Lord of the "hotel" flies

Dave -- the normal guy on the rancidly brilliant "Paradise Hotel" -- talks to Salon about giving up three months of his life to be another test rat in Fox's reality show experiment.

Published October 1, 2003 2:23PM (EDT)

While "Paradise Hotel" made it to the top of the "Fall of Rome" checklist within hours of its premiere, no one could have predicted how gracefully it would evolve from Pointless Make-Out Show into Unpredictable Tequila-Fueled Shouting Match. In other words, Fox blithely chose this aimless trash solely on its merits as aimless trash, never knowing that it was precisely that aimlessness and that trashiness that would uncover a fourth dimension of reality splendor. Thanks to this happy accident, the residents of paradise aren't forced to scale obstacle courses or solve big puzzles as they might on other reality shows, freeing up their time for more important things, like insulting each other. Then, following bizarre new rules created on the fly by the show's producers, they spitefully vote each other off.

Indeed, "Paradise Hotel" has emerged a beautiful butterfly (note the prescient imagery during the opening credits), a butterfly of pettiness and spitty insults, a transcendent symbol of fruity mixed drinks and insecurity and carefully applied eyeliner. This humble show has become paradise to those who carry around something sick and rotten inside of them, some corroded remnant of an Us vs. Them junior high school mentality, where a clique of hairless thugs and outright morons screeches and wails and plots ineffectually against a group of relatively normal people. Mercifully, this clique on "Paradise Hotel" -- dubbed "The Originals," and populated by bloated dimwits and warmongering pretty boys -- suffered major losses over the past few weeks at the hands of "The Barbies," my personal favorites for their tendency not to act like preteens experiencing 'roid rage.

The emergence of smart, regular-looking guy Dave Kerpen as the driving force behind "The Barbies" is perhaps just as unexpected and strange as the show's emergence as one of the most transfixing reality experiments of the year. Given the fact that Dave long ago secured his spot at the center of my personal TV universe, I was admittedly giddy when he agreed to take some time out between organizing viewing parties and chatting on radio shows to speak with me from his grandmother's place in New York City. While those unfamiliar with "Drunk Asshole Hotel" might think my excitement unwarranted, those who watch know that, between its unusual format, excellent casting, clever (if repetitive) editing, well-constructed narrative arcs, and the flat-out unhinged behavior of its inhabitants, "Paradise Hotel" is easily the most absurd, unpredictable show on TV.

So, did you win?

Bad first question!

Yeah, I know.

I can't tell you anyway. I'm under contract.

Oh good! So. What was it like to spend almost two months with those awful, awful people?

Ha! Um. It's funny you should ask that, because I just got finished reading a TV interview that several of them did in which they bashed me.

They bashed you?

They bashed me. Even after the show, even after complaints of editing, several of the so-called Originals just went on Phoenix TV and bashed me. And the reason I bring it up in response to your question is that, I absolutely refuse, under any circumstances, to speak badly about people in any way. I'm not going to.

Come on!

I will say that living there for three months, away from friends and family and with no contact with the outside world, was one of the greatest challenges of my life. One thing that made it extremely difficult was just how different I was from virtually everyone there.

That much is definitely clear. It must've been challenging to take the abuse that you took, though, for example when Alex was making fun of your ears ...

Yeah, that was difficult, but by far the most difficult experience that you've seen to date ... Of course, everyone's coming back, so, the abuse begins again.

Hold it right there. The evicted guests come back again?

Yes. Everyone's in the final episode.

Oh Jesus.

It's their return, once more. They vote for the winner.

Oh god. That's not fair!

Well, what's fair? The thing is, a lot of people, especially viewers, even very intelligent ones, even close friends and family members of mine, looked at this too much like a reality show and too much like a game. And of course, I was playing the game and I was trying to win. But in reality, what "Paradise Hotel" was, or at least what it billed itself as, is the first docu-soap -- you know, a soap opera featuring real people -- rather than a game show.

Obviously it was a game, but the game was mostly a structure to create characters. And to create good and evil and hurt and sadness and love and conflict and all those sorts of things that you would see in a soap opera. So that's what I would say in response to the "That's not fair" comment. I mean, of course it's not fair, but a lot of things weren't fair. It wasn't fair when they [the evicted guests] came back the first time. It wasn't fair to, uh ...

To shift the rules around left and right.

To change the rules as we went along.

Well, there weren't really rules, right? I mean essentially, with the twists, the producers were saying, "We get to do whatever we want." I've wondered if, legally, they couldn't announce what the prize was, and then change the rules afterwards. Maybe they kept the prize a secret so they could shift the rules as many times as they needed to in order to juice every ounce of drama out of every situation.

That's an interesting technical point that I hadn't heard yet.

I will say, after you see what happens tomorrow, I think you'll find this particular discussion interesting.

