Who the Man?

Two new talk shows strip Nineties manhood down to its soiled skivvies

Do you know anyone who actually reads Gear? I don't. Nor do I fantasize about seducing Russian stewardesses hungry for First World lovin', or cutting the rug at the hottest clubs in Barcelona. On the other hand, I haven't yet moved to the earning bracket where I can realistically consider skiing in Aspen or golfing in South Carolina, the particulars of which endeavors can be gleaned from the pages of Men's Journal or Esquire. But for decades (Esquire dates to the 1930s, Playboy to 1953), millions of men and boys have sought such counsel on all these matters, filling a dependable nook in the magazine world for those who feel called to learn what to do and how to be. "New Magazine Offers Astute Literary Criticism, Tits," goes the headline in The Onion's This Stupid Century, and, indeed, man-pulps have raked in the bucks by drilling four generations on how to use Hemingway as a retail lifestyle: Be tough. Buy smart. Get laid.

For some reason, these projects flounder on TV. Probably it's sublimation: Guys have watched "guy shows" like The A-Team or Nash Bridges in droves to follow the protagonists' manly clues, but they punch the remote as soon as anything addressing them as guys comes on. So whether it's the embarrassing specter of men admitting confusion in public or just some flaw in the execution, thus far men behaving badly (much less men behaving well) haven't dented prime time. Ur-guy Hugh Hefner failed not once but twice with variety shows a decade apart, both of which staggered through single seasons before being put down. Maybe boys really do want to be heard and not seen.

Still, that legacy doesn't deter newcomers from scaling these peaks. Even with recent years seeing the eclipse of the classic "guy show" in favor of the fussbudget (Seinfeld, Frasier) or the sensitive professional (E.R., Law & Order), two new cable shows have dared to bare their manhood for America. Whoever does read Maxim--and there must be quite a lot of you out there, judging from its leap from import-only status to 600,000-plus American subscribers in little more than a year--can surf the testosterone spray on Comedy Central's The Man Show, which trails in the coveted wake of South Park on Wednesday nights. The slightly older fella who wants some meat can eat all he wants from FX's X Show, airing five nights a week at 10:00 p.m. Neither program having quite licked the guy-show thing, they're alternately juvenile and boring; each boasts the old-school charm and stunted intimacy of a locker-room wedgie.

Frat party + Springer  =  The Man Show : Adam Carolla and Jimmy Kimmel, avec "Juggies"
Frat party + Springer = The Man Show : Adam Carolla and Jimmy Kimmel, avec "Juggies"

Both shows invite viewer identification with carefully selected everyguy hosts. Women's shows evoke empathy: Oprah has made millions with girl talk and those soulful eyes. She could be your friend. The men's shows, in contrast, try for chumminess: These guys suggest frat brothers or drinking buddies, slumping next to you on the couch to catch some tube. As such, neither show disenfranchises the nervous viewer with accomplishments or ravishing good looks. Call it revenge of the omega male. These are guys, you can tell, who weren't big men on campus. Their eyes and bodies have known rejection. Even the quasi-famous are sidekicks: The smirky Man Show's Jimmy Kimmel reads questions on Win Ben Stein's Money; his partner Adam Carolla plays second fiddle on MTV's Love Line.

Then there's the Woman Question. On The Man Show they're wholly decorative, "Juggies" pole-dancing or bouncing on trampolines. Whereas The X Show, despite TV screens in the background that feature leotard-clad women doing aerobics and a weekly spokesmodel "competition," dares to invite real women as guests. But on both shows, women aren't just a foreign country or even a dark continent; they're a race apart, aliens whose physiognomy and mental processes are so utterly incomprehensible that you shouldn't bother trying to unravel them--unless, that is, you aim to get some. In which case all is forgiven.

The putatively freewheeling Man Show, "30 minutes of beer-commercial fun," can't or won't luxuriate in manhood as Hef defined it (high style, suavity, continental polish). So instead it wallows, trading in sexual resentment and undirected aggression that smears everyone. Equal parts frat party and Springer, it equips every goateed baseball-capped dude in attendance with a brewski. It's enlivened by stunts like some guy in the audience being offered $100 to eat a stick of butter. (He does so, looking appropriately nauseated, and is rewarded with two beers.)

In other segments, Kimmel mooches food from diners at an amusement park or plies a drunk college kid with deviled eggs. In a creepily pathetic bit, Carolla takes his mom on a date and tries to get to second base. And audience members turn in buds with excessive back hair or ask for dating advice about women they'll never get to go out with. Then we head to commercial breaks serenaded by a tipsy Bill Foster, allegedly the world's fastest beer drinker, banging out toonz on the organ, while the crowd barks and the dancers hit the poles. For cultcha we get "edgy" bits such as Household Hints From Adult Film Stars, with silicone goddess Jenna Jameson in a tight T-shirt, showing you how to make popsicles. When she takes them out of the freezer, oops, she's not wearing a bra! Right on!

I presume The Man Show is supposed to be "authentic," like that sudden raft of slacker commercials for VW in which Male Misdirection Syndrome can somehow be accessorized with a hot new car. Kimmel has been quoted as claiming the show was too real for ABC, citing Jameson's nipples as the kind of gutsy programming that made execs weak in the knees. But who's the show for? Maybe the time slot is the best clue to its intended audience: Not the twentysomethings in live attendance, but little brothers who've had their ids stoked on South Park and need tutoring in how to party. Yet where its lead-in is sweet-natured, this show mocks its audience with a corrosive cruelty that looks down on everything and everyone. Shouldn't caveman ethics at least be fun? Yet The Man Show boils with adolescent resentment, like a boy who gets rejected by that cute girl in algebra class and then scribbles lies about her all over the bathroom stall. This show should come stamped with a Parental Advisory: Nobody under 18 allowed.

 

The older-targeted X Show apes the women's forum The View in its earnest lapel-grabbing approach. For variety you get four guys sprawling on couches in a rec room stuffed with manly bric-a-brac: Derick Alexander, a black former college-football player; comic Mark DeCarlo, once host of the legendary hormone-fest Studs; Justin Walker, a boy-band cutie who was Alicia Silverstone's love object in Clueless; and, for diversity, John Webber, who's both the only married guy and the only non-sports fan--"a bona fide representative of the couch potato," claims his biography. Like The View (the producers advertised for "talent able to be both humorous and informative in a conversational manner"), this show mixes chatter (a segment called "Gettin' It" diagrams various methods of joining the Mile-High Club or summarizes the latest women's magazines); guy stuff (dating and poker tips, testicular self-examination); and guest celebrities (sports agent Leigh Steinberg). It washes this down with a kegful of T&A (women in men's underwear is a recurring feature). The net effect is, if nicer than that of its rival, oddly dispiriting. Every time serious discussion threatens, the show's hosts again and again resort to seventh-grade punches in the arm.

Who, then, is this new man, this Nineties American? Mostly, he's the Fifties guy tricked out in retro shirts and retro sensibilities. Broads? Screw 'em. And yet these shows are so caught up in cultivating attitudes and striking poses that nothing in them is remotely as accurate, not to mention as compassionate, as the first five minutes of American Pie, which get the smeary desperation of (teen-)male desire exactly right.

In this televised world, being a man demands the humiliation of anyone who lets his armor crack even for a second. "Never pass out in front of a bunch of drunk guys," warns Adam Carolla, regaling us with tales of puking and penises scrawled in magic marker. So terrified about revealing their humanity that they can't fully enjoy their own adolescent debauchery, these shows want to have their cheesecake and eat it too.

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