Witnessing the Last Stand of American Culture on the TMZ Bus Tour
Two months ago, I sat in a crowded banquet hall in Austin, Texas, as TMZ founder, managing editor, and TMZ on TV host Harvey Levin gave an impassioned, highly charismatic, completely unapologetic keynote about the invasive empire that he has steadily built since 2005. In the talk, aside from his speech and a few hints of what the future held (a TMZ Bus Tour in NYC), the standout takeaway was the demographic taking the microphone to ask Harvey very specific questions about TMZ. More often than not they were middle-aged women, probably in their late forties or early fifties. And with each question, there was a definite mix of delight in how little they knew (comparatively speaking) about the Internet, and genuine curiosity about what was happening within the pop culture landscape. It was a nice reminder that not everyone spends their entire day refreshing Twitter. Or having Twitter. Or knowing what Twitter is.
Two months later, however, TMZ made its way back into my life. Yesterday morning, I was confronted with one detail that I’d glossed over from Levin’s March discussion.
The New York City bus tour.
After stumbling on the news that the tour was now a reality, I found myself searching for answers about the bus and how to reserve a spot. These answers were very easy to find. And at 9:15 a.m., I found that the next two-hour tour was leaving in 45 minutes and it started within a 10-minute walk from my home.
It was meant to be.
Buying a bus ticket, plus an extra eight dollars for priority seating (because, you know, only once do you live), I power walked down to the point of departure and, with five minutes to spare, saw my gossipy chariot.
The next two hours couldn’t have been any more absurd.
10 a.m. The 10 percent–filled bus was given a few pieces of information before the tour began. For one, the NYC tours only started the previous Saturday. And on Saturday, Harvey had actually been on the bus (which was the spoiler that Harvey would not be on this tour). Also, this was an “atypical New York tour,” leaning less toward facts about the Empire State Building and more “learning where Lindsay Lohan stumbled and fell down.”
10:01 Lohan count = 1
10:02 It became clear, just two minutes in, that this would be a back-and-forth between our tour guide, Aaron, and the televisions, which was essentially TMZ on TV, synchronized to where the bus was taking us. Which meant that we were in for two hours of this voice:
This was a horrible idea. And it was only 10:02.
10:05 Guide: “Any Harvey fans on the bus?” This was met with a few cheers. At that point, I looked behind me. There couldn’t have been more than three people on this bus younger than 30. It was the Harvey Levin keynote speech on wheels. Also, that was the first of many “Are there any __________ fans on the bus?” questions. They will all be addressed.
10:06 The TMZ voice-over guy is actually going to drive me insane.
10:09 Guide: “Any Chris Brown fans in here?” This was not met with a single boo. Right after (because we were driving through the fashion district) “Any Abercrombie fans in here?” Three times as many boos. Very weird. Haven’t the first clue what to do with that.
10:12 Our driver, Jacque, is introduced. Seems to giggle ever so slightly at every lewd one-liner that our guide cracks.
10:13 Somehow, Bruno Mars becomes the topic of conversation behind me. A lady, who is clearly going to be the dominant talker of the bus ride, mentions that he’s “young enough to be her son” and then follows it with an “Oh well.” I really shouldn’t be on this bus.
10:15 Lohan count = 3
10:16 Our first bus-wide quiz of the trip. “Who sold out Madison Square Garden the quickest?” Answer: apparently Taylor Swift in 90 seconds. He also says at certain points there will be prizes for bus games. This excites me.
10:16 Our guide alerts the bus that we are about to pass Katie Holmes’s building. The bus is very excited by this.
10:17 “Any Anderson Cooper fans in here?” (Fan callout count = 3)
10:18 The horrible TMZ narrator, in regard to John Mayer’s personal life, uses the word “boned.” I don’t like the word “boned” being yelled in front of a bunch of 50-year-olds.
10:19 They said “boned” again. I really wish they’d stop.
10:20 Our tour guide tells the bus that people have told him he looks like John Mayer. And that they’re calling him “Baby Mayer.”
“Any John Mayer fans on here?” (Fan callout count = 4)
10:22 Our guide brings up Tiger Woods and prepares the bus to keep an eye out for a place on the right, because that’s where Tiger mistress no. 1, Rachel Uchitel, used to live. But as we approach, there’s a truck in the way. Kind of a bummer for the bus.
10:25 Even though we’ve been told this is an “atypical” tour, for about two minutes our guide gives a very thorough, historical account of how the meatpacking district got its name. Like, shockingly informative.
10:26 That great piece of history is followed by “speaking of meatpacking,” getting us back on track. I want to be mad at it, but can’t really be mad at it, even though I’m mad.
