I did “The Celebrity Apprentice 2012″ as kind of a work/study thang. TV networks are dying. The death throes of religion give us jihads. The death throes of television give us reality shows.
Our sucky TV culture is all PBS’s fault. In 1971, they put a camera crew into the home of Bill and Pat Loud and their children and, in 1973, put everything the crew filmed on TV. The show was called “An American Family,” and viewers watched the Louds’ lives as though it was a TV show. It was a TV show. The Louds went from happy family to D-I-V-O-R-C-E and America watched it happen. Their son Lance became the first totally out gay guy on TV (I guess no one counts the “Hollywood Squares” and “Bewitched”). When Lance died of hep C and complications from HIV years later, there was another TV show.
Before “An American Family,” you would have bet your ass and your colonoscopy video that if you put TV cameras in a room with people, those people would behave better. They’d be kinder, wiser, more measured and more loving than they would be without the cameras. The whole world is watching, so be at your best.
The Hawthorne effect—coined in 1950 in response to factory workers’ productivity increases when they were being observed— manifests in every clinical shrink study of people’s motivations. When anyone watches anyone do anything, the watched people do whatever they’re being watched doing a little better for the short time while they’re being watched. The key is that the behavioral improvements are temporary. If the Hawthorne effect worked for more than a few days with TV cameras, we wouldn’t have “The Celebrity Apprentice.”
I noticed the Hawthorne effect for the first few days of my season of “The Celebrity Apprentice,” but it sure didn’t last long. We celebrities are desperate pigs. I knew several of my co-stars prior to working on “TCA” together. I had hung out with them and worked with them in high-pressure situations. None were close friends, but I liked them all and thought I knew them a bit. But sixteen hours a day with TV cameras all around, doing pointless fake corporate tasks outside one’s skill set with Clay Aiken, and no one worries about the whole world watching (with the exception of anyone who has a job, someone to talk to, a nice view out the window or a solitaire program). You’re happy if you don’t swallow your own tongue.
The secret truth of “The Celebrity Apprentice” is that it isn’t very hard. The tasks are nothing. Makeup starts just after 5 a.m. and the show goes to about 10 p.m., but you spend most of that time doing nothing. Anyone who isn’t in show business could accomplish everything the show called for and have time left over to do their laundry, cook their supper and post pictures of their animal companion on Facebook. “The Celebrity Apprentice” is easy like junior high is easy. All the arithmetic, the creative writing and the history are super simple, but like junior high, you do that easy work surrounded by people who are full-tilt hormone-raging bugnutty. Everyone is panicked, desperate, yelling, swearing, attacking, backstabbing, failing to get laid and acting crazy. With all this drama, any sane person just wants to do more algebra. “The Celebrity Apprentice” is junior high with a better brand of acne cover-up.
Like all desperate celebrities, I’ve been on more than one reality show. I also did “Dancing with the Stars.” I was amazed to find out that “The Celebrity Apprentice” was more honest and straightforward than “DWTS.” The idea of “DWTS” is pretty beautiful: half-assed show folk who aren’t dancers are teamed up with great dancers, and cameras video them while they learn to dance. How well can people learn to do something outside their ken? It’s a beautiful idea. Dance is a joyous celebration of humanity, so it should be an uplifting, inspiring show to watch and even more beautiful to be on.
But I hated the time that was spent with the production trying to get young ambitious Mormon women to cry. Guys behind the cameras would say mean things at attractive young men and women and washed-up celebrities about how it would ruin their lives if they didn’t win.
“The Celebrity Apprentice” is more honest, in that creepy kind of way that the guy who admits he’s a racist is more honest. It doesn’t pretend to be about something beautiful like dance. I think business is beautiful, but “The Celebrity Apprentice” has nothing to do with business. No actual business skills are tested. It’s not even a real game about fake business. I can tell you the rules of chess. I can’t tell you the rules to “The Celebrity Apprentice.” No one can tell you the rules of “The Celebrity Apprentice.” No one. Donald Trump just does what he wants, which is mostly pontificating to people who are sucking up to him, while the network people try to manipulate him into making the highest-rated show they can. Trump can’t be manipulated, so the show isn’t even fair in that way. Annie Duke, the poker genius, and “TCA” veteran, said to me, “It’s a pretend game, about pretend business, where you get pretend fired.” Donald Trump couldn’t fire me. I work for Penn & Teller and he’s never owned any part of us. Trump tried to book Penn & Teller once in Vegas, but we were priced out of his budget. He can’t fire us from the Rio, because he doesn’t own any of Caesars.
