Comedy Legend Jerry Lewis Has Died at 91
Jerry Lewis, the comedian, actor, director, and telethon star whose legendary film run in the 1960s included classics like The Nutty Professor died Sunday morning at the age of 91, according to the Hollywood Reporter. The Las Vegas Review-Journal’s John Katsilometes broke the news on Twitter:
Very sad to report entertainment legend #JerryLewis has died today at 9:15 a.m. at his home in Las Vegas. He was 91.— John Katsilometes (@johnnykats) August 20, 2017
Lewis was born Joseph Levitch in Newark, New Jersey in 1926. His parents were both in entertainment, and he followed in their footstpes, dropping out of high school to pursue standup. But his act didn’t take off until he partnered with singer Dean Martin in 1946. Martin & Lewis—Martin playing the straight man to Lewis’ madcap antics—were an immediate and extraordinary hit on the nightclub circuit, and parlayed that into a contract with Paramount. After playing supporting roles in 1949’s My Friend Irma, the duo headlined 16 films together, including memorable collaborations with former Warner Bros. animator-turned-director Frank Tashlin like 1955’s Artists and Models.
Martin & Lewis had an acrimonious split in 1956, leading Lewis to launch a solo film career at Paramount. He worked with Tashlin on hits like Who’s Minding the Store and Rock-A-Bye Baby in the late 1950s, then made the jump to directing with 1960’s The Bellboy, cooked up in a month to fill a hole in Paramount’s release schedule. In 1963, Lewis directed The Nutty Professor, a riff on Jekyll and Hyde in which Lewis’ character drinks a potion that turns him into a Casanova who bears more than a little resemblance to his former partner.
Lewis’ career hit the downslope in the late 1960s as his manic comedy fell out of fashion. The nadir was probably The Day the Clown Cried, an unreleased drama Lewis directed and starred in in 1972 in which he plays a washed-up circus clown who ends up entertaining Jewish children at Auschwitz. Originally (and still) legally unreleasable due to wrangling over the rights, Lewis eventually became embarrassed by what he called his “bad work” in the film, telling one interviewer, “You’ll never see it and neither will anyone else.” The Library of Congress reportedly has a copy, which was donated under the condition that it not be screened until 2025. Even as his U.S. box office returns declined, his work remained consistently popular in France, which became a bit of a running joke (and led to him being awarded the French Legion of Honor in 1984).
In 1982, he showed new depths as a dramatic actor in Martin Scorsese’s King of Comedy. Playing a talk-show host being pursued by a pair of celebrity-obsessed stalkers, Lewis held his own against Robert De Niro in a critically-acclaimed performance. His late career was a hodgepodge of guest spots, theater, and occasional television directing, including a recurring role on Wiseguy. But while he inspired a generation of young male comedians, Lewis was less of a role model to women, proclaiming in 1998 that he didn’t like any female comedians, not even Lucille Ball, because he thought of women as “a producing machine that brings babies into the world,” a position he walked back only slightly in later years.
One constant throughout Lewis’ career was his work for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, hosting their annual Labor Day telethon from 1955 before being unceremoniously pushed out in 2011. He raised almost two and a half billion dollars for the organization over his tenure there. He was married twice and is survived by five sons from his first marriage and a daughter from his second.
Comedians Pay Tribute to Jerry Lewis: “The French Were Right About Him All Along”
Legendary comedian Jerry Lewis known for his slapstick and, later in life, his philanthropy died Sunday morning of natural causes. He was 91. With a career that spanned almost the entire length of his life, it didn’t take long for his fellow comedians to take to social media to mourn the loss of the man many described as an inspiration.
Penn Jillette wrote a series of tweets honoring the late comedian, emphasizing his larger-than-life persona and what he means to comedians everywhere. “We will miss Jerry so much,” Jillette wrote in one of his tweets. “I can’t believe I got to meet him and spend time with him.”
We will miss Jerry so much. I can’t believe I got to meet him and spend time with him. pic.twitter.com/wpHtjuWwmp— Penn Jillette (@pennjillette) August 20, 2017
How did my life get good enough that Jerry Lewis would smile at me? And how sad to lose him. pic.twitter.com/taPhl1utzO— Penn Jillette (@pennjillette) August 20, 2017
William Shatner offered a much simpler tribute that expressed condolences but ended with a poignant message (and sad-faced emoticon): “The world is a lot less funnier today.”
