Fox’s 30 Seconds to Fame is mortifying show. This variety-show-meets-reality-tv-game pits very different acts against one another, for example, “Nutty Fruitcake” the rapping grandmother versus Jason Jiang, a circus performer who pedals a unicycle while balancing bowls on his head. The ridiculousness of these performances begs two questions: what prompts people to do these things? And why do we care? The simple answer to both: fame, however fleeting, however ignominious. Apparently, contestants crave it and viewers crave their craving.
A third question emerges as well: where do such meager ambitions come from? Perhaps we’re to blame. Every time we applaud someone for learning to juggle or walk on his hands, laugh at someone falling down or cracking a joke, we start the process. We are a voyeuristic species, drawn to watch pretty much anything. Think When Sharks Attack or Annie. So, when I felt myself starting to hate 30 Seconds to Fame within minutes of its start, I had to remind myself that I was also watching and I was also judging. Voyeurism is nothing new, but every new reality show takes it to a new level. In 30 Seconds to Fame, the goal of humiliation is clearly articulated. While the show might be understood as showcasing unique acts, if not exactly jumpstarting careers, it is plainly designed to solicit laughter—mostly cruel—at other people.
The premiere episode featured 19 acts, 6 of which were eliminated by audience dissatisfaction. The format is simple. Each competitor has 30 seconds on the clock, and during that 30 seconds, the audience can “boo” the contestant off stage or allow him or her to finish. Once all acts have performed, the audience votes on the three finalists, each of whom has 30 more seconds to perform. Then, the winner is voted.
The audience on the first episode voted for Dan Menendez, the world’s only juggling piano player, Mr. Flat Top the robotic dancer, and Alice Tan Ridley, the teacher turned Aretha Franklin-esque soloist. With another 30 seconds on the clock, these three performed again. Alice Tan Ridley, with her soulful rendition of “Midnight Train to Georgia,” walked away with the $25,000 purse. Congratulations Alice. Your victory proves yet again that people love the common denominator. After all the unique acts, the winner is a singer. I can’t believe that K-Million, the human beatbox, walked away empty-handed. I’d like to see Alice even try to sound like a drum machine.
This despite the fact that the promotion for 30 Seconds to Fame suggests that its eager participants do all sorts of insane things. Some of them do. But the winner was a mediocre cover singer. Her act wasn’t insane, and it wasn’t very special. I’m not saying she wasn’t good; everyone loves a good cover of “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.” But come on, my mom sings that one in the shower.
The budding stars of the next episodes watching this one should take heed: don’t expect too much, don’t try too hard. The most boring, least outrageous act will win, so keep your own self-humiliation to a minimum. 30 Seconds to Fame lures contenders into thinking that they might make some money and perhaps a shot at the “big time,” but the cost is high. It’s not that people haven’t and don’t readily disgrace themselves for money—many have been paid to be hit in the face with pies, and usually, it doesn’t take too much work. On this show, however, contestants expose talents that have, in some cases, taken them years to perfect—and then get hit in the face with the pie.