Is Prime Time Alex Stein Reality TV’s First Performance Artist?

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He’s gotta have some of your attention. 

Alex Stein likes reality television. A lot. His fame, relative as it may be, has been curated by viewer response to his gallery of broadcasted antics, both positive and negative.

Stein, who goes by the Deion Sanders-styled moniker “Prime Time 99 Alex Stein” on TV, has appeared on four lesser-known reality shows: Excused, Worst Cooks in America, The Glass House, and Sweet Home Alabama. In the drive for five, Stein is featured in yet another offering, the Bravo series, Online Dating Rituals of the American Male, and was featured as one of the bachelors in its premiere, which aired last night.

These prior programs have largely had short shelf lives, with Stein’s specific tenure on them being even shorter. But this next foray will be different, he assured, when we met in a coffee shop: “This Bravo show is my Sgt. Pepper’s.” Beyond the pronouncement’s playful bravado, there’s critical subtext: Prime Time sees the appearances as performance, art, or a stew of the two.

Not, though, a career. Not yet, at least. As a teenager in Highland Park, a tony suburb north of Dallas, Stein was captain of his high school football squad. A University of South Florida athletic scholarship imploded early when a Bull teammate bulled into Stein’s shoulder, tearing his rotator cuff. While Stein’s energy plateaus where most adults peak, after that injury, he gave up on the gridiron. “I was hot shit in Highland Park,” he said, noting parties attended and cheerleaders bedded. “In college, I was nobody.” Summarizing his academic record as an ocean of C’s, Stein transferred to LSU, to reconnect with a sizeable chunk of his Highland Park crew, and savor the “Laissez les bons temps rouler” nightlife of Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Though he has made his quasi-celebrity bones on dating shows, he doesn’t give the format a ringing endorsement. “Competitive romance is so stupid,” Stein insisted. “At the end of the day, they’re all fakakta. The reason I’m going on these shows is because I like to have sex with women. And I like being in front of a camera.” Thus far, his capital M (as in “Mr. Demille, I’m ready for my close-up”) TV moment occurred on ABC’s The Glass House. Though only appearing on the maiden episode (two, if you include his ousting), Stein punctuated his tenure with this viewer appeal: “America, should I turn into the most epic villain in the history of reality TV?”

It’s the “turn into” part of that question that bears examining.

In 1978, Andy Kaufman appeared on an episode of The Dating Game— though not exactly as himself. Announced as Baji Kimran, Kaufman played the “Foreign Man” character he’d been cultivating in clubs, before Taxi co-opted the creation, contracting the entertainer to play it as Latka Gravas. During the dating show, Kaufman sat beside two other bachelors. These men — hair, wild and curly; voices, deep and smug; shirts, open-buttoned — tried to out-testosterone one another during the Q&A. To win the affections of Patrice, this pair of contestants strutted their disco era-specific charm. We would now reasonably refer to them as tools. “Baji” remained innocent to the game’s rules and single entendre ping-pong. By the time he lost, Kaufman’s guilelessness had the crowd firmly on his side, playing a role (really, a paradigm) to its unequivocal hilt.

Similar to Kaufman, Stein has also done standup in clubs, knows the gory business of killing or dying with audiences, then summoning enough gumption to repeat the process until the marquee illuminates your name or they lock the stage on you. Stein bandied about a few comedic inspirations, including Jerry Seinfeld — he of the manicured, meticulous observational set, then Howard Stern — he of the shock-jock culture, and cadre of crude collaborators approaching Coney Island sideshow territory. “But I’m not even one hundredth of them,” he added. Stein works off a set, but relishes the heckling and high-fives associated with crowd work. The comedians he loathes are those who, after bombing punch lines, comment on the bombing, retreat from initial commitment, as Kaufman, another cited inspiration, never did.