Condolences to the family of Jerry Lewis. The world is a lot less funnier today. ☹️— William Shatner (@WilliamShatner) August 20, 2017
Jim Carrey noted how much of an influence “undeniable genius” Lewis played on his career: “I am because he was!”
That fool was no dummy. Jerry Lewis was an undeniable genius an unfathomable blessing, comedy's absolute! I am because he was! ;^D pic.twitter.com/3Zdq9xhXlE— Jim Carrey (@JimCarrey) August 20, 2017
Jeffrey Tambor also praised Lewis as an innovator, writing, "You invented the whole thing."
Goodbye Jerry— Jeffrey Tambor (@jeffreytambor) August 20, 2017
You invented the whole thing
Thank you doesn't even get close
Sandra Bernhard, who starred in The King of Comedy alongside Lewis called it “one of the great experiences” of her career. “He was tough but one of a kind,” she wrote.
Bette Midler also hinted at how Lewis was far from saint, noting that he was "a complicated soul" who "made the world laugh."
Jerry Lewis, a complicated soul who made the whole world laugh has died.— Bette Midler (@BetteMidler) August 20, 2017
Josh Gad praised Lewis as “one of the greatest of all time” and “a one of a kind.”
Jon Cryer also took to Twitter to recognize that whatever anyone thought of Lewis personally, his influence was undeniable: “If u are in comedy, you've been influenced by him, whether u know it or not. RIP.”
Jerry Lewis was a complicated man of astonishing talent.— Jon Cryer (@MrJonCryer) August 20, 2017
If u are in comedy, you've been influenced by him, whether u know it or not. RIP https://t.co/VE5KZMETMU
“Jerry Lewis has passed on,” wrote Patton Oswalt. “I sincerely hope his afterlife is a warm, peaceful...haven.”
Jerry Lewis has passed on. I sincerely hope his afterlife is a warm, peaceful...— Patton Oswalt (@pattonoswalt) August 20, 2017
Sean Hayes chose Instagram to pay tribute to “one of my comedy heroes” who was “a gigantic inspiration.” Hayes, like many of his colleagues who paid tribute, expressed gratitude “to have shared some valuable time with him.”
My mentor & friend Jerry Lewis has passed away. A visionary. A pioneer in all forms of entertainment. A charitable human. A father.— Dane Cook (@DaneCook) August 20, 2017
He meant the world to me& I will forever cherish the time I got to spend with him & his family. At a dark time in my life he brought me joy.— Dane Cook (@DaneCook) August 20, 2017
Always funny. Always helpful. Always honest. I will miss you Jerry Lewis. The world has lost a true innovator & icon. pic.twitter.com/mJzLbh0VFd— Dane Cook (@DaneCook) August 20, 2017
The French were right about him all along. RIP Jerry Lewis pic.twitter.com/jNLRPQeS4G— Gilbert Gottfried (@RealGilbert) August 20, 2017
Rose Marie, who starred in the Dick Van Dyke Show, got a bit personal in her tribute, writing that Lewis “was an angel to me” and she “will never forget what he did for me during one of the worst times in my life.”
Jerry Lewis was an angel to me. Loved him & will never forget what he did for me during one of the worst times in my life. RIP, Love Roe pic.twitter.com/0OoQV4yaae— Rose Marie-Official (@RoseMarie4Real) August 20, 2017
Rob Schneider let his shock come through in his tribute: "Oh NOOOOO!!! Jerry Lewis just died! Another comic legend has left us. Martin&Lewis were the Beatles of comedy! Nobody was EVER bigger!"
Oh NOOOOO!!! Jerry Lewis just died! Another comic legend has left us. Martin&Lewis were the Beatles of comedy! Nobody was EVER bigger!— Rob Schneider (@RobSchneider) August 20, 2017
Kumail Nanjiani wrote that he "was the biggest Jerry Lewis fan in the world" when he was a kid.
As a kid, I'm pretty sure I was the biggest Jerry Lewis fan in the world. Truly. R.I.P. Jerry Lewis.— Kumail Nanjiani (@kumailn) August 20, 2017
even tho u said women arent funny rest in peeeeeeeaaacccccceeeeee https://t.co/f4K8lav7zG— Chelsea Peretti (@chelseaperetti) August 20, 2017
This post has been updated with new reactions since it was first published.
