In 1996 I was living in Chicago—how did I miss the radio broadcast of This American Life’s “A Night at the Wiener Circle”? (It played on local air only, though a televised version aired on Showtime in 2007.) Host Ira Glass spent a dark night of the soul in this North Side hot dog stand. By day it’s a place where you can get a pretty awesome Chicago dog and cheese fries covered with a tangy clot of orange sauce. But on weekend nights after the bars close, the Wiener’s Circle looks an awful lot like you'd imagine the 10th circle of hell to look, a place where drunk-ass white boys gleefully abuse the African-American counter staff, and the staff responds by gleefully calling them drunk-ass white-boy motherfuckers in return. It’s pure shtick.
Though as Glass revealed, the more time you spend at the Wiener’s Circle, the less it feels like some hilarious college food fight and the more it begins to smell like class warfare with a racialized edge: black fast-food workers serving pampered-looking white people, their inhibitions dissolved in a wash of cheap beer.
As a guy who at times has been a drunk-ass white boy, I believe I’m qualified to say that it’s all more than a little disturbing.
That didn’t stop the people at truTV from thinking it would make a riveting game show. In March, the reality/trash-TV network premiered The Wiener’s Circle, a show that, truTV’s website says, “puts the cuss in customer service.” In the 30-minute show (six are airing this season), Wiener’s Circle manager Poochie Jackson (center) and her four-member crew lead customers in a series of game-show challenges where the grand prize is a free meal.
The action seems unscripted, spontaneous: Customers stagger up to the order window, take some verbal abuse from the staff, and agree to do stupid challenges. They answer questions, show off drunk dance moves, compete in predictably nasty eat-offs, or just embarrass themselves. Meanwhile, Jackson and the Circle staff call everybody bitches and motherfuckers.
“That’s one ugly-ass sweater,” Jackson yells at a white college boy with glazed eyes on a recent episode. “Take that shit off!” He does, as Kim, the cashier, gives him and his bro a challenge. “Gimme the name of one person who was involved in the civil rights movement.”
They struggle; head cook Yolanda tries to help. “Can you name the lady who wouldn’t get off the goddamn bus?”
“Eleanor Roosevelt,” answers the bro, a doofus in a beanie. FAIL! Jackson orders them out of the restaurant. “These are the dumbest drunk fools I’ve ever seen in my life,” she says. In another segment, Jackson asks an African-American couple to name three “dumb-ass” things white people like. “Celine Dion!” “Eggnog!” “Seinfeld!” “Sarah Jessica Parker!” Answers pour in from contestants, bystanders, and the Circle crew, a rare moment of solidarity.
On the Showtime version of This American Life, the Wiener's Circle appeared as one segment in a themed episode called "Pandora's Box." The implication: Once you lose your social inhibitions at a late-night hot dog stand filled with drunks, what comes out of your mouth is liable to be darkly revealing, not pretty or nice. The name of the Circle's segment: "In Wiener Veritas."
Whether revisiting the Wiener's Circle in reality game-show format is socially redeeming is an open question. If you’re sober, you can see it as a document of social inequality in a supposedly post-racial America, feel seriously appalled, and then click over to Dancing with the Stars. If, like me, you stumble onto The Wiener’s Circle when drunk, you might think it’s extremely hilarious, before realizing that, yeah, it’s a document of social inequality in a supposedly post-racial America, only one you can’t stop watching. Also, it makes you hungry for cheese fries.
The Wiener's Circle airs on truTV Tuesdays at 10 p.m. Eastern and Pacific Time, 9 p.m. Central.
Image source: truTV.com