Reality Roundtable: Jeff Probst, Tim Gunn, Carson Daly on 'Duck Dynasty' Furor, Pushing Contestants Too Far
This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter magazine Emmys special.
A chat about reality TV quickly turned into a heated debate not unlike those on their shows: Was A&E right to suspend then reinstate Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson for anti-gay comments? But like any good producer of unscripted TV, Deirdre Gurney was candid (and had a few laughs) about the struggles that come with keeping her zeitgeisty docuseries about a Louisiana family of duck-calling entrepreneurs the genre's biggest cable hit. This supergroup of personalities -- The Voice's Carson Daly, 40; Project Runway's Tim Gunn; 60; Pawn Stars' producer Brent Montgomery, 39; The Real World's co-creator Jonathan Murray, 59; Survivor's Jeff Probst, 52; and Duck Dynasty's Gurney -- spoke freely about the bizarre scheduling demands that come with hot talent (nap time, for some, is crucial), the fearful moments when a contestant is rushed to the hospital and the bizarre lifelong connections that are formed when six strangers are picked to live in a house -- and our living rooms -- for more than two decades.
Deirdre, what did you think when you first heard about the comments to GQ that Robertson made in December about gays and blacks?
CARSON DALY The easy stuff first!
DEIRDRE GURNEY I don't think anyone expected that kind of reaction, so no one was prepared with what to say. We were out of it as the production company. When something happens with talent or the network, it's really the network's job [to handle it]. We make it for them, but it's their show, and they decide how they want to handle it. The hard thing with that is it happened over the Christmas holiday.
JEFF PROBST What did you want to happen?
GURNEY I wanted to be able to speak and explain, but we couldn't. We know our talent. I know Phil Robertson. I know how he treats a crew that has several gay people on it and people of different races.
TIM GUNN Are you saying he didn't make the comments?
GURNEY He made them, but he doesn't deny who he is. He has beliefs and stands by them. But that isn't how he treats people -- it is what he thinks. I think there's a separation.
GUNN Was anyone surprised that he made the comments?
Had you heard him say those things before?
GURNEY No, I haven't.
And the network had no prior knowledge that this is something that might come up in an interview with a national magazine?
GURNEY I don't know what the network thought. But you asked me how I felt at the time, and how I felt was, I wish I could have explained to people the person I know. When someone comments to the press, things are taken out of context. Reporters are dealing with people who don't have media training.
BRENT MONTGOMERY I think it cuts to the core of reality TV. We're plucking these people out [of obscurity] and telling them they're special. They don't have any training in how to handle themselves under these bright lights.
GUNN I have the greatest respect for not managing people or meddling in the creative of the show. Just let things happen. I'm speaking for Project Runway, in this case. I have the greatest respect for the integrity of what the show is about. And there is integrity.
JONATHAN MURRAY The best reality characters are people who have flaws. If they're perfect, they're probably boring. Part of why we select these people is because there are layers to them. When you've been working for talent for years, they're evolving. They may not be the same person you started to work with. It's not a science. They have rights to express themselves outside the show like anybody else does. And they ultimately have to decide whether that expression is going to hurt them or not, and the network has every right to say, "This is who we are, this is what we believe, and this person has the right to say what they believe."
But what happened with Duck Dynasty was the network said, "This is not who we are," took action and fans revolted.
MURRAY Right, but it was the taking action [that mattered]. Unfortunately, the network didn't play it out. They didn't look down the road as to the wisest course of action. The worst thing you can do as a network is to say something and then take it back. Ultimately, the viewers decide whether they're comfortable watching that person or not. It's tricky when someone is couching their beliefs in their religious beliefs. Don't people have a right to believe something in their religion? It's a fine line.
GUNN I've been more vocal than most on this topic because I'm part of the same family of networks [A+E], so I've been approached a lot and have been, I hope, politically correct in simply saying, "I don't have a comment, other than: Is anyone surprised by Phil Robertson's statement?" I wasn't.
And there are viewers who watch Duck Dynasty who share his sentiments.
GUNN Which I find to be a little alarming, but that's the way it is.
