The documentary Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, directed by Chris Smith and released in November of this year, is sewn together from behind-the-scenes footage. It shows Carrey portraying the comedian Andy Kaufman during the filming of the 1999 biopic Man on the Moon. The sequences were recorded for promotional purposes — a crew followed Carrey around the set to film his real-life antics as an enticement for potential viewers of the feature. However, once Man on the Moon was shot, Universal decided not to release the extra material. As Carrey explains in one of the interview sequences interspersed through Jim & Andy, the studio thought it made him look like an asshole.
The practice of shooting behind-the-scenes footage or stills for promotional purposes goes back to the early days of cinema. A 1924 photograph shows a lion standing on two wooden crates as two men in flat caps train cameras on him: They’re recording the now iconic MGM logo. Behind-the-scenes film of George Melford’s 1921 silent movie The Sheik shows a group of men using hand-crank cameras to shoot a sequence in which a white horse, ridden by Rudolph Valentino, charges at the viewer. A title card explains that Valentino demanded another take.
For reality television, behind-the-scenes footage promises an honesty beyond the honesty: the disguise that looks like a natural face
The fascination with how moving images simulate reality has always been part of both our love and our distrust of cinema and television. There’s a layer of disguise doubling everything we see, a trickery extending even to physical objects — the chair holding up the character Holly Golightly is also holding up the person Audrey Hepburn; does that mean it is actually two chairs? We want to be fooled, but we also want to know how the fooling works. We want to suspend our disbelief far enough to be immersed, but we fear an abuse of power in the unequal relationship between audiences and makers.
Behind-the-scenes footage is like the tiled floor of the shallow end of a pool — solid ground underneath the wavering element that bathes us. It appears to support the viewer at the slippery intersection of the fictional and the real, offering a clear delineation between the two. But this reassuring surface is still slick, still underwater. The goal of behind-the-scenes footage is to make the viewer feel like an insider. But in fact, genuine behind-the-scenes footage resists the viewer, fulfilling a paradoxical goal of transparency and illusion.
For scripted television and movies, this footage offers committed audiences the actors and directors as substitutes, so the viewer can continue the relationship they’ve forged with fictional characters by displacing these emotions onto real human beings. For reality television, behind-the-scenes footage promises an honesty beyond the honesty. Reality television takes off one disguise — the false mustache of fiction — only to don a more complex one: the disguise that looks like a natural face.
The line between fiction and reality is, at first glance, well defined: The names of the actors don’t correspond to the names of the characters, and, usually, neither do their ages, backgrounds, or natural hair color. The paradox of perceiving the face and body associated with Betty Cooper on Riverdale but hearing the vocal inflections and seeing the body language of Lili Reinhart, the actor who plays her, is tinged with an unheimlich fascination — the figure before us is an impossible marriage of reality and illusion.
One of the least threatening ways for production companies to deploy behind-the-scenes footage is the blooper reel. “Blooper” as a term for a mistake in a broadcast was coined in the 1920s and originally applied to maladroit radio operation that produced audible blips and bloops. In the 1930s, early television and film production units started producing “gag reels” for private viewing at cast and crew parties. American radio and television producer Kermit Schafer began creating vinyl records of blooper reels for public consumption in the 1950s; in 1980 and 1981, NBC aired a set of hour-long blooper compendiums — Ronald Reagan’s lawyer denied the network permission to air footage of the then-president’s movie mistakes. When DVDs emerged in the 1990s, blooper reels often came packaged as extras, and Fresh Prince of Bel-Air started showing bloopers under the closing credits of its episodes.
YouTube houses a world of blooper reels for contemporary or recently concluded shows from dramas like Stranger Things, Breaking Bad, and Outlander to comedies like The Mindy Project and Grace and Frankie. What makes the most tightly curated gag reels both relatable and banal is the frequency with which the highlighted mistake is an actor “breaking” — getting the giggles in the middle of a scene. It’s high-yield for studios in terms of getting audiences to see actors as people just like them, and for conveying the impression that the casts of television shows are friends — people in whose laughter you might share. The more interesting blooper reels allow audiences to see actors not only flubbing lines, but ad-libbing material. Riverdale’s blooper reels match the show’s campy self-parody: you can see KJ Apa, the actor who plays Archie Andrews, making out with a teddy bear, or Ashleigh Murray (Josie) getting the hiccups. Cole Sprouse (Jughead) pats a yellow lab and tells it, “Go method, doggie.”
