"You need to learn some empathy," Goddard interjected.

"'Empathy'? What's that word mean?" Tarr asked, knowing exactly what it means.

Tarr's next bite came from the Judge Joe Brown show. He made up a story that he was a Gypsy clown named Zozo who showed up two hours late and drunk to a kid's birthday party—then trashed the bathroom, causing $15,000 in damages.

Ken Tarr
C.S. Muncy
Ken Tarr
Ken Tarr appears on Judge Joe Brown.
Ken Tarr appears on Judge Joe Brown.

Tarr pulled fake pictures of a damaged bathroom off the Internet and produced a bogus bill for "pigeon wrangling, snake charming, and an operetta" to back up his claims. J.B., an extra he met on the set of the TNT cop drama Rizzoli and Isles, played the ,aggrieved parent. They agreed to split their take no matter who won.

J.B. claimed that Tarr's clown outfit consisted of a fedora and a Greek tragedy mask much too scary for a kid's party. Nor was the clown in any state to entertain. "He's covered in water, he had vomit on his shirt, the toilet was overflowing, there was a vodka bottle in the toilet," J.B. told the judge. "He says 'I'm sorry, I'm stoned.'"

Tarr attempted to excuse away his tardiness. "I am color-blind and it was an ethnically diverse area," he told Brown. "So I started entertaining the wrong group of people. . . . Not every star can shine every night."

The audience seemed confused about whether to laugh or nod sympathetically.

As the judge listed the damages, Tarr donned his scary clown outfit. "Take that thing off!" Brown barked, before ruling in J.B.'s favor and awarding him the show's maximum, $5,000.

"We're conditioned to believe," says Skaggs. "We are raised on fantasies, from the tooth fairy to Santa Claus to miracles, and it's sad. I tell people who watch these shows, 'You know, this is all bullshit,' and they always say, 'I don't care.'"

Nor do the producers themselves seem to care. Not a single show hoaxed by Tarr responded to interview requests for this story.

Tarr had taken several shots at The Bill Cunningham Show. He finally scored with a gold-digger character called "K.T.," who was living off of his rich girlfriend and cheating on the side. Through Facebook, he found comedian Cynthia Rudd to play his girlfriend. High school buddy J.C. Bates would play his sales manager, with whom Cynthia was cheating.

Cunningham is a 65-year-old radio host from Cincinnati. According to the Nielsen ratings company, nearly 800,000 people watch his program daily. The show's promo claims it has "made a difference in the lives of viewers, helping them to resolve conflicts and mend relationships, while making viewers laugh and giving them hope."

Cunningham tapes at Penn Studios, a once-grand ballroom in the down-at-the-heels Hotel Pennsylvania on 34th Street. Audience members gathered at 8:30 a.m. in a grimy hallway on the backside of the hotel. Most were tourists, but there were also regulars, walking in as if arriving for work.

The audience was shuttled upstairs to a large, gloomy waiting area, where stale doughnuts and bad coffee sat morosely in a corner. Highlights of the show played on an endless loop.

After the usual crowd-exhorting and a lavish intro for Cunningham, Tarr, his hair moussed to a rooster's comb, sprawled on a chair next to Rudd, who wore a lavender blouse trimmed with fake fur.

In his phony Southern accent, Tarr made one ridiculous statement after another. He claimed that he ran whale-watching charters while also operating an escort service. "I'm a Hungarian Magyar Gypsy," he told Cunningham. "I'm the one who teaches people how to do horse archery." The host showed no sign of skepticism.

He talked about his "caravan's" rules concerning infidelity: Men can cheat; women can't. Worse, Cynthia wasn't accepting of Gypsy culture. "I don't see her dancing around bonfires," Cunningham conceded.

In the second segment, a young, naive couple from Chicago emerged from the wings. The woman suspected that her fiancé was cheating on her and somehow convinced him to fly to New York and take a lie detector test. He failed.

Devastated, she jumped to her feet and sprinted out of the studio, screaming, then collapsed in a wrecked heap in a back hallway. As the young woman sobbed convulsively, Cunningham left the stage and knelt reverently beside her, trailed by cameramen. A producer admonished the crowd in hushed tones. "Be respectful. She's having a hard time."

During the third act, designed as the therapeutic segment, an in-house psychologist attempted to advise both couples on their relationships. Tarr promptly hit on her. "You look good," he cooed. "You look good."

"I am a happily married woman, sir," she responded tartly. "I have a wonderful husband who meets all of my needs."

Finally, it was over. The audience gnawed at wan-looking pizza in the waiting room, then crawled outside as if they were leaving a Rust Belt strip club. The episode aired May 13.

Tarr, Rudd, and J.C. were each given $200 in cash and ushered to separate cars, which immediately took them to the airport.

"The producers typically want to get rid of guests as fast as they can," Tarr says. "They are your best friends, then they treat you like a whore when you are done."

But on this day, it was clear, the roles were reversed.

grayman@villagevoice.com

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