Wednesday, February 7, 2007

The Surreal Life Fame Games – Who Needs Work?

“Saturday Night Live” once featured a brilliant cartoon entitled “The New Adventures of Mr. T.” The animated short followed the tough-guy pop icon as he forced himself on casting directors in order to obtain wildly inappropriate acting jobs. As he demanded roles in classical theatre and feminine hygiene commercials, Mr. T would bark with his trademark gruffness, “I need work!”

Apparently, the cast members of VH1’s “The Surreal Life Fame Games” share the same desperate sentiment. The show features participants from previous seasons of the network’s throw-ten-minor-celebrities-in-a-house-for-two-weeks-and-watch-the-hilarity-ensue series “The Surreal Life.” This time, though, the cast members are tasked with a job that goes beyond sitting in a fishbowl – they’re competing for cash.

One wonders if the celebs were aware of the type of humiliation they’d be subject to when they accepted this gig. The show’s goal is to “strip their A-List privileges and self-esteem.” Hmm. While I’d certainly laugh at Paris Hilton being taken down a few pegs, when the person being demoralized is Mini Me, well, it’s not so funny. In fact, it’s pretty depressing.

Those subjecting themselves to the producers’ unique brand of torture include Rob Van Winkle, a.k.a. Vanilla Ice, Poison guitarist CC Deville, and porn star Ron Jeremy. Actress Brigitte Nielsen and former wrestler Joanie “Chyna Doll” Laurer form an Amazonian alliance, as do, on the opposite end of the height spectrum, Emmanuel Lewis from “Webster” and Verne Troyer from “Austin Powers.” Robin Leach, still blathering on about champagne wishes and caviar dreams, is thrown in as host for good measure.

In the premiere episode, the entire cast is part of the “A-List,” living together in a posh Las Vegas mansion. Through a series of contests, the “B-Listers” are weeded out and exiled to a part of the house that resembles a cheap motel room. A velvet rope prevents them from entering the fashionable side of the mansion – they may only gain admittance by ringing a doorbell. A bit degrading, sure, but this is strictly made-for-tv action. What seems to create a genuine level of discomfort, both for the cast and the viewer, are the contests themselves.

The “Fan Photo Challenge” placed the celebrities in a crowd with embarrassing “hello, my name is…” signs set up next to them. A tally was then kept of the number of fan photo requests received. CC Deville described the humiliation, commenting, “No one has asked for my picture – it was awful.” He later noted, “I’m a big star in my head…in reality, not so big.” Chyna Doll, the lowest vote-getter, cried, saying, “I’m a bottom-feeder” – the show’s charming term for the bottom three finishers. (In case you’re curious who won this little exercise, it was Rob Van Winkle all the way. Word to your mother.)

Of course, all this talk about A-List and B-List is a little ridiculous given the people involved. Realistically, the cast members would be lucky to call themselves C-List – I mean, none of these folks are getting into Hyde. (Ok, maybe Ron Jeremy is.) They’ve all rightfully earned their share of fame through their work, but, at this point, they exist in a kind of celebrity purgatory, caught between “oh my God, it’s…” and “hey, didn’t you used to be…?” I don’t mean to insult them; however, this show does. While you certainly can’t fault them for continuing Mr. T’s eternal quest to find work, degradation and humiliation is not entertainment.

Unless, of course, they actually get Mr. T next season. I pity the fool who doesn’t want a photo with him.