How Are You Celebrating the Birthday of “Final Countdown” Singer Joey Tempest?
August 19 has come round again, and all over the world, people of different races, faiths, and musical tastes are celebrating the birthday of Joey Tempest, the lead singer from the Swedish megaband Europe, and the megavoice behind megahit “The Final Countdown.” But this year, Joey Tempest’s birthday feels a little different. People are angry, people are scared, people don’t trust each other. That’s why it’s more important than ever that we all come together and salute the man whose powerful song about flying into outer space (but maybe coming back to earth one day) speaks to our common humanity.
But how are you celebrating Joey Tempest’s Birthday this year? Are you a Joey Tempest birthday traditionalist, eager to spend the day watching the music video for “The Final Countdown” over and over again, while wishing you’d been lucky enough to be in the audience at the 1986 concerts in Solna, Sweden where it was filmed?
Meet Stringo, the Creepy New Toy From Conan O’Brien
What rings up shares, embedded in players, and makes a clickity sound?
A late-night sketch, a marvelous catch!
Based on the ads for Slinky:
It’s Stringo, it’s Stringo, I’m posting it up on the blog,
From Conan O’Brien, it prob’ly reminds you of “Log”:
In ninety-eight, Isuzu made a nearly identical joke,
In very bad Amigo ads,
Using the song from Slinky:
But Stringo is different, it’s not like the others at all!
The structure of Stringo is closer to “Happy Fun Ball!”
Everyone click on Stringo!
Stringity stringy stringo!
Please won’t you click on Stringo?
I’m begging you, click on Stringo!
Watch Stephen Colbert’s Impression of the Confederacy’s Dumbest Monument
It’s been a big week for Confederate monuments, as strongholds of the Old South like Baltimore, Maryland, Helena, Montana, and even Los Angeles, California are finally removing their memorials to America’s most famous white supremacist uprising. (Durham, North Carolina needed a little push from its citizenry.) But one memorial shows no signs of coming down: Jack Kershaw’s hilariously awful 25-foot high fiberglass monument to early Klan Grand Wizard Nathan Bedford Forrest, which has been scowling down at drivers on I-65 since its 1998 (!) unveiling. Let’s go to the photo:
While Sam Biddle already provided a quality roast of this particular monument back in 2015, noting that it seems to be yelling, “Snap into a Slim Jim!” it feels like we’ve barely scratched the surface of how deeply, comically bad it is. (The sculptor was better known for being part of James Earl Ray’s legal team than he was for his artwork, and it shows.) Colbert goes a little deeper into some of it, particularly Forrest’s gun, but it feels like there’s still a lot to say about how and why this statue went so wrong, and we’re looking forward to hearing more from comedians, art critics, and people who know what human faces look like.
But besides the inherent comedy of showing a picture of Tennessee’s worst sculpture, the segment is also worth watching in terms of technique. Colbert uses the camera during his monologue more than most late night hosts, charging up to it for close-ups or popping up Kilroy-style from the bottom of the frame. That tendency is in full effect here, as he prances from one end of the screen to another pretending to be the Nathan Bedford Forrest statue, then repeats the gag, mimicking Charon ferrying Steve Bannon to work across a river of blood. Using the frame this way is such an easy laugh that it’s surprising other hosts don’t use it more often, at least the ones who aren’t desk-bound. The same goes for the music: whoever was at the piano (Jon Batiste, presumably) puts the bit over with a silent-film-style piano accompaniment. But the choice of song is a little eccentric: Although Colbert does point out that the Forrest statue looks like a nutcracker, playing “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” doesn’t really conjure up the glory and glamor of a slaveholding kleptocracy the way “Dixie” would. And that’s sort of the point.
Spotify Is Removing White Supremacist Music, but Should They Have Acted Sooner?
Due to pressure from multiple groups and outlets, it looks like white supremacists are going to have to look a little bit harder to enjoy the musical stylings of a number of white supremacist/neo-Nazi/completely trash bands.
