Backtracking to the Show That Changed Everything

Sep 04, 2013 • Culture, Television

HBO's Real Sex documentary series

It was an average November Tuesday in 1990 when HBO decided to air Real Sex at 11:00PM. No one had any idea at the time that it would captivate 2.8 million households across the nation, or that what had initially been brainstormed as a 60-minute documentary special would become a successful series spanning two decades. Real Sex possessed our imaginations, showing us a wild and ever-widening spectrum of sexuality long before accessing the unknown through the internet became as easy as picking up our phones.

This summer, Vulture’s Molly Langmuir caught up with five people who worked on the show to get a closer look at the show that paved the way for all frank discussions of sex on cable television that came after.

Within HBO, Real Sex was a strange creature. People loved it, but corporate felt strange about it.

“We were like the stepchildren of the office — we were always getting moved around,” says Katie Smalheer, who between 1996 and 2005 worked as associate producer on the show.

HBO pushed for differentiation so Real Sex wouldn’t get classified as porn. As a result, the show had a big budget for a full crew, production and music. A lot of producers working on issue-focused documentaries at HBO would wrap and hit up Real Sex to do a piece as an in-between gig.

“It was the best gig in television,” says Deb Wasser, who was a segment director and producer as well as a street interviewer on Real Sex between 1995 and 2003. “You were shooting in nice 16mm film doing aerial photography work with a beautiful music budget. My wife would come home and watch me on Internet porn sites and say, ‘I can’t believe they pay you to do this.’ In the early days, of course, there was no Internet, and finding fetishes, subcultures, and workshops deserving of their own Real Sex segment depended on a combination of old-fashioned shoe leather reporting, creative thinking, and blind luck.”

Mostly, producers researched content the old-fashioned way — at the library, in alternative papers, and among their existing contacts.

“Even in the early days of Internet, we weren’t really researching on the Internet,” recalls Smalheer. “Patti [Kaplan, producer and director of Real Sex] would say, ‘I need strippers in the Bahamas.’ So I’d call up the Bahamas Visitors Bureau and some guy would know about a strip club out by these sugarcane fields. 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. Patti was like, ‘No.’ That was my first experience thinking we had some great lead on a story and it [turned out] just terrible. But that was how we did research.”

Sometimes, the research led them unexpected places.

“Someone pitched us a story about these sex orgies and at first we didn’t do it because who wants to go to sex party and let you film them?” asks Smalheer. “Turns out a lot of people. We ended up shooting this orgy, which was basically a costume party, or a masquerade, like in Eyes Wide Shut. There was even a woman who looked like Marie Antoinette with one of those skirts with the structure underneath. And they were good-looking people. By the end of the night, everyone had their clothes off and were fucking. At a certain point when you’re shooting vérité, there’s nothing for the producer to do. You just have to let the cameraman shoot. Patti [Kaplan] and I ended up hiding behind this bookcase looking at each other, like, ‘What life are we living that we’re in the middle of someone else’s sex party?'”

The willingness of more and more people to show their desires is its own cultural barometer.

“You could do a sociological study on what it was like to do street interviews in the beginning and what it was like later,” says the producer and director of the show, Patti Kaplan about the show’s street interviews segments. “At first we thought it was amazing when someone said, ‘I sometimes masturbate.’ Eventually we got to the point where people were telling us everything. ‘Oh last night, in the restaurant … ‘ We’d be like, ‘Okay, thanks, that’s enough.'”

Real Sex, which finished its last season in 2009, still airs on HBO, and while they issued The Best of Real Sex on tape in 1997 and offer select episodes on HBO Go today, they’ve never released the full series to consumers.

“It was not how HBO wanted to put itself out there,” says Smalheer.

Read the whole interview on Vulture.