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Twitteleh, Balloon Boy, and Reality Television

by Jerry Kolber. Jerry is a media obsessed Buddhist televison producer in New York City. follow him at – or on Twitteleh.



Before we get to Twitteleh, some thoughts about reality television.  When I heard about balloon boy flying away in a flyingsaucer last week, I was on a conference call with Farnoosh Torabi, the lovely host ofmy new show Bank of Mom And Dad.  Sheasked me if I was following the balloon boy story- I was not, as I was deep inproduction stuff all day and had not checked the news.  We talked about it for a moment, and howscary it was.  Because the family hadbeen on Wife Swap, we wondered briefly if balloon boy was real or a cruel hoax, but the conversation wasreally about how scary it was and how dangerous it was that the parents hadallowed this to happen.



As it became apparent that the story was a hoax, and onethat the parents had involved their children in, it brought up an interestingconversation, since this family had been on Wife Swap and was obviously missinghaving camera crews around.  As a realitytelevision producer I have tried to be careful throughout my career to only work on shows that are either transformational, or reveal an aspect of the worldthat the average viewer hasn’t seen but without being lurid.  With a few exceptions, I’ve been both luckyenough and careful enough to work on shows that mesh with my own personalvalues.



(More, and TWITTELEH…after the fold…)

But working in reality television, no matter how careful youare, presents unique challenges to anyone with a clear sense of truth, and it’sbecome even more challenging as my Buddhist practice has deepened. But ratherthan making it impossible for me to continue to do my job, my growingunderstanding of mindfulness and Buddhist techniques has made me better at whatI do.  Particularly in situations likeBank of Mom and Dad – where I also have a great team of people who are alsocommitted to both telling great stories and telling them honestly – we have hadto be mindful that we are exposing the daughters who star in the show to deepissues around money and parents, two hot buttons for anyone in theirtwenties. 


While there has been much organic drama – and of course somenudging to help people move through some of their “stuff” – we’ve been able tomake a compelling show without employing any of the easily accessible tacticsthat get pulled too often on reality sets. We’re telling the stories honestly, and whenever I have felt we areentering territory where I felt we were making a cast member “do something”rather than have an authentic experience, we’ve been able to stop, re-adjustand carry on mindfully. As a result, the experience is not only trulytransformational for the people on the show, it’s a more authentic experiencefor the people watching it, and a more personally gratifying and respectfulexperience for the people making it.


My Buddhist practice has been hugely influential in how I amable to conduct myself on this show.  Onequestion I ask myself each morning is “how can I be of service to the show, thepeople on it, and the people I work with?”  I think I would ask myself this no matter what job I had.  While every single moment may notmeet that lofty goal (some days are way better than others), enough of them dothat I feel encouraged by the work I am doing; and I’m noticing enough of themoments that I’m not in the “service zone” that I feel my practice is slowlymoving off the cushion and into a challenging work environment.

And now for Twitteleh – I got this by email this morning and it’s the best parody of Twitter I’ve seen yet. I’m sure my Jewish mother Shelley down in Miami (of course), would agree, once I figure out how to explain to her what Twitter is.


Comments read comments(2)
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Paul Griffin

posted October 21, 2009 at 1:42 pm

I love the Twitteleh parody! Hilarious.
And thank you for your post on right livelihood. It seems to me that in our culture right livelihood may very well be the hardest of the eightfold path (not that right concentration is a walk in the park). But there is something eminently accessible about the first four folds. Right view is discovering the dharma, the Buddha’s teachings. Right intention could simply be declaring the aspiration to oneself to continue with a study of the dharma. Right speech is an age old instruction (for me personally, a fiction writer and terrible gossip, I have to always remember what my Mom would say, If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all). And right action, well, is simply moral conduct.
But with right livelihood, the path really comes into its own. It’s the moment where the Buddha was really working to bring his teachings of dharma practice directly into the lives of his students. It’s the moment when the whole of culture and society come into play. It’s the moment when the path begins to become fully integrated with one’s everyday life. And it’s a considerable hurdle for many practitioners.

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posted October 23, 2009 at 10:21 am

Right livelihood is probably one of the tougher branches for me, too. I also work in media, albeit a quieter, less fabulous corner, and I too set my intention every morning, that I be of service to my business, my clients, my suppliers, and my coworkers. That what I do be in service of awakening in the situation.
It’s a tough one, and I greatly admire your success. I’ve always had trouble working with others who have diametrically opposed values, whether in media or not: with people who say explicitly: “I hate that person; I want revenge.” Or “We don’t have to tell them that.” (“That” being the truth.) I just try to recognize I’m judging them, that it’s one of the many patterns that helps me convince myself I exist – LOL – and try to do something else, more constructive, more conducive to waking up, instead.

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