On Wednesday, Spotify moved to remove a number of bands—most of them metal or punk groups—whose music includes white supremacist and hateful messages. The streaming service’s decision was made in response to Paul Resnikoff’s piece in Digital Music News on Monday, “I Just Found 37 White Supremacist Hate Bands on Spotify,” which highlighted the presence of almost 40 different bands on Spotify that were labeled as racist by the Southern Poverty Law Center in a 2014 issue of the organization’s quarterly magazine, Intelligence Report.
Spotify takes immediate action to remove any such material as soon as it has been brought to our attention. We are glad to have been alerted to this content—and have already removed many of the bands identified today, whilst urgently reviewing the remainder.
Additionally, Digital Music News pointed out that a competing music streaming website, Deezer, contacted the outlet to inform them that they, too, have taken steps to remove those same white supremacist artists. And, as reported by Pitchfork, Pandora began removing white supremacist content in 2014 and is continuing to make an effort to remove any that remains. These artists include bands such as Baker’s Dozen, Legittima Offesa, Skull Head, and White Knuckle Driver.
While Spotify has taken action now, it should be noted that, even back in 2014, Spotify was made aware of the presence of these artists on their site by the SPLC’s report. As the organization noted in a piece written shortly after their initial investigation, Apple had removed 21 of the 54 white supremacist bands outlined in the SPLC report, and had the other 33 “under review” at the time the piece was published. But, as a 2014 Noisey piece pointed out, other popular music sharing sites such as Spotify, Amazon, and the now-defunct Beats Music all failed to take action at the time.
The issue of the existence of white supremacist artists on online music sites is not a new one. As Noisey also pointed out, Punk News addressed the issue back in 2006 when they interviewed Derek Sivers, the founder and then-president of the independent music retailer CD Baby, which had helped the white supremacist group Skrewdriver put their music on iTunes. Asked why he allowed for his DIY retailer to both stock and promote music from a neo-Nazi band, Sivers said that the question of censorship in music was “too slippery of a slope.”
“Start with one album, and we’ll have to commit ourselves to a lifetime of deciding, on every album that comes in, if it’s offensive or hateful and if we should allow it,” Sivers said. “Plus, I don’t want to let complainers rule our actions.”
However, current CD Baby CEO Tracy Maddux struck a different tone on Thursday when he told Variety that the company was committed to taking down any albums on their site that promote hate speech, noting that the company “reserve[s] the right to refuse submissions of this nature, or to cancel submissions that fall into this category at any time.”
The question of how to promote free speech without promoting hate speech is, of course, not new, but the changing nature of how music is shared on the internet opens a whole range of new wrinkles. In 2013, NPR reported that German government officials were finding it increasingly difficult to ban neo-Nazi music, which, aside from being used for entertainment purposes, is also used as a tool to recruit and radicalize German youth as well as to finance their infrastructure, networks, and weaponry.
Meanwhile, concerns that it can be tricky to fairly and accurately police these things are not unfounded. Music is often filled with metaphors and hyperbole, and many of these white supremacist bands use coded language to get their messages across.
However, Spotify remains a private company, which gives them more leeway than the government has in making these decisions. Looking at this controversy through the prism of a private company making the decision not to host and profit from hateful speech, it is fair to ask whether Spotify should have acted sooner. After all, Apple took similar action years ago. And, as Resnikoff pointed out in his piece, Spotify’s alarmingly effective algorithms that help compile daily mixes and suggested artists have made it easy for users listening to white supremacist artists to find other similar groups to listen to, effectively forming a growing community on the site. Perhaps it shouldn’t have taken such a high-profile white supremacist rally for Spotify to take such precautions against profiting from hate.
The Presidential Arts and Humanities Committee Just Resigned Over Trump’s Response to Charlottesville
Sixteen members of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities have resigned over the president’s recent comments defending participants in the Unite the Right Charlottesville, Virginia, in which he said “some very fine people” had marched alongside white supremacists and again assigned partial blame for the violence that broke out to counter-protesters. In a letter posted on Friday by actor and committee member Kal Penn, all but one of the committee’s private members announced their resignation, stating that “reproach and censure in the strongest possible terms are necessary following your support of the hate groups and terrorists who killed and injured fellow Americans in Charlottesville.”