Hmm. Very mysterious.

Yeah. But anyway, you had asked me specifically about Alex. Yeah, that was difficult, but Alex is just a kid, and he'll grow up and become a more tactful individual. What was much more difficult was dealing with the larger groups, and the situation that you saw with Andon as the leader of the gang with Zack and Beau and Amy. That was by far a lot more scary for me and troubling for me. That's probably the only thing all summer long that was edited in a way that slightly misrepresented what happened, because it was worse than you saw. And when I say that, people are shocked because they thought, watching it, that it was pretty bad.

It looked like a pretty threatening situation.

It was extremely threatening, and there was more said, and Andon was more in my face. I felt far more threatened at that point than I ever felt by Zack, for instance, or Alex. But the point is, it's a shame that the show had already developed a following and had already been promoted by Fox as this romp fest, because what developed was such a fascinating social psych experiment. And I think there's really a lot of value in what happened and what people saw.

The early promos said something like, "You've gotta hook up or you're gonna get kicked out of Paradise!" As if people making out under the blankets would be compelling for people to watch. But then, as the show evolved into something far more interesting than that, the network didn't really adjust its campaign to reflect that evolution.

Well, people certainly watched because of the drama and the relationships. I mean, that's what made it so compelling.

The people who were watching were people who heard that this spectacular thing was going on, on what should have been just another boring show based on a crappy concept.

Right. It would've become another "Temptation Island."

It was in many ways like the high school -- or junior high school, even -- that I've never had. I've been lucky. I didn't know that life like this really existed, I guess!

What, you hadn't met teams of thugs with waxed chests who would threaten you to your face before?

I really hadn't, and God bless anyone who had to go through that in high school.

So are you still in touch with Charla, one of the Barbies, and your closest ally on the show?

That might be one for the post-finale interview.

I'm crushed!

I know, I'm so sorry.

You're killing me! Well, we'll definitely have to talk again after the finale.

Let's just say that I did make some connections that I think will be very long-lasting. Keith is a good example of that.

He's one of my favorites.

Yeah, I underestimated his intelligence.

Well, he changed everything when he got rid of Zack, which was the beginning of the end for the Originals.

But then, he was also smart enough after that to step aside, and let me take over. But it wasn't until last week's episode ... and this is where I really gotta hand him props, because he convinced me, even, that he felt betrayed by me with regards to Scott and Holly, when he did not, and he was playing the game extremely well.

I thought he was just being weirdly disloyal out of nowhere.

Yeah, that was part of his strategy.

Did Keith and Tara actually get along well, or was that part of his strategy, too?

They did get along ... That was later on that their relationship started to bloom. Of course Tara, you know ... Tara got along well with a lot of people.

Did you have a hard time with the producers' decision to bring the evicted guests back the first time, given the fact that they were enraged and acting out, and put the current guests into such an absurdly uncomfortable position?

I think the producers acted responsibly once they saw what was happening.

It's tough, because the out-of-control aggression is also what makes the show exciting.

That's true.

Was everyone afraid of Toni?

Well, she was the one person ... I tried hard throughout the whole summer to see the good in everyone, to the point where Keith and Tara and Charla were annoyed with me.

Weren't you partially just playing the game?

Well, call me a hopeless optimist about human nature, call me naive, call me a sucker, call me all those things, but I really feel that if you look hard enough, people are just human beings with various issues, and they have to work through those issues to become better people.

To that end, I tried to see the good in them. Not just for the game's sake, but for my own sense of the world. But Toni was the person for whom that was the most difficult. She just really continued to be hostile. You know, it was difficult to deal with her.

You know, I was in a hair salon last weekend, and I was flipping through Marie Claire and there was an article with a photo of a bunch of random women's bare asses, just to compare them in size and shape, and I turn the page to where they show the women behind the asses, and it turns out that one of the asses belonged to Toni!

Yet another demonstration of the good work that publicists and agents can do for you!

It's amazing! She's also been on ...

This is her third reality show.

Right! "Love Cruise" -- or "Fuck Boat," as my friend Carina called it -- and "Blind Date."

It's sad, because she said early on that she thought this was an opportunity to change her image as the tough girl and the bitch, and show her bigger heart. I tried to remind her that she told me that and it made her ... Well, we didn't hit it off.

Did you notice that when she got kicked off, she had, um ...

The pit stains?


That was great TV.

I'll say.

Oh, don't make me ... I'm so terrified of looking like an asshole!

I don't blame you, but compared to the stuff that these people said on TV? I mean, they knew the cameras were rolling. Amy telling Keith she was setting out to torture him? The others giving you shit about having an unrequited crush on Charla? You're just admitting that you noticed something everyone saw and noticed.

Well, my friends told me that when Toni said "David?" I should have responded by saying, "Anthony?"


