Bruce Nash, TV producer, is talking about his new show. "We've done a stunt with a limo," he says quietly. "You could call it the Leaping Limo. We call it the Limo of Death."
This could be interesting. Nash holds his hands at right angles. "The stunt driver goes at the limo sideways, like this. He's barreling right at it. At just the right moment, we detonate the limo. It goes something like seven or 10 feet in the air."
"And then the stunt driver drives right under it. Leaping limo."
One more thing: pyrotechnics. When the limo blows up, so do mortars filled with gasoline. Flames--highly telegenic flames--shoot everywhere.
"This is not a sitcom," says Bruce Nash.
Actually, it's called "I Dare You! The Ultimate Challenge." It's pure testosterone-driven guy TV: stunts, explosions, insanely cranked-up commentators. Nash, the show's creator, has a stunt guy crash a light plane into the back of a moving truck. He's got a parachutist jumping onto the top of a hot-air balloon in mid-flight, a bungee-jumper jumping out of a hovering helicopter--just over the rotating blades of a second helicopter.
It will not be on PBS. UPN will air 13 episodes.
Despite its carny craziness, "Dare" represents an evolution in Nash's inexorable television career. Up till now, he's mostly stitched together shows from other people's videos, rather than creating his own from scratch. Nash is the acknowledged master of the genre variously referred to as "clipumentaries," "shockumentaries" or "schlockumentaries." He prefers to call his shows "nonfiction entertainment."
Remember the clip of the Navy crewman being sucked into a jet engine on "World's Most Amazing Videos"? That's Nash. How about the animal kung fu on "When Good Pets Go Bad"? Also Nash. "World's Worst Drivers: Caught on Tape," "World's Deadliest Sea Creatures," "When Animals Attack"--all Nash.
These "reality" shows--more than 80 at last count--flow from Nash Entertainment's no-nonsense offices on Sunset Boulevard, on the lot where Columbia Pictures once turned out Three Stooges shorts and "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." A staff of 25, headed by Nash's daughter, Robyn, scour the world looking for footage that might make a segment on "World's Deadliest Storms II." Sometimes--in the case of the guy being sucked into the jet engine--people send tapes to Nash unbidden. More often, the stuff comes from Nash's contacts at news stations and from independent videographers (Brazil and Australia, for some reason, are particularly rich sources).
"We're looking for unusual, spectacular moments," says Robyn Nash. But, she adds, "it has to tell a story." The company usually pays a token amount for the clips, although it once paid $15,000 for footage of an enraged donkey for a segment on "When Good Pets Go Bad 2." The only rules: It can't be obscene, and nobody dies. Bruce Nash, 52, is aware that some people don't regard his work as Shakespearean drama. Not the least of his critics have been network television executives. Don Ohlmeyer, formerly NBC's top programmer, once referred to "reality" specials as "one stop short of snuff films."
Last year, sans Ohlmeyer, NBC was Nash Entertainment's biggest customer; "World's Most Amazing Videos" is a regular NBC series.
Earlier this month, the Fox network's top man, Sandy Grushow, vowed to purge Fox of reality-special mayhem. "I personally would rather fail with quality than succeed with garbage," Grushow told reporters.
This is not entirely an aesthetic judgment; it's also a business decision. First, explains Tom Nunan, UPN's president, many advertisers dislike violent clip shows and won't pay premium prices to sponsor them. But Nunan acknowledges that the genre is popular with audiences, acting like a shot of adrenaline when regular sitcoms and dramas fail to catch on. But being addicted to adrenaline isn't necessarily good for a network's long-term health. "If we saturate the air with this kind of programming, we get into a horrible, self-fulfilling situation," says Nunan. "The audience won't agree to watch anything but this kind of show."
So the networks are dumping Nash? Not exactly. Last year was the best in Nash Entertainment's 11-year history. It produced 32 new hours of prime-time programming for NBC, two new specials for ABC, two for Fox. And that doesn't include the re-airings of Nash's greatest hits, such as "Breaking the Magician's Code," which was Fox's highest-rated special ever when it first ran in 1997.
They can hate Nash if they want to. They just can't resist him.
Hunger for the Visceral
A desperate man climbs onto a ledge, smoke pouring from the window behind him. He is trapped; the fire trucks' ladders can't reach him. Just above him, a team of firefighters prepares to attempt a daring rescue . . .