And that audience may not want to watch Project Runway.
GUNN I'd be surprised if we shared our viewers.
GURNEY I watch both.
GUNN Well, thank you, Deirdre. But you're also not a homophobe.
DALY Are we done with the heavy stuff?
PROBST You can speak now!
DALY This is why I only work with atheists. We don't have problems like this.
What would you say is the most worrisome trend in reality right now?
DALY Given the news with the Clippers, sensitivity issues of race are hot right now. Zooming out, a larger issue is always managing high-profile talent. On The Voice, we have four of the biggest names in music. The good news about that is they come with their own PR machines. They know how to express themselves or hold things back. When they go out and say things, it falls back on them. That's something we can't control. They learn -- some [the hard way]. Blake Shelton was a guy who would never normally be on Twitter, and early on, he was expressing views there, and I think he has learned a lesson.
MURRAY But I think reality has actually led in the area of diversity. Look back at the first Survivor with Richard Hatch. Who would have written a script where the gay, Machiavellian guy wins the season? We started it with The Real World -- putting diverse people together and creating a conversation that would have story arcs, doing something that scripted generally wasn't doing. Reality actually has been ahead of the curve in terms of reflecting different kinds of voices and people.
PROBST As [Survivor] season one was winding down, we'd just done day 38 of this 39-day experiment. There was this other guy, Rudy, a 72-year-old with a 45-year career as a Navy SEAL.
GUNN I remember.
PROBST That's who you'd want to win the show!
MURRAY If it was a scripted show, he would have won.
PROBST Exactly. And I still remember the final challenge. We thought, "Oh my God, all Rudy has to do is stand there and he'll win. He'll outlast these other two goofballs." Then he goes to scratch his head and the game's over and Richard Hatch is going to win. We thought, "We're doomed. He's not likable, he's been parading around calling himself the big, fat, naked, gay guy!"
MONTGOMERY But it also made it real, like John said, because we all expected Rudy to win.
PROBST When you ask about a worrisome trend, I do think it's interesting that reality is slowly taking itself right back into scripted, and audiences know it. I think shows that are really good at it pull it off, but others aren't as well done. The thing that nobody's really talking about is, 12 or 15 years ago, writers were saying: "Oh, I hate reality TV. It doesn't use any writers." Then slowly it became, "We're going to help the storyline a little bit, and if it's done well, the audience doesn't seem to mind." But if you don't do it well, the viewer smells it.
MONTGOMERY But reality popped off of scripted not doing well and the writers strike. Reality has to react because film was giving up so many of its directors and actors to scripted, and the best scripted TV is [happening] right now.
DALY Also access is big. You want to give viewers the greatest access with social media. There's a huge sense of entitlement. When we were at MTV, Fox had The O.C., and we thought, "How can we give our viewers even more access?" Well, we'll do a reality show called Laguna Beach: The Real O.C., and if they liked the scripted [version of reality,] it will go further and further.
GURNEY It looked clean and beautiful.
DALY It was cinematic. We always referred to it as anticipatory reality. We knew it wasn't just C-SPAN reality: Let's just follow this around. Shots were set up, restaurants were lit, we knew they were going with an ex.
MONTGOMERY The final shot when they pulled back and revealed [the cameras and lighting] -- that was better than The Sopranos ending!
What was a moment when you knew you had pushed a reality contestant too far?
MONTGOMERY We had a girl on a competition show for weight loss who didn't accurately fill out her health survey and forgot to tell us she had asthma. She had to be rushed to the hospital, 45 minutes away. That was scary.
PROBST We had a guy who hyperventilated from being dehydrated. He was the group leader and decided that the best thing to do was to not drink and let everyone else have the water.
GUNN Good heavens.
PROBST He was very proud of the fact that the women should drink first. The guy's like, "I'm a warrior!" And it's a 115-degree day. He fell backwards, eyes are rolling in the back of his head. I thought, "This is really bad." But we always have a medical team on site. Those moments are part of the experiment. We also have a psychologist on set. I want to be able to sleep soundly at night. We never feel the need to push someone. You shouldn't have to if your show's built right.
