In today’s inaugural collaborative blog post we’ll be offering our respective takes on both books in the “How to Get on Reality TV” series by Big Brother legend Dan Gheesling, which can be purchased HERE. Click through the jump to read the reviews.
How a Normal Guy Got Cast on Reality TV is the story of a young Dan trying to ‘crack the code’ and make it through the casting process; in How to Get on Reality TV: The Complete Step-by-Step Guide an older Dan has emerged on the other side, trophy in hand, and wants to help others live that dream. [Dan’s website(s) also hosts a free podcast as well as a subscription-only video course; there is material for as much time and money as you want to invest.]
Stylistically, the books match what you expect from a product like this. Short paragraphs are punctuated by headlines, boxes, and pictures that break the text into easily digestible chunks. Some of these are curious (a chapter ends with ‘Audition Video Wrap Up’, leading into a new chapter about audition videos) or misleading (the headline ‘greet the executive producers’ accompanies a picture of a handshake; the facing column tells us that shaking hands with them is against protocol), and basic slips evade the proofreader’s gaze. In general, though, both books have an easy flow that lends itself to both skimming and more focused analysis.
Both books are fairly compact – in total, they amount to around 120 pages. They are self-contained enough that you can get value from either on its own, but each book frequently refers to the other and offers different things so they are worth reading in tandem. The Guide bestows a general, abstract understanding of casting; the personal narrative of the shorter book strips away the mystery and makes it less daunting. Whatever its lessons for applicants, Dan’s casting story is a good read in its own right; it’s easy to visualize some of the more vivid moments - Dan pre-gaming by chugging sugar and caffeine at a grungy McDonald’s, or his uneasy confinement in the LA Finals hotel. Dan’s tale is unmistakably his - in one email, he tells a casting producer, “you RUN the casting biz” - but the nerves, frustration, and passion on display are easily relatable for anyone who has chased a dream like this.
His account is compelling, but is it a reliable blueprint for others’ experiences? To the extent that this is his story, it can’t be anyone else’s. ‘Normal guys’ aren’t good at Big Brother, or at being on television; most have no burning desire to be trapped under the spotlight, and lack the ability to convert that if they do. The book’s central conceit – that Dan’s path is one the everyman can follow – is a good marketing pitch, but does it ring true for people likely to buy it? Just as politicians’ claims to be ‘ordinary’ are self-defeating, one wonders if someone able to write this book – a one-time winner and two-time headline act, held in universal high regard with a large personal following - counts as normal, if he ever did.
Still, even if Dan doesn’t represent his readership in that regard, his books are acutely aware of his target audience. To critics reality TV might be the domain of freaks and attention whores, but most readers seeking Dan’s counsel share entirely ‘normal’ concerns: awkwardness in front of cameras, reservations about self-promotion. As he notes, telling people to ‘be themselves’ or ‘be confident’ is pointless; readers need specific instructions that are easy to act on. Thus the guidesheets in the appendix, which might look like self-help boilerplate in another context, fit well here; just putting your thoughts on paper is enough to dispel some of these mental hang-ups. Getting an audience with casting producers is difficult, and freezing on a question or a bad first impression can ruin your only chance. Dan’s advice should help applicants be remembered, and for the right reasons.
In particular, as ‘superfan’ becomes a casting archetype explicitly sought by the networks, many readers look to Dan’s example for guidance. When we meet Dan in the opening chapter, he’s mining obscure forum posts and deconstructing brief morsels of audition videos; it’s soon clear that he was just as obsessed with being on the show as with watching it. The distinction escapes many fans, who assume their knowledge of and commitment to the show is good for casting by itself or entitles them to special consideration. Dan constantly reminds us that casting is a game too – one that must be mastered for fantasies of being on TV to become more than that - in which awareness of yourself and others is just as vital. This can’t be taught, but the books go into detail on what you should know and think about. This ranges from factual info (the chain of command in casting and workings of the application process) to perception management (framing your life story in an interesting way and understanding the ‘character’ you’ll be defined as). We’re told to look for information in unlikely places, and he alerts us to things that many wouldn’t pick up in the moment. In one highlight, Dan realizes that finalists are brought to the network executives in a certain order to display possible personality conflicts; he builds a mental profile of the previous contestant and adopts an attitude and views likely to clash with hers, evoking a strong reaction from the suits behind the desk.
