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Panelists Duped by Fake News Show Are Not Amused

Some of those who gathered in O.C. for the filming of a serious documentary on politics are furious after TV crew reveals the ruse.

April 16, 2006|Jean O. Pasco | Times Staff Writer

Comedy Central TV came to Orange County, but the joke was on those attending a panel discussion they thought was being filmed for a serious documentary.

Some locals are furious about the ruse, worried that they might end up looking foolish on national television.

Things got weird immediately, said several people who attended the March 30 taping at the Tustin Hills Racquet Club, when "panelist" Matt Walsh, introduced as a TV newscaster from Spokane, Wash., addressed the crowd, which had been invited to discuss the media's coverage of politics.

Walsh began reminiscing about an interview subject who wanted to have sex with him and offered other outlandish tales of his TV experiences.

"He was doing a bad Ron Burgundy impersonation," said Chapman University political science professor Fred Smoller, referring to comedian Will Ferrell's outrageous TV newsman in the 2004 movie "Anchorman."

"This guy was trying to be a provocateur, and the rest of us kept trying to make it serious," said Smoller, one of the panelists.

What the Orange County crowd stumbled into was a 10-episode series called "Dog Bites Man." Set to premier in June, the series was described in a Comedy Central news release as "an outrageous, improvised, single-camera show that features a group of dysfunctional fake newscasters interacting with real people and is presented in a documentary style format."

The news crew, from fictitious station KSGY-TV, was played by actors Zach Galifianakis, A.D. Miles, Andrea Savage and Walsh, who lists among his TV credits the satirical news program "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart," where he played a correspondent.

Even the website that producers invited Smoller and others to consult about the alleged documentary "American Eye" was fake. "American Eye" is the name of the faux station's morning show.

Not everyone was as angry with the deception as Smoller.

"Initially I thought the guy from Spokane was just obnoxious," said panelist Tim Redwine, a telecommunications consultant from Lake Forest. "Then I realized, 'He's not just obnoxious. He's a plant.'

Sharon Underwood, president of the Orange County Federation of Republican Women, said she jumped to the audience microphone several times, but was more provoked by those in the crowd criticizing President Bush than Walsh's kooky newsman.

"I think there were people in the audience trying to incite things," said Underwood, of Anaheim Hills. "But people don't do that, especially in Tustin. We don't just start yelling."

Smoller said he was so incensed that he contacted a lawyer to discuss filing a lawsuit to prevent the footage from being broadcast. He said none of his e-mails or phone calls to the producers were returned. He said he didn't know Comedy Central was involved until a reporter told him.

Each participant in advance had signed a release agreeing to participate, said Steve Albani, Comedy Central's vice president of corporate communications.

"When you're dealing with this fusion of reality and fiction, you need to be very careful how you represent yourself," he said from New York. "We're confident that our production staff accurately represented what they were filming."

That wasn't the way things should have been handled, said Edward J. Fink, chairman of Cal State Fullerton's department of radio, film and television.

Producers, he said, had an obligation to come clean at the end of filming and allow people to opt out after the ruse was revealed, as was the case with TV's "Candid Camera."

This isn't the first time people felt ambushed by a reality show.

Two years ago, actor William Shatner gave the residents of Riverside, Iowa, a preview of what they were led to believe was a low-budget science fiction movie that he filmed in town. Instead, he revealed that he was filming a reality show for Spike TV about a small town playing host to a Hollywood film shoot.

Hurt feelings were assuaged when Shatner donated $100,000 to the city for community projects.

In 2003, MTV premiered its "Punk'd" series which featured actor Ashton Kutcher filming pranks on other celebrities. Several threatened to sue, although most go along with the gag.

"The theory of comedy is that people can't suffer lasting harm," Fink said.

"It's funny to see real reactions, but after the fact, you want to believe they were told what happened and said, 'OK, I'll let America have a good laugh at my expense.' "

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