Tom Shales Previews 'Game Show in My Head' and 'Howie Do It'

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 3, 2009

Humiliation and degradation are built right into "Game Show in My Head," a new CBS comedy series that traffics in pranks and gaffes. But one of the show's first episodes should embarrass the producers -- who include madcap gadfly Ashton Kutcher -- in at least one way they didn't expect: The contestant, presumably a non-pro recruited from the general populace, is more personable and telegenic than the host. Uh-oh.

It's emcee Joe Rogan who comes across as a bumbling, hapless goof, someone who should be on television only by accident. Rogan, who previously hosted NBC's ultra-execrable "Fear Factor," apparently prefers gigs that allow for romps and wallows at the very bottom of the barrel -- in fact, not merely the bottom but the sub-basement.

The premise of the game harks way, way back to TV antiquity and to audience participation time-killers such as "Truth or Consequences" or the frequently revived "Candid Camera," albeit with a modicum of technological updating. "We take ordinary people and send them out into the unsuspecting public," Rogan explains at the outset. Each week's victims -- two half-hour episodes air Saturdays back to back -- are outfitted with earphones through which Rogan issues wacky dares designed to test the contestants' nerve and, of course, greed.

Example A: Rogan tells the contestant from tonight's second episode, a 32-year-old named Craig, to ask a stranger for his cellphone number and, in effect, proposition him -- invite him back to the house. This bit is obviously insulting and offensive in several ways; pick one. But Craig brings it off with minimal mortification, and without suffering, say, a punch in the nose or verbal abuse. What if Craig had been gay? Maybe Kutcher and company neglected to ask themselves that question. Or, on the other hand, maybe they privately delighted at the degrading possibilities.

The usual time limit on the "challenges" is five minutes and the prize for successful completion $5,000, with a 50-grand jackpot by show's end if every task has been mastered. Other routines tonight include having Craig play a TV reporter who induces yet more passers-by to claim they witnessed a UFO sighting and even suffered "probing" from intrusive aliens; and having people join in a street-side funeral for a cremated pet rat, culminating in a "group hug" by all concerned -- minus the rat, of course.

None of this is really funny, most of it is excruciating, and the half-hour would be entirely abominable if Craig weren't such an unruffled good sport. The same thing happens, actually, on the first episode, as the contestant is a good-natured young woman. Of course, these are harsh times, people everywhere are facing the prospect of poverty, and so avaricious and ruthless game-show producers should have little trouble finding people willing to humiliate themselves for a few thousand bucks.

Indeed, humiliation television is the trend that seems to be verging on epidemic. Mere days after "Head's" premiere, NBC will disgorge "Howie Do It," an even more appalling grovel-fest starring shameless shill Howie Mandel, who also hosts the network's "Deal or No Deal." Unfortunately, "Howie Do It" not only drags contestants, and viewers, through gratuitous mud and muck but it also is haunted by the aura of plagiarism; the set-up of one sequence is highly reminiscent of a bit that David Letterman has done on his late-night talk show.

To great comic effect, Letterman has occasionally rigged his affable midtown neighbor Rupert Jee (proprietor of the Hello Deli) with camouflaged earphones and a hidden-camera crew and unleashed him on unaware New Yorkers, with Letterman issuing outrageous instructions to Jee via said earphones. Once, Jee played a waiter so inept that he delivered water and beverages to patrons' tables with his fingers sticking in the glasses. It wasn't malicious; it was hilarious.

Mandel does the same exact bit on his show, though he plays his own stooge, disguised with a wig and glasses. Mandel's version of the waiter puts his fingers not only in customers' glasses but also in their food -- butter, cake, whatever. Perhaps that's meant to qualify as inspired embellishment.

NBC is not distributing advance copies till closer to the Jan. 9 premiere, but anyone can see samples of the series on the network's Web site. In probably the most cringe-worthy and disgusting bit, an actor playing a director instructs a man and woman on how to fake lovemaking for the camera; claiming he's dissatisfied with the man's performance, the actor orders him out of the sack and takes his place. Then we watch the man watch the actor as he all but rapes his partner.

We know the networks are desperate -- heck, nearly everybody is desperate -- but does that have to mean abandoning what's left of sense and sensibility, not to mention that old-fashioned concept, decency? It's worth noting that Mandel has confessed he's phobic about being touched by other people, perhaps fearing some sort of contamination. How's that for irony? He's the contaminant, at least in this case.

Although Mandel is almost erudite when compared with that nattering Neanderthal Joe Rogan, you wouldn't want to meet either one in a dark alley -- not them nor their mean-spirited and moronic game shows. Life is way too short, and there's already more than enough humiliation to go around.

Game Show in My Head (30 minutes, with two episodes back to back) premieres tonight at 8 on Channel 9.

Howie Do It (one hour) premieres Friday at 8 p.m. on Channel 4.

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