The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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MTV's 'Hard Times' rating ploy: Sometimes a big cigar is just a big cigar

January 14, 2010 | 12:03 pm

My colleague Denise Martin has a nice scoop today about how MTV -- you know, the network that used to be the red-hot center of pop culture cool way, way back in 1993 -- is trying to staunch its years-long ratings slide by launching a new comedy series about a boy with ... a big penis. The show, called "The Hard Times of RJ Berger," is described by Martin as "a raunchy coming-of-age tale about a nerdy teen who achieves notoriety among his high school peers when they discover that he has a rather large penis."

Of course, in Hollywood, this is the oldest trick in the world. When you need to boost your ratings, you roll out a wonderfully subtle, intensely creative story based around ... the big penis. It's hardly a coincidence that HBO, also in the midst of a ratings depression in recent years, tried the same tactic last year with "Hung," the Thomas Jane-starring series about a struggling, but well-endowed high-school basketball coach who becomes a male prostitute. I'm betting that NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker, currently being mercilessly mocked by every commentator in sight for botching the handling of his network's cherished "Tonight Show" franchise, will pop up one day announcing that Jay Leno's 11:30 p.m. slot will be followed by a new series based on famed porn star John (Johnny Wad) Holmes.

But the great thing about Hollywood is that no one ever wants to admit that a cigar is sometimes just a cigar. So when the various high-level MTV functionaries spoke to Martin, they went to hilariously great lengths to insist that the network's latest creation was -- absolutely, categorically -- by no means a snickering, low-brow comedy about a teen with a big weenie.

For example, MTV general manager Stephen Friedman said that the show is "smart, refreshingly candid and really captures what our audience wants: a nuanced, multilayered portrayal of their lives." Yeah, right! And series' co-creator, Seth Grahame-Smith, went even further, arguing that the show about a nerdy teen with a big penis was actually "not a show about his penis. Episodes 2 and 3 have nothing to do with his penis." (Notice he didn't say anything about episodes 4 through 96 which, ahem, could well be entirely about his penis.)

Of course, in showbiz, the only question anyone asks has nothing to do with good taste or the appropriateness of focusing impressionable teens on the comic possibilities involving the outlandish size of their sexual organs. The only question that matters is: Will it work? If it does, cable TV could soon be awash in sexual organ knock-off shows. How's this for the inevitable Variety headline: MTV Rivals Have Serious Case of Penis Envy.

Photo by Brian Vander Brug/Los Angeles Times