How the Other Half Lives

Joan Rivers celebrates capitalism on How'd You Get So Rich?


Have you seen that new ABC sitcom starring Kelsey Grammer as a 9-year-old Cuban immigrant who moves to America without a dime in his pocket, pays his way through high school and Harvard by scrubbing toilets and investing wisely in the stock market, turns his small fortune into a big fortune by inventing a new, environmentally friendly way to dry clean clothes, marries a fertile hottie who loves shopping for expensive shoes and having children, and lives happily ever after in a 12-bedroom mansion originally owned by three-time Cy Young Award winner Pedro Martinez?

Probably not, because no such thing exists and ABC will never make it. And not because it would be easier to turn a sackful of Chicken McNuggets into a live rooster than it would be to get Kelsey Grammer to play anything but another facsimile of Frasier Crane, much less a 9-year-old Cuban boy. The major obstacle? Hollywood loves businessmen and entrepreneurship like Bernie Madoff loved SEC regulators: Sure, they made his job easier, but that, it seems, only increased his contempt for them.  

In 2006, the Business & Media Institute, an arm of the Media Research Council designed to expose the "anti-free enterprise culture of the media," released a report, "Bad Company," that examined the portrayal of businessmen on TV's top-rated dramas during the sweeps weeks of May and November 2005. "On primetime television, victims were 21 times more likely to be kidnapped or murdered by businessmen than the mob," the report states. "Businessmen also committed crimes five times more often than terrorists and four times more often than street gangs." Of the 129 episodes BMI reviewed, 39 featured businessmen as primary characters or plots alluding to commerce. According to BMI's reviewers, 77 percent of these 39 episodes qualified as "anti-business."

Every once in a while, though, Hollywood throws capitalism a bone, and this summer, the bone comes in the form of How'd You Get So Rich?, a TV Land reality series starring Joan Rivers that follows the template laid out by Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous 25 years ago and kept alive by Cribs throughout this decade: Invade a millionaire's house with a camera crew, then string together a dazzling montage of literal money shots—the $50,000 chandelier, the $100,000 outdoor kitchen, the Godzilla-sized bedroom closet that looks like it swallowed a Prada boutique whole.

To get on How'd You Get So Rich?, however, you don't have to be famous or blessed with rare artistic or athletic talent. You just have to own at least one bedspread that costs more than most people pay in taxes each year, and be brave enough to stay in the general vicinity of Joan Rivers as she cackles like the world's most endearing serial killer and paws at your granite counter-tops. Also it doesn't hurt to be an immigrant, a college drop-out, or a jilted housewife who lost it all when her husband dumped her. As its name suggests, How'd You Get So Rich? is interested in wealth creation as well as wealth, particularly the rags-to-riches kind.

That's an obvious strategy to employ in these tough economic times, but also a rare one. More typical of Hollywood is Kelsey Grammer's real new ABC sitcom, in which he plays Hank Pryor, a "Wall Street legend" who loses his job as a CEO and has to move his family from their ritzy Manhattan palace to a shabby suburban tract house in Hank's small hometown of River Bend. The series premieres September 30th, but you don't have to be Criss Angel to see where this is headed. True wealth, Hank is no doubt going to learn, lies in sharing the same bathroom as your kids, spending quality time with your wife as you argue over phone bills, and hoping that healthcare reform happens before your gall bladder explodes. Or something like that.

Rivers, on the other hand, loves money like only a batty old Rodeo Drive matron parodying herself to the nth degree can love money. In the opening credits of How'd You Get So Rich?, she fans herself with wads of money as her funky theme songs pulses in the background  and title graphics straight off a No Limit album cover circa 1998 flash across the screen. The hip-hop trappings are no accident, of course—gangsta rap is pretty much the only genre of American entertainment that preaches ?the virtues of hard work and entrepreneurial daring on a regular basis. But Rivers seems determined to take such messages out of the ghetto and expose them to mainstream America, so she gets in her car and sets off in search of chatty self-made millionaires who aren't adverse to a little free publicity.

Even when she's just buttonholing people on the street as they exit luxury retailers or drive past in expensive sports cars, she turns up some interesting characters. The guy who came from India with a $50 nest egg and started a website for "sugar daddies" looking to lease fresh flesh. The guy who slept under a pier for three weeks when he moved to Los Angeles and ended up making millions in the video game industry. The woman whose cosmetics company supplies camouflage face-paint to the Department of Defense.

And the people whose homes Rivers tours are even more intriguing. Take, for example, Jonah Hill, an NFL hopeful who moved into a cave after his football career stalled at the college level, then decided his future lay in mail-order. A chance encounter with a prank-loving dental student led to the formation of Billy Bob Teeth Company, the world's leading purveyor of comically ugly choppers. Now, Hill lives on massive country estate in Illinois and is so rich he blows off steam by destroying trucks with his very own bulldozer.

Ultimately, the interviews Rivers conducts never get much deeper than the opulent wading pool at the Florida mansion Versace once lived in (which is now owned by a college drop-out who made his fortune in the long-distance calling industry). But what's there is enough to make you wonder why Hollywood doesn't explore such dramatically rich territory more fully. Sure, we've got the comically self-serving and devious Jack Donaghy of 30 Rock, and the tragically self-serving and devious sad men of Sterling Cooper—but wouldn't it be nice to see a completely virtuous businessman once in a while too? Picture, for example, Kelsey Grammer as a young upstart who successfully navigates the mail-order business, creates dozens of jobs in his community, shores up the local economy, and funds a range of charitable operations,  all the while wearing a pair of Billy Bob teeth. It's too late for the current season, but maybe if How'd You Get So Rich? is a hit, we'll get to see it next time around.

Contributing Editor Greg Beato is a writer living in San Francisco. Read his Reason archive here.