, and Hammer gives the only answer he can: "It has turned out to be a life-changing experience for everyone in this house."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Reality TV, celebrity-style
Yesterday's stars have become today's reality show contestants. It isn't the stuff of Emmys, but hey, work is work. A rundown of new, returning and continuing reality shows featuring some familiar faces:
"Celebrity Mole Hawaii," ABC, debuts Wednesday, 10 p.m. Participants include Stephen Baldwin, Corbin Bernsen and Kathy Griffin.
"The Surreal Life," WB, debuts Thursday, 9 p.m. Participants are Corey Feldman, Hammer, Vince Neil, Gabrielle Carteris, Brande Roderick, Emmanuel Lewis, Jerri Manthey.
"The Osbournes," MTV, Tuesdays, 10:30 p.m. Stars Ozzy, Sharon, Kelly and Jack Osbourne.
"The Anna Nicole Show," E! Entertainment Television, Sundays, 10 p.m. Stars Anna Nicole Smith.
"Star Dates," E! Entertainment Television, Sundays, 10:30 p.m. Features Butch Patrick, Gary Coleman, Kim Fields, Jill Whelan, Phyllis Diller, Dustin Diamond.
"Celebrity Boxing," Fox, periodic specials. Past shows have included fights featuring Tonya Harding versus Paula Jones, Ron Palillo versus Dustin Diamond and Barry Williams versus Danny Bonaduce.
"Fear Factor," NBC, periodic celebrity editions. Past shows have featured Alan Thicke, Coolio, David Hasselhoff, Kelly Preston and Keshia Knight Pulliam.