"Can you give us your best fist-pump?” Kimberly Giebel, an animated and unapologetic talent scout in her mid-twenties, asks a longshoreman and his unemployed, gum-smacking, Bensonhurst-based girlfriend. Despite having driven to a catering hall off the Long Island Expressway on a foggy Saturday afternoon in March, hoping to land a spot on a reality television show called Guido Weddings (it has since been renamed Friggin’ Weddings, another working title), the pair is hesitant to comply. “I’ve got great fist-pumping music on my cell phone,” Giebel continues, hoping to inspire the couple to action. Her eyes dull as the man, stocky with a thick Brooklyn accent, explains that without “real bass” there can be no fist-pumping. “Okay! Thank you!” she trills, dismissing the two. “We will be in touch if the producers like what they see.”
When Giebel says producers, she’s referring to one in particular: Doron Ofir, the sought-after casting director and president of Popular Productions. Since 2000, Ofir has cast reality television shows for almost every major network; they include Jersey Shore, A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila, Paris Hilton’s My New BFF, RuPaul’s Drag Race, Millionaire Matchmaker and dozens of other series. Ofir is the man who unleashed Snooki, The Situation, Tila Tequila and countless other, lesser reality television personalities on the American public.
“Doron is incredible to watch in action. He throws himself into every demographic. He puts desperate people together and gets inside their heads. He’s very gifted,” says VH1’s creative programming VP Shelly Tatro, who has worked with Ofir on Shot at Love and Jersey Shore. “I can’t speak highly enough of him,” says Justin Rosenblatt, VP of alternative programming at The CW, and formerly a VP at MTV, who has worked with Ofir since 2006. “In reality programming, other agencies are choppy. His candidates are real exceptions. All the networks know he is the best. I would hire him for all my shows, but he’s in demand.”
And how. Ofir is currently casting for the third season of Jersey Shore, which will feature an entirely new cast; The Persian Version, a Jersey Shore-like take on the Iranian community in Hollywood; Wicked Summer, a Jersey Shore-like take on Massholes (assholes, of course, from Massachusetts); Chongas, a Jersey Shore-like take on Latino gay men; and the aforementioned Friggin’ Weddings, among other projects. (The titles of the un-aired shows are subject to change.)
Watching the casting footage for Weddings in his office, a 1,200-square-foot Los Angeles loft that houses a staff of six, a collection of vintage action heroes and a mural that reads “YOU’RE GOING TO BE POPULAR!” (also his company’s slogan), Ofir is not seeing the “big, brash, loud and proud Italian-Americans” he is looking for. “We don’t want just any guidos. They better be fist-pumping down the aisle,” he says. “The problem is that these people are from Long Island. They are not loud enough. We really want My Big Fat Greek Wedding meets Tool Academy.”
Ofir is starting to get agitated. “I dare anyone to find us a guido wedding,” he challenges his staff. “They need to be like, ‘What the fuck? I need to spike my hair.’” Frustrated, he dashes off an online casting call to post on the Internet: “Are your parents like the Sopranos? Do you have a crazy uncle?” (A previous ad wondered, “Do you have a relative that starts every sentence with, ‘In the old country… ’?”)
Ofir is looking for candidates who “pop” like the cast of Jersey Shore did. When that show’s Jenni “JWOWW” Farley auditioned, she told a casting scout that, as a “guidette from Strong Island, I have diplomatic status. I can get away with murder.” In his audition tape, Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino told the camera, “Mikey Abs, Mikey Arms and The Situation are my nicknames.” Josh Allouche, Ofir’s casting assistant, discovered Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi at a bar in Newark. “There are still streaks of bronze on her application, literally bronze fingerprints all over it,” he says. “She had just come from a tanning salon.”
If the Friggin’ Weddings wannabes are not quite up to these standards, it’s not for lack of trying. Most of the candidates are more unfiltered than a pack of Marlboro Reds. They boast about their tanning habits, claim to have sex “40 times a day, in between keepin’ a check on my text messages,” all while pronouncing themselves dedicated guidos. “We are pioneers of an ugly age,” Ofir says. “Our business is like a short bus.”
The success of Jersey Shore has created a frenzy for reality shows focused on outlandish subcultures. It certainly isn’t the first of its kind—this approach harkens back to reality television’s documentary roots, and there was Amish in the City in 2004—but it is the most successful. Despite being blasted for promoting negative Italian stereotypes, Shore has turned into a bona fide pop culture phenomenon that “took back” the term guido and made its cast members stars. The seven of them (one of the original cast members quit mid-season) have appeared on Leno and Letterman, in the pages of Us Weekly and The New Yorker and alongside Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Michael Cera, while cashing in on their notoriety thanks to product endorsements, paid party appearances and memoir deals. (Season two will begin in late July.)
“All of the projects that are lined up are trying to be like Jersey Shore,” Ofir says. “If you come up with something like that show, they like it.” Over the past six months, he and his team have infiltrated clubs, bars and social media networks on a quest to find shame-free homosexuals, Latin Americans, Massachusetts dwellers, frat guys and engaged couples who could be the stars of the next sensation. “I know for a fact that any place where there is a culture, there’s a show,” Ofir says. “We obsess over every subculture or interesting, existing world. Everything and everyone can be turned into reality television—this is my Holy Grail.”
Ofir’s dedication to upending sacred cows has made him an unexpected player in heated intra-cultural debates. The cast members of Jersey Shore might love the term guido, but not all Italian-Americans feel the same. After the phone number of Shaggy Bajrami, vice president of Popular Productions, was printed in an Associated Press story about The Persian Version in April, she received hundreds of calls, many of them furious. If and when that show makes it to air—or the ones giving Jersey Shore treatment to Latinos and New Englanders (the reality shows about Russians in Brighton Beach and Asians in Los Angeles’ Koreatown aren’t being cast by Popular Productions)—Ofir should probably change his number.
