Has it really been almost 10 years since the original season of The Joe Schmo Show aired? How many hundreds of terrible reality shows have come and gone since that more innocent time? For the uninitiated, that Spike TV series followed a sweet-natured naif named Matt Gould as he competed in a Big Brother-style reality show called Lap Of Luxury. What Gould didn’t know, but everyone else did, was that the show was a hoax—an elaborate parody of the conventions and cliches that had already grown up around the then-young reality TV genre.
What might have easily become a tedious and needlessly protracted episode of Punk’d instead blossomed into an inventive, often hilarious puncturing of every aspect of competition-based reality programming, from absurd challenges (Sumo wrestling, eating “dog feces”) to stereotypical contestants (“The Asshole,” “The Virgin”) to an over-the-top eviction ceremony, during which host Ralph Garman would hurl a plate embossed with the eliminated contestant’s face into the fireplace, announcing, “You’re dead to us.” But what really made the show work was the mark himself, Gould, who was such a winning, amiable presence, it never felt like the joke was on him. Rather, we were on his side, hoping he would figure out the gag.
Learning as I did today that the whole experience left Gould feeling dumb and depressed, and that he spent most of his winnings on pot and booze before pulling himself together, mitigates my fond memories of the series somewhat, yet I can’t help but be intrigued to see if Spike can pull it off again a decade later. The format for this revamp of Joe Schmo combines two current reality trends: bounty hunting, and competing to win a ridiculous job you’d never otherwise get. The faux-show is called The Full Bounty, and it features 10 contestants vying to win a job as a bounty hunter from host Jake Montrose (Garman again, this time in a beard and a variety of sleeveless shirts).
Of course, only one of the competitors is “real”: this year’s Joe Schmo, Chase Rogan, a 28-year-old groundskeeper who really, really wants to be a bounty hunter. The rest are actors, improvising their way through tried-and-true reality TV characters. There’s Randy, this year’s version of The Asshole; Allison, the Over-Achieving Asian; Karlee and Stan, a deaf contestant and her interpreter, inspired by Marlee Matlin’s turn on Celebrity Apprentice; and Lorenzo Lamas as Lorenzo Lamas, the has-been TV star trying to revitalize his career. As in the first series, they’re all walking a tightrope, as any slip-up along the way could bring the entire facade crashing down.
For the most part, the new Joe Schmo has tapped into the same vein of inspired silliness that made the first series so much fun. The challenges are still preposterous; in one, the contestants must zap each other with stun-guns until only one is left standing, while another requires Chase to take instructions on defusing a bomb strapped to his chest from the deaf girl he can barely understand. (The deaf jokes are perhaps the diciest aspect of this particular incarnation, but to be fair, most of the humor comes at the expense of the hapless interpreter.)
While not all of the contestants get a chance to shine in the two-hour première, there are some promising characters, notably Chico the Ex-Con and Lavernius, the Black Guy with a secret. But the breakout star of the première is the surprisingly hilarious Lamas, who parodies the pampered celebrity to perfection. Lamas attempts to talk Chase out of his swanky “Top Dog” suite, bonds with his spirit animal, and gets a lot of mileage out of the “European Casual Pouch,” a tiny blue thong he’s apparently been paid to promote throughout the show. In fact, the biggest disappointment of tonight’s première comes at the end of the extravagantly over-the-top elimination ceremony, when Lamas is voted out of the game. Presumably, he only signed on for a brief guest stint, but I never thought I’d be sorry to see Lorenzo Lamas, comedy genius, go.
The weakest link so far is Joe Schmo himself, who is certainly a friendly, likeable fellow, but a little on the bland side. His stated intention to fly under the radar doesn’t seem to sit too well with the production team, although to a certain extent the Schmo has to be the calm eye of the hurricane around which the insanity swirls. But the success of the show will be largely determined by how far the producers can push the craziness without tipping off their mark. That might not be as difficult a task as it was ten years ago, though. Reality television has gotten so much more excessive since its early days that the real challenge may be finding a way to poke fun at a genre that’s already so adept at self-parody. Based on these first two episodes, The Joe Schmo Show seems to be up to the task.
- I had forgotten (and apparently Spike would like to forget) that there was a Joe Schmo 2 produced in 2004. I don’t think I ever watched an episode, partly because it was a parody of the Bachelor-type shows I never watch anyway, but mostly because I figured lightning couldn’t strike twice. By now, though, enough time has passed that I’m on board for another go-round.
- Another thing I learned while researching the original Joe Schmo today: Contestant “Dr. Pat” was played by none other than Kristen Wiig. Of course, she was a relative unknown at the time, but now it all makes sense.
- “I’ve got the sack of a 28-year-old.” “It returns the natural youth of your scrotae.” Any Lamas quote about the Casual Pouch is pure gold.
- “Guys, treat it like you would a second dick.”
- Okay, time for a Hot Pocket and a juicebox. What did everyone else think?