The people who compete on Fear Factor were incubated in a different sort of petri dish than the one I grew up in. Marching off to their rendezvous with destiny, they say things like, "Losing is not an option!" Interviewed by host Joe Rogan about what kind of support they expect from their families and loved ones, they may let it slip that the last thing their dad said to them before they got on the plane to L.A. was, "Don't let us down!" (A few minutes later, after they've discovered, the hard way, that losing really was an option all along, they slink off into the distance, sharing uplifting thoughts such as, "Dad's never gonna look at us the same.") This sort of thing always reminds me of my college days. There was this one class I needed for my major, and it was always taught by the same teacher, and every semester I'd sign up for it. Then, on the first day of class, she'd stand in front of us and say, "When I give you an assignment and ask you if you'll succeed, I don't ever want to hear you say that you'll do your best. That's conceding defeat before you even begin. If all you feel comfortable with when you set out to do something is saying that you'll do your best, then I don't want you in this class." So I'd always shrug and wait until the hour was over and then go over to the bursar's office and drop the course. Eventually, I changed my major. I guess that teacher would say that the beauty of approaching every challenge with the words "I! Cannot! Fail!" on your lips is that it works, but all the people on Fear Factor talk like that, which means that the statistical truth is that it doesn't work in three out of every four cases.
Fear Factor originally ran from 2001 to 2006. The fact that it's back now, after five years in limbo, just looks like a case of a network whose fall lineup went straight into a ditch bringing back a cheaply produced item for the testosterone crowd to plug a hole in its schedule and partially compensate for a lack of football. That doesn't prevent a voiceover announcer from trying to sell the return of the show as the resurrection of a landmark classic from the murky beginnings of twenty-first-century entertainment. "It all began 10 years ago," he raves, "at the dawn of reality television… Audiences had never seen anything like it." Of course, YouTube hadn't been invented yet, which made it much harder for most Americans to sample choice excerpts from Japanese game shows.
Still, I have to admit that I really do remember watching the première of Fear Factor back in the first summer of George W. Bush's America. (I store the memories next to the ones I have of that college course, in a cardboard box in my head labeled "Nightmare Fuel.") I remember being amazed, for starters, that people were doing this stuff in hopes of winning a cash prize of $50,000. I myself had just been relieved of my job at a bookstore for the crime of having spoken truth to power, and seeing folks risk life and limb and ingest things that their digestive systems would not soon let them forget for that relatively modest sum gave me a Nostradamus-like vision of where the economy was headed. One of the nearly uncountable ways that the "new" Fear Factor looks exactly like the old Fear Factor is that the prize money is still $50,000, and some of contestants still rant about how much they want that money that you have to wonder if there are student loan collectors and representatives of Vegas casinos sitting on their front porches, waiting to ask them how their TV debuts went.
The other big reason that I remember when this show first aired is that it threw a crimp in my understanding of the earthly phenomenon we call Joe Rogan. In those more innocent days, I, having no reason to think otherwise, assumed that Rogan was a comic actor who played a weirdo muscle head on NewsRadio. Fear Factor was my first hint that Rogan didn't so much "act" the role of weirdo muscle head as, to put it tactfully, "embody" that persona, especially when sharing his views on the moon landings. Now that I've had a decade to adjust my take on him, I'm struck by how perfect Rogan is to host a show like this. That's meant as a compliment, and by no means a backhanded one. The nice surprise about his work here is how un-snarky and encouraging he is, as if he respects the contestants' willingness to work their asses off for their 15 minutes of fame and wants even the ones who don't last the course to have only pleasant, happy memories of the day. He almost always seems that way, and it's always a surprise, because every new installment of Fear Factor manages to bring him up against someone who seems a more deserving target than anyone else who's been on the show before, and maybe even a more deserving target than Carlos Mencia.
Some of them must present a real challenge for someone who, as a stand-up comic and podcast host, basically cracks wise for a living, but who has resolved to try to be nice to the civilians he meets on his day job. For instance, there's Monica, a female bodybuilder and drama queen, and her son Matias, whose earrings and sculpted hair make him a walking Color Me Badd flashback. The two of them are, shall we say, a little touchy for a mother and son, which, combined with the fact that she appears to have had him with she was five, can make watching them an uncomfortable experience for those of us who need to grow up a little. Rogan can't help commenting on this, but the meanest thing he actually says is, "I hug my mom every time I see her, but then I let go." These two are on board for a challenge that involves having one player dive head first into a vat of back gunk to retrieve a box containing the live scorpions on which both players must then nosh. When the mom grabs her son from behind and hoists him a little as he dunks his upper torso into the pitch, Rogan, sounding more thoughtful than seems possible under the circumstances, says, "Got the wheelbarrow going on here. It's a good technique." You can just imagine all those future Fear Factor contestants sitting at home, reaching for a pen and taking notes.
It helps that, even when Rogan puts it out there a little, he's working with people too dim to tell when they're being insulted, or even teased. When he tells one guy that he's so pale and pasty-faced that he ought to be in a Twilight movie, both the guy and his partner take it as a compliment. He really earns his Zen-master badge when he's confronted with a squirrely little dude who refers to himself as the Showstopper and his blonde ex-girlfriend, who he says he met at the Playboy mansion. (Feeling the need to account for their post-break-up friendship, he says, "Every playboy has to have that hot female best friend to make him look human.") These two take part in a stunt that involves driving a car into a pool of water, then unlocking some flags before swimming to the surface. Once they're underwater, it develops that the woman doesn't know how to swim, but her partner just assured her that, once they were in the pool, they'd work it out somehow. Rescue teams dive in and pull her to safety, as she screams, "What the [bleep!] was that!?" For a minute, it looks as if this friendship has hit the wall, but before sending their disqualified asses away, Rogan calls them back on-camera to see if they can summon up a last-minute spurt of dignity. The playboy admits that he's just received "a big giant dosage of reality", the blonde seems to soften, and Rogan assures the man that he's coming "from a long line of cocky dudes who have failed on the show, but you're ending on a high note." After they've gone, Rogan, still fighting the impulse to fall to the ground laughing, tells the survivors, "They pulled out of that tailspin pretty good."
Fear Factor isn't really my kind of thing, but I can pay it the same compliment I can pay Larry Flynt and fried Mars bars: whatever the hell it is, it is completely, unapologetically that thing. It isn't all-ages cutesy, like Wipeout, and nobody who uses it to garner some TV exposure and feed their competition jones is pretending to be looking for love, though it's easy to believe that any two people who are willing to sink into a vat of cow's blood together and stick cow hearts into each others' mouths, to be spit into a container on the floor, must really enjoy doing things together. It is, to use a word I don't like to use more than I absolutely have to, authentic: a big, greasy, nasty-smelling glob of something not wholly identifiable stuck to your TV screen. It seats six, takes unleaded, and plays 8-track tapes. Not that I know much about cars, really. But I do know that if Fear Factor were a car, Dean Winchester would think the world of it.