Vulture

Skip to content, or skip to search.

fighting words

Why the Cast of Jersey Shore Is the Most Articulate on TV

When Jersey Shore returns for its fourth season on Thursday night, audiences will be re-acquainting themselves not only with vertical hairstyles, tangerine tans, and weekly doses of fist-pumping — this time in Italian discotheques — but also to a group of characters having more fun with words than a bunch of giddy, drunken Boggle enthusiasts. More than mixed drinks, blowouts, and a fear of all things pale, wordplay defines Shore. At the end of last season, over 8 million people — the most ever for an MTV show, and enough to make Shore one of the five highest-rated shows on television among viewers ages 18 to 49 — were tuning in for episodes overflowing with raunchy epigrams and T-shirt-ready catchphrases. This season, the cast will be traveling to Italy, where, despite not speaking the language, the trailer suggests they will make themselves understood well enough to seduce women and get in altercations with the Carabinieri, thanks to their grammatically incorrect, energetic, gestural, guttural, and entirely unmistakable patois. That patois is punctuated by slang (grenades, gorillas, juiceheads, smushing, ron-ron juice), acronyms (GTL, IFF, DTF), colorful nicknames (Snooki, The Situation, JWOWW), and, the group's most infamous linguistic feat, the reappropriation of the term "guido." Their conversational stylings have inspired Barbara Walters to ask them to define smushing and Conan O'Brien to ask them for a nickname. When this level of observer is asking you for lessons, you know you're onto something: The castmates of Jersey Shore just might be the most articulate people on TV. Certainly, they are the most eloquent about what it means to be a celebrity right now.

Like Charlie Sheen, Kanye West, James Franco, and Lady Gaga, a new breed of hypercommunicative celebrity, the Shore cast seems awake to the weirdness of their own experience — and an account of that weirdness, not a morality dumb show about how normal their lives are, is what makes them so watchable. Unlike the mutes of The Hills, or the bubbly smilers on Keeping Up With the Kardashians, the Shore kids are articulating not just the manifest, day-to-day life in Seaside Heights or on a European vacation, but the latent: day-to-day life when you're being followed by cameras in Seaside Heights, a town you put on the map, or in Florence, where you are having laws rewritten on your behalf. They may not discuss their circumstances openly, but their gonzo antics are an implicit acknowledgment of a presumed audience and their fishbowl existence. They talk funny, because something funny is going on.

Like Charlie Sheen, Kanye West, James Franco, and Lady Gaga, a new breed of hypercommunicative celebrity, the Shore cast seems awake to the weirdness of their own experience — and an account of that weirdness, not a morality dumb show about how normal their lives are, is what makes them so watchable. Unlike the mutes of The Hills, or the bubbly smilers on Keeping Up With the Kardashians, the Shore kids are articulating not just the manifest, day-to-day life in Seaside Heights or on a European vacation, but the latent: day-to-day life when you're being followed by cameras in Seaside Heights, a town you put on the map, or in Florence, where you are having laws rewritten on your behalf. They may not discuss their circumstances openly, but their gonzo antics are an implicit acknowledgment of a presumed audience and their fishbowl existence. They talk funny, because something funny is going on.

On any given episode, Mike, Vinny, Ronnie, Paulie, Snooki, Jenni, Sammi, and Deena, earn their salaries (rumored to be $30,000 an episode) by spitting cliché-eschewing, scatology-embracing dialogue that is grotesque and rude, self-aware and vibrant. Their banter is regularly hilarious, if not always on purpose. (Some choice examples: "Your hand was in the cookie jar, how are you gonna sit there with the crumbs on your lip and be like, 'I didn't eat the cookie'!” "With Ronnie and Sammie, it’s just the same shit, different toilet." “This girl at the club is beyond the word stalker. She is a parasite and I am the host.” Look at these catchphrase roundups for evidence.) That what they say is sometimes grammatically butchered is besides the point.

For those familiar with the moribund white noise that passes for dialogue on most reality programs, where conversations appear to take place but nothing is said, this attention to syntax is novel. These are verbal people who not only care about what they say, they care to say it inventively. On MTV's last-generation reality-TV sensation The Hills, the participants seemed incapable of saying anything at all: Entire scenes were no more than highly edited sequences of facial expressions, scored to pop music. On The Bachelor, if contestants were forbidden from using the words "spark" or "connection," they might not be able to utter a sentence. The speech on the family-as-circus shows inspired by Jon & Kate Plus 8 is pitched to an army of small children, and the Real Housewife who has shown the most Shore-ian flair for verbal acrobatics — Bethenny Frankel — got her own series.

In rare instances, the Jersey Shore cast will abashedly resort to clichés. On an episode at the end of last season, Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino — the cast member most attuned to language and most desperate for attention — attempted to comfort the stegosaurean Ronnie after yet another fight with his girlfriend Sammi. (For the last three seasons, Ronnie and Sammi have been co-starring as Georgio and Martha in a long-running production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Beach?) Mike began to rattle off Hallmark lines: “Life goes on, time keeps ticking, if you don’t keep going you get left behind, if it's meant to be it's meant to be, life’s not cookie cutter, I’d rather die standing then live on my knees.” The camera then cut immediately to an interview with Mike, who sheepishly confessed that he knew he'd just been dropping filler: “I mean, what am I going to say to him? Tell him to put on a little Michael Bolton? A little fetal position action, he’s gonna be okay.”

Why did Mike feel he had to say anything to Ronnie at all? On Jersey Shore, the only thing worse than unoriginal pap is silence. Silence is for people who don't care about the camera. When Mike is left alone in the house he frequently narrates his experiences, even if this means animatedly talking to dogs. When Sammi and Ronnie have seemingly exhausted all of the ways to yell at each other, they yell at each other about who will walk away. When peace in the house could easily be maintained if the cast members would just stop gossiping, no one refrains from gossiping. No one ever stops talking first. The camera follows the action, the entertainment, and the cast, more than anyone on reality TV, are dedicated, well-compensated entertainers. This is what sustains and motivates the banter, the outfits, and the behavior — which is what, in turn, sustains the audience. They make the effort — to speak with verve, to dress provocatively, to smush on-camera — because they know: We're watching.

Related Links:
What to Expect From Jersey Shore’s Fourth Season: 17 Certainties and Predictions

Photo: Jeff Daly/MTV/PictureGroup