10:27 Perhaps the shocker of the trip: the first (and only) Cuba Gooding Jr. mention.
10:28 Lohan mentions 4, 5, 6.
10:29 “Anybody a fan of Shevonne on the bus?” I have no idea who he’s talking about, but a few people respond, knowing her from TMZ on TV. This is surreal. (Fan callout count = 5)
10:30 We pass by Mario Batali’s restaurant, which is cue for a Mario Batali segment, which prompts a discussion about his show The Chew. A lady in the back: “I hate The Chew.” A different lady, sitting across from me: “I kind of like The Chew.” This was the first vocal disagreement on the bus.
10:31 I give up with Lindsay Lohan mentions, because we’ve just gone into an entire Lohan segment on the televisions:
10:32 Our guide asks us what our favorite Lohan film is. Because I’m in the front (preferred seating, and don’t you forget it), he looks at me. “Mean Girls,” I reply immediately, because it’s the only answer. Aaron, our guide, tells the rest of the bus my answer, which is respected as an answer until someone else screams The Parent Trap. The bus likes that answer more.
10:33 We’re still in “The Lindsay Lohan Terror Zone.” Aaron describes the scene at the Dream hotel in 2012 when she allegedly hit someone with her car and left the scene. Already knowing this story, I started to daydream a bit. That trance was immediately lifted, however, when there was an audible gasp from the bus upon learning the story.
Of course they didn’t know about that. That’s awesome. It’s a crazy story. You can’t just hit people with your car and leave. It’s gaspable.
10:34 We pass by a restaurant, Buddakan, where Pam from The Office fell down the stairs.
10:35 “Any Kardashian fans in here?” This is the first fan question that is met with no response. Weird. (Fan callout count = 6)
10:36 Our guide gives us a Chris Brown–Rihanna story as we pass by the club Griffin. Allegedly, a source told our guide that they saw Rihanna and Chris Brown duck into a bathroom there for 25 minutes. When he finished saying that, there was another audible gasp, but also the faintest “oooooooooohhhhh,” as if the bus were filled with third-graders and someone just got in trouble with a teacher. Nothing made sense anymore.
10:37 “Any Gerard Butler fans in here?” This was met with a round of applause. Multiple women, unprompted, expressed their positive feelings about Gerard. (Fan callout count = 7)
10:40 The next few minutes were dominated by our driver, Jacques, maneuvering a gigantic TMZ bus through the narrow streets of the West Village while seeing if he could pull off each turn.
Even if sidewalks (and very nearly humans and dogs) were run over, we always made our turns. Shout-out to you, Jacque.
10:41 A bunch of quick stops: Jim Carrey’s art studio, a restaurant owned by Jay-Z, Kiefer Sutherland’s house, and Jennifer Aniston and Justin Theroux’s former home, all within a few blocks of one another.
10:42 GAME ALERT: “Finger or Wave.” It’s a pretty simple game. Aaron plays the first few seconds of an archived TMZ clip of a celebrity being horribly harassed by paparazzi, and then he pauses it and picks someone on the bus to guess if the celebrity waves at the paparazzi or flicks them off.
The first celebrity: Keanu Reeves. And if you get it right, YOU GET A T-SHIRT.
10:44 Someone behind me (because everyone’s behind me; don’t sleep on my first-class TMZ NYC Bus Tour seats) guesses “finger.” And she is wrong. He waved. Obviously. No T-shirt.
10:45 We spend a few minutes talking about Sex and the City, as we are approaching Magnolia Bakery.
10:49 Aaron, our guide, keeps it in the family of food and begins a discussion of New York and street meat. And hot dogs. And wieners. And then Anthony Weiner. I can’t lie, I didn’t see it coming. Should have, by Minute 49 of this, but was completely blindsided.
10:50 The woman in the back that is the main talker knows everything about Weiner’s wife, Huma Abedin. It’s very impressive. She also makes a Bill Clinton joke. It goes over well.
10:51 Headed down Hudson, our guide tells everyone to look to the left, because there’s a place called W.i.P that is infamous (cues TV montage).
The horrible narrator voice goes through the bottle-throwing incident that those glued to the Internet know too well. When they begin outlining the violence, and showing pictures of cuts and bruises, the bus can’t handle it. Gasps are flying from all corners.
10:52 “Any fans of Girls in here?” (Fan callout count = 8 )
10:53 A truly horrific moment takes place as we drive through Tribeca and the TV has a cued-up lyric video about Robert De Niro; the guide and other passengers begin singing along. Very bad. Very, very bad.
10:56 A transition I did not expect: going from a discussion about JFK Jr.’s old house and Kennedy royalty to the home that Jay-Z and Beyoncé were married in, à la “hip-hop” royalty. Good stuff, Aaron The Tour Guide.
