One of my weirdest moments at the MTV offices in Santa Monica, California, came when I overheard two people trying to resolve a question about “lay” and “lie.”
Because I was in the midst of helping to cast the reality TV show I’m from Rolling Stone, because I was waist-deep in application essays from people who couldn’t tell “night” from “nite,” I ran to the rescue. I was here to help! The man and woman sat at a cluster of computers in the large back area known as “the bay,” their screens facing out toward the ring of office doors all around them. I had walked by this island of terminals on arrival and assumed it was temporary, a floating setup. Everything on the first floor of the MTV offices looked a little bit temporary.
When I offered that “lay” was the past tense of “lie,” they turned to me, gaping. I noticed their empty eyes. It was as if they were not used to being addressed directly.
“We’re logging tape,” they told me.
As it turns out, everything in the world of reality TV must get watched and catalogued. The people in the bay watched every outtake of every soul-searching turn to the camera, every unintelligible drunken hijink, every interstitial conversation about farts and traffic from whatever reality show they were working on: The Real World, Laguna Beach, Date My Mom. They then wrote down everything that had happened, so that only the nuttiest or most sentimental bits could be culled for consumption by someone else. And because this was the gruntiest of the grunt work at the network, the people doing it had no privacy. They sat completely exposed, without so much as a file cabinet to put their lunch on top of.
I’m from Rolling Stone, which just finished its run on MTV, was a departure of sorts for the network, based on a potentially ludicrous (but synergistic) premise: it would have a “cast” made up of “writers.” I was offered the job—for a project of a few months—when a woman I knew socially learned that I was a former journalist now in graduate school for writing, and that I cared, a lot, about grammar. I took the job because I was curious, and also because, in a world with a shrinking number of outlets for long-form narrative writing, I figured I’d be in a position to offer something worth taking. I didn’t think about what the drama of the show would be—would we film them typing?—because I didn’t have to. I thought only about finding writers who would play well on camera.
I had never really considered what it means to be telegenic, beyond noticing the basics: the women on TV are thin, the men are beefy. But being telegenic, it turns out, is not simply a euphemism for being beautiful. Big bones and large mouths on small people, combined with a kind of kinetic energy around the cheeks and an ineffable emotional openness, will go further than perfect skin or rock-hard abs.
My boss had cast countless Real Worlds, as well as Laguna Beach. I was instructed to read the writing samples in the applications first, then look at tapes. We wanted anyone telegenic, talented, and just starting out as a journalist, regardless of age or appearance or race or creed. We were ready to cast that oddball genius in her sixties, just starting out as a writer, who was charismatic and open and ready to share her life with the cameras at MTV. (Somehow, she didn’t apply.) Nevertheless, there was a certain unspoken understanding that MTV probably couldn’t market a show made up entirely of the middle-aged and plain. We needed at least some cast members who were easy on the eyes. And we needed talent—real talent, which, like good looks, like charisma, it turns out, is quite rare.
In a meeting, we once discussed just how hot one had to be in real life in order to appear hot on TV.
“Everyone in this room, at our youngest and hottest, we were the minimum, OK?” my boss told the team.
“Minimum?” I yelped.
My boss looked at me pityingly. “Maybe minimum plus.”
For the first few weeks, we did what we called “outreach.” We cold-called anyone who might have contact with aspiring journalists—every J-school and newspaper association and college paper in the country. I found my old editors and told them I was calling from MTV. This was both titillating and embarrassing. But I knew what it was to be an intern. I had fetched coffee and transcribed in exchange for precisely nothing. This show, on the other hand, was offering a kind of heavily supervised junior writer position, including travel, editorial feedback, and a real shot at a yearlong job. Could any of my former bosses and colleagues at the rapidly shrinking alternative weeklies, or at the left-leaning glossies, pretend they had anything even remotely this good to offer an aspiring writer?
When the first tape arrived, all eight of us in casting watched it together. We stood in an open cubicle and watched a young man with hair so greasy it looked caked on. He foamed at the mouth. “My teacher totally said I was like the next Hunter S. Thompson!” he raved. Then he told us a story about getting with a hot blonde at a party. He ended with, “And she was like, it’s not in me, man! You’re like, sliding around on my stomach! You’re not in!” No, we agreed. He was not in.
