Sideshow Nation 2006-2008
It may sound ridiculous to say that I canceled my plans to move to Los Angeles because I got involved with a TV pilot, but it’s true.
I had finagled a bartending gig at a gastro pub that had purchased a couple of my animal prints as part of their back-bar décor, when I met Mike & Rob. They were both producers for a local production house, working on a home improvement reality shows for TLC. Mike was a clock work regular with a big personality and a huge bullhorn mouth who drank half a bottle of Tequila every single night. Rob was his non-assuming, low volume sidekick who would join him for happy hour on occasion.
One night, they went on a booze soaked ‘poor me” work rant about how hard it was to get ahead in their business. “The only way to really make a name for yourself is to come up with your own show!” Mike boomed as he slammed his shot glass on the bar.
“Might as well win the lottery,” Rob slouched.
That didn’t seem like an impossible win to me at all. It sounded so simple, but they were smug in their pessimism. Production houses produce thousands of pilots a year, they’re tax write offs, look good on pitch reel, and maybe, just maybe a show will get picked up. But Mike and Rob doubted that they would be able to keep control, or even be assigned to any project idea they took to their employers. Besides, coming up with a winning idea was impossible. “What’s the point?” they lamented.
It's hard to come up with a concept for a reality show? Really? It’s fucking garbage TV, how hard could it be? I rallied them with stirring speeches about boot strapping ambition. We would find that winning concept and produce a pitch reel to prove their merit as Executive Producers, and that concept would be so brilliant that there was no way it wouldn’t get picked up.
Yeah... so simple.
I set myself to brainstorming. Early social media was starting to take hold at the same time as the rise of the neo burlesque troupe. The self-promotion spam factory of Myspace was exposing me to hundreds of misfit performers with stupid names and ridiculous costumes. It was a veritable cornucopia of strangeness and I was already familiar with several local weirdoes from promoting parties for the Family of Shame.
My early concepts followed the competition templates used by shows like Flavor of Love and The Bachelor. This format would allow brief spotlights on a wide variety of oddball performers. But Mike pointed out that “behind the scenes” shows had taken over after success of Miami Ink. This posed a few of problems.
First off, would following around a performance troupe be inherently interesting? Our decision-no guarantees. Like Miami Ink, we would have to cast a troupe to be sure we had compelling characters. Second, was there really cultural relevancy for sideshow and burlesque troupes? The burlesque thing was getting big, but the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow had risen to the national spotlight a full ten years before. Our decision- kinda, maybe. If we focused purely on sideshow it defiantly felt dated, but then again, we were talking about reality television on cable tv, not exactly cutting edge avant guard. I mean, fucking Dog the Bounty Hunter was a hit for fuck sake. Would people relate to the performers? That one was a firm no. Lots of people want to get tattoos or renovate hot rods, not a lot of people want to jam spikes into their noses.
Our solution was to fabricate a plot catalyst by introducing “straight man” characters that could have relatable reactions to the oddball performers. These would also be the characters that we knew would keep things interesting. That’s how Beth and I ended up in front of the camera.
Sideshow Nation would chronicle a weary event promoter named R.E. Brown, who was going to travel the country and slowly assemble a sideshow and burlesque troupe by auditioning aspiring performers. Brown would be traveling with his stage manager, the no-nonsense Candy Mayhem, and their two bickering star performers, the beautiful but jaded dancer, Melissa Bang Bang, and the anarchist sideshow performer, Jellyboy the Clown. Meanwhile, Brown’s wife Beth, would train in the sideshow arts from the “oldest man in sideshow,” Red Stuart.
Right out the gate, there were problems. Candy got pregnant. Melissa had a rare intestinal disease that we didn’t know about. Jellyboy’s persona for being an impossible to deal with wasn’t a persona at all. Red Stuart was fascinating, but not exactly a charming and lovable Mister Miyagi.
But these were all good problems, drama that could add to the show. The real problems I had were with Mike & Rob. The whole project started because they had been lamenting about getting ahead in their jobs, but they were suffering what I call “good paycheck syndrome.” Yeah, producing their own pitch was a great career move, but… doing stuff on your day off is hard. They just weren’t really motivated once we got passed sitting in a bar talking about it.
To exacerbate things, Mike’s insane drinking skills were impossible to match, even for me. To spend time with Mike meant a strong likelihood of waking up covered in vomit, with no memory and a horrible feeling of dread. To him, this project was socializing and not really work, so the initial cast interviews under his helm turned into incoherent drunken shit shows. Like I said, Jellyboy was already difficult. He was a West Philly crust punk who felt deeply conflicted and suspicious of the whole endeavor, and those sloppy test shoots set the stage for him to be unbearably uncooperative through the rest of the project.
As months drug on, I became more and more frustrated as Mike & Rob became more and more lackadaisical. While I sound hard on these two, they knew the industry and the odds any pitch is up against. They really did try to temper my expectations, but I’m as stubborn as a rock skulled mule.
Around this time, Ryan Widger had returned from Stockholm having just wrapped up a Fulbright Fellowship. After the Family of Shame, he had scored me a lecturing gig at Konstfack University and we had grown close.
Ryan offered to help finish the pitch tape so we could shop it. We brought in Peter Heacock, a documentary filmmaker, and we slowly, painfully finished up the pitch reel and about half a pilot. A friend of Peter's who did the opening credits, worked for the production house, Center City Film & Video. They offered to buy the rights to the concept but our lawyers thought it was a shit deal, and it effectively cut everyone out but me.
Another friend of Peter’s shopped the project around the cable networks, along with a thousand other shit reels for shit TV.
During this time, we discovered that my great new idea wasn’t practically new at all. There were at least four other disastrously terrible burlesque and sideshow pilots and pitch reels floating out there. Jim Rose had already done a few episodes of a tremendously awful show, years past his spotlight’s prime. Another, much slicker production was filming a much bigger cast of sideshow “stars” from Coney Island, including people we had already worked with, AND we heard rumors that Center City had begun early development on their own version after we took a pass with them.
Yet somehow, despite this crowded pool of detritus, Peter’s connect got us a viewing and early interest at A&E.
Yaaaaay we popped the cork. A day later they took a pass. Booooooo. They said that they couldn’t risk “disgusting” the audience, citing an episode of Chris Angel involving suspension hooks, which was the worst rated episode of any show in the channels history.
Chris Angel. Gross.
I sigh a breath of relief knowing that this didn’t happen, and I seriously take pause when I reflect that my strange near pathological commitment to a simple problem solving challenge while sitting in a bar led to volunteering myself to get in front of the camera for a stupid fucking reality TV show. What a disaster that would have been.