I’m pretty open-minded, as longtime readers will already be aware. But last night I, for pretty much the first time I can remember, found myself genuinely shocked by something that had been not only allowed on TV in the first place, but deemed worthy of repeating on one of those “nothing but repeats” digital channels — in this case, quiz show specialist channel Challenge.
There were two shows broadcast last night, neither of which I’d ever heard of prior to seeing them. And, having seen them for the first time last night, I’m now in no hurry to do so again.
I lump them both together like this because they both approached the same subject matter from a slightly different angle — the concept of humiliating contestants, causing them physical and mental discomfort and even inflicting pain in some cases. The shows in question? Distraction and Killer Karaoke. Both parts of the episode of Distraction in question are embedded in this post; watch at your own risk!
Distraction first. This was a Channel 4 show hosted by Jimmy Carr, who I’ve always interpreted as “cheeky” and occasionally a little bit risque, but never outright mean. Distraction turned that perception on its head — but more on that in a moment.
Distraction was first broadcast in 2003 and continued until 2004, so it had a relatively short life compared to some other gameshows. The concept of the game was twofold: in the initial elimination stage of the game, four contestants would compete against one another to answer insultingly easy question (in the episode I saw last night, all of the questions were from Key Stage 1 junior school material) while being distracted through various means. In the second stage of the game, the last remaining player would be presented with their prize, which would be damaged in some way if they answered any of their final questions incorrectly. The grand prize would either be a car — which would have parts of it smashed or defaced for an incorrect answer — or a pile of money, which would be destroyed piece by piece somehow with every incorrect answer.
The twist was the distractions themselves: these weren’t simple things like someone buzzing in your ear. In the episode I saw last night, the very first game saw all four contestants sitting in toilet cubicles, with the only means of them “buzzing in” to answer a question being to do a piss, which would cause a light to go on above their stall. Later stages saw the contestants being thrown around and pummelled by professional wrestlers while answering questions, and in the final pre-prize stage, getting piercings with every correct answer, causing them to suffer more and more pain and discomfort the more questions they got right.
Killer Karaoke, meanwhile, operated on a similar premise. Hosted by Steve-O, of Jackass fame — which should probably tell you something about what to expect — the show challenged contestants to sing their way through popular songs while being, there’s no two ways about this, abused in various painful ways. One contestant was on a swing and was unpredictably “dipped” into a tank full of snakes over the course of her song. Another was forced to wear vision-impairing goggles and walk barefoot through a cactus-strewn obstacle course while singing. Another still was strapped into a suit with a dancer “puppetmaster”, who pushed her around as she sang, smashed a bottle over her head, rubbed a raw eel over her face and finished the song by slamming her face into a cake.
I had exactly the same reaction to both shows: initial surprise and laughter at the seemingly slapstick nature of it, gradually giving way to feelings of unease, horror and even disgust at the fact that people were genuinely being hurt — both physically and psychologically — in the name of entertainment. Slapstick comedy is nothing new, but both of these shows felt like they crossed a line somewhat: that not everyone was “in on the joke” as a willing participant. In Distraction in particular, Carr’s appallingly written material — at least I hope it was written and not delivered ad lib – didn’t come across as the usual cheeky, light-hearted jabs you hear him making on shows like 8 Out of 10 Cats and its ilk: it came across as just plain mean.
It was pretty telling that we didn’t see or hear most of the participants’ reactions to his spiteful comments; one contestant — a woman named Gabriela Blandy, whom it just so happens that I was at university with, and who decided to chronicle her experience in this beautifully written blog post — just looked plain miserable; the very picture of despair. (“I finally realise how shameful all this is,” writes Blandy, reliving the experience, “and why I was never able to tell them I wanted to be an actress. I would have been admitting I was prepared to do anything to make it. There’s no Steven Spielberg, sitting in the audience, thinking: wow, that girl has talent! Besides, the talented ones are at home, learning monologues, putting genuine work in.”)
Both shows were certainly effective in their shock tactics and I don’t doubt that I’ll be remembering them both for some time to come — likely when I least want to. But, on reflection, even admitting the fact that both made me genuinely laugh several times, I don’t think I ever want to see them — or anything like them — ever again. And it’s not very often I say that.