10:59 “Any Apprentice fans in here?” (Fan callout count = 9)
11:01 Probably the grossest moment of the ride: a video of Jonah Hill taking a picture of a placenta in a park, as we drove by the park that Jonah Hill took a picture of a placenta in. The tour guide just kept saying placenta. He couldn’t stop. No one was happy, but he kept going.
11:05 After tuning out for about four minutes, I came back to hear Aaron ask the bus if they’d seen any celebrities since they’d been in New York City. Someone mentioned Philip Seymour Hoffman and said that he wasn’t nice. And then someone else agreed.
11:07 Another person announces that he saw “David Ravalo.” Our tour guide has no idea who “David Ravalo” is, nor does anyone else, so he asks the older gentleman, “Who is David Ravalo?” The man replies, “He’s in The Avengers.”
He meant Mark Ruffalo. My heart filled up with happiness. There’s nothing I love more than mix-ups like this, like when my mother attempted to convince me The Great Gatsby was on in her hotel a few weeks ago, not realizing that it was The Aviator.
11:09 We pass by Dash, the Kardashians’ store, but no one really cares.
11:11 Our guide alerts us that to the left is the apartment in which Heath Ledger was found dead. And then he cues a very odd, somber, out-of-place clip of Levin discussing how he got the tip about Ledger, which made it clear this was not about Ledger at all, and only about bragging that they got the tip before anyone else.
But I can’t be mad. Because I’m sitting on a TMZ tour bus.
11:17 We pass by Barry’s Bootcamp, which was an excuse to show a picture of David Hasselhoff at Barry’s Bootcamp, which was an excuse to talk about that time David Hasselhoff got drunk and was eating off the floor and his daughter filmed it and put it on the Internet.
11:19 GAME ALERT: “Finger or Wave.” Our guide picks the talkative one in the back, who we finally learn is named Kelly. Our subject this round: Matthew Broderick. After a bus-wide discussion, Kelly decides to go with finger.
KELLY GOT A TMZ T-SHIRT.
11:22 GAME ALERT: “Finger or Wave.” Yes, we’re running it back. This time, our guesser is a woman named Esme from Austria, I think, and our celebrity subject is Uma Thurman. Esme picked wave.
Interesting result: Thurman waved her finger. So Esme’s wrong and right.
ESME WON A TMZ T-SHIRT.
11:24 Our tour guide brings up Woody Allen. My girl Kelly, proud new TMZ T-shirt owner, tells the bus that she hates Woody Allen.
11:26 Kelly makes a TMZ cruise joke, about Tom Cruise, out of nowhere. This has become her tour.
11:27 GAME ALERT: “Finger or Wave.” Allegedly, this is our last round. Our contestant: Melissa. The celebrity: Jon Stewart.
11:28 Someone on the bus tries to make a case for “wave” because he lives next door to her aunt. Or used to? No idea. Anyway, Melissa goes with wave.
IT’S WAVE. MELISSA GETS A TMZ T-SHIRT.
11:29 While completely fine with observing and not being an active participant in this tour, I’m starting to feel slightly lame, seeing that 40 percent of the bus has a shirt.
11:30 Finally, we have a new game:
The question is which celebrity is known to love having sex in the Standard hotel.
There’s pretty unanimous agreement that it’s Sting. And then the answer is Sting. And then the bus applauds. It’s at this moment that I have to remind myself that this bus is comprised 100 percent of adults.
11:31 The TV narrator launches into a segment about Chesley Sullenberger as we drive past the Hudson River. This image is shown:
The bus erupts into applause. I join in, because as silly as this is, you can’t be the guy who doesn’t clap for Sully.
11:32 They show a different picture of Sully. And the bus cheers again. I’m actually beginning to love everything about this ride.
11:33 The woman across from me (the one who loves the Batali TV show) is DYING from these New Jersey [fill in the blank with bad thing] jokes our tour guide is telling. She can’t stop laughing.
11:35 The conversation goes from New Jersey to Jersey Shore. Kelly, your thoughts? “I’ve never been to the Jersey Shore. Not a beach person.”
Our tour guide spills the beans that many of the cast members of Jersey Shore aren’t even from New Jersey. The comment, from across the aisle: “Wait, that’s terrible.”
Kelly, on the other hand, is not shocked, as she begins to outline where each cast member grew up.
11:36 Staying with the topic of New Jersey, our guide brings up the show Cake Boss. Kelly, thoughts? “You know, I bought something from the Cake Boss, threw it away.”
11:37 Next is a TV segment about Cash Cab. Fearing this would happen, I prepared myself for the devastation when, in about 30 seconds, the bus (minus Kelly) found out the show was in fact very staged.
