“Andy Warhol predicted that everyone would be world-famous for 15 minutes,” said Doron Ofir, the casting director behind MTV’s Jersey Shore, which debuted in December 2009 and has since become part of America’s cultural fabric. “Reality television has made Warhol’s prophecy come true.”
On Monday, Ofir’s casting company announced a new “sociological experiment”— a reality-television show dramatizing divergent “visions of America.”
In conjunction with a major cable network, the casting impresario behind Extreme Makeover: Wedding Edition (ABC) and The Amazing Race (CBS) “is looking for young, hot politicos who care about America [and] follow the heated debates, rallies, protests, and scandals. We are looking for people of all party affiliations—or those who are unaffiliated—as long as you’re outspoken, fearless, free-thinking, unbound, unleashed, unrestrained, appear to be between 21-35, and are politically active and telegenic.”
On Tuesday, Omir explained his concept in another way.
“If you were to throw a dinner party and have the most outspoken, unabashedly self-promoting individuals all at the same table, it would make for an explosive conversation,” he said in a phone interview from Los Angeles. “If you’re stuck in that situation for an hour, that’s one thing. But it’s something else altogether if you’re all together for a period of a month or six weeks.”
What Ofir has envisioned is a raucous political debate, leavened with “elements of reality programming, elements of living in a microcosm, and elements of sexuality.” There is no production schedule as yet, “but in a perfect world, the cast would share a brownstone on C Street”—not unlike how the housemates of Jersey Shore shared a bungalow in Seaside Heights, N.J.
A self-described “latchkey kid,” the native New Yorker sold lemonade on the corner of 79th Street and Third Avenue when he was 7 years old. “I had nobody watching over me, except the neighborhood itself.” Ofir’s parents—immigrants from Israel—held many jobs as they pursued the American Dream. His mother, a stewardess for El Al Airlines, also worked as “Bunny Michelle” at the city’s Playboy Club.
Ofir said he learned “what family is” by watching All in the Family. When not peddling lemonade, comic books, or ashtrays, he was planted before the television, marinating in the patter of Happy Days and The Odd Couple.
Eventually, Ofir’s parents settled in Long Island, and he moved into a six-story walk-up in Hell’s Kitchen at the age of 18. “I experienced how difficult it is to work and make a living,” he recalled.
Before he helped usher in the age of reality television, he was the arbiter of all things “fabulous.” While managing several nightclubs in New York City, he said, “I was part of this late-’80s, early-’90s club resurgence, where people became famous for nothing other than being fabulous.”
In this setting, he honed a sense for the “Fabulous 500,” a concept that would benefit him years later when he populated his shows with “extraordinary characters.”
“The Fabulous 500 determines a city’s taste and trends,” he said. “They come from the world of fashion, entertainment, art, politics, finance, or philanthropy; and they really make a city what it is…. I used to cast parties that allowed these people to intermingle. It’s the Studio 54 concept: You combine the rich and the poor, and you have a party.”
Later, Ofir moved to Miami—“the closest thing to an American Riviera”—where he was a field agent for Warner Brothers Entertainment’s publicity department, pursued a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Miami, and continued to manage nightclubs. “I’ve always been proactive,” he said. “I sleep four hours a day.”
After graduating, he moved to Los Angeles to make a name for himself in reality television, then an embryonic genre.
“I was able to fill a niche; I marketed the concept of fame to people that were not necessarily talented. What reality did was make people famous for being themselves.”
He was perceived by some as a purveyor of tawdry programming. “My reputation precedes [this new show], so people will say, ‘Oh, my God, this is going to be a train-wreck television show.’”
Yet, Ofir is fluent in certain policy areas and pays close attention to the pundits on cable television. If not a player himself, he watches inside baseball from the stands.
“The talking heads on television are preaching to the choir,” he said. “The people watching them are the people that already believe them. There’s no crossing over, no changing of the channel…. It’s just validating and revalidating people’s individual beliefs.”
The bias of certain networks has crystallized, Ofir said, leaving a space for programming that encompasses disparate views.
“I’m not looking for hate,” he maintained. “I’m looking for a celebratory manner in which to express politics in the [best] light possible.”
If he has an ulterior motive, it may be of a more abstract nature.
“I’d like to redefine reality television as pop television,” Ofir said, alluding to the artistic movement epitomized by Warhol, “who made art into what comes off an assembly line.”
He insisted that opening television to nonprofessionals—“ordinary Americans,” in the parlance of Washington—goes hand in hand with engaging more outsiders in politics.
“Everybody thinks that politics belongs to old, white guys.”
This article appears in the Oct. 27, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.