Inside D.C. entertainment

TV producer Mark Burnett equates 'Survivor' with death, and Vince Gray pitches a show

February 1, 2011 - 02:19 PM
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Mark Burnett
Mark Burnett, defender of reality TV and American values.

Yesterday, it was reported that reality-show genius Mark Burnett will produce comedic shorts based on CliffsNotes, with a debut scheduled for this fall on AOL.com. Apparently, even those infamous yellow cheatsheets written by middling professors at unknown colleges — I mean "trustworthy study guides written by real teachers and professors" — "can be dry," as Burnett told the Wall Street Journal, adding, "We want to use comedy in these videos to help kids remember key points and maybe inspire them to actually read the books, too." I believe Burnett, the producer of such shows as Survivor, The Apprentice, and Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?, meant to say "...to actually read the CliffsNotes synopsis of the book." Because what's there to gain, financially speaking, from a high school kid watching one of these Funny or Die ripoffs and deciding to pick up the original text of, say, The Scarlet Letter? (Hilarious novel, by the way.)

As someone who does "actually read the books," I cringed upon reading this news. Then I learned that Burnett, a former commando in the British Army who first worked in the U.S. as a 22-year-old nanny in Beverly Hills, would be delivering the keynote address this morning at the RealScreen Summit, a nonfiction TV and film convention in D.C. Perhaps he would further explain his decision to dumb down something that is itself a dumbing-down of art? Unfortunately, no. Burnett talked instead about how the end of Survivor is a lot like death and how his Apprentice pitch got Donald Trump's agent fired. Mayor Vince Gray was there, too, and pitched a TV show of his own. Here are the highlights.

• After noting that D.C. is the largest TV and film production region outside of New York and L.A. — and that it's known as "Docuwood" — Gray told the conventioneers in a Renaissance Hotel ballroom that if they're looking for an interesting documentary subject, the District is it. "We're truly the last colony in the nation," he said, referring to our being taxed by the federal government — to the tune of $3.6 billion annually — without representation. "That is a great story, and we'll be happy to connect with you after this session is over."

• Gray, citing D.C.'s "struggling" economy and the need to balance the budget, pleaded with the audience to spend everything in their pockets while they're here. Any stories conventioneers may have heard about D.C. not accepting credit cards or IOU notes "is a myth," he said. "We take everything that is negotiable." As with his TV pitch, Gray was both joking and not. Mostly not. But everyone laugh because, well, D.C. is a funny little place, isn't it?

• Burnett set the record straight about the ease, or lack thereof, of making reality shows: "A lot of people look at certain shows and think, 'How hard could that be?' Well, let me tell you ... it's really hard. It's one fucked-up problem after another."

• Burnett's used to produce Eco-Challenge for the Discovery Channel. When he pitched Survivor to them, "they said, 'This would never work.' I wonder if they remember that." Ouch.

• On the "core values" of Survivor: "Here is a game where a bunch of strangers form a little world on an island, and week by week they get rid of one of their own, and then in the end, the last two — or three, sometimes — have to ask the very people they got rid of for the gift of $1 million. It's the greatest management training exercise you could ever imagine. It's like firing someone, and then they want to come over and thank you afterwards. Think of the core value.... No one has ever completely lied and screwed other people over, and won. They get a long way, like Russell, but they don't win. Because in the end, why is a jury of people who've been screwed over by you going to give you $1 million? The underlying core values of it resonate with what America stands for."

Well, actually, Americans consistently reward people who have screwed us over. It's called paying taxes.

• Burnett considers the torch-lit tribal council in Survivor a metaphor for death. "Fire represents life," he says. "Someone's life is being snuffed out." And when a contestant is eliminated, which Burnett calls "one of the most horrific things you can imagine," he or she walks off set toward a cobalt-blue light, accompanied by funereal music. "It's death. They're walking into their death."

Muttered the man seated behind me: "Um, it's a reality show."

• No it's not! says Burnett. "I hate the word 'reality.' I think it's just a made-up word by journalists. What the hell has it got to do with reality? Reality is me standing here right now. Let's face it: None of the shows are reality. They're not really marooned on the island in Survivor. [laughter] But the feeling's real. They're not really applying for a job with Donald Trump. I mean, who would?" [more laughter]

• Speaking of Trump, Burnett came up with The Apprentice after growing tired of evading piranhas, jaguars, anacondas, and alligators during one season of Survivor; he wanted to be in a city. So when he was in New York, he called Trump, whose book The Art of the Deal he'd read decades ago while selling T-shirts for a living on Venice Beach (and whom he'd met when shooting a Survivor finale at the Trump Wollman Skating Rink in Central Park). Burnett made a brief pitch, which he hadn't yet fleshed out, and Trump invited him over to the Trump Towers — immediately. Burnett ran over and winged it, and Trump said yes. All Burnett had to do was call Trump's agent and do the paperwork. Here's how that conversation went, according to Burnett:

"You're kidding, right?" said the agent. "How dare you go and pitch my client without telling me?"

"Well, actually, it wasn't planned," said Burnett. "I was going to set an appointment and he said to come over."

"Come on, can't you do better than that? You know the way it works. You've been a network producer for six seasons of Survivor. You know how it works."

"OK, what now then?"

"You've got to pitch me. I need to know what it is before I recommend this to my client."

"Recommend it? [indignant Ricky Gervais voice] He just said he's doing it!"

"Don't be so fast. I can call him and talk him out of it. Pitch me."

Burnett pitched it, and the agent said, "I hate it." Burnett went back into Trump's office and told him what had happened. Trump called out to Norma, his secretary, "Diet Coke and take a letter!" She came into the office and Trump dictated the letter to his agent, which began:

"Dear _____, you're fired."

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