The applications came in by the cartload, six- by six-foot canvas carts, to be exact. I sat for eight hours a day in a windowless room, reading clips and watching tapes. At first, I was on the applicants’ side. I would turn to my cellmate, a Canadian roller-derby fanatic, and say, “Come on, maybe we can ask him not to mumble so much.” She had already done casting work, and would snort at me. I read through at least two clips for each soul. But then, slowly, I began to turn against the innocent.
Vast swaths of American youth aspire to be the next Hunter S. Thompson. Most of them seem to have come to this noble goal by watching Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas with Johnny Depp. After a certain point, the mention of Hunter S. made me want to weep. One boy sent me a video of himself pretending to be his girlfriend’s bra, walking around with his hands cupped over her bare breasts. Hunter S. might have liked that, actually—but it wasn’t writing.
I got increasingly fed up with hearing about their sex lives, the banal assumptions reflected in what was “crazy” to them, the childhood victories that convinced them they were bound for penmanship and glory. They crowed about their “passion for words” but made the grammatical mistakes of the poorly read. I tired of their repeated demands that we give them a job because they were excited and enthusiastic. (Excited about what, exactly? Music! What music? All music! And words! Their passion for music and words!) When I got to the 700th “I want to inspire people,” I wrote in my notes, “I hate you.” They claimed to be “inspired” by Hunter S. Thompson—but not inspired to mock hypocrisy and greed, not inspired to rage at a world that needed their rage to wake it up. They were just “inspired.” They were inspired by fame. They were excited to join the passionate and musical adventure in the sky that was a job at Rolling Stone.
We did get applications from many, many good writers, even great writers. We interviewed every single one of them. I swear to you. When we were really impressed or even a little impressed by the writing, we went for the next step. We were prepared to have a talented and charismatic and truly funny-looking cast. (Good writers, it turns out, tend toward the funny-looking.)
Here are some of the other problems we had with really good writers:
(1) They hated being on camera. Many spent the interview inspecting their shoelaces, avoiding eye contact, or giving one-word answers.
(2) They hated the idea of reality TV so much we spent most of the interview fielding hostile attacks. We would ask things like, “So . . . what are you listening to these days?” and they would snap back, “Why? Who are you trying to make me into? What do you want from me?”
(3) They backed out after they sat down and thought about being filmed. They looked that amount of intrusion and exposure straight in the eye, and said no.
Still, some candidates emerged. My favorite was definitely Russell Morse, who became the bad boy of the show. He was widely quoted, in articles about the show, quipping that the Rolling Stone offices “look like Enron.” It’s unclear to me, in the coverage I have seen, whether the world understands this one simple fact: Russell can really write. He has a singular voice. He also grew up hard, spent a lot of years in juvenile hall, and has that kinetic energy about the eyes and mouth.
At first, watching the show, all I could think about was how hard it was to watch Russell self-destructing. He was throwing away an opportunity that was his to lose. “What can I do to screw this up?” he asked editor Joe Levy, right out of the gate. I had thought I was personally handing this hard-luck kid from foster homes his shot at glory. Slowly, I realized that contrarian, antiauthoritarian Russell wasn’t going to roll over and play nice for what is now a big, corporate New York magazine. I, too, had fallen for some small part of Rolling Stone‘s old Fear and Loathing mystique and imagined that Russell would somehow fit in. Instead he bristled under all that white male authority and stopped handing in his articles.
Joe Levy, the executive editor of the magazine, used the word “heartbreak” at least three times in reference to Russell. Also, “raw talent.” I think the editors saw what I saw and would have given Russell the job if he had gotten it together to hand in just one great feature. Instead, on the night before his article on Method Man was due, he stayed in the office all night, got drunk, and then cuddled with an intern on Jann Wenner’s couch. By the end of the show, when they were sending each of the candidates out on a “national affairs” piece, management was so fed up with Russell that they wouldn’t send him to Kentucky for his assignment. The only real reporter in the group, he didn’t get a chance to show them how it’s done. I couldn’t blame them for not wanting to buy him a plane ticket. But what a waste.
