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If you thought the TV networks were getting brash with so-called reality-based programming like Survivor, get set for a wave of shock sites on the Internet, produced by young entrepreneurs looking to profit off America's thirst for sordid spectacle.
The gist of Spurlock's I Bet You Will (ibetyouwill.com) is simple. Earlier this month, he and a camera crew roamed the streets of Manhattan offering fistfuls of cash to people willing to door eatanything for money. They filmed 130 bets in five days, from Wall Street to Times Square, spending less than $35,000 for what Spurlock says will amount to six months of programming. "In Chinatown," he says, "we probably had 500 people watch an Indian guy do a New Year's parade [dance] dressed in a thong with a plastic Chinese dragon around his neck. He got $300. And you know what he said afterwards: 'Well, you gotta pay the rent.' "
Most of the bets involved ingesting gross liquids and food. For $25, contestants drank shots of pickle juice, corn oil, and cod liver oil. One guy ate an entire jar of mayonnaise for $50, and a woman downed a bottle of hot salsa for $100. Another man got $50 to have his bald pate smothered in icing (a "chocolate" toupee), while a woman earned $50 to lick it off. Perhaps the most revolting was the "Bite the Turd" bet, in which a brave fellow won $400 for chewing on a piece of dog shit for 20 seconds. (He did get to spit it out.)
In Central Park, Spurlock convinced two eager young women from London to put on thongs and go topless for $200 each, with Magic Markered slogans like "Follow Me 2 Free Money" on their backs and bull's-eyes circling their breasts. They passed out business cards for the show. Fortunately, there were no molesters that day in Sheep Meadow. "People were too flabbergasted," Spurlock says. "But eventually some park rangers came by and told us to go."
Spurlock, an NYU film grad and local playwright who won an award for his play The Phoenix at last year's Fringe Festival, says he started I Bet You Will because he was tired of directing TV commercials and music videos. Having worked as an ESPN commentator for the X Games, Spurlock figured he was well versed in the art of self-promotion. So the West Virginia native drew up a business plan and began shopping it around, eventually getting "well under half a million" from the head of a Park Avenue hedge fund.
Viewers can answer bets at home by videotaping themselves performing the stunt, or offer their own depraved suggestions. Participants must be 18 or over to enter, and not obviously drunk, high, or impaired. All bets must be legal, and they can't be "completely repulsive or offensive," Spurlock says. "We want something that a broad spectrum of people are going to want to watch."
"Completely repulsive," of course, is a subjective standard. During the final shoots in Tompkins Square Park, a diverse crowd gathered to watch the bets. Elderly Chinese, neighborhood Latinos and blacks, weekend scenesters, teenagers, and a sizable group of homeless people were all lured by the prospect of easy cash.
"For those who just came in, this is the show that proves that some people will do just about anything for money," Spurlock jeered.
"Well, we do that already," cracked a homeless park habitué.
Though most of the crowd was enthusiastic, several area residents spoke out against the show. Marguerite Van Cook, a local artist and mother, says she was appalled when she saw a heavyset man in a thong being led around on a leash. "They were making him crawl across the asphalt on all fours, and he's this really big guy, and after a while he's saying, 'Come on, I've got bad knees, I can't do this anymore.' So the host says, 'OK, you can walk on your hands and feet and squat.' " Cook says her husband got "physically sick and had to sit down. It was disgusting: The guy was obviously in pain, and they still weren't letting go of it. That's when I started yelling at them. I said, 'You're exploiting people! Why don't you go where there's a bunch of wealthy people and have them do this?' "
Spurlock contends the "dog guy" was happy for the chance to earn $200, plus $100 for chowing 10 dog treats. "We're not exploiting people," he says. "We're giving them an experience that they will joke about with their friends for the rest of their lives."
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.