Dan’s journey ends in success, but – as he impresses upon us - after a long and draining struggle. When Dan walks into the Big Brother 10 house it’s the culmination of years of effort, defined by failure and derailed by things he can't control- he bails on the show, others bail on him, and for years he gets only brief glimpses of the big prize. For shows like Survivor and Big Brother, where returning players are a permanent fixture and stunt/twist casting is becoming more common, the competition is fiercer and for fewer slots. Applicants without Dan’s talents need every possible edge, and he has cornered the market in promising that.
A difficulty with reviewing a book like this is that we can’t know how much ground it leaves uncovered, only what insiders are willing and able to reveal. The scans of letters or emails and explanations of network procedure give us a look behind the curtain, but much remains unknown. This isn’t a criticism of these books specifically; it’s a reminder that, insofar as this is a guide to beating the system, it’s one the networks are content with you seeing. No doubt they have some interest in works like this existing – a wider pool of ready-for-TV candidates is always welcome – but at a certain point their success diminishes their effectiveness. If everyone knows these tricks they stand out less for using them, and the producers are adept at seeing through pretenders. How To Get On Reality TV won’t let someone without the required talents fake it, but it helps those with potential maximize their chances.
The price tag and presentation will be off-putting for some, but the content within is solid and unique. If your interest in casting is an intellectual curiosity, these books are a good read that you might wish were cheaper; if you’re genuinely committed to earning your spot on reality TV, they’re a valuable resource that’s worth the money.
After winning my free copy through a Twitter promotion, I began reading How A Normal Guy Got Cast on Reality TV with predictably misplaced motivations, eager to pounce on the earliest sign of a dangling modifier or half-hearted exclamation point. It quickly became apparent that such an angle was grossly unfair. Yes, it was fun finding mixed homonyms, and no, the subtle exploration of subject in setting wasn’t exactly Dickensian, but it wasn’t meant to be. It was a normal guy writing about how he got on reality TV. The clue was in the title.
My hangup as I read the first few paragraphs was that it had been a while since I’d considered Dan Gheesling to be just a “normal” guy. Executing the elaborate social maneuvers he’s pulled off so smoothly isn’t an achievable prospect for any average person. As far as I’d ever been concerned, Dan was a calculated closer, constantly resisting his regular human impulses in favor of the most tactically sound approaches to any given situation, be it Big Brother, his public persona, or his normal life. And for some reason his skillset was as enviable as his lack of ownership of it was infuriating. In my mind it was largely an act and, while I didn’t need to know how the trick was performed, I was tired of hearing that it was magic.
Deliberate as always, Coach Dan predictably opened the book with a brilliant tactic, harkening back to the days when he was in the exact same shoes as the reader, highlighting his applications to each show year after year as well as displaying all of the official CBS documentation he still cherishes. I’ll admit, it worked wonderfully, as I found myself forced to stop reading after merely six pages to reconsider the thesis I’d been so certain of three minutes prior. By the end of the second chapter, it became abundantly clear that what I’d initially presumed to be just another means by which to milk #TeamMist was in fact the first-hand insight into Dan’s thought process I’d always craved, and I later learned that the same was true in triplicate for The Guide, in which the concepts are adjusted to allow readers to optimally apply Dan’s own findings to themselves.
Despite a visual layout better suited for a travel guide, each book is replete with critical dos and don’ts from every phase of the casting process, such as how to optimize one’s presentation, how to adjust one’s behavior based on the competition, and, most crucially, how to get inside the minds of the producers. In all practical terms, Dan approaches the casting process as a game that has correct and incorrect moves. In these books, he not only pulls the curtain back to reveal the illusion, he gives a step-by-step explanation of how the reader can perform the trick at home. Most importantly, rather than simply regurgitating specifics from his own battle with casting -- an easy technique that would be of little use to anyone slightly dissimilar -- Dan coaches the reader to think properly each step of the way, all with his trademark Clintonian concern for YOU to succeed (Bill, not Hillary, of course).
While the appropriately one-note agenda of the two books makes the series an easy pass for those uninterested in getting on reality TV themselves, it’s well worth the price of admission for anyone who’s serious about doing so. Furthermore, reading these books has left me unexpectedly and non-ironically enthusiastic to read Dan’s upcoming book, Clean Your Own Mirror, in which he’ll explore and explain his techniques for influencing others, which can be pre-ordered HERE. Spoiler alert: instead of Windex, use The Mist.