But “The Celebrity Apprentice” people are honest. They don’t pretend it’s about something beautiful, and they don’t pretend it’s fair. It’s venal people clawing at stupid, soulless shit in front of the modern-day Scrooge McDuck in order to stay famous.
For one “task,” Donald Trump asked us to create a Macy’s store display and print ads for his new fragrance. Is there anyone who wants to smell like Donald Trump? Mr. Trump thinks so, so we were asked to create advertising. Instead of the usual twenty grand that the show would give to the winning “team leader’s” charity, Donald floated the promise that if he “loved” our promotional material, he would give one hundred thousand dollars to his “loved” one’s charity. Five times the amount that was arbitrarily assigned to this “task.” In other words, if Trump got an ad that he could actually use for his stink-pretty juice, he would pay about twenty percent of what he would have to pay in the free market to hire a professional to do the job properly. Trump was willing to donate one-fifth of what the campaign would be worth to charity. I got fired for coming up with the slogan “You Earned It.” They thought that slogan was “pompous.” My slogan for a perfume with Donald’s picture on it called “Success” was deemed pompous. Wow. The problem was my audience, I think. “You Earned It” isn’t good for the Trumps. It should have been “You Inherited It.”
“TCA” gets the coin on both sides: they get NBC to pay for the show and they get the corporations to pay for the “challenges.”
Trump stays rich in real estate and stays kinda sorta famous for his “brand.” Trump is obsessed with his brand and that’s all you really need to know. Trump is on a game on TV where my showbiz peers, if they want to play the game, have to suck up to him, and I sucked up to him. I’d sit and smile and listen, because I promised the producers I would do my best. The boardrooms went long and I was there to spend about twenty-two hours, over six weeks listening to Trump do his monologues. He’d talk about Occupy Wall Street and global warming while he was deciding whom to pretend to fire from his pretend business. Bill Gates is fighting polio, and I don’t suck up to him, but I was on TV with Donald Trump, so I did my job. I wasn’t even going to say anything about Trump’s hair. I live in a glass house. I’ve always had ugly, out-of-style hair. Trump’s hair is a lot better than mine—but as I sat there for hours half listening to Donald carry on, it struck me exactly what his hair looked like. It looks like cotton candy made of piss. That revelation came to me, and I had to type it here. But my hair is worse.
One day while shooting, I’d had a heart-to-heart talk with Clay Aiken. I would have preferred waterboarding. I don’t like heart-to-heart talks with anyone, but Clay Aiken? Strap me to the board, and put the wet towels over my face. Drowning sounds nice. Clay had put his arm on my shoulder, looked in my eyes and said softly something like, “You know, Penn, I really like you, I do. I think you’re really smart, but I have to talk to you about some things that are bothering me.” Clay told me, gently and kindly, that I was being condescending by talking over people’s heads. He was accusing me of being condescending and he was being … condescending. When someone is busting you for being condescending, it takes a bigger asshole than me to say, “Are you sure you know what ‘condescending’ means? It means to talk down to, not talk over someone’s head. So, you see, honey, I’m not condescending, I’m pompous, let me explain …”
So, I nodded, yeah, I’m condescending. Greed and clawing for fame got me to the point where I was pretending to care what Clay Aiken thought of me. What have I done? What have I done?
Clay spent over an hour and a half of his time, and wasted much more than that of mine, having a heart-to-heart with me over how he, Clay Aiken, thought I should treat Lou Ferrigno. He wasn’t talking about how Clay Aiken thought I should treat Clay Aiken, about which I would have had to work hard to give a flying fuck. Clay was talking to me about how he, Clay Aiken, thought I should treat the guy who played a cartoon character painted green, decades ago.
If you’ve gotten yourself into a situation when Clay Aiken is going to talk about his feelings with you, it’s time to kill yourself. If it weren’t being documented, you could kill him quickly and bury him in a shallow grave—who’s going to notice? You could go on living your happy normal life, but if there are TV cameras pointed at you while Clay is pretending to soul search, and your wife is going to find out and some of your friends from the carny might watch the show in a bar somewhere, well … you should kill yourself.
