Joel Stein’s Reality TV Pitch: Cory Booker’s Newark?
By Joel Stein Sunday, Dec. 05, 2010
Just as it was supposed to, Sarah Palin’s Alaska on TLC inspired me. Not so much when she fished next to brown bears. Or when she hiked up a glacier. It was when she looked toward the reporter who rented a house next door and said, “I would think, really, at the end of the day, he’s going to be bored to death if that’s all he has to do is observe our kind of normal, boring family and its activities.” That’s when I realized I could totally produce a show like this. (See pictures of Sarah Palin’s reality TV show.)
I called around to a bunch of politicians I knew and tried to talk them into letting me turn them into reality-show stars. Newark Mayor Cory Booker, whose college-newspaper column I edited back when we were at Stanford, said he was up for it. Which surprised me, since he had already dealt with me editing his column. (See pictures of Cory Booker.)
His idea for Cory Booker’s Newark involved showing a lot of triumph over adversity, like the fraternity for incarcerated dads he started that lowered recidivism from 65% to 3%. I was thinking we’d focus more on his dating life. “I’m 41 years old. I’d very much like to get married,” Cory said. “It’s hard to date under a microscope. If you’re a rational woman, would you want to go out with someone in politics?” This would be perfect for the show, because if there’s one thing Sarah Palin’s Alaska reinforces, it’s that America loves irrational women.
An hour after talking to Cory, I pitched the show to Brent Zacky, TLC’s vice president of development. I told him about a world in which a handsome Rhodes scholar and Yale Law grad gives up a potential life of luxury to live in a crime-infested section of Newark and revive the city. Instead of looking at the boring, uninhabited state of Alaska, we’d see Newark, which is far more exciting at night. I also mentioned that Cory goes to parties with Oprah Winfrey’s friend Gayle King. (See the 25 most powerful women of the past century.)
One of the first things Zacky said after listening to my pitch was, “Do you think Oprah would be in it?” I did not. So I told him that I was pretty sure Oprah would definitely be in it. It was looking like a sure thing until Zacky told me that TLC focuses on family shows. I pushed Cory’s involvement in the Big Brother program but didn’t get anywhere. “If you had a family he was struggling with and her saying, ‘We can’t live here! We have kids!’ and he was like, ‘We have to stand our ground for this city!’ that would be better,” Zacky said. I had to admit that did sound good.
“Our audience is very much in the middle of the country. This is a little bit outside of our realm. I don’t know how relatable he is as a figure,” he said. TLC is a network with four shows about parents with giant litters, two about midgets, one about hoarders, one about a polygamist, one about a tattoo artist dating the guy who cheated on Sandra Bullock and one about women who didn’t know they were pregnant until they gave birth. I’ve been dumped by girlfriends with better excuses than his. (See the top 10 reality TV shows.)
Then I realized that maybe what Zacky was trying to tell me was that TLC’s programming isn’t targeted toward black people like Cory. Or people who graduated from high school, like Cory. So I pitched a place I knew the middle of the country loves: Oscar Goodman’s Las Vegas. It would take you inside Treasures, the strip club Goodman has represented as a lawyer; the Hugh Hefner Suite at the Palms hotel, where he photographed a model for Playboy.com and the many bars where Goodman hosts Martinis with the Mayor. “I worry that that’s not ad-sales friendly,” Zacky said. (See 10 things to do in Las Vegas.)
Desperate, I pitched him Dennis Kucinich’s Cleveland, in which a 5-ft. 7-in. vegan Congressman with a daughter and two ex-wives marries a hot redhead who is 31 years younger, 5 in. taller and one tongue piercing more than him. And while glaciers and grizzly bears are pretty, Cleveland once had its river on fire. Unfortunately, Zacky thought Kucinich lived in Cleveland full time and decided that shuttling back and forth from D.C. would disrupt story arcs. But he did say that TLC was still looking for a companion show for Sarah Palin’s Alaska and that I was actually very close with my Cory Booker pitch. I asked him which politician he thought I should go after. “If you could get me a special in the White House with the President or the First Lady, I would be very interested,” he said. “They’re a family. Everyone wants to be let into a window of their world.”
I’m pretty sure I can sell the President on Barack Obama’s Washington D.C. After all, he can’t afford to keep getting outmessaged by Palin like this. And in case Obama doesn’t go for it, I’m also working on a hairstylist show for Lifetime built around Mitt Romney.