“What is going on?!” Those words ended The Joe Schmo Show, cementing both the show and its star, Matt Kennedy Gould, into reality TV history.
But the journey began when the reality show—which was created by Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese, who’ve gone on to write and produce films such as Deadpool and Deadpool 2—premiered 15 years ago this past Sunday.
Fifteen years later, the prank series still holds up as one of reality television’s best shows, and biggest surprises.
The Joe Schmo Show arrived relatively early in reality TV’s life, ready to parody the genre and illustrate what kinds of nutty things people would do because they were on TV or in order to be on TV.
At first, it seemed like it was little more than the very thing it was trying to parody, as it attempted to humiliate Matt with ridiculous challenges on the fake reality show Lap of Luxury.
In one challenge, for example, he was told to swap underwear with a female contestant, and commented to the camera about worrying about about the size of his penis in the panties, and confessed to fluffing himself. (He later said he was kidding about that.)
But the parody slipped into the background because of Matt.
The real surprise of the series was that Matt proved to be a genuinely nice person who was committed to doing the right thing, even in the most bizarre of circumstances. He was not somebody who was easily mocked for going along with everything, because he was both agreeable and concerned.
As the unscripted part of The Joe Schmo Show, he delivered week after week, whether he was telling another contestant (an actor) that he’d voted for her or confronting contestants (again, who were actors, including Kristin Wiig as psychologist Dr. Pat) about their behavior.
Matt was the kind of person who eventually apologized to the people who were lying to him: “I feel bad if I did anything wrong,” he told the other actors.
By episode four, Matt was emotionally distraught over the eviction of his friend and roommate: “No amount of money is worth this,” he said.
That expanded the show into more unscripted territory, as the actors and producers began to feel doubt and guilt. They were so affected that some viewers predicted there’d be another twist, and the joke would actually be on the actors. (There wasn’t a second twist.)
He flipped the actual script on the show’s producers, and surprised them. And they let it play out—showing their own genuine reactions to Matt’s genuine reaction—which surprised me.
That culminated, of course, in the reveal that he was the show’s winner and only contestant.
His bewildered reaction—”What is going on?” he said twice, after host Ralph Garman told him, “The only real thing on this reality show is you”—has since become a GIF that best encapsulates genuine surprise.
A second season of The Joe Schmo didn’t rise to that level, but was interesting because it tried to have two marks, and almost immediately had to turn one of them, Ingrid Wiese, into an actor when she figured out that the whole thing was a ruse.
When I interviewed season three’s cast and producers about how they pulled off the prank yet again, Ralph Garman told me, “I was surprised that 10 years later, we could still find a way to parody reality television. Real reality shows now are much crazier than anything we’ve ever done in Joe Schmo before.”
The craziest thing they did, though, was to follow their star’s lead, and to let his honest reactions lead the way, even when that meant talking about the production. How many reality shows wrestle with the ethics of their own behavior as part of the show itself?
The Truman Show came out 20 years ago this year, with Jim Carrey playing a man who was born on camera and became the center of the world’s attention.
The film, written by Andrew Niccol and directed by Peter Weir, came after MTV’s The Real World showed that people were interested in watching other people, but it still seems freakishly prescient considering what was to follow just a few years later: Survivor, Big Brother live feeds, Instagram and YouTube…
In The Truman Show, the executive producer/showrunner character Christof says, “We accept the reality of the world with which we are presented.”
Five years later, inside his own version of The Truman Show, Matt Kennedy Gould demonstrated that what matters in life is not just accepting the world for what it is, but living authentically and being compassionate toward others, no matter how insane that reality may be.