Say this for Nash: He knows how to arrest the wandering attention of an increasingly restless television audience. He knows something about its hunger for the novel, the visceral, the "wow" of the unscripted image. Is there a more marketable talent in a five-million-channel universe?
"There are so many comedies on TV that aren't funny, and dramas that aren't dramatic," he says one afternoon, his office darkened against the slanting afternoon sun. "In this genre, you don't know what's going to happen next. The balloon falls on the power line! Are they going to rescue him? You say, 'Oh, my God! I can't believe I'm seeing this.' "
Say this, too: He's got range. He makes "reality" shows, but the variety is impressive. Ghosts, weddings, car chases, inventions, magic, sports, animals, prisoners, storms, swarms, volcanoes, you name it.
In fact, Nash has lots of ideas for TV shows--not just more reality, but sitcoms, dramas and movies (some are being developed by former network chiefs Warren Littlefield and Ted Harbert). He writes his ideas down, one line at a time, and keeps them in a loose-leaf binder. At the moment, the binder runs to 19 pages containing 300 potential shows.
A sudden, huge tidal wave sweeps Chinese villagers off a seawall. The camera follows as a man bobs in the foaming surf, help just beyond his grasp . . .
Nash knows he's a creature of the news-from-everywhere era. He wouldn't have a TV career without the ubiquitous video camera. Video is available; therefore it must be shown (and if you missed it the first time, Nash will likely show it again, in slow motion). At least one clip on each of his shows was shot by an amateur who happened to be rolling when the planes collided at the air show or the bull charged. "I got into this at the right time," he says. "People have always wanted to see amazing things, but now we have the pictures."
His success is a result of hustling salesmanship and clever organization. Nash Enterprises is a factory, cranking out low-budget work en masse (an hour clip show costs about $600,000 to produce, about a third what it costs to make 30 minutes of "Will & Grace"). Nash is the factory's chief salesman, its idea man and creative pooh-bah.
Nash mastered these industrial skills as an author. He holds a master's degree in criminology from Florida State, and worked for a time as a state corrections administrator in North Carolina. But he wanted to write books. He loved sports, particularly baseball, and popular culture. So, he went to the library and began researching.
Starting in 1976, Nash began producing books that are much like his TV shows--essentially, anecdotes held together by a common theme. His first book was "Tube Teasers--The TV Nostalgia Quiz Book," and it was soon followed by literally dozens more with titles like "The Baseball Hall of Shame," "Amazing but True Cat Tales" and "Gutter Humor: Outrageous but True Bowling Stories." He got so good at it that after publishing his first 20 titles, he and a partner, Allan Zullo, organized a kind of writing assembly line, with researchers and freelancers. Nash has lost count of exactly how many books bear his name, but it's more than 80. They've sold almost 3 million copies, he estimates.
A kayaker comes streaming down a white-water river. Suddenly he becomes lodged between submerged boulders. The force of the river water upends his kayak. He is upside down in the water, stuck, drowning . . .
While he says creating an entertaining program is socially redeeming enough, Nash believes he's doing more than trafficking in eye-popping video snippets. "We are telling stories," he says, echoing his daughter.
Remember, no one ever dies. More than that, Nash follows the story behind the clip. The kayaker, the villager, the man on the ledge all get rescued. The people in the videos, their families and rescuers, will usually appear on camera in follow-up interviews to describe the whole ordeal. A narrative form comes through: setup, disaster, resolution, catharsis.
Can your local newspaper or newscast make the same claim?
Drowning villagers, man-on-the-ledge fires--to Nash, these are the building blocks of his art.
"It's easy to show security-camera video of someone peeing on a couch," as a competitor did in a Fox special last year, he says. "My shows have a certain structure. The way you tell the story is a formula. [But] they have to be announced a certain way, written and [edited] a certain way. The graphics have to look a certain way. They've got to have my stamp, my creative vision."
"Or else they'll look like they could have been done by anyone down the street."
A Flying School Bus
Nash's latest creative vision is unfolding on a vast expanse of blacktop and gravel about 15 miles north of Las Vegas. The balmy desert day has acceded to a cruel dark chill.
Duke Struck, the director of "I Dare You!," is supervising 65 technicians, who've been working in the parking area outside the Las Vegas Motor Speedway for almost 12 hours.
They are here to capture footage of a flying school bus.