To find a cast that can inspire such vehement feelings, Ofir’s team hits social networks hard. He recently tweeted to MikeJerseyShore, “Hi mike! I need some help from your fans! Can u announce the search is on for guido engaged couples for a summer wedding?” Potential contestants are often approached via Facebook. (One Iranian-American messaged about The Persian Version declined and then started a campaign to “help save us from becoming the next JS.”) An online ad for Chongas sought “outrageously misbehaving, bilingual Latin men or women who are willing to do whatever it takes to become numero uno!”
Ofir often hires freelancers “within the niche” to cast his shows. “If I am doing a show about bartenders, I will hire the best bartender to scout,” he says. “How did I cast Jersey Shore? We followed around DJ Jonathan Peters [a Garden State mainstay]. That’s how it’s done.”
Allouche, who has been working for Ofir for nearly eight years, recalls that when casting A Shot at Love, “We would go out to lesbian bars and clubs.” He says, “Honestly, going out to bars and clubs has been ruined for me. I am constantly scanning the room, trying to figure out everybody’s story, often ignoring the conversation I’m in.” Ofir insists, “Whatever the concept, we come up with a sell to make the potential cast want to stop what they are doing to audition. We are at malls, high schools, clubs—wherever kids hang out.”
Ofir has personal experience with all of those places. He grew up in Great Neck, just outside the Queens border in Long Island. In his twenties, he moved to Miami and became a regular on the club scene. The self-identified “total art fag” and “pop culture obsessive” worked as a doorman known as Kid Durahn at clubs such as The Roxy and Liquid from 1989 to 1995. He credits this experience with his ability to ID talent, saying that he “casts with the same eye I used when I was a door guy.”
CBS gave Ofir his first break, hiring him to recruit for The Amazing Race in 2000. Soon after, ABC hired him to cast the short-lived series Are You Hot?: The Search for America’s Sexiest People. Ofir says, “I pinky-swore to the VP that I’d make her proud.” He did. Another casting director got him in the door at MTV and he has worked steadily, and often chaotically, ever since. In 2007, he started Doron Ofir Casting; in 2009, he started Popular Productions, signaling his desire to start creating—and selling—his own shows.
Ofir often works on a cast-contingent basis, meaning that a network will only film the pilot after meeting, and liking, the main players. (In the case of Jersey Shore, originally titled Guidos, the two networks involved—VH1, which ordered the show, and MTV, which ultimately outbid them for it—weren’t even sure there was a show there, so Ofir worked on a reduced budget.) Once a project is greenlit, the network will work with Ofir to flesh out its plot. “Rather than telling people, ‘We need a cast of six loudmouths,’ I really create a format. We do the creative writing for these shows,” he says. “We didn’t realize in the beginning, but that’s what these shows are made from, and I’ve discovered just how fundamental it is.”
In most cases, he finds and selects a cast in six weeks, the absolute minimum amount of time he needs. This is the period he devoted to Jersey Shore; for Friggin’ Weddings, he had six weeks to select four couples and film their marriages. At most, he will take 24 weeks to cast a show. In contrast, according to Ofir, it took 10 months to cast eight episodes of Jerry Seinfeld’s NBC show The Marriage Ref. “I don’t sleep,” he says.
Here are excerpts from the audition tapes for Friggin’ Weddings: “I get laid like 17 times per hour at least. I look in the mirror about 100 times. Then I take a shower and eat and look at myself again 200 times. I go to the gym and look at myself. I get yelled at because I spend too much time in the bathroom, doing my eyebrows. Everywhere I go, people look at me.” —Tony
“I go right to the gym because us guidos have to look fly for our girls. I take a girl out, go back to the gym and then go out and find another girl who will be my masseuse by the end of the night.” —Mike M.
“I’m daddy’s little princess. Daddy bought me my Dolce & Gabbana purse. I get down. I’m hot and I have a nice ass.” —Stefanie
“I’m the fucking definition of lucky charms: magically delicious.” —George J. R.
Ofir has a complicated relationship with the people who try out for his shows. He’s dismissive of them. “I’ve got it—offer them $500 worth of tanning!” he says, while brainstorming how to attract more of the right types of guidos for Friggin’ Weddings. But he also relates to them. “I would make fantastic television and, strangely, I use myself as a model when casting,” he says. “But I am way too self-deprecating.” (Ofir has also hired wannabe reality TV stars: He discovered Giebel, the fist-pumping encourager, after she auditioned for, but did not make it onto, Paris Hilton’s My New BFF.)
Mostly, though, he doesn’t worry that he’s exploiting potential cast members. “We get a girl who says, ‘I’m not a bitch,’ and she turns out to be a fucking bitch,” Ofir says. “When people come in they have complete misconceptions about themselves. We do our thing, getting them to reveal themselves in the worst way.”
Ofir’s nonchalance about exposing people’s worst qualities is not just callousness. At this point, those who try out for reality television shows really do know what they are getting into. “Every person who grew up watching VH1 and MTV develops the expectation that they’ll become a star at some point in their life,” Allouche says. “The people who know they are exploiting themselves usually give the best interviews and performances.”
Furthermore, what some might interpret as Popular Productions taking advantage of the fame-hungry masses can also be seen as a (slightly twisted) kind of open-mindedness: however promiscuous, however foolish, however histrionic, however tanned you are, you still get to decide what to do with your life. Ofir is adamant that those he casts are just “real people” leading their lives. “They work, they go to school, they love, they cry, they laugh,” he says. “But they have a little something extra, which is that they know, and are unapologetic, about who they are.”