It’s Never Too Late to Step Inside the Onion’s Sex House

Sex House’s tenth “Reunion” episode. Photo: YouTUbe

Looking for some quality comedy entertainment to check out? Who better to turn to for under-the-radar comedy recommendations than comedians? In our recurring series Underratedwe chat with writers and performers from the comedy world about an unsung comedy moment of their choosing that they think deserves more praise.

In 2012, Onion Digital Studios released a ten-episode parody series called Sex House. The show satirized the massively popular reality programs of the era like The Real World, Big Brother, and Jersey Shore. Sex House matched up “six sexy Americans” and put them “alone in a house with nothing to do but get nasty.” The satire had all the trappings of an actual reality show: quick cuts with random, unnecessary zoom-ins, unnecessary conflicts, and distinct personae for each housemate, ranging from dumb, unlikable frat bro to innocent girl next door to (the atypical) middle-aged family man who is only on the show because he won a Tombstone-pizza competition.

The Onion writers behind the parody — Geoff Haggerty, Sam Kemmis, Matt Klinman, Chris Sartinsky, Sam West, and Michael Pielocik — have all gone on to work on notable shows like Last Week Tonight, The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, The Daily Show, and Desus & Mero. They nailed the tone, look, and casting of the series so well that if it weren’t from the Onion, it might seem like a network-created reality show. In a Reddit AMA from 2012, Haggerty revealed that part of the reason Sex House “looked just like any other trashy reality show” was because their DP was Mark Niedelson, who, Haggerty said, “amazingly for us, worked on a season of The Real World.”

But unlike most reality shows, Sex House dramatically shifts in tone as it progresses, making it a must-watch for any comedy (or horror) fan. Despite its first episode raking in over 33 million views on YouTube since its release, Sex House remains criminally underrated.

Jen Spyra, a former staff writer for the Onion and The Late Show (and someone you should follow on Twitter), wants you to know about the greatness of Sex House. Though Spyra barely missed the boat on potentially working on Sex House (she was hired at the Onion in 2013), the series’ sharp satire and absurdity left an indelible comedic imprint on her writing. In her newly released short humor collection, Big Time, Spyra channels her absurd and fantastical sensibilities into stories that are similarly full of dark and unexpected turns. Vulture recently spoke with Spyra about the impact of having watched The Real World in high school, running into one of the Sex House cast members in real life, and how money (or lack thereof) can kill great content.

How did you first discover Sex House?
I think I discovered it when I first started writing for the Onion in 2013. So it had already been out for a little while. It’s weird — I don’t remember who told me about it, but I do remember thinking, This is really one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. I hadn’t watched it in maybe five years and went back and rewatched it, and it’s amazing because I so rarely laugh out loud when reading or watching comedy, but this had me laughing the whole way through. The whole freaking way!

I do remember one line, which almost seems like a throwaway joke. It’s pretty innocuous; part of what I love about it is how it doesn’t call attention to itself. But it’s from the character Frank (Jesse Dabson), the fish-out-of-water housemate. All the other housemates are these taut, young, ready-for-sex people, and Frank’s a middle-aged accountant with a wife and two adult daughters. But here’s the line I loved: After Frank has sex the first night with Erin (Fiona Robert), the 18-year-old virgin, he tells her, “You have to go to the bathroom now. It’s important that you go to the bathroom.” The toggling between being a sexual predator and then being a dad. I just thought that was so obscene. I loved it. And it was so dryly done.

Another line I really liked was when Derek (Chris Boykin), the one gay housemate, who’s also a fish-out-of-water character because he’s the only gay man, says he fears that they’re underground or on a boat of some kind. And one of the things that completely killed me this time, which I had completely forgotten about, is this moment at the end of the eighth episode when Frank has that self-destructive act of defiance where he announces that he is a man, and he hammers his penis off. First, it’s so funny that it’s a hammer and not a knife. And I just really admire how they kept heightening the stakes. They’re so high, so fast. By the end of the third episode, they’re clearly living in some kind of prison, and the stakes are literally life or death. They’re fighting for their lives, and you have seven more episodes to go.

The show is so cleverly written. And this cast is perfect.
The cast is incredible. But first, I have to shout-out the guys who wrote this, who are unbelievable: Geoff Haggerty, Matt Klinman, Michael Pielocik, Chris Sartinsky, Sam West, and Sam Kemmis. But yeah, back to the cast. It seems like two housemates who do the heaviest lifting, comedically, are Frank and Derek, the one gay housemate who’s also the only housemate of color. They’re excellent actors. Derek is kind of the viewer’s avatar. He’s the one that calls out the bullshit and names the crazy stuff that’s going on. But yeah, since it’s the Onion, the acting has to be really naturalistic, and so much of the humor is really dry, so the actors can’t be hammy; they can’t overplay it. I ran into the actor who played Derek on the street once in Chicago, and I was so excited to see him, just freaking out, and he was so sweet. I looked at his IMDb today, and come on! I mean, he works, but Chris Boykin should be a household name.

