Smoke gets in your eyes

You have a successful satirical website exposing celebrities' foibles. So, obviously, you take it to television. But Smoking Gun TV is a big mistake, says Edward Docx
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The Independent Online

Did you realise that the singer Christina Aguilera insists on "one (1) package of Soya Kass Soy Cheese full-fat mozzarella" to be placed in her dressing-room before she arrives to perform on stage? She also requires a police escort to be on hand with full authority to route her entourage through jams because she absolutely does not wish to "encounter any delays due to traffic". Oh yes, and "one (1) bottle of Echinacea capsules", please, and "twelve (12) solo cups", and, yes, an "assortment of power bars" and the cheese platter (organic), the meat platter (organic, must be deli) and the fruit platter ("raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, plums, bananas - organic") and "one (1) container of Coffee Mate Non Dairy Creamer" and...

Such wonderful things are to be discovered on The Smoking Gun (TSG to the cognoscenti), an American website famous for its extraordinary ability to track down almost any piece of documentation in the States. TSG was founded in 1997 by the former Village Voice reporters William Bastone and Danny Green; and although it was bought by the US station Court TV in 2000, the website is still run by a cabal of journalistic nerds who specialise in uncovering legal documents, police reports, contracts, divorce papers, court records and so on.

They have different freedom-of-information laws in America, and so they are indeed able to procure some interesting documents. For example, TSG reports that - according to a Los Angeles Superior Court complaint - the octogenarian parents of Jim Morrison are suing two of their son's former Doors bandmates. And, ghoulish perhaps (but no less fascinating for that), TSG brings us full coverage of Katharine Hepburn's will. And the autopsy report detailing the cause of death of the Bee Gee Maurice Gibb (a congenital condition).

TSG also carries a wonderful gallery of police mugshots - the just-been-arrested, face-and-to-the-side-please photographs of all your favourite celebrities. And boy do they look rough: Bill Gates (after a traffic violation), Hugh Grant (après Divine Brown), Ozzy Osbourne (strangely, this is one of the few pictures of Mr Osbourne in which he looks to be in good health and sound mind; cheerful, almost).

My own favourite, though, and surely the most compelling section of the site is the assembly of backstage riders. This is a contractual list of the requirements of various music celebrities for their dressing-rooms and entourage. God knows how TSG gets hold of them but I find myself edified to discover that Destiny's Child demand "fine china and dinner-ware".

It is a winning formula - which is why Court TV has now launched the TV show of the site. Alas, the programme has been a critical disaster. "By the time Rocca mercifully says, 'That's all we have time for today,' you'll be grateful beyond words." So says the Chicago Sun-Times, referring to the poor presenter Mo Rocca. "The Smoking Gun is simply there to show us the fun stuff in the paperwork," points out the Seattle Post. "How ironic that a legal website dedicated to documenting the stupid missteps of others would inspire such a stupid misstep itself. It ought to be a crime," opines the TV critic Phil Rosenthal.

You would be forgiven for thinking that the TV executives might have seen it coming. The point about the material on The Smoking Gun website is that it is profoundly static, that it is paper-based, concerned with unearthing documents, lists, small, motionless clauses, legal jargon, contracts, courts, reading-matter. It is about spotting the celebrity name amid the minutiae. It would seem blindingly obvious, therefore - to almost anyone in the world but a TV commissioner - that, though a consummate idea for a website, The Smoking Gun would make absolutely desperate television.

Sometimes, celebrity formats just don't work. Which, in a way, is a bit of a relief.