As a formula for pulling in viewers, can Pop Idol possibly be improved upon? Yes, according to a fledgling American television channel. A new show will be debuting tomorrow night on the WB Network called Superstar USA in which various hopefuls will compete to be crowned the worst singer of all time. The twist is that the participants think it's a straightforward talent contest.
"This is a genre that is ripe for parody," said Jordan Levin, CEO of the WB Network. "Back when we first introduced this type of show to an American audience, we found that the most memorable and relatable contestants were the people who had perhaps more courage than talent. Their passion to become superstars shone through."
The first two episodes in the seven-part series feature footage from the open auditions that the Network held in Las Vegas, Philadelphia, Miami and Minneapolis. The twelve contestants who are judged to have the worst signing voices are then flown to Los Angeles where they battle it out in front of a studio audience. Only when the number has been whittled down to two are the participants told that the judges have been searching for people with zero talent all along.
Last week, the producers of Superstar USA got into hot water when the LA Times revealed that the studio audience had been told the contestants were terminally-ill beneficiaries of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. This was to encourage them to clap after each no-hoper had murdered some pop standard, thereby preserving each contestant's delusion that they can actually sing.
Not everyone fell for the ruse. One audience member told the LA Times that the singers were so consistently awful he realized the show was intended to be a joke.
"I said to myself, 'There should be some cancer patients who could actually hold a note," he laughed.
Super Size Me
One of the most talked-about movies in America at the moment is Super Size Me, a 98-minute documentary in which a filmmaker called Morgan Spurlock chronicles the 30 days he spent eating nothing but McDonald's. Not surprisingly, his health deteriorated dramatically. His weight increased by 25 pounds, his cholesterol level went up by 60 points and his liver turned to foie gras. By the end of the experiment, his doctor told him that if he continued on his present course he'd be taking his life into his own hands.
The film has become a cause celebre for America's growing army of food Nazis who claim it illustrates the dire warnings made by Eric Schlosser in his bestselling book Fast Food Nation. But is it any surprise that Spurlock suffered some ill effects? One of the ground rules he set himself was that every time a McDonald's employee asked him if he wanted his meal "supersized" he had to say yes. The upshot was that he ended up consuming over 5,000 calories a day.
If the McDonald's Corporation want to get their revenge on Spurlock can I suggest that they finance a documentary in which I chronicle the effects of eating nothing but rich, expensive food in a 30-day tour of the best restaurants in the world? As a ground rule, every time a waiter asks me if I'd like to see the wine list, I'll have to order a bottle of Opus One.
I can 100% guarantee that at the end of this experiment I'll be every bit as unhealthy as Morgan Spurlock was at the end of his.
Hiking? No Thanks
I'm constantly being told by Angelinos that one of the joys of living here is the wealth of beautiful countryside just outside the city limits. Scarcely a day goes by without someone recommending some "hike" or other and urging me to hit the trail.
What they neglect to mention is that if I follow their advice there's a chance I might be eaten by a savage beat. Last week, a 30-year-old woman spoke for the first time about being mauled by a mountain lion when she was out mountain-biking in an Orange County wilderness park.
"There was a flash of movement over my right shoulder," said Anne Hjelle. "I saw reddish-brown fur and something grabbed hold of me. I knew immediately what it was. He grabbed my shoulders with his claws and attached his jaws to the back of my neck. It's an absolute miracle that I'm here today."
Next time someone urges me to strap on my backpack I'm going to tell them this story. The only way I'm going to explore the local faun and fauna is from the top of an elephant with a hunting rifle strapped to my back.
Columbia Studios Tour
I went on a studio tour of Columbia Pictures last week and finally discovered why it is that celebrities appear so much smaller in real life than they do on screen. I was being shown round the set of a hit CBS show called Joan of Arcadia when I noticed that the tables and chairs in the dining room seemed a little on the small side. It was a little like being in a giant doll's house.
When I asked our tour guide about this he explained that all the sets at Columbia Pictures are built to seven-eighths of normal scale so the actors will look taller than they really are. "It helps them seem larger than life," he said.
My wife, who was standing beside me, joked that we should hire the Columbia carpenters to build some furniture for our house in Shepherd's Bush. "It might cure you of your small man's complex," she said.
Eats, Shoots & Leaves
To everyone's surprise, Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots & Leaves has become a runaway bestseller over here, reaching number two on the New York Times's non-fiction hardcover list.
Every ex-pat in America has an example of the natives poor use of English. My current favourite is the radio ad for a new film called Man on Fire. According to the breathless voice over, "Denzel Washington literally sets the screen on fire."