The plan is for stuntman Stephen R. Hudis, 42, to drive a bus down a narrow strip of blacktop, hit a short wooden ramp and sail the 10-ton vehicle over 15 motorcycles parked cheek by jowl. The bus won't be carrying any schoolkids.
"It's a little spoofy," says Struck, explaining that a few days earlier motorcyclist Bubba Blackwell performed the exact opposite stunt, soaring over 15 school buses in another "Dare" segment.
Nevertheless, it's dangerous enough. The bus has been fitted with a special suspension cage to protect Hudis, and a steel plate has been installed under his feet just in case the bus lands on an old Yamaha. In addition, stunt coordinator Joe Skorpen has added pyrotechnic cannons around the ramp, which will shoot flames about 50 feet in the air as the bus goes by. Skorpen's crew has also painted the back of the bus with rubber cement, which is highly flammable. The idea is to set the back of the bus on fire.
Forget about asking why they're doing this--it's television--but one wonders why they're shooting at night, with the increased danger. Actually, that's TV, too: "With pyro, it makes a much better shot in the dark," says Struck, a veteran who has directed seven Super Bowl telecasts.
Just before 1 a.m., Skorpen radios to the crew that all is finally ready. Eleven cameras train their lenses on Hudis, who floors the bus.
The bus rumbles off the ramp and through the night sky, an awkward, heavy missile. Flames burst from the mortars, and as Hudis easily clears the bikes, he lands the bus with such violence that it tears up parts of the pavement.
The crew whoops as Hudis slows the vehicle, and proceeds to exit, telegenically, through the flaming rear door. This singes his fireproof suit, but otherwise causes no harm.
The camera crew rushes to film the aftermath. Hudis is hugging his fiancee as Tyler Harcott, "Dare's" field reporter, interviews him. Harcott pauses, pressing his fingers to his earpiece. "I've just been told you set a new world record--109 feet!" he says. Hudis's face breaks into a wide smile as he pumps his fists with joy.
"Stop!" yells a technician.
It seems Hudis has donned a black jacket just before the interview began. This spoils the "continuity" of the post-jump scene. Hudis has to remove the jacket, so the interview can appear to be part of one seamless shot.
Harcott starts up again and then pauses dramatically. "I've just been told you set a new world record--109 feet!" he says again. And Hudis celebrates again, as if he's never heard the news before.
Yes, that's television, too.
Reality: Take 2
Back in Los Angeles, in a cramped production studio, Bruce Nash is overseeing last-minute edits of the opening episode of "I Dare You!"
Scott Jefferss is frantically pushing buttons and clicking a mouse at an edit bay. Co-executive producer Michael J. Miller is banging away on a laptop, working on last-minute narration changes. They're fighting a deadline: The "suits" at UPN have ordered changes to the show. An executive is coming by in a few hours to oversee the finished product.
On the bulletin board above Nash's head are index cards detailing the sequence of stories from a recent Nash reality special. The cards add a strange quality to the scene. One set of cards reads, "Act IV:" "Good Samaritan Chase," "Boxing Brawl," "Vietnamese Woman Rescued" and "Hidden Under Hood." Another says, "Act V:" "Balloon Hits Building," "Greasy Cook" and "Horse Head."
Jefferss and Miller are piecing together "Dare's" introduction, the opening logo and the first stunt--a man parachuting onto a hot-air balloon. "Here's the way it's going to work," Miller says, reading his narration for the balloon jump.
Someone suggests using the phrase "supposed to" instead of "going to" to heighten the prospect that the stuntman won't make it. Millers mulls the substitution. "Yes!" he says, putting it into the script.
Nash makes suggestions, too. Speed up the introductory comments. Cut out a bit of humorous chatter between commentators Lee Reherman and Evel Knievel. The network wants to play it straight, he says. Nash wants speed. Jefferss twists, punches and clicks.
Finally, there's a run-through. The semi-finished tape rolls over a monitor. The audio is loud, the video kinetic. Introductory scenes race by in jumpy, frenetic fashion. The "I Dare You!" bull's-eye logo appears on the monitor for a full second, licked by computer-animated flames. Then it explodes into computer-animated shards that appear to hurtle at the viewer.
Later, Nash, Jefferss and Miller show it to Michael Forman, the young UPN executive who has come to supervise the show.
"It looks great," Forman tells the group. "Beautiful!"
Bruce Nash returns his smile. Yes, it's television, and it's beautiful.