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With his receding hairline, ridiculously wide mustache, and ever-expanding potbelly, Ron Jeremy is an unlikely superstar in the porn world. He's incredibly prolific, with almost 2,000 films to his credit, and arguably the biggest and best. After nearly 30 years in the adult-film business, Jeremy emerged as one of its loudest public defenders in 2006, appearing in a "Porn Debate" tour with Pastor Craig Gross, cofounder of the anti-porn website xxxchurch.com. Earlier this year, Jeremy continued his slow but steady move into the mainstream by starring for the second time on VH1's "celeb-reality" show The Surreal Life. Jeremy recently spoke with The A.V. Club about porn, reality TV, and which business is dirtier.
The A.V. Club: How did the "Porn Debate" come about?
Ron Jeremy: I was doing lectures for a Cal State-Fullerton criminology class, all about sex and the law. Then I was doing these debates a couple of years ago with Susan Cole, who's a feminist and graduate of Harvard, who has the National Organization Of Women magazine in Toronto. She was debating [Screw magazine founder] Al Goldstein, and couldn't stand him, supposedly. With me, we get along great, we're very good friends, as I am with Craig Gross. On the podium, we're not friends, we're debating pretty strong, so the audience doesn't know we're actually friends. Anyway, me and Susan did it first and had a lot of success. I even went over to England and Ireland and debated on my own, and I was very fortunate to be at Oxford University. It was a huge media event, me at Oxford, following prime ministers and presidents, the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa and me. Then along came Craig Gross, who has a lot of press on his own. I'm still the main draw, but he gets some press. It makes for an interesting debate. They're also shooting it for a possible reality show, on HBO or something.
AVC: What's the gist of your argument?
RJ: I'm on the defense. I am not on the attack. I like what Craig does for a living. Craig feels girls shouldn't be in the business; some of them maybe shouldn't. If he wants to take them down the path of righteousness—take them out of porn and bring them to Jesus—so be it, if a girl feels happier and healthier that way. We have more women in the business than we really can use, believe it or not. But when he attacks my industry, I'm on the defense, and I fight back. I have never lost a debate. He might think we've tied a lot, but nobody can beat me in a debate about porn. I know the facts. One of the stronger points—there's so many—is that we should be appreciated because we label ourselves. With all the violence in films and sneaking sex into advertising, soap operas, R-rated films, PG-rated-films, video games—which has sex and violence for any age—we specifically label ourselves NC-17 or XXX, letting you know from the start what you're in for. Parents and anti-pornographers should appreciate that. We are specifically targeted at adults. We don't act like Camel cigarettes and market on schoolyards.
AVC: Perhaps if Americans were more honest about what they do behind closed doors, porn wouldn't need defending.
RJ: It's a billion-dollar business. It's bigger than the record industry and bigger than the sports industry. People want to see it. It's the biggest thing on the Internet, other than Amazon.com and eBay. Obviously there's a market. As long as you keep it happy, healthy, and fun, who cares? It's another form of entertainment. It's just fantasies. Craig will say, "Ron says these are just fantasies, but listen to this." And he gives out these words, like bukkake and anilingus. "These are fantasies, Ron?" That's right, they are. And he'll say, "I don't know what anilingus is. I asked my mom, and she didn't know." And I'll say, "Well, if a guy and a girl take a nice shower and are squeaky clean, you come out and both put your tongues where the sun don't shine. That's anilingus. I wouldn't ask my mother about it." And the crowd cracks up. And then I tell the college kids, "Craig thinks he can shock you with these terms. What doesn't somebody tell Craig what a Shocker is, or a Dirty Sanchez, or a Pirate, or a Rusty Trombone, or a Hot Carl? That will get 'em." And the kids go berserk.
AVC: Is the "Porn Debate" attracting mainly college kids?
RJ: Yeah. Even in those rural, Bible-carrying areas. I always figure maybe one time the college kids are going to root for Craig, but they don't, they always root for me. Colleges are still liberal. No matter what neighborhood we're in, no matter how religious, the kids still go nuts when I go onstage.
AVC: Do you ever get sick of defending porn?
RJ: I don't do it that much. If it bores me, I walk away. The business deserves to be defended, because it's an entertainment industry. People work hard, money is spent, money is made, they create fantasies for people to watch. Sometimes they even create pretty good storylines, with actual good plots and good acting. Not often, but sometimes. It deserves defending.
AVC: Does porn lose something if it becomes too acceptable?
RJ: Maybe. But there's always those that stretch the borders anyway. Now that porn is fairly mainstream, you have companies like Vivid, Adam & Eve, or Metro that make nice, friendly, couples-type of movies. You also have Max Hardcore and Extreme and JM Productions that still push the envelope, and get prosecuted for doing so. Porn will never be totally mainstream; it all relies on who the president is. When Democrats are in power, they don't prosecute and things are a little more at ease. When Republicans are in power, they start prosecuting every single time. By the way, we're represented by AT&T, Time Warner, AOL, Marriott—so many major companies are in bed with porn and don't want to admit it. HBO barely admits that it has a reality show set in a brothel called Cathouse. Dennis Hoff is a very good friend of mine. They'll tell you all about Entourage and Sopranos, but I don't see them talking about Cathouse. We call it HB-Ho.