Playwright George C. Wolfe, the only member of the committee whose name is not signed to the letter, reportedly also supports the decision:
a rep. of George C. Wolfe's tells me he's been holed up writing, but stands with the Committee on Arts & Humanities' decision to disband— Vann R. Newkirk II (@fivefifths) August 18, 2017
In addition to Trump’s Charlottesville comments, the letter also addresses other actions the president has taken while in office, including his Muslim-targeted travel ban, his many attacks on the press, his proposed ban on trans service members, and his budget proposal from earlier this year, which would have eliminated the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities and other related agencies. “We cannot sit idly by, the way that your West Wing advisors have, without speaking out against your words and actions,” they wrote. As Steve Vladeck points out on Twitter, if you add together the first letter of each paragraph in the statement, they spell out RESIST.
The President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, created in 1982 under Ronald Reagan, acts as a cultural advisory committee to the president. As First Lady, Melania Trump is the committee’s honorary chair, but none of the current members were appointed by Trump, having held their positions since before he took office.
Trump was also forced to disband his American Manufacturing Council and his Strategy and Policy Forum this week as CEOs fled both advisory boards after Trump's Charlottesville comments. Meanwhile, two of this year’s Kennedy Center honorees, Norman Lear and dancer Carmen de Lavallade, have said they will skip this year’s White House ceremony, and Lionel Richie has said he is considering doing the same.
The full text of the resignation letter is below:
Dear Mr. President:
Reproach and censure in the strongest possible terms are necessary following your support of the hate groups and terrorists who killed and injured fellow Americans in Charlottesville. The false equivalencies you push cannot stand. The Administration’s refusal to quickly and unequivocally condemn the cancer of hatred only further emboldens those who wish America ill. We cannot sit idly by, the way that your West Wing advisors have, without speaking out against your words and actions. We are members of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities (PCAH). The Committee was created in 1982 under President Reagan to advise the White House on cultural issues. We were hopeful that continuing to serve in the PCAH would allow us to focus on the important work the committee does with your federal partners and the private sector to address, initiate, and support key policies and programs in the arts and humanities for all Americans. Effective immediately, please accept our resignation from the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.
Elevating any group that threatens and discriminates on the basis of race, gender, ethnicity, disability, orientation, background, or identity is un-American. We have fought slavery, segregation, and internment. We must learn from our rich and often painful history. The unified fabric of America is made by patriotic individuals from backgrounds as vast as the nation is strong. In our service to the American people, we have experienced this first-hand as we traveled and built the Turnaround Arts education program, now in many urban and rural schools across the country from Florida to Wisconsin.
Speaking truth to power is never easy, Mr. President. But it is our role as commissioners on the PCAH to do so. Art is about inclusion. The Humanities include a vibrant free press. You have attacked both. You released a budget which eliminates arts and culture agencies. You have threatened nuclear war while gutting diplomacy funding. The Administration pulled out of the Paris agreement, filed an amicus brief undermining the Civil Rights Act, and attacked our brave trans service members. You have subverted equal protections, and are committed to banning Muslims and refugee women & children from our great country. This does not unify the nation we all love. We know the importance of open and free dialogue through our work in the cultural diplomacy realm, most recently with the first-ever US Government arts and culture delegation to Cuba, a country without the same First Amendment protections we enjoy here. Your words and actions push us all further away from the freedoms we are guaranteed.
Ignoring your hateful rhetoric would have made us complicit in your words and actions. We took a patriotic oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.
Supremacy, discrimination, and vitriol are not American values. Your values are not American values. We must be better than this. We are better than this. If this is not clear to you, then we call on you to resign your office, too.
Howard L. Gottlieb
Kalpen Modi (Kal Penn)
Jill Cooper Udall
John Lloyd Young
In These Troubling Times, Here’s Tina Fey Dropping Truths About Neo-Nazis While Stress-Eating a Sheet Cake
If you thought Rooney Mara scarfing down most of a pie in one take in A Ghost Story was impressive, wait until you see Tina Fey demolish almost an entire sheet cake. Fey, a graduate of the University of Virginia, appeared on one of Saturday Night Live’s special summer editions of Weekend Update to weigh in on the events that rocked her college town last weekend. “It broke my heart to see these evil forces descend upon Charlottesville,” she told Michael Che and Colin Jost. “Then [Donald Trump] comes out and he condemns violence on ‘many sides’ and I’m feeling sick, because I’ve seen Raiders of the Lost Ark and I wasn’t confused by it. No, Colin, Nazis are always bad.”
