Reality struck Matt Kennedy Gould in a flash as every cast member of the show created for his destruction revealed themselves as an actor hired to manipulate him. Every cast member but one, Brian Keith Etheridge- cast as Gould’s best friend, tasked with staying close to him throughout filming and becoming his confidant- remained cautiously silent.
When Gould turns to him, able to digest that the rest of the cast were maybe a lot of Hollywood phonies, out of work actors lowering the bar for a reality gig, he asks Etheridge, with genuine hope, if he’s as much of a liar as the rest.
And you’ll never find a more genuine moment of terror on reality television than the look on Brian Etheridge’s face, as he struggles to explain to his new best friend that he’s just as full of shit as anyone else- that he’s of the elite, Hollywood caste getting paid to make poor, working class Matt look pathetic.
This is where the Joker would pull out a gun and shoot Etheridge in the head- something Etheridge, with emotions and adrenaline running high, feared was possible.
The producers of “The Joe Schmo Show” (2003) were looking for a loser to crucify when they met Matt Kennedy Gould playing basketball on a weekday afternoon at a community center in Pittsburgh. Gould, a law school drop out, had a job delivering pizza and was living with his parents- depressed and directionless, he auditioned for a cable television reality competition he thought was called “Lap of Luxury.”
Tricking people on television wasn’t a new concept- hidden camera shows had been around for decades- but a series modeled after “The Truman Show” (1998) hadn’t been attempted, at a time when reality TV was an exciting concept ripe for experimentation. While there existed reality TV before, MTV’s “The Real World” (1992) modernized the concept, it was the breakout popularity of “Survivor” (1997) that cemented it in the public’s consciousness.
And while other reality television shows existed to humiliate their contestants, never before was there a single series created to humiliate a single person- something the New York Times called “wickedly funny.”
“The Joe Schmo Show” must have been the greatest reality pitch of all time. A series created for the destruction of a single person- building to a climactic reveal in the series finale, where we find out just how much of a Joker was cast as the lead- a finale which did gangbuster ratings for host network SpikeTV as their highest rated (non-wrestling) telecast in their otherwise uneventful history.
The cast of actors were made up of reality TV tropes, like the asshole modeled off reality’s most infamous asshole, Puck from the third season of The Real World. There was the wacky, over-the-top gay guy Kip, the rich bitch Ashley, the virgin Molly (whom I suspect was modeled after Real World 2’s country boy, Jon Brennan), the old guy, the schemer… and, the buddy, Brian Keith Etheridge, who existed to keep everything grounded in some semblance of normalcy for Gould as he got lost in the show’s drama.
So it was fitting for Etheridge to feel a tinge of fright as the truth was revealed to Gould that all of his new friends were assholes- if he was going to lose it and attack anyone, it would have been Etheridge… but that isn’t what happened. Gould got caught up in being the center of attention, and before he had time to process any of it, the smarmy host pulled him aside to explain the cash and prizes he had won for being a good sport. Moments later, a highlight reel is played for sad sack Matt where each cast member verbally masturbates him- the hack actress playing hot blond Molly laying it on so thick as to imply she had some kind of subtle sexual attraction to him. Matt weeps at the flattery, and any negativity in the unspoken reveal that he was actually exploited and humiliated by a faceless television network washes away in a haze of balloons and confetti.
A year after filming, Matt Kennedy Gould would be holed up in a cheap apartment in Santa Monica, blowing his show earnings on drugs.
It’s too easy to dismiss Gould’s cautionary tale with jaded nonchalance. Big Hollywood has always been run by a cult of demonic cannibals. You could hardly blame the middle management producers directly responsible for knowing goddamn well what they were doing to Gould- they had to eat in a system that has no use for those without a human to sacrifice… but there remained a feeling of unique filth to “The Joe Schmo Show” that I wasn’t able to shake.
In what was the first found footage movie- the film genre closest to reality television- director Ruggero Deodato examined the nature of exploitation in his epic “Cannibal Holocaust” (1980). With a tagline the uninitiated would assume was the typical hyperbole, “Cannibal Holocaust” is arguably the most controversial film of all time. Gut wrenching and realistic, ten days after its premiere Deodato was arrested for obscenity and investigated for murder- the violence is brutal and unrelenting. Muddying the waters was Deodato’s insistence on actually killing animals on screen- deliberately blurring the line between reality and fiction.
The movie follows a group of documentary film makers into the South American rain forest- dubbed the Green Inferno– to get footage on the more esoteric cannibal tribes. They act like dicks, antagonizing the cannibals until they’re raped and murdered. Play stupid games, gets eaten by cannibals. Their footage is found by Professor Harold Monroe, played by porn actor Robert Kerman- whose other bit of notoriety was getting to fuck Bambi Woods in “Debbie Does Dallas” (1978) before having a tiny cameo in “Spider-Man” (2002)- who comes to the realization that the film makers were dicks who got what they deserved.
Kerman’s left wondering who the real cannibals were.
Tony Soprano would boast that mob morality dictated that only soldiers kill soldiers– civilians were meant to be left unharmed in gangland violence. Anyone knowingly climbing into the dirty bathwater of Hollywood gets what they deserve- an incestuous, demonic, exploitative system always ready to tear the flesh off your bones when you become too weak to survive- ready to make you a murderous whore to keep from being eaten.
This was not Matt Kennedy Gould- he was a civilian. “The Joe Schmo Show” is uncomfortable because it pulled the curtain back just a bit too far- it revealed to us explicitly what we’ve always known but have never said: that the people curating the content fed to the screens invasive in every room of our homes, lighting up the insides of our pockets, lurking on our wrists… the screen I’m watching now, typing this… are all horrible, amoral ghouls. This was the first time the television existed as a reminder that it would eat us too if given the chance- we are all Matt Kennedy Gould, only he was unlucky enough to be chosen.
It may help Tony Soprano get to sleep at night thinking the mob only goes after their own, but he’s as deluded as anyone- the entire infrastructure of the mob relies on the exploitation of the ignorant. The mob is a symptom of capitalism, a system designed for the strong to feed on the weak. We’re encouraged to deny the humanity of the less capable, to become Ed Gein at a blood and guts clearance sale- never let anything useful go to waste.
To deny the inertia of this system is to allow the hungry to pick your bones. Refuse to comply on the basis of morality, and you’re only letting blood in the water. Getting caught up in the philosophical entanglement of thinking anything is sacred in a profane world is time spent letting your guard down- a luxury only for those who can afford walled gardens. The rest of us must act swift and viscous- selfish in a selfish world.
A lesson learned by Arthur Fleck at the end of “Joker” (2019). No longer existing as meat for the grinder, Fleck joins the game by competing using the only means he has- a loaded gun. After killing his mentally ill mother for abusing him by proxy, he whines about the lack of social empathy for the mentally ill. If that sounds like hypocrisy on the part of Fleck, it is- only Fleck doesn’t care, reminding the viewer that he “doesn’t believe in anything.”
He’s fully bought into an awful system where you either take what you want or have everything taken from you- you’re either on the right side of a smoking gun or getting eyed over by a pack of Ed Geins.
Who are the real cannibals? We all are. And everything must go.