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Spike TV's dwarf wrestling show targets young, male demographic

The little people involved in 'Half Pint Brawlers' are as hard core off camera as they are in the ring. But some worry about the message the show is sending.

June 02, 2010|By T. L. Stanley, Special to the Los Angeles Times

If you're at all squeamish about seeing someone get cash staple-gunned to his privates or 4-foot-tall wrestlers mauling each other while beer-drinking bar patrons egg them on, you might not be the target for the Spike network's new late-night series, "Half Pint Brawlers."

But if you're into "Jackass"-style stunts, choreographed grappling matches and pants-dropping spectacles, you may have just found your new appointment viewing.

Spike, the testosterone-fueled home of "The Ultimate Fighter," "1,000 Ways to Die" and "Manswers," launches the six-episode show at 11 p.m. Wednesday. It will follow a group of little people, led by outspoken actor-comedian-entrepreneur Steve Richardson, who goes by the stage name Puppet the Psycho Dwarf.

Richardson and his five Half Pint Brawler cohorts travel the country performing at bars, nightclubs and sports arenas — and a Louisiana maximum-security prison — for a series that also captures their shenanigans outside the ring. The guys haze the rookie in the crew, nicknamed Turtle, with extreme manscaping in the first episode. Again, not for the weak of stomach. (Executive producers include Duke Straub, who shot the initial footage that helped sell the show, and Trip Taylor, a veteran of crazy-stunt TV series like "Jackass" and "Wildboyz.")

Spike, laser focused in its pursuit of the young male demographic, sees the show as a "character-based docu-soap," according to executive vice president of original programming Sharon Levy. "The pilot tested through the roof," she said. "You want to hang out with these guys."

Richardson himself admitted, "It's not the most politically correct show," as evidenced by the "Got Midgets?" T-shirt he sometimes wears. But it's not a throwback circus act either.

"We're not clowns, we're athletes," Richardson said. "We're never going to be professional basketball players or football players, but we can wrestle. We do everything you see the big guys do."

That can involve getting their heads split open, as brawler Bobby did during filming, smashing thumbtacks into one anothers' faces, drinking heavily and shamelessly flirting with groupies. And they're as hard core in their daily lives as they are when they're performing, cast member Kato said, describing his daredevil motorcycle jump over a couple of farm animals as the group made its way through the South en route to an appearance on New Orleans' Bourbon Street.

Gary Arnold, vice president of public relations at advocacy group Little People of America, said he's impressed on one hand by television's newfound interest in people of short stature and the diverse portrayals he's seen, from "Little People, Big World" to "Little Chocolatiers."

"I'm not sure what the motivation is, but the shows about little people, their families and pursuits and careers don't put us on display as freaks to be gawked at and laughed at," he said. "It says that we're not defined only as little people."

On the other hand, he turned down an invitation to appear on "Half Pint Brawlers" because he wasn't sure if he'd have a chance to seriously debate sensitive issues that little people face today. Arnold said he's not opposed to the series or to the stars' chosen profession, but he doesn't approve of the frequent use of the "m" word (that is, midget).

"It reinforces archaic stereotypes, and it's derogatory and objectifying," he said. "The LPA and other groups have worked really hard to raise awareness about language and its message. That's what worries me about the show."

Spike executives said they aren't censoring the brawlers, who refer to themselves as midgets, and don't think a backlash is forthcoming. The channel's on-air promotions for the show don't use the "m" word but play with the stars' stature as the unique hook. "The biggest new thing on TV is 4 feet tall," says the promo. "Say hello to our little friends."

Richardson, a pint-sized P.T. Barnum who formed his troupe more than a dozen years ago at a Chicago bar, doesn't mince words. "Nobody would care about something called little people wrestling," he said. "They come to see midget wrestling."

The brawlers draw the line, though, at dwarf tossing and similar games. "I don't knock midgets who make money that way," Kato said. "But if I don't see normal-sized people getting harnessed up and thrown down a bowling lane, then I don't want to do it either."

Since it's a cable show scheduled for late night, "Half Pint Brawlers" may be able to push the edges more than a prime-time series. For advertisers looking for the young male audience likely to be watching, that content may pose no problems at all.

"Advertisers who are fine with being in 'South Park' will probably be fine with this show," said Shari Anne Brill, media industry analyst. "But anyone else will be very cautious about it."

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