The show featured segments on phone sex, stripping, and, most memorable, a female masturbation workshop. It aired at 11 p. What no one anticipated was that 2. And masturbation fodder for legions of teenagers.
By turns bawdy, sexy, hilarious, and simply weird though never not sincere , it filled in the gaps high school sex ed classes left, which turned out to be vast. Through it all, the mostly female team that produced the show experienced firsthand the almost absurdly vast array of desires that comprise human sexuality. That was the essence of Real Sex, real people doing what turned them on, and having fun. Patti Kaplan, producer and director, — The show was conceived at the end of the eighties, during the time of AIDS.
Everyone was so frightened of sex and there was nothing like it on TV. What are they up to? I did always have a personal taste for outrageous characters, though, and I knew a few in New York like Betty Dodson, who was running a class for women on how to masturbate. Now everyone does everything on TV, but at the time, it was way ahead of anything.
All those women just got in a circle and took their clothes off. Did Patti mention Betty made her take the workshop too? Betty was the real deal. Lynn Sadofsky, line producer, co-producer, — Except for one guy who drove the truck and stayed downstairs, it was an all-female crew. Though in most cases, these people were already pretty comfortable with themselves.
The five women in the masturbation workshop, I think they thought it would be buried somewhere. It was supposed to be just a single show that would air on late-night HBO. But it turned into a long-term series with episodes that were shown again and again — that was tricky. Marla Ratner, production coordinator, associate producer, — The street interviews really helped to validate the show. At the beginning, it was challenging to figure out where to do them.
You had to be able to find people. I remember trying to film in San Francisco, walking around for hours but there was nobody around. New York and South Beach were the best.
You also had to get people who had a little drink in them, so they were in the mood Marla Ratner: We were very strategic about neighborhoods. We had lists and lists of questions. But some we stopped asking because we always got the same answer.
Practically every guy said his biggest fantasy was a threesome. What worked best was getting couples to tell on each other. You could do a sociological study on what it was like to do street interviews in the beginning and what it was like later. I liked the street interviews better in early years, when there were more unexpected-looking people, not just beautiful young things.
I interviewed these blue-haired theater ladies one time, the kind who lunch and go to the theater on Wednesday. I even interviewed my grandparents. The street interviews were comforting, because they were just people and nothing surprised them. It gave the aura to the whole show that [all the other stuff] was fine. Behind the scenes, though, the crew was often privy to things they never could have gotten away with airing on television, even on a show with a self-imposed R rating.
There was one event we filmed called the Smut Fest, and after this burlesque performance, people came onstage and started cutting each other with lasers. We never showed that.
We tried to keep it fun and sexy. There were two rules: It could be tricky. But we worked with phenomenally wonderful cameramen. I always had to go see the lawyer and sit in his office if there was a problem.
The lawyers were very careful about what we could show. They would examine it frame by frame. It could feel a bit absurd sometimes. I guess they lined up for lunch. Early on, the decision was made to forego digital cameras and shoot on film at the time, there was still a sharp distinction between the two — the hope was that this would help distinguish Real Sex as a documentary about sex rather than simply porn.
The problem was that film demanded a relatively large group of people be involved. We would try to blend in as much as we could. We were filming on 16 mm film, so we were a big crew. We did try to be discreet. I was wearing lingerie and most of the crew was scantily clad.
Which is exactly true. It would have looked like cheap porn if it was shot the way porn was shot, but having a nice fat budget to play with meant we could produce something that looked really good. It was a great in between job for lots of producers. It was the best gig in television. You were shooting in nice 16 mm film doing aerial photography work with a beautiful music budget.
We used telephones, or the library, or the newspapers. We had some access to Lexis Nexis. At one point, we were looking for drag performers.
I would just go down to Christopher Street and pick up copies of the gay weeklies. They listed every club and drag performance — Duplex has Lady Bunny. Over here is Lypsinka and Varla Jean Merman. There were also certain people that were big sources for us.
Annie Sprinkle [a sex educator and former porn star] was a gold mine of recommendations. Her entire entourage of friends and associates were all quite outlandish and interesting. This was an actual thing that occurred. I told Patti, and she asked him to take some images and send them to us. When the photos finally came, it was the sleaziest backwoods backwater.
But that was how we did research. For a segment to work, participants certainly needed to be open and willing to let viewers in. But however wacky things became, producers made a concerted effort not to make fun of anyone. But for me, I felt really good about it. I thought it was a really ahead of its time.
There was a conversation about sex on the show that was very candid and frank. And there were no experts, no narrator. We were just letting these characters speak for themselves.
And speak they did. I did one segment on sploshing, which is where you take food or other sticky substances and roll around in them. It was big in Britain, where everyone is so uptight that fetishes have to be completely wacky. Sitting in pies was a big deal. What was cool was taking something weird and finding a kernel of sexy in it so the audience could relate.
I was always amazed we could find people to participate in the workshops on-camera. Most of the time we left that to the person running the workshop. We would give them some parameters, though. You want fairly nice-looking people. It was always a challenge for us to find good-looking people. After I left, it kept getting sexier.
I think other shows prompted that — they were competing with the Playboy Channel. There were a couple of segments toward the end that I remember clearly. Turns out a lot of people. And they were good-looking people. By the end of the night, everyone had their clothes off and were fucking.