This is the first part of a two-part interview. The first, this part, will focus on his background. The second part will focus more on the book.
As with Tom Straw, who I interviewed last month, Bill Bryan writes for television and wrote his first novel about television. But while Straw’s book focuses on the paparazzi, Bryan’s book is about reality television.
Ted used to be a good investigative reporter but after a personal meltdown he was struggling to find work. What he ended up with is jobs in reality television, a genre he hates. He works for a show called “The Mogul” which sounds suspiciously like The Apprentice, hosted by a guy who sounds a bit like Donald Trump. But I'm sure that is just a total coincidence.
Ted witnesses something that could be a major clue in a murder and he starts to use his reporter skills, as well as the show, to try to find the killer. Then things get truly crazy.
Is it funny? Is it dark? Yes and yes. And if you don’t believe me Richard Belzer, star of several cop series and a master of sharing dark thoughts writes this book blurb: “An outrageously funny Hollywood satire.”
Mr. Bryan politely agreed to do this interview via email:
How did you come to write this book?
I worked pretty steadily from my early twenties well into my forties as a TV and screenwriter, and like most of my fellow prostitutes, I accumulated a few resentments (not to mention a few nasty rashes). So I promised myself that if life ever presented the opportunity (meaning if I ever had absolutely nothing else to do), I would show them all by writing a book – something just for me. But to my great surprise and delight, 83 other people have read it too!
As to how I chose the particulars of Keep It Real, I knew I wanted to write a comedy, because that’s what I enjoy and because I rarely come across novels that really make me laugh. (With my sunny, glass-half-full disposition, I saw that as an opportunity to fill a need. My agent later explained to me that it was simply evidence that few people with tastes as sophomoric as mine actually read.) I chose the mystery genre because I like to plot and because people need some reason to keep turning the pages, and I chose the reality TV and rap music worlds because I don’t like them.
Have you read Carolyn Parkhurst’s excellent – though admittedly less funny – book about reality shows, Lost And Found?
I haven’t, but I just read your interview with Carolyn and both she and the book sound terrific. I really wish I had time to read a book a day – or more. There are so many interesting writers out there, trying interesting things.
In your press release for this book you said: "Keep It Real spoofs the Reality TV genre. Why did you decide it was worth spoofing? Two reasons: It’s wildly popular, and it’s utterly ridiculous." Do you think reality television will remain popular and does that bode well for the world? Is this an heretofore unknown sign of the end times?
As anyone who is familiar with my investment history can tell you, I lack the gift of foresight. But since you asked, I will hazard a guess and say that depending on how broadly you define “Reality,” it will always be around. Some of the (better) shows are really just juiced-up documentaries. Others are closer to game shows, and I think that the appeal of those will be more cyclical. An even bigger shift than the one from scripted shows to reality is the move from the three-network universe I grew up in to the million-channel one we live in now.
Nothing except the Super Bowl and American Idol gets an audience that would have been considered a mark of success twenty years ago, when I started in TV. And the few people who are still watching are using their Tivos to fast-forward through the commercials. So I don’t know how TV is going to fix itself – maybe we need a troop surge.
What is the best and worst thing you have seen on reality TV? What was the best and worst product placement? Is this book your way of rationalizing your own viewing of this program? Is this program truly worthless?
I have four kids ranging in age from nineteen years to nine months, all of whom demand big chunks of my time. I also like to play a lot of sports, read, work, surf porn, and pay attention to my wife – not necessarily in that order. (But not necessarily not, either.)
That’s all by way of saying that I haven’t watched enough reality TV to consider myself any sort of expert. I watched the first season of The Apprentice – when there was actually a lot less product placement than in the subsequent versions – but it was still bad enough to give me TMJ Syndrome.
As research, I did a number of interviews with lower-level reality producers, and the best story I heard involved a Survivor-type show in the Australian Outback, where the contestants supposedly had to hunt for food and water. But because one of the sponsors was a brand of depilatory cream, the hottest female contestants took time out from fighting for their lives to don their bikinis, hike to a nearby hot springs, and shave each other’s legs. Would I call such a program worthless? Hell no!