Part of why blooper reels work as promotion is that the camera, as in the show itself, occupies the point of view of the audience. The actors generally face us, and the scenes being played out are for our consumption. Bloopers let us in on private jokes while reassuring us that the world behind the cameras is still recognizably centered on us. For the same reason, “behind-the-scenes” specials usually show no behind-the-scenes footage at all. They generally feature interviews with the actors, who sit facing the camera in a neutral environment, commenting on their character’s motivation or struggles. The interview format allows the work itself to remain intact, but — in drawing the body and voice of a character out of the work and resituating them in the actor — it offers a mirror image of the blooper reel. In bloopers, the real interrupts the artificial, but in interviews, the artificial erupts into the real.
Reality television offers intimacy through illusion-breaking of the kind that, in real life, you often have to know someone a long time to achieve
In fact, actual footage from the set is rarely part of behind-the-scenes content, because showing this world as it is runs the risk of alienating the viewer. The website makingof.com, created by actor Natalie Portman along with new media entrepreneur Christine Aylward, was intended to mimic the experience of visiting a film set; the creators wanted to give aspiring filmmakers a sense of how a movie comes together. The available videos are more revealing — and less watchable — than the promotional “behind-the-scenes” featurettes created by studios or production companies. The on-set footage from Bridesmaids is made up of short clips in which the camera and sound equipment are always visible. It’s not narrated or guided — no one explains the significance of what we’re seeing; we are instead left to piece together for ourselves what is important about the way the shot is being set up. Actors and crew members are not always looking at the camera, and their faces are sometimes hard to see. Important-looking figures debate in largely inaudible tones. This kind of footage breaks the illusion presented by a finished film, but it also breaks the illusion presented by behind-the-scenes footage when it is used purely for promotional purposes: that the world of the set embraces the viewer.
The desire to go behind the scenes of a story you love is a self-defeating desire. When I was 11 years old, my family went on a trip to Prince Edward Island, and my mother took me to see Green Gables Heritage Place, the farmhouse that belonged to Lucy Maud Montgomery’s cousins and served as the setting for the Anne of Green Gables books. I was so profoundly disappointed, I cried. The people and landscape of the Anne stories lived with such intensity in my head that no physical reality could contain the meaning I ascribed to them — everything was so solid, so concrete, it seemed to brutalize the private emotional space of the stories. It only brought home the crushing twin realities that Anne didn’t exist and that I wasn’t Anne.
Genuine behind-the-scenes footage of the makingof.com variety can have the same effect: It offers reality when what most viewers actually want is deeper communion with the illusion. In footage of a film set, actors and crew are immersed in their own concerns, with their backs to the audience, and the discerning viewer can get a sense of how the illusions are created, but this is not the same thing as entering into the true life of the created thing. Behind-the-scenes interviews with actors and directors try harder to help the viewer feel central or at least included. But the creation itself remains unreachable. Makers and audiences are both left grappling with the impossibility of giving the viewer access to something that doesn’t quite exist.
Jim & Andy presents an extreme version of the refusal of behind-the-scenes footage to render the world of the maker accessible or palatable to the viewer. Jim Carrey has silvered into the kind of older dude you might run into at a campfire on a nude beach. In other words, as the studio feared, he does seem like a bit of an asshole. But the asshole he seems like in the present-day interviews and the asshole he seems like in the old footage are of adjacent, rather than identical, varieties. Behind the scenes of Man on the Moon, Carrey remained in character, taking on Kaufman’s deliberately obnoxious but also shy persona for the entire length of the movie’s production. He ran in and out of other actors’ trailers with a paper bag on his head; he yelled and swore; he shuffled and mumbled. It’s inside footage without insider knowledge, and the archival footage itself — the most honest, unmediated behind-the-scenes access — tends to push the viewer away. It didn’t work as a marketing tool, which is why it’s only being shown now. In the context of the documentary, this footage is meant to illustrate why the world of a film set is dangerous: The layers of reality can’t be depended on to remain distinct.