11:38 It’s not a pretty scene. It’s like watching a group of 6-year-olds find out that Santa isn’t real, except in this case, everyone on the bus has a 6-year-old grandkid.
11:39 Kelly, further demonstrating her pop culture expertise, randomly brings up the Cash Cab spinoff: Cash Cab: After Dark. I didn’t even know about that.
11:40 Jacque almost hit an Acura, but then he didn’t.
11:42 NEW GAME ALERT: “Celebrity Baby Daddy.” It’s simple: Aaron reads a name of a famous mother and someone on the bus (Kelly) has to name the father of the child. And (bummer alert) since it’s a bus-wide game (Kelly already has a shirt), there are no prizes.
First: “Beyoncé.” The bus: “Jay-Z.”
11:43 Second: “Alicia Keys.” Silence falls on the bus for a second, and then Kelly starts mumbling and replies with “Biz Sweets.”
MR. AND MRS. SWEETS.
I couldn’t hold in my laughter. I died. There’s nothing cuter than a 54-year-old woman (she announced her age) confidently calling Swizz Beatz “Biz Sweets.” Nothing. Kelly is a legend.
11:45 The final mother: “Natalie Portman.” Kelly, eager to redeem herself, can’t think of the name but blurts out “the choreographer from the ballet.”
She’s pretty much correct. It was Benjamin Millepied, the choreographer for Black Swan and the future director of dance at the Paris Opera Ballet. Fantastic work.
11:47 NEW GAME: “Celebrity or Homeless Person”
I don’t really support this game, because I don’t enjoy mocking the idea of homelessness, so of course I get called on to play. Aaron makes me introduce myself. I turn around and say “Hi, I’m Rem,” and I think my voice may have cracked. A few people respond back, vocally or with waves. What a safe space.
Turning back around to the television, they put an oval over the person’s face, so all you get is some disheveled hair and a neckline. Assuming the answer is always going to be “celebrity,” I say “celebrity.”
It’s Sylvester Stallone.
I JUST WON A T-SHIRT PLAYING CELEBRITY OR HOMELESS PERSON.
I’m ecstatic. The bus applauds. What a great morning.
11:49 After my win, the bus finds out that Kelly is a Tower Heist apologist.
11:50 “YOU GUYS LIKE DUCK DYNASTY?” (Fan callout count = 10)
11:52 As we begin to head back to our starting point, a Britney Spears segment comes on the screen. The now-infamous clip of Spears almost dropping her child while holding a drink in the other hand played on the television, turning the bus into the Louisville bench post–Kevin Ware leg snap.
I can’t even imagine a world where I haven’t seen that clip 700 times. Go figure. The TMZ tour bus is home to a collection of the most pure and innocent adults. Go figure.
11:53 “Any Britney fans?” (Fan callout count = 11) “Would you guys see Britney in Vegas?” Take it, Kelly: “I saw Charlie Sheen at Radio City, I’ll see anything.”
11:54 Visibly thrown off by Kelly’s response, our tour guide: “Wait, you saw the Torpedoes of Truth/Charlie Sheen tour?” Of course she did, Aaron. It’s Kelly. And this is her tour.
11:55 KELLY JUST TOLD A STORY ABOUT LOU DIAMOND PHILLIPS, AND I DON’T KNOW WHY.
11:56 KELLY JUST TOLD US SHE ONCE STAYED IN THE RITZ CARLTON AND THAT THE BEDDING IS WONDERFUL, AND I DON’T KNOW WHY.
11:57 Aaron, taking control of this tour back from Kelly, tells us that he once met Taylor Swift. And that he didn’t like her. The wonderful woman who loves Batali and Jersey jokes: “Oh, no.”
12:00 Next, Aaron goes into one of the last TV segments: The Torpedoes of Truth/Charlie Sheen tour. That’s why he was rattled, because Kelly took his bit. It’s almost as if she stole the answer key to the tour.
12:02 Aaron, on the Sheen tour: “People actually paid to see that.” Yes, Aaron. Her name is Kelly and she admittedly loved it, so back off.
12:04 Final game: More “Celebrity or Homeless Person.”
We went around the bus. Genuinely stumped, I guessed Brad Pitt. Kelly’s guess: Mickey Rourke.
12:06 Answer: Mickey Rourke. I’m giving Kelly my job.
12:08 Final one, before we get off the bus:
12:09 Kelly: “Come on y’all, someone else guess.” No one does. So she says “Courtney Love.”
12:10 Answer: “Courtney Love.”
12:11 Aaron, as our bus comes to a final stop: “I’ve never been out–tour guided before.”