BOB GARFIELD: Starting this month, you can go on line to check your email, pay your bills, enlarge your penis or -- begin your own presidential candidacy. Showtime Television has officially launched its American Candidate Website and is accepting applications. Those applications will be narrowed down to 12 contestants who will compete reality television-style to be the first American Candidate. In Showtime's 10-episode primary, nobody will have to start fires or eat bugs, but contestants will nonetheless have to run the humiliating and degrading gauntlet called candidacy. Emmy Award-winning and Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker R. J. Cutler, maker of The War Room and American High is behind this operation. He joins me now from the NPR studios in Los Angeles. R. J., welcome back to On the Media.
R. J. CUTLER: Well, thanks for having me. It's good to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: Tell me the eureka moment -- presidential race as reality television. Where did this idea come from?
R. J. CUTLER: In the wake of the 2000 presidential election, I was approached by my executive producing partners, Jay Roche and Tom LaSalle who were responding to this sense that you have a lot of people in this country who are simply not participating in the process. Well, why is that? There was a eureka moment, [LAUGHS] kind of, in the wake of the success of American Idol when we were all sitting around with Kevin Reilly who was then the head of the cable network FX, and Kevin said "Have you ever thought about doing it American Idol style where people voted on a weekly basis and eliminated one person after another?" And that kind of triggered the current form of the show which is a weekly show. Now the show is very much not going to be like American Idol. It's meant really to be a giant simulation of a presidential election, and it will be.
BOB GARFIELD: Well I want to talk about that moment though. When Kevin Reilly uttered those words, [LAUGHTER] did everybody laugh?
R. J. CUTLER: Oh, of course.
BOB GARFIELD: But then you got thinking, didn't you? [LAUGHS]
R. J. CUTLER:Of course! Well, quite frankly, in that moment, I had the same reaction that I think we've seen replicated, you know, every time the show has been announced or spoken about in the press or wherever. There is something about the nexus of presidential politics, television, a competition culture, reality television -- all of those things that are --when you put them together, it's surprisingly revelatory. It touches a nerve. Very early on, when we first announced we were working on the show, I was doing an interview with somebody on television, and the first question she asked was "Do you mean to tell me that television is going to be involved in the selection of the next president of the United States?" And of course my reaction was, of--yes, television will be involved.
BOB GARFIELD: When wasn't it? [LAUGHS]
R. J. CUTLER: That's right.
BOB GARFIELD: Let me borrow her righteous indignation, [LAUGHTER] if not her literal question by asking you why isn't this a trivialization of the democratic process?
R. J. CUTLER:Well, certainly it could be. Or you could say, look we're going to take everything we do very, very seriously, and we're going to draw the curtain back and show how the process really works. We're going to show just how challenging it is to run for president. We're going to show the difficult decisions that have to be made between your convictions and what is politically expedient. We're going to show how polling works. We're going to show how opposition research works. We're going to show all of those things. We also want to have a perspective on presidential politics. We want to be able to illuminate its more absurd qualities, and we want to be able to reflect upon the role that the media plays, and we want to ask questions about what we're looking for in a presidential candidate.
BOB GARFIELD: Tell me mechanically how it's all going to work.
R. J. CUTLER:The mechanics have begun already. We've received thousands of requests for applications. Anybody who qualifies under the Constitution to run for president is eligible to be on our show.
BOB GARFIELD:Well you and your partners are, in effect, the smoke-filled room that's going to determine the pool of candidates. What are you looking for in that pool?
R. J. CUTLER: We want everybody who tunes in to the show to have somebody whose vision resonates with them and excites them, so we will put together a diverse group and introduce them to the viewing public this summer. And then the process will begin, and our candidates will crisscross the country. Each week we'll be in a different town. The process will begin as a retail process where the emphasis is on going door to door and meeting people and caucus-like events, and as the weeks go on and the field is narrowed, the process will be more of a wholesale process, and the emphasis will be more on media and advertising and large-scale debates. The candidates on our show will have access to seasoned political strategists. They'll have access to opposition research, research on themselves. At a certain point they'll have to choose a running mate. In every way our goal is to emulate what happens in an actual presidential campaign.
BOB GARFIELD:Allow me to end, please, with a compound hypothetical. [LAUGHTER] If the winner of American Candidate emerges to actually seek public office, and if that person does wind up eventually in the Oval Office, and if that person turns out to be a nightmare president of the United States, Doctor Frankenstein, what will you do?
R. J. CUTLER: You know, we've elected, we've elected [LAUGHS] all sorts of people to the highest office in this land, and all sorts of people to, to the Congress, to the Senate. I don't fear that we're going to do worse through a process that identifies people outside of the political class.
BOB GARFIELD: R. J. Cutler, thank you very much.
R. J. CUTLER: It's certainly my pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD:Filmmaker R. J. Cutler is creator and executive producer of American Candidate, to air on Showtime this summer. To learn more about American Candidate, click on www.AmericanCandidate.com.