In a world where Jersey Shore and Confessions: Animal Hoarding exist, the notion that there are ideas for reality shows too stupid or crazy to find a home on a network seems ludicrous. And yet: There are! We talked to a half-dozen current and former network and studio reality execs and asked them to tell us the weirdest, dumbest, and most bizarro unscripted pitches they've heard over the years. The sorts of concepts so out there, even noted reality ringmasters such as Fox alternative president Mike Darnell would feel uncomfortable green-lighting them — and he once okayed a show called Who's Your Daddy, in which a grown adoptee won prize money if she could pick her real father out of a group of imposters. What follows is the best of the worst: All pitches are real, but some names have been changed to protect the mortified.
Extreme Biggest Loser
You thought Thintervention was tough? How about a show where plus-size contestants are locked in a house with a well-marked exit they can utilize any time they want but when they begin the show, they're physically too large to fit through the space. Until they get skinny enough to squeeze through, they're trapped.
The Little Red Man
If M. Night Shamalayan did a reality show, it might be this karma-centric concept in which people who've done bad things are surprised when they're called out on their misdeeds by a wee gentleman who's been painted red. The red man's "victims" would then be confronted with their sins, perhaps even facing the folks they've wronged. Producers were convinced that if the show caught on, people across the country would be on the lookout for their ambassador of shame. "If you saw the little red man, and he followed you, then you would know you're fucked," a source familiar with the pitch says. "It was totally unproduceable."
Monkey On Your Back
One of the most-cited WTF pitches by insiders who deal with unscripted TV, this has become the stuff of legend. And like most legends, the details are a bit different depending on who's doing the retelling. What everyone seems to agree on is that — as the title implies — it involved an actual monkey attaching itself to a contestant. According to some who've heard of the pitch, the show would revolve around an Amazing Race–style competition in which players would schlep cross-country with a simian pal (very BJ and the Bear). Others insist the format was about addiction, with a monkey meant to take the place of a player's particular vice.
Monkey In Control
Yet another chimp-tastic idea: "The idea was to do a Big Brother–style show with a secret force controlling what the players did," one veteran reality exec says. "But the person in control is actually a monkey. I think it would have to be a onetime stunt." If they replaced the monkey with the Zingbot, we'd totally DVR this.
Female Prison Beauty Pageant
It's pretty much what it sounds like: You take a bunch of incarcerated ladies, put them in dresses and lipstick, and let judges or viewers decide who's ready to, you know, break out from the pack. Such competitions actually exist, including one in Russia documented by the BBC a few years ago. "Every time there was a new network president, somebody would come in and pitch this idea," one former reality exec says.
The idea here was to take couples who couldn't conceive and relocate them to an actual island believed to help the previously infertile procreate. To take the show beyond the realm of the mystic, the island would be staffed with doctors and other fertility experts who would offer couples suggestions for how to help make a baby.
Pretty much the same goal as Fertility Island — except in this case, kid-hungry couples would square off against each other to see who would get the right to adopt their own little orphan Annie or Andy.
You know all the poor saps voted off reality shows during the first episode? The winner of one such competition (we can't say who) pitched the idea of doing a series featuring nothing but those losers, who'd finally be given a chance to redeem themselves. He forgot that this is America: We only like winners, dammit!
The Prison Show
Many network buyers and producers report hearing various show ideas based on the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment: Contestants would be made either guards or convicts "in an environment with all the elements of a real-life prison," says one reality exec. "They included making alcohol in the toilet and prison rape in the pitch. Some people don't know when to stop."
While we've yet to have a black Bachelor, one former exec reports hearing a pitch from a producer — an African-American woman — for a Bachelor clone in which the central hunk would be a black male: "The most desirable man you could imagine," he recalls. All of the women involved, however, "would be women who had said they didn't want to date black men. We'd see how they reacted and dealt with" the prospect of romance with the black man. Even though the idea came from an African-American woman, our producer declined to get involved. "I would never do that show as either an executive or a human being," he said.
Meanwhile, though there have been a million different rip-offs of The Bachelor, the above idea isn't the only rejected clone of the format. Our reality insiders tell us they've been pitched a Bachelor with transvestites, a Bachelor with twins (and the contestants have no idea their dream dude is actually a duo), and Bachelorettes with secrets (she's really a hooker! she's got five kids!).