Reality television is, in a sense, all behind the scenes, and the “reality” that viewers want from behind-the-scenes footage of reality TV is even more conflicted. If the emotional brinkmanship of suspending disbelief in fiction is the desire to be immersed, set against the fear of being manipulated, reality television viewers are operating in the emotionally complex space of pretending to accept “non-fiction” programming at face value, even as they are aware that this characterization is false.
In this way, reality television acts out some of the dissonance of everyday life, in which we pretend to accept the selves that people choose to show us, but remain aware that these are highly constructed. Reality television offers intimacy through illusion-breaking of the kind that, in real life, you often have to know someone a long time to achieve. Viewers know that reality television isn’t real, and producers know they know — but for the shows to work, they have to claim to be showing the truth while also offering to bring viewers behind the illusion. Producers must present revelations in a context in which we are already supposed to be seeing reality.
The blooper reels of reality TV resemble those of traditionally scripted television shows, but the threat they pose — to the viewer’s trust, and to the reality asserted by the production — is significantly higher. The Bachelor brilliantly complicates its own real factor, while generating added suspense and publicity, by playing its blooper reels on the show, at televised cast reunions that take place after shooting is done but before audiences learn the outcome in the finale. A blooper reel from the Nick Viall season of The Bachelor starts with prop and setting malfunctions — a tree blows over during the rose ceremony; contestant Rachel Lindsay, standing on a footpath in New Orleans, says to the camera, “I like to think of myself as kind of funny,” and an off-screen voice yells, “You’re not funny!” But the characterization of many of these honest moments as bloopers seems counter to the aim of the show — to get to know the “bachelor” and the contestants and to see them interact for real. In one sequence, contestant Raven Gates feeds Corinne Olympios with cubes of pineapple, saying, “You gotta use your jaws — that’s what the rodents do.” Corinne stuffs more and more pineapple cubes in her cheeks, then grins at the camera and, with her mouth full, says indistinctly, “I want the rose so bad.”
These sequences feel different from the hammy moments in the Riverdale bloopers reel because the Riverdale actors know their antics won’t be included in the show; the presence of a script makes it easy for them to tell the difference between the character and themselves. When what’s being filmed and presented purports to be unscripted, what does it mean to make a mistake? On The Bachelor, producers decide what’s considered a mistake and what’s considered the contestant’s real personality — or at least, the personality that is a tonal fit with the show’s romantic aims. In Rachel Lindsay’s Bachelorette season bloopers, Dean Unglert sticks a piece of gum behind his ear as one of his confessionals begins. What’s revealing here is that to begin with, it doesn’t seem to be hammy — his face is blank as he witnesses the producer’s reaction. “What?” he says. Then he pops the gum back in his mouth and says, laughing, “It’s my ear.”
The idea that someone else could label aspects of your personality and behavior “bloopers,” and simply edit them out of the narrative of who you are, is both a fantasy and a nightmare. From inside ourselves, we can’t be sure when we’re being charming and when we’re being annoying, or what’s spontaneous and fun versus obnoxious and controlling. The lack of a script means you can’t forget your lines, but it also means never quite being sure what to do. Some days an external editor seems like a technology everyone should have. But of course, being edited means being subject to someone else’s aesthetic — it means losing control over how complicated you are permitted to be.
Where actors in conventional shows have the luxury of a comparatively safe identity — a person they can be when the cameras aren’t rolling — contestants on shows like The Bachelor are not supposed to be acting; they are supposed to be living in full sight. Actual behind-the-scenes footage might reveal the separate reality of the film set as far as crew and producers are concerned, but the contestants themselves are stuck in the created world of the show even when the cameras are off. Reality TV stars are transformed in a more permanent way than actors are, since they consent to perform themselves. In this way, they resemble us more than the actors in fictions do — we are also stuck in the selves we show the world, with no way of knowing when we are acting and when we are being real.
