Upping the Ante
Imagine you’ve been hired to work as a mortician’s assistant for the day. It’s your profession and you’re used to much of the workaday details that go along with it, only at this particular funeral parlor, the boss replaces corpses with plastic dummies, in order to sell extracted organs on the black market. What would you do? Would you politely nod your head and go about your business as Porfinio does in a skit on Jamie Kennedy’s hidden camera show, The Jamie Kennedy Experiment? Not only does Porfinio show no sign of distress, he also makes no move to get the hell out of the place when an angry, grieving mob boss discovers at his grandmother’s wake that the body in her coffin is a mannequin.
Featured in Episode Five of JKX‘s third season, just out on DVD, this sketch is one of the series’ most bizarre, but is a perfect example of its sadistic appeal. What’s actually going on—with Kennedy in creepy yet completely realistic weird-old-guy make-up—is both appalling and screamingly funny. Because it’s ridiculous and because it’s happening to someone else, but more than that, it’s unpredictable. Kennedy and company know that, as viewers, in order to be shocked, we need to feel for the marks (as Kennedy calls them). The assumption behind JKX, as with Candid Camera and Punk’d, is that people unaware of the camera will react honestly to any situation. On the surface, it seems the ultimate in reality television. His marks, unlike the captives on Survivor or the Big Brother housemates, react “naturally,” without fear of recrimination or public humiliation.
Closer inspection, however, reveals that in order for Kennedy and company to get the kinds of reactions they want—funny or disturbing—they need to do more than place someone in a bizarre situation. Porfinio, for example, has no reaction at all, choosing to go with the flow. But put a mark like Tamara from Episode Seven’s “Smoking Police” segment, and the whole thing would have gone differently. Tamara, a newcomer to New York City, refuses to back down from a policeman (Kennedy) who writes her a $250 fine for “illegally” smoking in Battery Park. “I had more freedom,” she says tersely, “when I lived in the Middle East.” For my taste, Tamara is a model mark. She’s intelligent and feisty, and not about to accept the word of an authority figure.
The question is, how are the scenarios structured? For the first “experiment” to work, Porfinio needed to be patient, or passive, enough to last through the black market revelation and then the mob boss section. And if he had been asked to extinguish his cigarette or face a steep penalty, it’s doubtful he’d get as uppity as the forthright Tamara. So, “reality” here is skewed in more ways than one. While the marks’ reactions are unpredictable for us, they’ve got to be partly predictable for Kennedy and his band of actors. Otherwise, you get situations in which an elaborate prank falls flat, failing to elicit any real reaction from the mark.
Non-reactions occur often throughout this season. In Episode 18, a busboy stands in as ambassador for a country that doesn’t exist, instructed to comment to reporters in a language he doesn’t know, on his country’s slave trading. It’s a great gag, and the mark is terrific, barely cracking a smile when chattering away in obvious gibberish. Yet, when Kennedy sends the “real” ambassador in to confront his impersonator, nothing really happens. The mark assumes that, because he’s acting on instruction from the ambassador’s “handlers” (Kennedy and his team), he hasn’t done anything wrong, and so isn’t afraid of retribution. It’s a tremendous build-up with an unsatisfying pay-off.
Usually, Kennedy “ups the ante” to get bigger and better reactions. He and his actors rely on their improvisational skills, summing up their marks almost instantly and playing on their weaknesses. (Tamara’s sketch is a good example of this, as Kennedy learns straight away that she doesn’t like to be told what to do and so he goads her: “Go back to the Middle East, then!”) Sometimes, these skills aren’t enough. “Losing Hand,” in Episode 10, has Kennedy and crew (including guest Artie Lange) pretend to swindle a kid out of $5000, leaving the mark—the kid’s dad—with the tab. There’s no screaming and no one is particularly embarrassed. We eventually see a family banding together as dad promptly offers to pay what his son owes, no questions asked. Here it seems as though Kennedy’s show, unlike the more aggressive Punk’d and Boiling Points, pursues something other than screaming diva fits. That said, it’s not clear why Kennedy holds back with some marks and pushes others completely over the edge.
Experiments can also fail when the company pushes certain marks too far. Take Josh, in Episode Seven’s “Stripper Mom” sketch. He finds out his mother is a stripper when he spots her onstage, mid-act, during a boy’s night out with his friends (who’ve obviously overestimated his ability to take a joke). Seeing his busty mom in a revealing school uniform leaves him crazed pretty much from beginning to end. He’s so furious that, though Kennedy (playing the seedy club owner) tries, there’s no need to up his ante; he’s so stressed that he almost physically assaults an older stripper Kennedy sends to calm him down. Even when Josh is finally apprised of the joke, he looks a blink away from hitting someone. For him, the manipulation is too much. In a controlled, “reality TV” environment, no amount of anger or embarrassment will lead to violence, but when the marks are so upset, viewer anxiety becomes almost too much to bear.