Before ‘Hollywood Handbook’, There Was ‘The Reality Show Show’

Pod-Canon is an ongoing tribute to the greatest individual comedy-related podcast episodes of all time.

One of the themes of this column is that in the right hands, anything can make for a great podcast. An exceptional podcast can even be about something as seemingly inconsequential and ephemeral as a recreational women’s league basketball game or reality shows that barely seemed to exist when they were promenaded before an apathetic public before disappearing completely from the public imagination.

Before Sean Clements and Hayes Davenport created one of the most cultishly adored and hilarious podcasts around in Hollywood Handbook, they found and refined their comic view as the hosts of The Reality Show Show, a relatively short-lived but dearly missed Earwolf podcast where Hayes and Sean took on reality shows.

I came to The Reality Show Show after making my way through the Hollywood Handbook archives, despite not having much of an interest in reality television. Oh sure, I have my stories (or rather, my wife and I have our stories) like Couples Therapy, Teen Mom 2 and Family Therapy, but when I started binge-listening to The Reality Show Show I barely remembered even hearing about most of the shows they discuss.

My unfamiliarity with reality shows did not hinder my enjoyment of The Reality Show Show. Indeed, just as The Soup was long the best, and certainly most time-efficient, way to experience the flaming garbage fire that is trash television, listening to The Reality Show Show is the best way to experience reality shows that make for wonderful satirical targets but are probably unwatchable on their own.

The Reality Show Show episode “I Have 30 Companies” takes its title from a sound clip Sean and Hayes lovingly play multiple times, where one of the steroid-addled super-jocks on The Challenge yell-brags to a competitor, “I have a BMW, a Porsche, a monster truck, a house, and 30 companies!” Actually, that doesn’t convey the obnoxious, exquisite intensity of his tone. It’d be more accurate to render it as, “I have a BMW, a Porsche, a monster truck, a house, and 30 companies!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

This is the kind of moment The Reality Show Show was created for. It almost single-handedly justifies the show’s premise. It is utterly hilarious on its own, as a de-contextualized roar of over-compensating macho horseshit. But the genius of the line is that it doesn’t just capture a particularly awful moment in an awful man’s life. It also captures both the show he’s on and a broad cross-section of reality television at its hyperbolic worse.

Honestly, a sound clip like that renders context unnecessary. Sound clips were big part of The Reality Show Show’s comic arsenal and there’s another great “previously on” clip for an almost completely forgotten reality show called Tough Love whose opening at one point establishes in exhausting detail the tone of the show (sleazy, sordid and also sketchy) while at the same time explaining absolutely nothing. This leads Sean Clements to ask, “Is this show about a bunch of weird creatures fucking each other, and then, you know, talking in weird, aggressive soundbites?” before answering his own question affirmatively.

Then again, The Reality Show Show illustrates that “a bunch of weird creatures fucking each other, and then talking in weird, aggressive soundbites” describes a lot of reality television. Elsewhere, the hosts satirize American reality penchant for using the rest of the world merely as an exotic backdrop for Americans to be terrible to each other near as many recognizable landmarks as possible.

Then Comedy Bang Bang favorite Jon Gabrus shows up to discuss his pet weird reality show, World’s Worst Tenants, although it’s telling that he admits that he’s obsessed with the show despite having never watched an entire episode. Gabrus, Hayes and Sean discuss reality television at its least realistic, and delve into such sketchy reality show concepts as “soft-scripted” shows and “Actuality,” both of which are high-falutin’ ways of characterizing shows that pretend to be reality shows but aren’t real in any accepted definition of the word.

Late in the podcast, the hosts launch into a riff on Aziz Ansari’s recent performance at a roast and Gabrus says he’s reluctant to jump in because, in his slightly anxious words, “I don’t know what level of irony we’re using.” That’s a question that often comes up with Sean and Hayes. Since sarcasm is their default setting, it can be tough to determine when, if ever, they’re being sincere.

Gabrus understandably didn’t know whether the hosts were affectionately ribbing a friend or being funny and snarky about someone they don’t know. It seems safe to say that the level of irony on display on The Reality Show Show is considerably lower than the level of irony on Hollywood Handbook, if only because on Hollywood Handbook they have settled into largely fictional personas, whereas here more of their non-ironic personalities comes to the fore.

And Hayes and Sean’s takedown of Ansari’s roast performance is funny enough to get away with being mean-spirited. It also perfectly fits into their satirical wheelhouse of mocking the bloated egos of people who take themselves way too serious and are so unwilling to laugh at themselves that their arrogance becomes laughable. This over-the-top hubris, handcuffed to a complete lack of self-conscious and shame unites both people who’ve actually accomplished things and monster truck-owning jackasses who yell about owning 30 companies.

The hosts really dissect Ansari’s strange brag that contrary to the 7/11 insults he’d been subjected to by his fellow roasters, there are actually more Indians stealing white people’s jobs in movies than there are Indians running convenience stores. Hayes and Sean do the math and it checks out, but Ansari also weirdly seems to be agitating for fewer roles for Indians in American movies, since by his strange reckoning, there are already so many of them.

“I Have 30 Companies” was the second to last episode of The Reality Show Show. This humble little caterpillar was about to enter a cocoon and turn into the beautiful butterfly known as Hollywood Handbook. The Reality Show Show’s imminent end lends a certain melancholy to this episode. With the benefit of hindsight, The Reality Show Show’s premature end is a lot less painful in light of the even better, even more consistently hilarious podcast lurking just around the corner, once Hayes and Sean switched names and formats but maintained their razor-sharp wit.

Nathan Rabin is the former head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, including Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and, most recently, You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.

Before ‘Hollywood Handbook’, There Was ‘The Reality […]