MONTGOMERY Deirdre and I don't get to sell shows that are like Survivor and Real World, with budgets that allow series to develop over time. A lot of the notes we get from the networks are: "Make sure that you have the show shot in this time frame and on budget."
GURNEY That is the economy. It was great in the beginning with those shows; you were able to have cameras there 24/7. But we work with crews who have time limits. We have to consider their well-being, which is a really hard part of our job. As much as you worry about your cast, you're putting your crew through everything the cast is going through. If the cast chooses to do something crazy, the crew follows. I'm a parent; I feel like a parent to my crew. We are responsible for them.
MONTGOMERY I once dragged a camera operator up these train tracks to get a shot of a show participant. But he was shooting out of the wrong eye -- most guys would shoot with their right and hold their left eye open to see what's ahead -- and a train was coming. At the very last second, I pulled him over. It missed us by a few inches. Now as a father, I'm very sensitive about the kind of shows we produce and not putting people [in harm's way].
PROBST Deirdre, you bring up a good point about taking care of your crews. On Survivor, we live in a jungle for several months, so we have our own social experiment within our crew. There are rivalries. "We're tougher than you guys." They take enormous pride in it. I remember once we were in a part of the country where there were leeches, and the [crew was] doing an interview with somebody in a river. Unbeknownst to anybody other than the camera operator, a leech had crawled up his leg, all the way into his … darkest spot.
DALY Stand by Me!
GURNEY They go there.
PROBST But here's the thing: The interview continues for 45 minutes. He's getting good stuff. Then when it was over, he has his A.C. photograph the evidence because it's like a …
MURRAY Badge of honor.
PROBST They don't say, "Do you know what you made me do?" They come back and say, "Look what I did!
GUNN It's similar with the Runway crew, I have to say. No leeches, but they take great pride in getting great shots. When you're working with sewing machines, that could be a challenge.
MONTGOMERY But just as dangerous!
What's the strangest thing that happened on your shows but never aired?
MONTGOMERY I worked on Blind Date. We had a four-person crew, and this date took six hours. The idea was the couple was either going to get along really well or not at all. And this guy had one too many [drinks]. As I was interviewing the girl, I look up, and he's commandeered -- his blood alcohol level is three times the legal limit -- a scooter, and he's off!
DALY I wasn't going far. (Laughter.)
GURNEY Our [show] families need private time or they'll go crazy. We can't shoot every birthday, anniversary, Christmas. When the network hears you missed an event, they're like, "Why didn't we cover that?"
MURRAY At this point, with Kardashians [which Murray produces], there are events that we don't participate in. The worst thing, as a producer, is when the tabloids have something that your show doesn't. That's when the network says, "We've paid a lot of money [for this]."
What are those conversations like with Kris Jenner?
MURRAY She's an executive producer, so often she's equally upset that one of her kids didn't let us participate. It's an interesting thing going on now with this Tori Spelling show [True Tori]. It's being produced within three weeks of air because they're trying to line it up with the tabloids, to get the synergy.
GURNEY We have a new show with LeAnn Rimes and Eddie Cibrian that's similar. They're in the tabloids so much that we shoot just to keep up with the story so that once we air, it will be fresh.
And sometimes reality talent can get more money doing the tabloid story or an appearance. How do you deal with that?
MONTGOMERY That's a tipping point.
GURNEY The Robertsons have been great about keeping up the integrity of the show. I think they do less tabloid promotion than others. They mostly do those promotions for book launches, but they let the show be the show.
MONTGOMERY On Pawn Stars, we do 104 episodes this year, which for reality is …
MONTGOMERY But they also have these opportunities, because they're in Las Vegas, to speak at a Microsoft convention. We have to work around that.
GURNEY They get paid a lot for those events, and you can't compete.
MURRAY But you have to remind them: "The show got you here. This is your calling card."
Does Kim Kardashian respond to that?
MURRAY Yes, actually. They've been great. Particularly in the last three seasons, they've been really united.
GURNEY Your relationship with your cast has to be really strong. You have to communicate with them. They get tired, too. The older people on our cast, Uncle Si, he loves to nap! We have to build rest into the schedule for them.