With nine more rallies like the one in Charlottesville planned around the country this weekend, Fey offers an alternative to counter-protesting and giving neo-Nazis any more attention than they deserve: “Instead of participating in the screaming matches and potential violence, find a local business you support, like a Jewish-run bakery or an African-American-run … bakery,” she advised. “Order a cake with the American flag, and just eat it.”
In case those instructions weren’t clear enough, she went on to demonstrate with a cake of her own, speaking through mouthfuls of frosting to condemn the “white boys in polo shirts” who want to “take our country back.” And yes, she admits, your instincts will probably drive you to want to yell back at them, “It’s not our country, we stole it from the Native Americans! And when they have a peaceful protest at Standing Rock we shoot at them with rubber bullets! But we let you chinless turds march through the streets with semiautomatic weapons!” But Fey urged viewers to ignore those instincts and yell into the cake instead.
“I really want to encourage all good, sane Americans to treat these rallies this weekend like the opening of a thoughtful movie with two female leads,” she concluded. “Don’t show up.”
Edgar Wright on Baby Driver Blowing Past $100 Million, Making Original Movies, and Baby Driver 2
Film fans and critics have long counted Edgar Wright as one of Hollywood’s most exciting directors, and it looks like everybody else has finally caught on. Over the weekend, Wright’s high-octane action film Baby Driver passed $100 million at the U.S. box office, the first of Wright’s movies to hit that box-office benchmark. “You know things are going well,” he told Vulture, “when you get congratulatory emails from people you’ve never met.”
Wright was calling just before he boarded a plane to Beijing, the latest stop on a 14-country tour to promote Baby Driver, and though the film has continued to surpass almost all industry expectations, Wright says no one is more surprised by its success than he is. “I honestly didn’t have any idea how it would do, and that’s one of the things that’s so absurd,” said Wright, who, prior to Baby Driver’s late-June opening, asked his producers not to send him the tracking information that Hollywood traditionally uses to predict box-office results. “From previous experience, I get very superstitious about that, so whenever anybody talks about those things, I don’t want to know.”
The New Big Brother Is Showing Exactly How Reality TV Hides Its Most Political Material
Big Brother 19 was only a few days into the season when Megan Lowder, a dog walker and U.S. Navy veteran, decided to quit the show. After the broadcast of the season’s second episode, the show’s familiar 24/7 “live feeds” launched for digital subscribers, and fans quickly noted her absence. Rumblings confirmed that Megan had left—those remaining in the house cryptically discussed her exit, leading to unsubstantiated rumors on social media that she’d said something racist or merely cut her losses after realizing her days in the game were numbered. But Megan, upon returning to real life, decided to set the record straight: Her local paper, the Desert Sun, reported the next day that her departure was a result of her PTSD from a previous sexual assault, triggered by her confrontations with various men on Big Brother. One contestant, Josh Martinez, consistently attacked Megan, dubbing her a “snake” and her strategy “disgusting.” Another, Cody Nickson, targeted her for eviction and only gave her one reason to explain why: “I just don’t like you that much.”
Big Brother is the rare reality program where invested fans can observe how unedited action is packaged into mainstream entertainment. It can be watched virtually untouched, 24 hours a day, save for blacked-out competitions and ceremonies—and although the majority of viewers only watch the polished CBS program (which airs three times a week), what's ultimately left out is no less interesting than what makes it into the official show.
Megan’s exit provided a prime example. The Big Brother episode that tackled her departure framed the problem around an argument over racism that Megan had inadvertently started. She thought she heard Jessica Graf, a rival contestant, refer to her ally Alex Ow as “panda,” and took it as a racial slur. She brought the information to Alex, who then confronted Jessica, who then insisted she never said such a thing. All eyes were on Megan. The animus around her, the episode implied, was enough to push her out the door.