Their suggestion, not mine. They also said, both to represent my Judaism as well as my humor, in response to her "Yahtzee!" I should've said, "Nazi!"

I was actually going to ask you if you were Jewish, because it seems to be a reality trend to stick a wisecracking Jew in the middle of a gaggle of troubled WASPs.

I am Jewish. My proudest moment at "Paradise Hotel" was not seen on air, and it was at "Pandora's Box," when I wrote a question for myself that was, "How does it feel to be the only Jewish person in such a non-diverse group, with so much anti-Semitism, sexism, and homophobia?"

Whoa. You wrote it for yourself.

Because you didn't get to see that side of people. You can imagine, with the closed mindedness in other areas, there was a lot of bigotry and it was very unfortunate. The producers all loved the question. I was so proud of myself, because I answered in a way so as to not be condescending or mean about it. I tried to say that it hurts, but I'm sure these people aren't hateful, they're just naive, which is really how I feel often about prejudice. They didn't show anything like that, but they did show when I went up to Desiree and she called me retarded and I told her that I didn't like that word. It was just such an interesting decision from the producers and from Fox to bring that issue to light, but not the other stuff.

Everyone on the show is so larger than life.

It's hard to find people to do reality shows, and it's more hard to find smart people to do reality shows ...

Smart people?

Yeah. What sane, smart person -- I mean, "Survivor," you know the prize, it's a million bucks. I did this show without knowing what the prize was. For me, the prize was making a great impression on the country, as best I could, but I didn't know. That's why four or five episodes into it, when I had a feeling I was being edited as the laughingstock, it was really hard. I was really depressed.

How did you know they were editing you that way?

I knew from seeing a woman with a sign in the audience that said, "I love your man-boobs." From that, I knew Fox probably gave them the signs, and chose which signs they'd show. And then the contestants both dissed me and made references to man-boobs. I thought, if they both feel comfortable dissing me, obviously I've been skewed extremely negatively. I was really depressed that night.

You're in marketing, you're into being in the public eye, at least in theory. How do you feel about it now?

Yeah, I was. I still am, overall it was a great experience. It's so funny, because I watch with probably as much anticipation as everyone else. Even though I know what happens, more important to me now is, how they reveal.

Yeah, and if they cut to you as you're picking something out of your teeth, and it makes you look depressed.

Right! It's unbelievable how the reaction shots can leave lasting impressions in people's heads.

But you can tell that they're taken out of sequence sometimes.

Well, you can. But most viewers cannot. Are you kidding me? Most viewers ...

They say, "My god, he's crushed!" And meanwhile you had gas or something. So last week's episode [when teammates Keith and Tara seemed to turn on him, and he became the focus of the entire show's ire] did you think, oh man, they're making me look like a jackass?

That was tough, because I was watching with a group of about 200 people in Boston at a bar. I mean, look, I'm back home. I have my sense of integrity back. But towards the end there, I was just so enveloped in the game. I could see in the last episode how much it really got to me, and how I wasn't so sure of myself anymore.

Anyway, now I've completely forgiven you for what my brother said -- and I still haven't read the article -- you called me "moderately intelligent," I believe.

Well, I have to confess, there was something else ...

Below average looks, and moderate intelligence?

Well, no. I said you were moderately intelligent, and moderately unattractive. Boy, this is instant karma, right here. But keep in mind, being moderately unattractive in the context of the exceptionally good-looking human beings they chose for the show ...

Perhaps, but the "moderately intelligent" in the context of the human beings they chose is completely ludicrous.

It's all relative. I referred to everyone else as morons, so ... Well, I'm a jackass. What can I say?

Ha! It's fine.

But you know, the point where you were added to the cast, it was like, "Who is this guy, and what did they mean by throwing him into the mix, because he clearly has nothing in common with these people." I mean, how did you feel about your looks in that situation?

People said I came across as insecure, but in the context of being with models and knowing that I'm on TV, it was easy to be insecure.

Of course.

I read the message boards, and it says, "Dave is so ugly, Dave is so ugly, Dave is so ugly," and being back, I walk around and look around and think, "No, I'm not!" I'm normal-looking, maybe. I have a bigger nose than most people, but, you know, who cares? It was funny how the others were allowed to assert their attractiveness, but I was never allowed to assert my intelligence. I mean, heaven forbid I should say I'm a pretty smart guy.

They freaked out on you for doing that, but hearing Zack go on about how smart he was truly was great television, too. Anyway, you definitely colored outside the lines of the typical reality show goon, which was fun to watch.

Well, check it out tonight. Even if you never saw the show before, tonight's episode is worth watching.

Good plug, but you're preaching to the converted. So you're having a party for tonight's show?

Yeah, at a bar in New York City. And it's my birthday!

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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