Dave Rupel came to Sacramento from Hollywood to get into political advertising. He figured his background in shaping real people into either heroes or villains on reality TV would serve him well, and it did—just for the wrong political party. So, he turned down a job and began writing for the CBS soap opera Guiding Light, which actually doesn’t air in Sacramento. His latest show was Bravo’s Real Housewives of Orange County, and he offered some insights on the phenomenon of reality TV. He also admitted that when it comes to being a reality TV star, you either have it or you don’t, which explains the disappearance of Justin Guarini.
How did you get into writing and producing reality TV?
There was a time when I was between writing jobs, and I had a friend who was working on The Real World. This was way back to the second season, 13 years ago. They needed some help in the story department, and it seemed to be a more fun job than getting a temp job or doing a waiter job, so I did that and wound up staying there for three-and-a-half years.
Were you surprised that reality TV took off the way it did?
I was. Real World had been around MTV for several years, and no one else was really jumping in to mimic it. And then Survivor hit, and everybody wanted to be doing that.
I saw on your Web site that you teach people how to become reality-TV contestants.
Well, you can’t really teach someone to be a good contestant. … People think that they can create a phony personality, which doesn’t work because sooner or later in the process you’re going to get tripped up, and it’s been my experience the first time people think you’re being phony, they’ll drop you from the process. So, it’s really just taking the most interesting aspects of someone’s life and showing them how to present it to the network or the production people and selling yourself.
What would make a bad contestant then? Just a dishonest representation of yourself?
That, or what also makes a good contestant is if you go to a party, who are the five people you’re talking about the next day? Who’s the sexiest person, the loudest person, the funniest person, the person who makes a big entrance? They aren’t necessarily people who you want to be your friends, but they do stick out to you, and they’re still the people you’re talking about the next day.
What’s the most difficult part of finding people?
You really have to, in a lot of ways, be a psychiatrist. … When I did Temptation Island, the hardest part was not so much looking for the singles, but looking for the couples. And there was one couple … the guy really wanted to do it. And the girl was sitting there with a big smile on her face saying she wanted to do it, but everything about her body language was uncomfortable, and she was clinging to him, and I’m sitting there thinking, “This woman hates it, and the only reason she’s doing it is because he wants to do it so bad.” That’s great TV right there.
A lot of people have said reality TV has been bad for television in the sense that it’s disposable—it doesn’t require you to think at all; it’s goofy. What do you say to critics like that?
There’s a certain amount of truth to that, but I think you can say that about a lot of TV. There’s as much good as there is bad. For example, reality TV is usually much more balanced ethnically and sexually than scripted shows. … And for a while, there were many more minorities, many more gay characters on reality than on scripted. I think it’s a good thing, because people see things that are different from them.
What would you really like to put on the air?
I would like to go back to the early seasons of Real World where there’s less gimmicks and there’s less format. Even shows like Wife Swap, where they go to the most extreme of swapping the wives, I would rather tone it down by half. You don’t have to get the most extreme Christian and put her with the most extreme lesbian to make your point.
It’s interesting you say that because my favorite seasons of The Real World were the first three, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, before everybody had to have the same job and had to try to start a business or whatever it was.
I think San Francisco Real World is one of the best examples of reality TV because that was such a great thing when you had the young Republican Latina and you had the other Latino guy who was gay and had AIDS and the obnoxious guy and the Asian doctor. It was a really nice group of people, and they learned, and it wasn’t drinking in a hot tub. But that’s popular, too.