AVC: Is there a porn subgenre that makes you uneasy?
RJ: Well, I can't do gay porn. But there really isn't any sick porn out there. Maybe vomiting, which I think they did in Italy. I don't do anything out of the ordinary. I'm the whitebread sex guy. The severe stuff is probably against the law, and we're not involved in any of that. It comes in from other countries on the Internet. But American porn is actually lighter than probably every country in the world that has porn. You'll see nastier stuff in France and Germany and Scandinavia and Asian countries.
AVC: How many adult films do you make these days?
RJ: I've done almost 2,000. Now I'm under contract with a company called Metro, so I work a lot less. Once a month or every couple of months, maybe. I do a lot of mainstream films. I'm coming out with a really good mainstream movie called National Lampoon's Homo Erectus. It's a caveman comedy with Tom Arnold, Dave Carradine, Ali Larter, and myself. I play a caveman named Oog. It comes out in September.
AVC: Do you get offered a lot of mainstream parts?
RJ: Not a lot. Once in a while, and I take most of them. There's a very popular film called Boondock Saints, a hugely popular film—I play Vincenzo, one of the Italian gangsters. I was the comedian in Detroit Rock City. I played myself in Meet Wally Sparks. I played myself in 54 with Mike Myers and Selma Hayek.
AVC: When you started making adult films in the late '70s, did you think it would be temporary?
RJ: Yes. But then I started to like it. A lot of the same filmmakers that were doing porn were doing mainstream, so I figured, "Hey, this isn't so bad. Maybe they'll put me in their regular movies." And some did, which helped me get my union card.
AVC: If you tried to break into porn today, would it work?
RJ: No way. I'm not in shape. I wouldn't come close. They wouldn't hire an older, fatter guy. Except maybe for a couple of scenes, a sugar-daddy scene, an older guy and younger woman. I get work now because of who I am. They have a lot of young, muscular guys taking Viagra, so virtually any guy can do it now.
AVC: You appeared on two seasons of VH1's The Surreal Life. Was that violent blowup between you and Rob "Vanilla Ice" Van Winkle on Surreal Life Fame Games for real?
RJ: Some of it was showbiz, but some of it was for real. I was forced to break an oath, and he was pissed about it. If I had walked off the show, I would have lost $70,000. Rob understands, and we actually are friends again. He said so on The Tyra Banks Show.
AVC: The show depicted you as a big name-dropper.
RJ: Which I am. Not as bad as they made it out to be, because everyone does it. Have you seen my book? It was a New York Times bestseller. It was up there somewhere on the chart—I have a copy of the chart—on the extended list, no. 32. The thing is, if you look at the book and look at the pictures, you see these aren't bullshit stories. There's Brad Pitt in there, and Johnny Depp. There are a few stories where I met and hung out with them. These aren't just tourist photos where I do a quick pose and the celebrity leaves. There's Mickey Rourke on the set of Domino, or Willem Dafoe comparing dick sizes on Boondock Saints. Or pictures of all the rock stars I've introduced at big venues, and hung out with in the dressing rooms. So, yes, I name-drop a lot, but it's true. They fucked me on George Clooney, on The Surreal Life. That really annoyed me. I called the guy at his office, the secretary was very nice to me—George has a picture of me on his wall, along with a CD I did that he liked. So, I called the secretary and asked, "Is George there?" and she said "He'll be back in a couple of hours." These motherfucking editors, they show me calling George Clooney, click, dial tone. They inserted that noise. There was a lot of that in Fame Games. I'm not totally happy with it.
AVC: When you appear on a reality show, are you being yourself, or playing a representation of yourself?
RJ: It's a combination. Me, Erik Estrada, and Rob decided to never cry on camera, because Corey Feldman did it in the show before us and made an ass of himself. A man shouldn't cry unless he's doing a Shakespearian soliloquy, or he looks like a pussy. Balki did it after us, and looked awful—Bronson Pinchot is his name, I think. All he did was cry and came across awful. When you're on the set, it doesn't feel like the wrong thing to do, but when you see it months later, you're like, "Oh God, is that me?" You feel like the biggest ass. Corey never appreciated the show and badmouthed it, and never did anything since with those guys. The reality shows are more real, which is probably why the ratings are often higher. The Fame Games had great ratings; I Love New York had better ratings. Because they did things we won't do. They'll fight, spit, punch, laugh, cry, propose marriage, you know? Celebrities will very rarely do that. We're more guarded. Which is why reality shows often do better with actual people, not celeb-reality people. Because they will actually do crazy, crazy things that celebrities probably won't do. You get the real id of a person, like on The Jerry Springer Show. Vanilla Ice will smash things, but other than him, we're not going to punch, kick, cry, or propose marriage at the end of the show. We don't fall for that horse manure.