We knew from the beginning that the marketing campaign was really going to make or break the whole project, so we had to choose our language very carefully. That meant “serf” and “indentured servant” were out immediately—too much historical baggage—and "licensee" and "lessee" were too legalistic, not enough implied fun. So we performed the Thunk Tank mind meld, and came up with the answer almost immediately: “Contestant!”
The word implied a sense of promise and great potential, but with no guarantees. Winners would succeed in a great meritocracy, while losers had no one to blame but themselves. “Citizen,” I mean, what a burden, what a dull stink of responsibility that has, but “contestant”… well, hot damn, a contestant gets a moment in the spotlight, the opportunity to vie for greatness. “Contestant” rhymes with “celebrity” and celebrities are sexy. “Congratulations! You’ve been selected to be a contestant on the town formerly known as Munising!” It was brilliant.
Rick Snyder has the name of a game show host and the face of a traveling vacuum cleaner salesman. He’s a businessman, a venture capitalist, and a self-described nerd. I actually don’t think he pushed through the Local Government and School District Fiscal Accountability Act as a salvo against Working Class America, or as a nefarious power grab for the oligarchy. I think he truly believes the gospel of corporate efficiency and—as nerds often do—confused a “rational” choice for a “good” choice, without really comprehending the inevitable consequences of his plan. Like many nerds, he’s also a sucker for flashy PowerPoint presentations, and like many corporate executives he’s a sucker for jargon-riddled, buzzword-referencing executive summaries, and this is where we saw our opening.
Michigan had budget problems, and thanks to the LGaSDFA Act, if the governor thought a town was almost broke, and local officials weren’t cooperating with the state to resolve the problems, good ol’ Rick could appoint a Financial Manager to step in and play Sim City with real people. Managers could default on bonds, ignore union demands, rearrange schools … hell, they could disincorporate and merge whole towns if they wanted! For obvious reasons, becoming Financial Managers seemed like a highly desirable position for us, and so we used some of Bronwyn’s connections to certain Olds to get an audience with the Rickster and explain how he was looking at a real crisitunity here.
First thing, we held a press conference congratulating everyone in town on being selected to participate in the new season of Survivor: Economy Edition, a hot new reality show we were confident would be picked up by a network after we’d put together a few episodes to shop around. The premise was that citizens of an average Midwestern town (now renamed Awesomeville) would compete in a series of challenges lasting between a few hours and the rest of their mortal lives.
Winners would receive fabulous prizes and the privilege of becoming reality TV stars, to be alternately worshipped and mocked by the paparazzi. Losers would have the privilege of being alternately worshipped and mocked by the paparazzi and vying to participate in other, even more degrading reality TV towns. The air was electric when we made the announcement. A situation that most of the townsfolk had been dreading instead become a momentous event, like going to the dentist for a root canal and instead having your face shot full of a neurotoxic bacteria that prevents you from expressing emotions!
Of course, in the interest of protecting the show’s exciting conclusion from leaking to the press, contestants had to sign non-disclosure agreements preventing them from publically or privately discussing any of the wonderful things that would be happening in their town. Mixed in the fine print was a user agreement stipulating that they’d all begin licensing from ThunkTank Enterprises LLC (rather than personally owning) any and all personal property, familial relationships, self worth, basic dignities, human rights, etc. for the duration of the production. Details, details—this was a chance for stardom!
The first challenge for Awesomeville was called Foxconn You Handle It? A nearby cave had been outfitted as a manufacturing plant for Chinese technology company Foxconn—makers of the fabulous iPhone!—and contestants would try to survive working in the same conditions that drove ten Chinese employees to commit suicide in 2010. We told the townspeople we were using hidden cameras to heighten the realism, and it was amazing to see them jump into the challenge. During elimination rounds, we’d remove workers to see who could work double shifts, or hustle fast enough to make up for the missing employees. Awesomeville was such a success (generating millions for Foxconn as contestants worked for even lower wages than Chinese employees) that Governor Rick quickly put us in change of other towns.
We kept the same reality show premise, but changed some of the details. In one town, we said it was a retro-themed show called Glory of the Gilded Age. Contestants vied to be chosen as the Robber Baron’s Bootlick by competing in period-specific challenges like Koal Mining for Kids, Race Riot at the Five Points, and Triangle Shirtwaist Funhouse. By framing the experience as historically accurate, we were able to get contestants excited about rolling back 150 years of labor-rights legislation and working long hours in dangerous conditions.
Bear-ly Legal tapped into the whole green-movement, eco-consciousness trend. 100 residents of a town near Hiawatha Forest traded places with 100 bears for one year. The contestants moved to the bear’s habitat and strip mined it for a valuable mineral used to fortify luxury cat food, while the bears moved into the contestants’ homes and tried out the suburban life, doing their best to get along with the remaining 500 residents of the town. Hilarity ensued!
For our most successful show, Race to the Bottom!, we didn’t even bother to declare towns in financial crisis. Instead, seven towns with perfectly functional economies competed to see which one could make themselves most attractive to exploitive corporations. Whether this meant eliminating public schooling in order to free up money for corporate giveaways, offering to pay logging corporations to cut down old-growth forests, or making hospitals and nursing homes available for toxic waste storage, each town was eager to hit bottom first. The winning town was selected by our panel of celebrity judges including Rob Lowe, Tito Jackson, Styx guitarist James Young, and one of the cast members from Jersey Shore that’s not Snookie or the Situation.
Initially, we never considered trying to actually get TV networks involved; we figured just holding out the promise of a real show would suffice for most contestants. But once some executives saw that people in our towns were doing things even more degrading than the fried–horse-dick eating and snot-pool swimming that happened on Fear Factor, they wanted in. See, the stunts and petty bickering that are featured on most reality shows are embarrassing, but not really humiliating. Viewers were growing tired of the low-level nut-kicking in shows like Wipe Out. They wanted reality TV bukkake, real twisted darkness. We, or rather the struggling contestants of Michigan, gave them that, and were happy to do it. Within a year, 74 percent of the contestants in our towns had experienced between 15 and 23 minutes of fame, Snyder was the leading Republican candidate for President, and Thunk Tank was no longer just a radio show—it was a fiefdom. Jay finally was able to ice climb as much as he wanted, and Bronwyn could do whatever it is that she likes to do. But then came Sweeps Week.
Once the networks were involved, we were no longer independent. They really put the pressure on us to come up with something spectacular, something to top everything we’d done so far. In retrospect, declaring war against the province of Ontario was probably not the best idea. Sudbury, Red Lake, Moosonee … It wasn’t just boring, it was positively soporific. We were cancelled after just two weeks. Luckily, WFMU agreed to take us back, and in our old time slot on Tuesdays. Now we’re doing our weekly radio show again, and it’s like the whole thing never happened.