MONTGOMERY We have a guy called The Old Man on Pawn Stars, and we have to be done shooting by noon with him.
DALY I love him!
Many of our panelists have spoken of the need for aftercare for when people are eliminated from shows.
GUNN We sequester those who are eliminated so they're still there. I have a chance to interact with them. I think it's hardest when we get down to four semifinalists. You can see it, you can taste it, and suddenly, you're gone.
MONTGOMERY Tim, do you point out success stories of people who didn't win?
GUNN All the time. But a lot of them have achieved success, and they can only be as successful as their resources and their ambitions allow them to be, and we have no control over that. But you talk about conflict and stress on the show … we try to mitigate it as quickly as possible. Unless there's a healthy, comfortable environment, they don't do good work. We're constantly trying to problem-solve and …
MURRAY Make them drink water and take a meal break.
GUNN Leave the workroom at midnight!
PROBST I'm just realizing, we have psychologists on our show, but the guy I'd want to come comfort me is Tim! And in our strangest-ever elimination, somebody kissed me.
DALY It's those dimples, let's be honest.
PROBST When people get voted out, they are shocked. "What just happened?" Then, within 20 seconds of them being off, our psychologist is there. They say, "I'm really upset."
MONTGOMERY There's also a big buffet.
PROBST Food and shower!
MONTGOMERY Helps ease it.
GUNN It's like experiencing death -- 24 hours later, it all sets in.
PROBST That's a good analogy.
John, how closely do you stay in touch with The Real World alums?
MURRAY I've been to weddings and baptisms. Some people stay in your lives forever. If I'm walking down Fifth Avenue in New York, and I see someone coming toward me who was on one of my shows, I always want to be able to shake their hands and feel like I treated them well. I did feel like we went too far with the way we edited one show, particularly, for a woman whom I felt like she did sleep around a little. I think we showed too much. I had regrets over it because I actually ran into her. She was very nice, and we re-edited the show for reruns. My conscience just said we had gone too far. Usually, when people are starting to have sex in The Real World house, the camera will pan off or go to black, and we'd just gone a little too far.
PROBST People who come off well say: "I got a good edit. They captured me, that's pretty much me." And the villains go, "They gave me a bad edit."
DALY No, you're just a bad person.
PROBST We didn't create what you said. The people who thrive are the ones who say, "I'm not perfect. I got my bad points." And then people go, "Yes."
DALY I have famous friends who say that tabloid is out to get me; it's a witch hunt. Um, you were there!
PROBST I have a Google Alert on Carson.
GUNN The editing on Project Runway is kind to everyone -- including me!
MURRAY There are times when we take off some of the rough edges, even if you're a villain.
DALY Forgetting that cameras are there is the best thing you can do. On The Voice, we put up four walls that look like a little viewing room. And in come 100-plus families from all over the country to watch our "blind auditions," where the chairs turn around [or they don't]. I'm with the families watching their loved ones. I feel like a priest! I was actually a theology major in college, and people ask me, "How hard is it when chairs don't turn around?" Very! To us, it's a day at work. To them, it was a Southwest flight, a hotel, a shuttle ride. I get very caught up trying so hard to make sure that these families feel comfortable.
GURNEY Watching a parent watch their child's dream be crushed …
DALY And people are definitely crushed. There was a billionaire father, and his son didn't go into the family business. He wasn't approving of his son trying to be a singer. And no chairs turned around. The father said something like, "See? Nobody wanted him."
GUNN My God.
DALY I wanted to strangle him. As a host, sometimes you're in these reality moments where you feel a need to remind your fellow human beings, "Hey, that's your son up there. How about a little bit of respect?"
What reality show have you not done but wish you could?
DALY I loved Cops, so I've always wanted to do Meter Maids. I love the idea of the parking ticket.
There is a show like that, though.
MONTGOMERY A&E's Parking Wars.
MONTGOMERY It's pretty successful.
GUNN I would like to do a season of Project Runway where every model is larger than a size 12.
DALY That's a great idea.