Dead or Alive
We all know Abe Vigoda is alive and well, but are you certain that Adam Rich still has a pulse? What about Corey Feldman or Nell Carter? In this pitch, we meet celebs via a This Is Your Life setup. Contestants then have to guess whether said notable figure is still with us or has gone to celebrity heaven. The living celebs come out at the end of each round to greet the players. We're not so sure how producers planned to handle those who had passed. Maybe Fred Travalena would impersonate them? (Oops, nope: He died last year.)
About a year after Survivor, one opportunistic producer pitched an idea in which a dozen convicted felons (but no murderers!) would be flown to an island and forced to fend for themselves while being tracked down, Running Man–style, by celebrity "manhunters," including Lou "the Hulk" Ferrigino, who actually was attached to the project at one point. The last convict standing at the end would get $1 million — to donate to their last victim. While producers insisted they weren't trying to make criminals into celebrities, no network bit. But the show's website is still live, so the dream remains alive.
Reverse Pimp My Ride
Former VH1 exec (and sometimes New York Magazine writer) Michael Hirschorn recalls being pitched a variation on Pimp My Ride, in which the first car owned by a given celebrity would either be tracked down or somehow re-created. "You'd then take the car, pimp it out and bring into a studio filled with 500 of that person's most rabid fans," Hirschorn says. A group of finalists would have their knowledge of the star tested; the finalist would either win the car or — if they missed the last question — watch as a 50-ton weight destroyed the car.
Back in 2007, porn producer Kevin Blatt (the man who distributed Paris Hilton's sex tape) made a serious stab at getting a network to buy this competition-based show in which real-life geeks without carnal knowledge of the opposite sex competed for the chance to have their virginities taken by a porn star. At the time, he claimed several networks were interested, but shockingly, none ever bit.
Live! The World's Greatest Breasts!!
Finally, Jon Kroll, the man behind this awesomely titled pitch — as well as the actual UPN series Amish in the City — isn't afraid to own his contribution to our roundup. In fact, he even sent us a e-mail describing just how the pitch came to be:
A few years back, I had been pitching a certain network executive a lot. I had done shows for him, and he really wanted a new one from me. He always seemed to be very enthusiastic about the pitches, but wasn't buying. I was getting frustrated when he finally said to me, ‘You're being too conservative. I want something really outrageous. Don't censor yourself; the next big idea you come up with, let me know about it, even if you think it's crazy. C'mon, you're the guy who did Amish in the City!’
Maybe I should have been inspired by this, but I was kind of irritated. I hadn't been censoring myself; I was giving him my best ideas! I wasn't going to waste my time on dumb concepts that would never get made. I thought the best way to get him off of this would be to pitch him something so outlandish that he would be begging for more conventional fare. Something with a huge hook, but utterly impossible to get done. So I came up with Live! The World's Greatest Breasts!!
Live! The World's Greatest Breasts!! (note the two exclamation points!) was to be a two-hour live prime-time network special about women, their breasts, and the men who loved them. There would be two divisions: natural and enhanced. There would be testimonials (‘I had the body of a ten year old boy until I was 17 and these double-D's kicked in’), cancer survivors with touching stories or survival and reconstructive surgery, celebrity judges, and of course a swimsuit competition. The idea was to play it completely straight and make a kind of ‘Ode to the Breast’ that was appealing both to men (who love breasts) and women (who would connect with the stories). Well, that's what I told myself anyway. I hesitated a long time before sending the concept pages to the exec ... and then fired away.
The next day, he called me, excited. ‘This is really a big idea,’ he said. ‘I'm going to get this in front of the president of the network right away.’
I couldn't believe it. And then I started to dream: Could this show actually happen? How fun would it be to do a whole show about nothing but breasts? Sure, it would generate some controversy, but that just would help it draw a bigger audience! I actually started to convince myself that this was a really great idea.
A few days later, the exec called again. ‘I pitched it to my boss. He just glared at me and said, 'We would never do that show.'
We never spoke of it again.”