In the end, it was not a show about rock ‘n’ roll. (At least not what we used to mean by that.) Jann Wenner himself, in the final episode, told Russell that he had disrespected his own talent more than he had the magazine. But Wenner also let slip that Russell’s outfit was “disrespectful.” He had on baggy pants and a bandana around his neck. Meanwhile one of the editors argued that handsome, Berkeley-educated, crew-team buff, and utterly inexperienced Peter Maiden should get the job because he was “dependable.” He knew Peter would “show up every day with his A game.”
Tika Milan started out strong, but in the end was too inexperienced to figure out when she had to be more persistent as a reporter. (Her dud question to Jay-Z on the red carpet before a big concert in midtown New York was another truly heartbreaking moment on the show. “How did Reasonable Doubt change hip-hop?” she asked. “You’re asking the wrong guy,” Jay-Z answered, almost angrily, and walked away.) Tika’s great crime, according to the blogosphere, was asking an actual Rolling Stone intern to transcribe something for her—for this she was called “the new jackass on the block” by Jossip.com, a well-known defender of intern rights. On the one hand, this was Tika not keeping it real, as Jossip put it. (Tika is black, you see.) On the other, it showed a weird absence of media savvy. Tika—easily the sweetest and least self-absorbed member of the crew—didn’t get that corporate office hierarchy trumps reality TV any day.
The show ended up as an exercise in watching a bunch of incredibly green Californians adapt not to rock journalism but to office culture (and to their oh-so-New York editor, Alex Mar). Russell refused to come to work on time and messed with the interns. Krystal Simpson, who seemed to be playing up the dumb-blonde bit, couldn’t understand why she couldn’t make Krystal Jagger her pen name. Colin, who was enthusiastic and obliging and kept losing his notebook, went back to college and was asked to “keep in touch.” Peter, who was enthusiastic and obliging and kept track of his notes, got a job as an editorial assistant at Men’s Journal, another Wenner publication.
So why did Krishtine De Leon—another outsider, the loudmouthed complainer from a struggling Filipino family with a golden grill across her lower teeth—win the competition? At first, Krish whined about being edited. She moaned about “equal opportunity” when her pitches were no good. She was, as Tika noted, totally “hood,” ready to fight for what she thought was her due. But that also meant she was willing to work. She wanted money and ease, and she wanted it bad, the way only people who grow up without can want it. Under normal circumstances, her diva behavior would have gotten her nowhere at the magazine; but the editors had signed on for the show, too, and this gave her a little time. Slowly, after repeated requests from Tika and Russell that she check her ego at the door, she learned to play ball—no more hissy fits, more “follow-through.” Her pieces about hip-hop made it into the magazine, not just onto the website. She seemed to be the only person at Rolling Stone who had any idea what to say to Snoop Dogg about his new album. In a way, the mission of the show was fulfilled: Rolling Stone, trapped with its Ivy League editors, used MTV to find some young blood, someone who was tapped into West Coast rap, that hip-hop those crazy kids are listening to these days. Once Krish got in line, she worked hard and had what they needed. Also, she could handle herself on the red carpet. She could stroke celebrity egos, instead of asking them challenging political questions (like Russell did) that made them demand other writers. I wonder if, now that the cameras are gone, they make her take off her grill when she comes to the office.
For a while I felt tormented about Russell, until I wrote him an email asking if he hated me for getting him into this mess. While I waited for his response, I had a nightmare about being forced to empty trash cans for Joe Levy. But Russell told me he was fine with it. “My only regret,” he wrote, “is that the show itself is not that good. It’s actually kind of boring, and I don’t know how that’s possible.”
In truth, most viewers agreed (the ratings were poor). Maybe MTV should have marketed it more like The Apprentice—as a hyphy hipster California reality version of The Devil Wears Prada. And maybe next time they should make a reality show about me. After all, I was even more naive than the contestants, sitting in my casting cell, dreaming of getting a corporate job for a maverick with something to say.