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And the I Bet crew aren't afraid, it seems, to humiliate themselves. Earlier in the day, they paid a guy to gallop around Tompkins Square in a thong, with show barker "Money Mark" Gilson's prosthesis between his legs. "I guess some disabled people might find that offensive," says Money Mark, who lost the lower half of his leg to a degenerative bone disease. "But hey, it's my leg!"
The grand finale was the "Piss-Off" contest, in which the person who managed to keep slamming water the longest would be awarded $500 and the chance to use the park rest room in privacy. A rather petite 19-year-old Brazilian woman volunteered, along with a local woman named Christine and a beefy Loisaida homeboy named Mike.
Spurlock grabbed a stack of $20 bills from Money Mark's attaché and began fanning himself to titillate the crowd. Amazingly, given the East Village environs, no one snatched it. After 30 minutes, the Brazilian girl puked. Homegirl Christine hung on 15 minutes more, but couldn't keep up, leaving Mike squirming in his shorts. He grabbed the cash and dashed to the bathroom, saying, "Gimme the money now, 'cause how do I know if you all will be here when I get back?"
The day's taping incensed Jessica Hall, a 33-year-old mother of two, who filed a complaint with police after watching a woman put on a thong and eat wieners in a tub of vinegar. "It would be fine if this were in a bar or someone's home, but Tompkins Square is my yard," says Hall, "and there were children right up front watching." Hall told her neighbor Michael Shenker, a longtime activist on the Lower East Side, who rounded up several protesters to confront the dotcom crew.
"Welcome, welcome, welcome to the Roman festivities. Decadence! Decadence!" Shenker shouted, giving a speech about how repugnant the contest was. "I mean, a lot of the people volunteering to do these stunts didn't look so well-off," he said later. "Tragically, the people most pissed off at our protest were the homeless." One man spit on Shenker; another threw a bottle of water at his crotch. "Then," Shenker says, "one of the camera guys began pushing his lens into the face of my frienda big, Puerto Rican kick-boxer. So he gets pissed and takes a swipe at the camera guy's face. That's when the cops broke up the filming."
Spurlock downplays the disturbance, saying his show is far tamer than its competitor Dare for Dollars (darefordollars.com), which relies entirely on people with hard-luck stories. Launched in April, Dare asks "desperate people" to post dares explaining why they need money, and what outrageous thing they're willing to do to get it.
"Selected daredevils are visited by the 'Dare for Dollars' team and filmed so everyone can witness the humiliation and fun!" reads the company's press release. One of the leading dares was posted by a laid-off voice-over actor with diabetes and no health insurance, who wanted $3750 to cover his monthly medical expenses and to finance a visit to his ailing father. This desperate soul offered to race barefoot across a greased basketball court carrying a water balloon, while being pelted with oranges. "It'll be fun to watch," the man suggested, "because I can't hold my arms up to defend myself, and you know I'm going to catch an orange in the balls and drop hard."
Given the momentum of exploitation entertainment, it's not hard to imagine a spiral of ever-more-sick contests, like the one envisioned by Stephen King in The Running Man, in which a person is hunted by professional killers while a studio panel wagers on who will kill him. Spurlock shrugs off the risk. America, he points out, is behind the game when it comes to this kind of programming. Japanese game shows, he notes, are infamous for their sadistic scenarios, and Europe has had competitions designed to humiliate for years. Three years ago, a contestant in the Swedish version of Survivor actually committed suicide after she was voted out of the game.
At least in Tompkins Square, the losers got some consolationan I Bet You Will T-shirt emblazoned with the phrase "I Got Dick." It used to be you had to survive a riot in Tompkins Square to get a cool shirt. Now all you have to do is enter a dotcom contest.