Ironically, I was sent books by both you and Tom Straw to read and review. Straw and you have crossed paths before such as on the show Night Court, right? Why don’t you explain how you two know each other? Is it coincidence you both did novels related to television?
Tom and I actually didn’t work together on Night Court – he came and went before I joined the writing staff. In those days, there was so much money to be made in sitcoms, writers tended to move around like baseball players and strippers do now. Tom and I first met on Good & Evil, a really terrific show that naturally vanished before anyone had heard of it.
I liked and respected Tom from the moment we started working together, and I count the months when we were making those episodes as among my happiest in the sitcom business. (Although I remember we kept a giant, Costco-sized bottle of Tylenol in the middle of the conference table, and the first thing I did every morning was wash down four or five caplets with a cup of terrible coffee. So that should give you some idea of how much I enjoyed my other shows.)
Of course it’s not a coincidence that we both wrote novels about TV, although Tom’s book The Trigger Episode is actually set around a sitcom, a world he knows intimately, whereas I pretty much pulled Keep It Real out of my ass.
Who wrote the better book – you or him?
Tom, being a much more organized and disciplined person than me (on Good & Evil, he kept a calendar for when we were supposed to do everything, including move our bowels) answered all his interview questions – including this one – much sooner than me, and they are posted online. So naturally Tom has already mined all the good jokes, and also proved once again that he is among the most talented, generous, and honorable people in the business. What a dick. He wrote a damned good book, though – everyone should read it.
What television programs have you worked on as a writer or producer?
Too Damn Good, Hyperextended Family, Totally Frank, Meego, Mr. Rhodes, The Faculty, Cats & Dogs, Tommy Davidson, Hardball, Behind the 8-Ball, The Second Half, Overall Deal at Castlerock, Black and White, Furniture Store,Thea, Coach, Rubberheads, Good and Evil, Anything But Love, Night Court, and Crimes of the Heart.
What do you think Donald Trump would think of your book? Have you sent him a copy?
I really don’t think I can say anything more eloquent on the subjects of Donald Trump and The Apprentice than this. (warning: Video deals with adult content)
Would you ever work or write for a reality show? Is this your book a way of getting back at what reality shows have done to sitcoms, i.e. killed them in the ratings?
I suppose one should never say never, but it would take a big, hungry pack of wolves at the door to get me to consider such a thing. Yes, there is definitely an element of revenge in my writing Keep It Real even though I had largely retired from the TV business before reality came along. And I am proud to say that as a result of the light I shined on its hollow fakery, the networks have cancelled all of their reality shows, donated their ill-gotten gains to worthy causes, and resolved never again to pander to the lowest common denominator. Hmm… what? I must have dozed off for a minute. Did I drool?
What’s it like to have a funnyman like Dave Barry give you such a choice quote for the book. i.e: “If you like to laugh, and you hate reality TV, you will love this wonderfully, viciously hilarious book.”
To quote another great funnyman, the late Steve Gordon: “It doesn’t suck.”
What kind of research did you do for this book?
In LA in the twenty-first century, everybody knows somebody who has worked in reality. I’m even sleeping with such a person – my wife Jennifer worked for years for E! and the Style network, and then produced a show called House Hunters for the Home & Garden Network. (In Keep It Real, I paid homage to her magnum opus but changed the name to the equally compelling Watching Paint Dry.)
So it wasn’t hard to find knowledgeable sources, but no one would talk to me unless I swore a blood oath to protect their confidentiality. The reality producers and the networks are extremely touchy about anyone revealing what goes into their secret sauce – they make all the employees and contestants sign phonebook-sized nondisclosure agreements, and back them up with legions of trigger-happy lawyers.
CBS recently threatened to sue some of the prepubescent participants in Kid Nation for $5 million each for uttering so much as a peep about what went on during the shoot. On shows like Survivor and The Apprentice, they say the secrecy is necessary because they don’t want the audience to find out in advance who’s won the competition. Personally, I think it’s because they don’t want anyone to know what a total load of crap it is. Yet some of us do anyway.
Thanks to Mr. Bryan for the interview. I'll be sending him the questions for part two in about one week.