Clay explained how I should deal with Ferrigno. Clay said that he knew how to deal with Lou because Clay himself had worked for years with intellectually disabled students before he discovered himself on “American Idol.” He thought I should deal with this grown man—who was our peer, who had punched me in friendship—as if I was dealing with an intellectually disabled child, so … get this … so I wouldn’t come off as condescending in front of the non-groovy, but very bitchy Clay.
I should have jumped. At least some of you might have respected that. No one respects me talking to Clay Aiken about feelings. Not even Clay. He was just doing it to win a TV game so he wouldn’t have to go back to condescending to mentally disabled children for a career.
What happened? Did I forget how to say “Shut the fuck up?” Or, “I’m sorry, I think I left the bathwater running in Las Vegas, and you know it’s the desert, there’s a water shortage.” Or, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak English. I learned our Vegas shows phonetically.” Or, “Hey, Clay, there are more TV cameras on the other side of the room. Why don’t you have a heart-to-heart with Arsenio Hall? That might get you more close-ups.”
Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” introduced me to the idea of “ego depletion.” I read it after my tour of duty on “The Celebrity Apprentice,” and it explained some of the mysteries I experienced doing that show. Studies have shown that if you make someone very self-conscious about everything they do and say, their self-control just gets tired out. The ego can be exhausted. It’s the very trying to be one’s best on camera that puts one at one’s worst on camera. You just can’t keep it up that long. You want to be at your best, but pretty soon the internal censors are exhausted, take a break, and pretty soon sweet Arsenio is yelling things like, “I’ll tell you what a fucking bitch whore she is!”
The non-sexual question I’ve been asked the most since “TCA” is “Were those others just faking?” It’s a question I can’t answer. We were all professionals, we were all aware of the camera, but we were also living our lives. It makes it very crazy. I spent a lot of time saying “It’s not real.” But that’s not true. It’s also not TV. It’s really not TV. When I was having my heart-to-heart with Clay, the full endless horror of it was never broadcast. It was edited down to a minute. When I’m on Piers Morgan and he’s ripping me a new asshole, that’s TV, I know that every word he says is going out. But “The Celebrity Apprentice” is so long that you know the vast majority of stuff will never be seen, but cameras are still on; it could be seen. It’s Schrödinger’s showbiz: it’s all fake and it’s all real at the same time. The situation itself makes everyone crazy.
The production isn’t entirely blameless. There was a lot of alcohol available at any time it could be even slightly justified, but most of us never drank a drop, and even the drinkers were moderate. But the producers didn’t need anyone drunk; they got their telegenic outbursts from ego depletion. And after someone had an ego-depleted outburst, they’d reward the impropriety. In real reality, there would have been hell to pay for screaming epithets at people, but in “TCA” world, there are no repercussions. No one loves anyone on the set enough to say, “Hey listen, man, take a little break and think about this.” No one cares. We’re all trying to save our own sorry asses. Then the next day, Trump says something insane like, “I’m glad you showed some backbone. I like passion.” He means, of course, he likes passion for his little TV show, but it feels like he’s saying the outburst was a good thing. We’ve chosen to make this whackjob, with the cotton candy piss hair and the birther shit, into someone we want to please.
I made a deal with the producers and myself that I would pretend to care what Donald Trump thought of me. I believe, in the real world, that I care less about what Trump thinks of me than he cares what I think of him. When he was into his free-form rants in front of a captive audience, he would talk about articles written about him and defend himself against charges made, as far as I could tell, by random bloggers with a few hundred hits. Attacks that could have no impact on his life at all. It sounded like this cat was Googling himself, being bugged by what was written, and then defending himself to people who were trying to improve their careers by playing a TV game with him. He sat on this throne, and told us he’d made a good business decision by selling a house of his for much less than the asking price and these bloggers should know that. They should know he was a good businessman. The nightmare of Trump is not that he doesn’t care what people think; it’s that he desperately cares what people think and … he’s doing the best he can. I don’t know Donald Trump. We’ve crossed paths a few times, but I’ve never talked to him. He talked to me, but I was on a show where I wasn’t supposed to talk back. I still did, but only a little. I disagree with him about a lot, but you know, I disagree with you about a lot, and we still get along. He was wicked wrong about the birther shit, but I’m wicked wrong about a lot, and we both have stupid hair.
Excerpted from “Every Day Is an Atheist Holiday” by Penn Jillette. Published by Blue Rider Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher and author.