How often is that the case — that quality content doesn’t equal more jobs and opportunities?
Well, Onion News Network’s a perfect example of that sad phenomenon. The videos that they put out, like the news-panel show In the Know or the morning show Today Now!, are some of the best comedy writing ever. And that shit’s from 2011, but it remains the sharpest, funniest satirical stuff out there. Why didn’t someone keep paying them? One of the guys who wrote Sex House, Chris Sartinsky, also wrote one of my favorite short stories. It’s called “Frog Team.” It’s so funny. Based on Sex House and “Frog Team” alone, I would have assumed that Chris would be the equivalent of Mike Schur by now. All of those writers are extraordinary. Insanely, to me, they are not megamillionaires, but the bright side is that they’re all still working writers.

I saw one fan of the show write, “It’s really sad that the Onion stopped making stuff like this.” Why do you think they had to stop creating this kind of content?
The answer is money. Because they’re not given money. From what I understand, there was this brief, flush moment when ONN got all this dough from YouTube, and they made these amazing series, like Sex House and Porkin’ Across America, and I don’t know why, after they produced these hits, that they didn’t get more money. It fills me with rage and despair.

Around the time Sex House was released, it was common to hear how reality shows were destroying society. It’s easy to point to how the reality stars are the villains, but Sex House, as funny as it is, also makes a valid point about how the people behind the scenes are controlling the narrative.
I think that’s why Sex House works so well. The satirical point that it’s making is so sound and so empathetic, which is that the bad guys aren’t the sweet, dopey housemates; the bad guys are the producers, and the invisible villain is the American viewing public and its appetite for violence and pain. So it seemed like those were the two satirical targets: the exploitative nature of reality-TV producers and the bottomless, amoral appetite of American TV-watchers. This is from 2012, so reality TV already had a choke hold on culture for a long time.

I think that one of the things that I admire most about this series, beyond the fact that the writing is just so surprising and specific and stays ahead of you, is that they deconstructed the reality genre while also telling an emotionally honest story that stands on its own. And they created characters that, as silly and zany as they are, you end up caring about. Doing that well is really hard.

Did you watch any of the reality shows like The Surreal Life, Big Brother, or The Real World?
In high school, I got really into this one season of The Real World. I watched it completely unironically as, like, an instruction manual on how to be a cool young adult. 9/11 happened during that season, and there was an episode where they just watch TV and look scared. So back during 9/11 times, I was just an impressionable teen thinking, Hey, this is a wonderful, entertaining program about hot young adults having sex. I will learn their ways. But by the time Jersey Shore rolled around, I was definitely way older and mature enough to see how sad it was that these people were sort of being used. But at the same time, they were participating in that. Still, I think that’s what’s really smart about Sex House: They’re very, very clear that the blame doesn’t lie with the housemates; it’s with the producers.

The viewer feels an automatic sense of superiority because the cast appears so unintelligent.
Yes! There’s a flattening. There’s a slotting in. Each character has to fit their specific commedia dell’arte role, because even though it’s The Real World or Jersey Shore, it’s still following the principle of drama, which is: Have your characters be in conflict. So the producers cleverly slot in the right types. And another thing Sex House did that was so smart was to play with that. So at first when you meet the characters, they do seem like they’re two dimensional. There’s the frat boy, Jay (Boyd Harris), and the hot sorority girl, Tara (Ashley Lobo), and at some point, Jay is told by the host (Chris Agos), out of nowhere, that his father just had a bout of bladder cancer. It’s a funny specific, and, also, the move to inject a three-dimensional life into this 2-D character for one second is funny. It’s so incongruous to think of this fake frat boy having a real life with grim, real-world problems.

Do you have any other favorite moments from the show?
As conditions deteriorate in the house, the opening credits stay the same. And as the contrast grows between those two things — what’s happening inside the house as it’s devolving into a messy, mortal struggle for survival versus the slick stupidity of the producer’s original intention for the show — the credits get better and better.

Why would you recommend Sex House to those who haven’t watched it?
Do you like to have fun? Then you’re going to fucking love Sex House. Are you a writer? Are you interested in sharp, specific comedy writing? Because the specifics in this are surprising. At one point — and it’s a throwaway line — when doctors are brought in because the housemates are malnourished and they’re dying, a doctor asks Frank, “Have you eaten clay in the past few hours?” It’s a tiny detail to bring up here, but clay is a great specific. And, again, the choice of a hammer for Frank’s self-castration tool — the choices are third-thought. I think this is Patton Oswalt’s observation: that good comedy writers go from A to C. You skip over the obvious B connector, and you go to a nonobvious thought. So, to recap: I think you’ll like the writing. I think you’ll enjoy the story. And you’ll love the characters and get invested in their journey.

If there were ever a season two of the show, would you want to work on it?
Oh, for sure. But it would be such a different show. What would a satirical take even look like now? The Real World feels so quaint at this point.

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It’s Never Too Late to Step Inside the Onion’s Sex House