My day at reality-TV school.
One of the great stock scenes of 20th-century child-rearing—a cliché since, let's say, the first season of American Bandstand—sees Mom lecturing Junior that it's a nice summer day outside and that it's such a shame he's indoors watching television. But these are different times, and a new breed of American mother walks among us, sometimes even upright. She is the Reality-Television Stage Mom, and some nice summer day very soon, I imagine she'll be able to drop off Junior at a place very much like the New York Reality TV School so that he can go indoors and prepare to be watched on television. Imagine the parting scene at curbsides: her firm phrases of encouragement, the moist peck planted on the center of the lad's tender forehead, the final words warmly hectoring Junior to bear in mind all that he'd learned in those many hours of studying Puck on the third season of The Real World, frame by gnarly frame.
The NYRTVS is the brainchild of Robert Galinsky, a 43-year-old acting coach and improv comedian. Of his two IMDb acting credits, the more amusing to read is "Fanatic Hassidic Jew" in something called Brooklyn Babylon (2001). Galinsky claims to have coached 50 Cent for a recent audition. I must talk about this with Fiddy.
According to the crude text on the NYRTVS Web site, the school's mission is to pioneer "the development of reality TV training in order for professionals and beginners to take their place as exciting, confident and vibrant real people/entertainers on any reality TV show." It seems gratuitous to follow that quote with a "sic," so I will merely add that the school boasts of having "worked with personalities" who have debased themselves on shows including The Bachelor, Big Brother, and The Apprentice. Last Saturday in Manhattan, about 20 aspiring followers in those footsteps—real people and some entertainers, too—participated in Galinsky's one-day intensive course. It cost $139, with a $20 discount for early registration. It amounted to a three-hour lesson in cultivating narcissism—being one's self as noisily as possible. It was not quite as imbecilic as I'd hoped.
We entered a room at a Chelsea theater workshop, murmured among ourselves over up-tempo pop songs, and, just after noon, formed a circle. Two cameramen circled the circle, encouraging our camera consciousness and stroking our vanity, and the Panopticon element was heightened by the presence of a handful of journalists, including a woman from Swedish radio with a microphone in her hand and pants low on her hips. We met Galinsky and the other instructors, Robert Russell and Jorge Bendersky. Russell works on the casting side of the business and has spent the past 27 years helping to assemble all the game shows, reality programs, and dating trash that you love to hate yourself for watching. His head was shaved bare, and his chin was sternly goateed. "I feed off personality for a living," Russell said. "I'm like a vulture that way." He said this at the end of day, I should note, during a well-padded Q-and-A session that Galinsky insisted on calling a "press conference."
Jorge, meanwhile, is a standout contestant on the current season of Groomer Has It, which airs on Animal Planet and is to poodle-appropriate barber scissors as Project Runway is to pinking shears. His T-shirt boasted that he hearted Argentina, and his accent matched. "I'm like the love child of Fran Drescher and Ricky Ricardo," Jorge passionately lisped, continuing, "I was born without an indoor voice." Later, in a private conversation, he would underline the importance of developing quality sound bites.
And the pupils? We were mostly in our 30s and 40s—struggling actors, aspiring reality-show hosts, and not a few of those women who, having correctly been told all their lives that they're pretty, take that praise as a license to spend perfectly good money on mediocre head shots. There was a woman who introduced herself as a recovering alcoholic, and we applauded her years of sobriety. Then she explained that she suffers from alcohol-related brain damage, and we didn't know what to say. She, of course, showed a lot of potential. There was a performer named Queen Esther, but she bailed early, not long after the introductory stretching exercise—an acting-class staple—and the enforced three-minute dance party to which it inexorably led. In parting, Queen Esther explained that she just won a singing contest and was headed uptown to perform at Jazzmobile's Summerfest. We wished her "good luck" when we should have said, "Break a leg." If Galinsky noticed this faux pas, he let it pass, preferring to note that Her Majesty had, in heralding this appearance, increased her "IMI"—i.e., her "Individual Marketing Index."
Galinsky is fond of acronyms and such. For instance, our only handout listed his "8 Commandments" of reality TV—"with an all new 9th Bonus Commandment!"—and its fifth item was, "Thou Shall Groom Hairy 'PITTS,' " which stands for "personal issues to tease." The commandment went on: "As a reality star I will always groom my PITTS and allow them to be accessible—they are relationship, family, work related." What he's struggling to say here is that in an audition tape and on a reality show itself, it's crucial to develop themes that audiences can hold onto. Like much of Galinsky's advice, this would seem obvious to any reality-TV glutton who exhibits the slightest traces of thoughtfulness. The brilliance of Galinksy's business plan is that only a few people have been able to watch that much television without losing their minds, and most of them are too busy writing for Television Without Pity to start up a competing class. He's alone in giving reality-TV wannabes the "emotional preparation" to be themselves.
After cruising hastily through the Commandments ("2. Thou Shall Never Say 'I AM AN ACTOR' ... [E]verything I do must be candid, genuine and not an act"), we participated in an exercise called On the Grill With Phil. Phil—a Galinsky associate wearing plaid pants, a trim mustache, and a cartoonishly abrasive personality—recited text from actual want ads and Craigslist postings announcing reality-show auditions, and we jumped before a camera to blare out our qualifications for the respective shows. One of only two married students, I stepped forward in response to a call for ABC's Wife Swap; being self-conscious in the wrong way, I was lousy. The strongest real person there was a male extrovert from the outer boroughs, a guy boasting an easygoing smarminess and a résumé featuring an appearance on NBC's Deal or No Deal and a related Web series. During a break, he told me, sotto voce, that he's an actor and feels himself most comfortable with "sitcoms, commercials, hosting, and reality." He wore a horribly flamboyant jacket modeled on Old Glory, a garment that simultaneously desecrated the flag and defiled the retina. The casting expert complimented him highly on its assertiveness.
The afternoon began winding down with a "networking" mixer. It might have been easier to network had the food consisted of hors d'oeuvres, say, as opposed to Greek salad, but we managed. A fellow student shared that she and her husband co-own a film-production company, and that she was developing a movie about reality TV, and that the casting guy had been particularly inspiring in his blunt viciousness. The brain-damaged lady, sprightly still, distributed her press kit. Galinksy, in closing, said he hoped that he'd given us some tools with which we could express our core selves with "confidence and purity": "That's pretty much a good recipe for life." Indeed, the New York Reality TV School encourages its students to ask, "Who am I?"—but if you've enrolled, you already know the answer: I'm a star.
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.
Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer.