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The Celebrity Apprentice Premiere Recap: Tom Scharpling Shoots Fish in a Barrel

When the fine people at Vulture asked me to recap season eleven of The Celebrity Apprentice, the first thing I did was pick up the phone and call famed funnyman Paul F. Tompkins, who is currently doing a stellar job recapping American Idol for this very same website. Paul said that Idol was sometimes a challenge because there’s certain amount of redundancy in covering a singing competition. “You will not have that problem,” he predicted. “You’ll be shooting fish in a barrel.”

And yes, recapping this show will be shooting fish in a barrel. Mentally ill fish. In a big glass barrel designed expressly for mentally ill fish. With a gun filled with mentally-ill-fish-killing bullets.

I am well aware that the contestants appearing on Celebrity Apprentice are not doing the show against their will: This is not The Running Man. Or Rollerball. Or any of those movies in which people are forced to enter some sort of competition against their will.

But there is something slimy about the whole thing. Unlike American Idol, which, underneath its gross plastic exterior, has some sort of purity at its core by asking, "Who is the best unknown singer in the United States?" Celebrity Apprentice exists to give the half-talented and once-famous another sliver of fame in exchange for publicly rubbing their face in a big, fat pile of shame.

Yes, I know that there are charities involved and it is truly great that some extremely deserving organizations will get both cash money and national exposure. But it all comes down to these contestants wanting one more sip from the Thermos of Fame. And the show makes no bones about what it is putting out there, whether it’s the announcer promising that this season’s cast will "bring the crazy" or Donald Trump saying at the top of the show, "the circus is back in town and you’re looking at the ringmaster."

But I LOVE IT. Love Love LOVE it! Celebrity Apprentice is absolutely riveting to me and has been for a long time. Even though the whole thing is as phony as the moon landing, it somehow becomes completely compelling and strangely real in its hyperfakeness. When the celebrities are honestly and sincerely fighting to win something that is completely not real, it is moving and I am but a ring wrapped around its little finger.

Those vying for the title of Celebrity Apprentice this year are:

David Cassidy, formerly known to the world as Keith Partridge and currently known as America’s top Orrin Hatch look-alike.

Dionne Warwick, formerly great singer and Psychic Friends Network pitchwoman/charlatan.

Gary Busey, once nominated for an Oscar but now kinda just bumming everyone out.

John Rich, perennial cowboy hat wearer and one half of purported country greats Big & Rich.

Hope Dworaczyk, Playboy Playmate of the Year for 2010.

Jose Canseco, former baseball great and current steroid stoolie.

La Toya Jackson, the most talent-liberated member of the Jackson family.

Lil John, rapper best known for being parodied by Dave Chappelle.

Lisa Rinna, soap-opera actress and life companion to Harry Hamlin.

Mark McGrath, douche-rock pioneer and former Extra! Host.

Marlee Matlin, the woman who won an Oscar for WHAT THE FUCK IS MARLEE MATLIN DOING ON THIS SHOW?! SERIOUSLY!

Meat Loaf, proto-Weird Al best known for his multi-platinum Springsteen parody album Bat Out of Hell.

NeNe Leakes, star of Real Housewives of Atlanta. I am assuming she was the horrible one.

Niki Taylor, former supermodel who reminds everybody that she’s a mom now every five seconds.

Richard Hatch, winner of the first season of Survivor and convicted tax cheat.

Star Jones, former host on The View and JOKE REDACTED.

The show starts off with Trump greeting his charges — and the shady-looking sign-language interpreter for Marlee Matlin — in the lobby of Radio City Music Hall, a room ornamentally tacky enough to remind Trump of the chandelier warehouse he calls his home.

The Donald makes some small talk with the contestants — noting that he was "a real friend" of Michael Jackson to La Toya (what was that "friendship" like?! Can we just talk about that for two hours, please?) — before creating the two teams by dividing the men and women and sending them off to decide the name of their respective squads.

The ladies quickly name themselves "Team ASAP," which stands for "Artists, Singers Authors, and Professionals for a Purpose." Which is technically ASAAPFAP, which is actually kind of catchy. The dudes go with Team Backbone, disregarding Gary Busey’s suggestion of "Sperm Farmers."

They also determine that Richard Hatch and Star Jones are to be the team leaders for the inaugural challenge. Then both teams are summoned to the board room, a room which Lil John claims is scary because "you can feel the souls of all the people who got fired in there." This guy knows this whole thing is fake, right? I mean, he’s not going to get executed if he doesn’t sell enough pizza.

And yes, pizza pie is the order of the day as the teams are told they will each be running competing pizzerias, with the goal being to raise the most money by selling the most 'za in one day. And it dawns on me that this installment of Celebrity Apprentice might actually be an elaborate sting operation, luring all these mutants into one place where they can be hauled off by the feds for past crimes, with Marlee Matlin being the straight shooter they asked aboard to make the entire enterprise seem legit. (And I’m really not sure about this interpreter of hers either! He seems like he’s up to something!)

So the dudes go to their downtown pizzeria — one of my disappointments was not hearing Gary Busey use the phrase "pizza parlor" — and the ladies go to their slice dispensary in the theater district. And yes, I’m running out of words to use instead of "pizza" and "pizzeria."

And, like clockwork, we slide into a loooong montage showing how good or bad each celeb is at rolling up their sleeves and doing the work that the Salt of the Earth do every doggone day without blinking. Dionne Warwick can’t operate the credit-card machine. David Cassidy isn’t good at generating a sufficient amount of toppings. And Richard Hatch is a major league dickhead who has singled out David Cassidy as his whipping boy.

Watching the former Survivor winner utilizing his reality-show skills — Hatch shoves and prods the much smaller Cassidy like a playground bully — on his first unsuspecting victim makes me sad. Cassidy has no idea that he’s being toyed with by a truly demented weirdo who is In It to Win It. It makes me wonder if this is a possible glimpse of the future: Perhaps in 2047 Justin Bieber will be on season 58 of The Celebrity Apprentice, competing against and being tormented by the winner of Survivor: Phobos. I certainly hope not/so!

I thought that NBC started showing an episode of The Event in which the aliens take over a New York City pizzeria, but it turns out that it’s just the plastic-surgery damaged crew that comprises Team Backbone doing their thing pizza-wise.

And since this is "Celebrity" Apprentice, we are treated to these D-listers working their phones to get their famous friends to overpay for slices in an attempt to run up the totals. The ladies get Russell Simmons and Wendy Williams, and the guys deliver some pies to Marc Ecko. David Cassidy laments that he doesn’t have the Rolodex that the others seem to possess — what, no call to Jeremy Gelbwaks? — so he phones his "famous" daughter who is apparently on Gossip Girl to come down and spread some of that free-flowing CW money around.

One thing that drives me bonkers that occurs on Celebrity Apprentice nearly every week: the contestants wearing baseball caps emblazoned with the name of the business they’re representing while still being dressed in glitzy clothes. It’s a jarring clash of styles and I’ll never get used to it — the best comparison I can make is when you see a non-musician holding a guitar at some charity event, acting like they’re "rocking out." It’s almost as unsettling as oh, I don’t know, eating a pizza that Jose Canseco has dripped sweat upon?

The usual "problems" that occur during every competition on every version of The Apprentice ever take place: The ladies get stuck in traffic trying to deliver some pies and Gary Busey is in front of the pizzeria throwing pepperoni slices in the air. And then just like that the competition is over and everybody gets dragged back into the boardroom to face the music.

Trump and his two associates — who also happen to be his children — join in on the feeding frenzy that is the board room, trying to get the celebs to fight and scrap before they know whether their team won or lost. And during a particularly intense argument in which Trump child Don Jr. — who looks like the "before" scenes in a movie in which a dorky shoulder-less protagonist gets magically transformed into Eric Bana — baits the ladies into battling over whose responsibility it was to deliver the pizzas in a timely manner, Gary Busey’s cell phone starts ringing. I was kinda bummed that his ringer was set to the classic "rotary phone" ringer; I thought he might have something more representative of his mindset, like "War Hero" by Void or the sound of an animal being branded.

It turns out that the ladies won this competition quite handily, earning 115 grand to the paltry $54,000 generated by the guys. Trump sends the ladies back to their suite to celebrate while the guys are left to determine who will be getting fired.

And what a bloodbath it is, with Richard Hatch going after David Cassidy by referring to him as “little” and “delicate”. This incurs the wrath of Jose Canseco, who responds by calling Hatch a liar. Hatch then insults Canseco’s intelligence.

There’s a real Willy Loman vibe to Cassidy, whose forehead is basted in sweat, taking the bait every time Hatch lays into him. You can feel the air in the room shift as Hatch — who clearly should’ve been sent home if we’re judging by sheer merit — proves to The Donald that he is better television than the former Keith Partridge. And just like that David Cassidy is fired, leaving the overinflated parade float that is Jose Canseco to walk back to the Team Backbone suite with his new best enemy Richard Hatch.

Next week: It looks like we will be getting a good amount of Meat Loaf next week! And the ladies roar! And Marlee Matlin GOES OFF!

You can live-stream Tom Scharpling's weekly radio show "The Best Show on WFMU" every Tuesday at 9 p.m. or subscribe to it as a podcast here.

Photo: Douglas Gorenstein/NBC