But this narrative was misleading in multiple respects. For one thing, Big Brother never acknowledged Megan’s trauma or personal struggles, even though she’d gone public days earlier. The show instead minimized her confrontations with the show’s men and omitted the key reason for her exit. The episode also glossed over the latent racism that led to the blowup between Alex and Jessica. Jessica actually referred to Alex not as “Panda” but as “Pao Pao,” a nickname for a past contestant who also happens to be of Asian descent, and had also repeatedly called Dominique Cooper, the show’s only black contestant, “Da’Vonne,” in reference to another former player who was also black. Yet the episode downplayed the incident involving Alex, chalking it up to a misunderstanding—as if “panda” as a nickname would be racist but “Pao Pao” was not—and the series has still never shown or even referenced Jessica referring to Dominique as “Da’Vonne.” It was clear what we were supposed to take away from the edit: Megan misheard an innocuous comment, and she paid the price for drawing attention to it.
Reality TV is a ruthless, manipulative format that doesn’t really value truth—only the appearance of it. Nevertheless, there’s evidence that the form can yield groundbreaking conversations, as we’ve seen from An American Family, from The Real World, and from the most recent season of Survivor. The appeal of Big Brother, a by-design trashy escape that offers 24-hour programming during the dog days of summer, is similarly compelling on a sociological level: Putting a diverse group of people in a house for a few months, and simply watching them interact, should theoretically give rise to all kinds of provocative questions. Yet as Megan’s exit showed, the opposite can happen instead—bigoted behavior and difficult subjects don’t always make the final cut, even if they’re crucial to an authentic telling of events.
This season of Big Brother has also turned away from the more disturbing gender and racial dynamics between its cast in favor of selling a neat, whitewashed version of two contestants’ love story. Cody and Jessica emerged early on as a “showmance,” and through poor gameplay, they promptly slid into a perpetual “us-against-the-house” battle, clinging to survival on a weekly basis. (Jessica was evicted last week, and Cody was evicted this Thursday.) Though four other contestants had also already coupled up, the producers packaged Cody and Jessica as the season’s one true romance, with their bond only strengthened by their isolation. This may explain why Cody’s blatantly transphobic comments and Jessica’s racist nicknames have been absent from the show, even as the outcry on social media from those watching the feeds has been loud and consistent. The show positioned them as underdogs, and while things often got ugly with their competitors, their personal connection was what humanized them. More specifically, Cody’s efforts to protect his girlfriend cast him, at times, as an archetypal male hero—and bigotry doesn’t fit that narrative.
Perhaps the most jarring erasure came a few weeks ago, when Paul Abrahamian—who, given his “fan-favorite” status as a returning player, producers have resisted depicting in a villainous light—zeroed in on supposed ally Dominique for eviction. Dominique caught word and suggested, as the only black person in the cast, that her race played into why she was singled out. (This is a familiar phenomenon on mainstream reality shows.) Her argument with Paul played out both on the live feeds and in the broadcast show as one of the season’s dramatic high points. But where Dominique made many constructive and reasonable points that were left out, Paul took the vitriol to such an extent that he publicly, amusedly considered wearing his “blackface” mask to intimidate her at an upcoming meeting. (What he meant, precisely, was debated by fans—he wanted to take on the image of a snake, since Dominique insulted him as such—but he repeatedly used the term “blackface” with glee as he discussed strategies to faze her.) The moment went viral, with aforementioned former contestant Da’Vonne Rogers calling Paul out on Twitter, but Big Brother never showed it or alluded to it. Instead, the build-up to Dominique’s eviction depicted her as angry, misguided, and a victim of her own big mouth—a not-so-subtle spin on what Da’Vonne called the “ABW” (angry black woman) edit.
While Big Brother has the material for juicy, interesting drama and the impetus to stay relevant, the priority remains clean narratives that don’t provoke or offend—soap opera romances, against-the-odds heroes, loudmouth funny guys, cartoonish villains. Only when the real, disturbing drama happens do we see the structure for what it is, as something both deeply disingenuous and surprisingly limited.
The show has been on the air for a long time now, and with viewers searching for escapism in this unusually newsy summer, ratings remain robust. That producers are making such calculated choices to keep the show as apolitical as possible feels not only like a missed opportunity, but also like a poorly timed strategy. Reality TV’s insidious power is rooted in an escapist, game-like appeal, and it can have a wicked influence—it reaches millions, blurs the line between documentary and entertainment, and relies on the most irresistible and familiar of storytelling tropes.
It’s the medium that allowed Donald Trump to reinvent his public image, after all, and it’s the frame through which his presidency is still often discussed. Big Brother puts on display what we should have all already known: The reality we see on TV often conceals much uglier things said off the air.