But the formula wasn't foolproof. The second cast fell to tedious bickering at an L.A. beach pad in 1993. "They all wanted to be in show business," Krugman points out, "and none of them showed the slightest inkling of talent."

No matter. When MTV sounded the trumpet for the San Francisco saga, 25,000 lined up for the chance to be roundly humiliated on national television. There were screen tests, homemade videos, and essays. The producers wanted humor, depth, passion. "We're also looking, obviously, for a diverse group," says Bunim.

Diversity they got, although that hasn't stopped some critics from kicking the show for stereotyping. ("Of course, the only black person they could find is a rapper," says Krugman, voicing a common gripe. The producers note that among the show's African-Americans have been a writer and a comic.) Like the Seven Dwarfs or the inhabitants of Gilligan's Island, the Bay Area crew comes neatly tagged. Beach-babe-in-the-woods Cory Murphy, 20. Pam Ling, 26, the Asian medical student. Pedro Zamora, 22, the gay, HIV-positive Cuban. Nice Jewish boy Judd Winick, 24, the cartoonist. Mohammed Bilal, 24, the rapper. Rachel Campos, 22, the Latina Republican with a heart of grunge. And Joanna Rhodes, 22, a mellow Londoner who will take the place of the ejected Puck.

On the phone or in person, the latest Real Worlders are strikingly nice, thoughtful, and normal — just the way they don't appear on TV. Maybe that's because living in The Real World is about as real as living in Alcatraz.

During the shoot (which stretched from February to June), music was often forbidden, since the mikes would pick up the noise. The cast had to watch closed-captioned TV. "It was maddening," says Judd. "At times, there was a deathly sort of silence." In the morning, the crew crept into the bedrooms to hang filters over the windows. The cozy nook on Lombard Street had curtains instead of bedroom doors, so moments of privacy, deep sleep, and personal gratification were close to impossible. No wonder the gang seems so grouchy. "It doesn't give you time to think and stabilize," Cory explains. "Everything was chaos all the time."

"I remember one night, I was up at like three in the morning," Mohammed recalls. "All the lights had been shut off, and I'm sitting there eating cereal. I'm trying to shake off all the stress from the day. And the lights pop on! I put my cereal in the sink and I go to sleep. I'm just like, 'I don't want to have them film me eating cereal tonight.' That's how it was for five and a half months."

Plopped into this high-tension maze are seven lab rats whose views seem mathematically plotted for collision. "The cameras definitely elevated everything," says Cory. "Everything seemed to be intensified inside that house." Big surprise: A lot of the conflagrations involve Puck.

Puck and Rachel strike up a romance. (Puck: "She came in my room once or twice. We made out.")

Judd proudly returns from a business trip, but Puck steals his thunder with a story about farting. (Judd: "Puck's got this whole act — catchphrases, the way he acts, the way he dresses. He's going to do things his way. Am I jealous? No." Puck on Judd: "Oh, dude, you are a putz!")

Puck may be great TV — "He has this James Dean Rebel Without a Cause type of thing," Pedro theorizes-but he was hell on the nerves. "He's hilarious — absolutely hilarious — and he's sweet, too," says Rachel. "But if you actually lived with him, day in and day out, it can be very tiring." Pedro: "It got to the point where he wouldn't let anybody talk. You basically had to scream over him to get a word in." Mohammed: "They could've made Puck look really, really bad. They could've made Puck look like he made most of us feel."

"I'm just a camera hog," Puck confesses. "The camera wants to follow me — more than it wants to see them sit around and watch TV and pick at each other." A Bay Area homeboy who was raised by a single mother, Victoria, Puck is philosophical these days about getting the boot. "It was the best of both worlds," he reasons. "I got the camera. I didn't get the whining of the roommates."

Consider these clashes a national form of group therapy. The apartment even has a "confessional," where souls can unload their psychic baggage to a video camera. The roomies get a sneak preview of each episode, which gives them time to call Mom and Dad just in case they need to explain something they did on the show.

In the face of such surreal conditions, the question persists: Are they being themselves, or playing themselves? "You can't perform for five months," says producer-director George Verschoor, who was with the cast constantly. "At some point, I'm gonna catch 'em. Their true colors are going to come out." To this end, he has a strict policy: "Let the people tell their own story, don't try to impose a story on them." Although he conducts weekly interviews with each roommate, he only does so to clear up the narrative-not to guide it. "We had a situation where Rachel went off to the wrong airport to pick someone up," says Murray. "We knew she was going to the wrong airport, but we weren't in a position to tell her." On the first day of shooting, Verschoor heard that Puck was in jail (he was picked up on an outstanding warrant for drunk driving and ended up doing time in traffic school). "Puck was asking if we would bail him out," the director recalls. "But I told him, 'No, you're on your own, kid — and you'd better get used to it.'"

Sometimes, reality does bite. "They think, 'I'm gonna be in The Real World! It's like winning the lottery!'" says Verschoor. "Wrong." Instead, he tells them, "Once you get in this house, you are going to be challenged in ways you never thought of. Every move, every part of your past is going to be questioned. So you'd better be ready to look in that mirror. Because when you do, you're going to see yourself — and not only what you think of yourself, but what others think of you in the house, and then what a nation thinks of you."

And by now, the nation sees the San Franciscans as characters in a tempestuous soap. "I hear a lot of horrible questions about Pedro, very flippant remarks," says Judd. "'If we keep following the show, is he going to die?' Really ridiculous things that no one would ever think to ask in life, but because we're on television they seem to lose that."

Puck says he has already fended off a bid to appear on a soap opera ("I ain't workin' on anything like 90210," he vows), but he remains impishly immune to fallout from The Real World. True to form, he offers a San Francisco treat to those who recognize him: "This girl wanted me to sign an autograph and I blew a snot on this pack of matches. I tried to give it to her. She was kinda bummed."

Originally posted Aug 05, 1994 Published in issue #234 Aug 05, 1994 Order article reprints

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