The world of a film set is dangerous: The layers of reality can’t be depended on to remain distinct
Where The Bachelor and The Bachelorette are tightly focused on the personality as the stage for its events, Survivor has the relief valve of its challenges. And with this lower-stakes disruption of the real, Survivor has turned behind-the-scenes footage into a minor reality show of its own, complete with minor stars. The Dream Team is a group of stand-ins that Survivor uses to test new challenges, and a behind-the-scene series hosted by Survivor’s usual host, Jeff Probst, or by the show’s supervising producer, John Kirhoffer, gives viewers a preview of how the challenges are designed to work. The behind-the-scenes challenge rehearsals are slickly produced, with purple flames shooting across the screen and high-energy narration.
The YouTube popularity of these rehearsals has in turn given rise to another behind-the-scenes reality TV genre, a reality behind the reality behind the reality: video applications to become a member of the Dream Team. A 2013 video by applicant Nick Metzler kicks off with the lighting of a Survivor-like torch, and Metzler confides in voice-over, “Last summer, I created two spin-off Survivors for my friends, where I did everything in the production from handling logistics, designing challenges, selecting contestants, creating elaborate artwork, filming and editing portions of the event, hosting, snuffing contestant torches, and eventually garnering valuable lessons that I still use in life today.” Like any job application, the video purports to show reality, but the personality showcased is highly produced (even if production values are low). No one uses the word “garner” in real life. The Survivor Dream Team videos, however, are successful marketing because they sidestep the obvious question posed by behind-the-scenes footage — how much of reality TV is real?
Where behind-the-scenes space begins depends on where you are standing — the layers of behind-the-scenes activity of government are multiple, so Jackie Kennedy’s televised tour of the White House is a revelation that keeps the levers of governance hidden. Stepping into the kitchen of a restaurant means going behind the scenes, but each person, dish, or interaction has its own history representing further layers separating you from the truth. Even reading one’s own diaries, it can be hard to tell what is posture and what is honest feeling. The things we don’t admit to ourselves continue to retreat.
In a way, the entire project of art and entertainment is to give us a glimpse behind the scenes. The surfaces perceptible to us withhold their meaning; we don’t understand what other people are thinking or feeling, and why things happen the way they do. Art tries to rupture these surfaces to discover the mechanisms that make people and events glide forward on their hidden tracks. Viewers have a better shot at understanding the artificial world of Riverdale than at understanding their own lives.
In the interviews Carrey gives for Jim & Andy, which are intercut with the behind-the-scenes footage, he is a more articulate kind of asshole than in Man on the Moon: he fixes the camera with an earnest gaze and lectures the filmmaker on what reality is and how it works. His thesis is that there is no reality. Andy Kaufman died of cancer in 1984; his family visited the set of Man on the Moon to see him again in Jim Carrey. In the strangest and saddest twist of this story, Kaufman’s daughter, born when he was a teenager and given up for adoption, came to the set to meet her father for the first time in Carrey’s body, the way you might visit a medium to ask for messages from loved ones in the spirit world. Carrey lost himself and let Kaufman take him over; on the set, the line between what was real and what was artifice became ever more blurred. Referencing his own 1998 movie The Truman Show, Carrey says, “I stepped through the door — the door is the realization that this” — he waves his hands to indicate the room where the present-day interview is taking place, himself in the room, and the world beyond the room — “us — is Seaside. It’s the dome. This isn’t real. You know? This is a story.”
“All we really root for,” Carrey says, somewhere towards the end of his long, strange interview with the filmmaker, Christopher Nicholas Smith, “is our own absence.” Carrey is talking about the layers of performativity that make up the personality — not only for actors, but for everyone. Our obsession with sleuthing out what is truly going on behind the scenes of our favorite shows and movies is a bottomless dive, leading us deeper and deeper into the unbreathable element that surrounds us.
This essay is part of a collection of essays on the theme of REALITY TV. Also from this week, Kelli Korducki on the pursuit of romance, which was made for television.