One of 2012’s most polarizing-yet-popular shows was TLC’s Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, a pleasure even guiltier than Toddlers & Tiaras, from which it spun off. Below, TLC’s SVP of Production and Development, Howard Lee, who serves as the internal exec producer for the show, takes us inside the making of the reality hit.
For more stories behind this year’s top TV and movie moments, click here for EW.com’s Best of 2012 (Behind the Scenes) coverage.
By: Howard Lee
In the cable reality landscape, anyone who tells you they can predict a hit is either peering into the future, or outright lying. At TLC, we hedge our bets in the here and now through creative team discussions based on research, focus groups, and lively debates. Our goal is to ensure that our gut “TV” instincts synch with what our audience wishes to see. Our success is having America fall in love with personalities that we’ve identified, peering into their lives, and finally entertained by a tidy show that neatly depicts their magic.
Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is a little show that seized pop culture and took on a life of its own. I often contemplate if the series would have been as clever if Alana didn’t have the nickname “Honey Boo Boo” and if the family didn’t devise their own names for everyone. Would Anderson Cooper or President Obama sound as interesting if they quoted the real life name of “Alana Thompson?” (“Snooki” is a great example of this, too… Doogie Howser, anyone, or am I dating myself?)
Honey Boo Boo began when we saw Alana appear as a pageant competitor on Toddlers & Tiaras. For this, I give credit to the tremendous team on the series from Authentic Entertainment who spotted the twinkle in her eye and her matter-of-fact, say-it-like-it-is brilliance in a little seven-year old. Internally, her single appearance on that episode created an inter-office stir as we passed around snippets and clips well before the episode aired. She made us all laugh, and she had found her first audience. It is as simple as that.
When the Toddlers & Tiaras episode aired, the ratings took off. We saw that folks were whispering about her appearance on all the talk shows and tweets on Twitter jumped the cultural shark. We knew we had something special, but it was obvious that we couldn’t build an entire series on the shoulders of a young child. We needed to know more about her entire family. What we found was the candor, love, outright comedy, and warmth that surrounded Alana from mom June, dad Sugar Bear, and sisters Pumpkin, Jessica, and Anna. Never had a family been so blunt and honest in how they approach life. With an “I don’t care” attitude and, as June always likes to say, “It is what it is,” the family relished having the cameras turned on them and being themselves in what would have been, for them, a long boring summer. Not many reality show families embrace the “let’s put on a show” process with such love and enthusiasm. And it’s this love and enthusiasm that is their key to success.
The goal of any reality series is to capture the authenticity of behavior, the fun, the drama, and the real life ups and downs. With Honey Boo Boo, we simply grabbed the honest to goodness antics the family loved sharing. We captured the “I don’t care” attitude that the entire family exudes due to the inherent self-esteem they all possess that doesn’t come from having money, or material abundance that many reality shows typify. This wasn’t a rocket science formula. What is complex is how we piece the show together. There is probably a reality show bible somewhere out there in cable land of every non-fiction show convention that we are accustomed to (types of stock music used, crappy graphics, hyper editing techniques, cymbals sound effects crashing through every five seconds — techniques that even TLC could be guilty of). Honey Boo Boo goes against the grain. We set out to contradict conventional techniques and left in the real life that a show would normally snip out. These hundreds of choices are made every day by the spectacular Authentic production and post team, and are fully supported by TLC.
The criticism of the series (and the appeal) has been polarizing. I’ve asked myself if America seized on loving or hating this series because it was too “real” for them? Did we go too far? Did these stories and conversations of dieting, child pageants, pet pigs, food auctions, bad plumbing, bad breath contests, deer statues, toilet paper bombing, farting, belching, and sneezing cut too close to reality, and horrify? Or does this make us love them even more?
Many of us could say that we are simply entertained by the honesty and love that this family shares for each other. Or we could hate them for being who they are and click our devices off and not watch. As for me, I love this family. I wish my own family had been this fun. The series “is what it is” and Honey Boo Boo now stands as three words that will always linger in pop culture vocabulary — the holy grail for any broadcast channel.