The packed midtown television studio of The Bill Cunningham Show was pimped out in the fake-wood paneling and industrial gray paint of a New Jersey office park. On its stage sat a geeky white guy, his hair moussed in a dated faux-hawk. He was furious.
He called himself K.T., claiming to be a prince of the gypsies, which entitled him to certain extracurricular liberties when it came to romance. His essential theory: He could cheat on his girlfriend, Cynthia, as much as he wished. Cynthia, on the other hand, should be strictly bound by Victorian rules.
Then came the twist: K.T. had recently discovered that the wealthy Cynthia was cheating on him with his boss. Now all three sat onstage, prepared for the cathartic confrontation that only reality talk show hosts like Cunningham could provide.
"I cheat on her but she can't cheat on me," K.T. announced in a Southern accent of mysterious origin. "I am a Magyar gypsy and leader of my caravan. All gypsy men are allowed to cheat, as long as they are honest about it."
The crowd booed lustily. Cunningham, a man of alarmingly hawklike features, perched at the edge of his leatherish chair like an eager child watching a car accident.
Despite his fury, K.T. admitted that he was only using Cynthia for her money.
At that, she jumped from her chair, reached down her blouse, ripped a gel pad from her bra and shook it at the audience. "If I was so rich," she bellowed, "Why would I be wearing one of these? I'd have my boobs done!"
The audience gasped. Cunningham had once again lived up to his show's motto: "Real stories, real emotion, real drama. It's daytime talk for real."
Or maybe not.
What the host didn't know is that K.T. was actually 31-year-old Ken Tarr, a budding mastermind of the reality TV hoax. Over the past five months, working out of his modest Los Angeles apartment, Tarr had talked his way onto eight different shows taped in five different cities — each time cloaked in a different persona. He'd become a dissonant saboteur in the machinery of sleaze that sprawls across our televisions.
For Judge Joe Brown, he pretended to be a drunk gypsy clown who trashed a bathroom at a kid's birthday party. On The Trisha Goddard Show, he played Eddie the Trucker, a discount lothario who ran up $70,000 in debts by bedding hookers and playing the lottery. For Unfaithful, a show produced by Oprah Winfrey's OWN, he was an international security expert who was cheating on his girlfriend — who was also cheating on him. And on The Sit-Down, a show in which ex-mafioso Michael Franzese mediates disputes over dinner, he played a mope whose best friend had seduced his girlfriend and crashed his car.
In just a few months, Tarr had become one of the most prolific television hoaxers in U.S. history, merrily running an insurgent's war against an industry seemingly immune to shame. He was fueled by a hodgepodge of intellectual challenge, a dissident's sense of humor and, yes, a quest for some measure of fame.
"Television insults and manipulates us all the time," he says. "So I thought I might as well come up with my own hoaxes and demonstrate how you can manipulate them."
In the beginning, there was darkness. Then, in 1970, Phil Donahue emerged from the gloom to invent the reality talk show.
The format was simple: Guests aired their problems, and the earnest former newsman tried to fix them.
Donahue reigned over the genre for the next 16 years, working a G-rated formula that, compared to today's salacious fare, was akin to Masterpiece Theater for the trailer-park set.
His invention would make for a minor gold mine. TV execs discovered they could shed overhead on things like actors, scripts and filming on location. All they needed was a host and a studio audience. America's inherent weirdness would cover the rest.
But 1987, the Lord decided that good needed a balancing evil — especially since evil might be capable of better ratings. And this gave rise to Morton Downey Jr.
Downey brought his own commandments to talk TV: adultery, greed, fights, competitive chair-hurling. His show would breed a throng of disciples like Jerry, Geraldo, Sally, Montel and Maury.
Elsewhere in the kingdom, the Lord called upon Los Angeles Judge Joseph Wapner to create an everyman's court, where folks could settle their disputes on national television.
The People's Court debuted in 1981, equipped with the voice-over, "What you are witnessing is real."
Today, the show survives into its corpulent 30s, having birthed little jurists along the way, including Judges Mathis, Judy, Brown and Alex.
Ken Tarr was born into this era, right about the time Wapner taped his first season. He grew up in Alta Loma, a web of subdivisions 40 miles east of Los Angeles.