Stein’s fantasy reality TV success would involve winning Last Comic Standing. Until that show returns, he’s content improvising bits in this most schematic of enterprises. The premise of The Glass House included viewers directing, via polls, what contestants would do next. During an idle pre-taping period, Stein got it in his head to be “a puppet for America.” He posed his villain question with the frozen features, prep appearance, and earnest candor of a senatorial candidate imploring voters to join his quest in ending government gridlock. Stein now explains how his plan might have taken in ensuing episodes: Play villain one week, then a sweet boy the next, “or whatever they wanted me to be.” Instead of selecting what role to zealously play, Stein did the inverse, taking audience temperature to determine his path. Kaufman’s villainous roles reflected the time’s repugnant, or at least tedious, sexual behavior — whether that meant wrestling matches he’d engage in with women, drawing the ire of audiences as he flung putdowns and sexist stereotypes, or Latka’s Vic Ferrari alter ego on Taxi synchs eerily with The Dating Game’s two “serious” contestants.

Stein, however, isn’t using the form as a means to explore heady topics through his bad behavior. This is not about sexism, regionalism, or cultural elitism. This isn’t about any “ism” at all, save for the one we always bandy about when talking about people who participate in multiple reality shows.

Well, so what? Narcissism is a worthy “ism” to study in an age of “reality celebrity,” so it follows that the programming itself will provide the sharpest case studies. Epidemiologists who wanted to study leprosy couldn’t rightly avoid leper colonies. Stein’s behavior may be more brazen, but he is hardly the only competitive dater finding measures of the love he’s looking for less in flirting than the flicking on of a camera’s red “record” light. “My whole goal is to want people to watch,” he said. “I don’t want people to turn away. I want the attention, as sick as that sounds.”

Why don’t other reality TV contestants return as often as Stein does? Some win the whole shebang, some may have signed on for a lark, some may wince at what image of them is reflected onscreen once episodes air, or the tweets and You Tube comments leveled by fellow humans upon seeing them. Then there are others on more popular shows whose tentative fame is fed by a continuing spiral into the reality machine, trading in their success for celebrity rehab or dancing with stars in an trading on the one commodity they possess: notoriety.

Stein, though, identifies as a comic. As comics must, he is willing to get up off the mat after viewers mock and hammer. A football player knows he’s meant to shake off pain following sharp tackles. But if the blows don’t quite feel like pain as they land, perhaps you found your calling. Anyway it’s a two-way street, with producers and audiences equally culpable in the canard of accepting “reality TV” as a proper term for the phenomenon, just as TV “wrestling” still went by wrestling long after hammy acting eclipsed half-Nelsons. MTV’s The Real World was derided as unreal following its first installment, since potential participants could now divine the formula, and adapt how they were filmed and filtered to the masses. Of course Stein is aware that casting directors want him to be the him who generates water-cooler talk, hateful tweets, ratings. They want him to be a fire starter. That’s why he’s batting leadoff for Bravo, featured in promos deriding condoms at a wine bar with his bemused date, or describing sexual selfies he’s sent in the vein of Anthony Weiner.

But reality casts don’t command exorbitant salaries like TV actors, or SAG-monitored contract negotiations. Theirs is a cheaper brand of cultural capital and central casting. Given that, perhaps those playing to win — for love or money — aren’t seeing the whole board. Stein may be making the cannier investment by loving the playing of the game itself, banking on the paycheck of reprising a role, the “T’ank you veddy much” Latka Gravas model. Perhaps the deepening of Stein’s role can come in subsequent series.

He can grow from the guy seeking dates who are “low maintenance, and have a sense of humor. Those two things, and nice bosoms, and we’re good,” to one who ponders why dating shows are a harder road to hoe for women. “There’s a double standard. We’re all mammals. We all want to make love. A girl wants to just as bad as a guy. At the end of the day, I’m an animal,” he says. Whether that animal is on the hunt for attraction or attention doesn’t seem relevant, and whether it gets sated by intimacy, or the reflection in the overnight ratings, I suspect its feedings will, for the foreseeable future, continue as scheduled. 

Images via Food Network