If your idea of Hollywood is Lindsay, Paris and Kim, TMZ has a tour for you.
Harvey Levin's internet and TV tabloid juggernaut has gotten into the bus-tour business, ferrying tourists and locals around Hollywood, West Hollywood and Beverly Hills three or four times a day on a snarky, gossipy two-hour tour that bites the hand that feeds it and bypasses a lot of the things you'd normally expect on a Hollywood tour.
This, for instance, is a tour that takes you to the site of the first Academy Awards, the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, and then ignores that particular piece of history as it focuses on the fact that the place used to employ Lindsay Lohan's girlfriend as a deejay.
It drives you through an historic West Hollywood intersection that was the location of Schwab's drugstore and the Garden of Allah apartments (home to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Humphrey Bogart, Marlene Dietrich, Orson Welles and many others).
That same intersection is also the site of the Sunset Strip Riots and the inspiration for two classic rock songs, Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi" and Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth."
But don't expect to hear about any of that stuff, because the TMZ bus is way too busy showing video of Michael Richards' racist Laugh Factory meltdown, which happened a block east.
And along the way, the tour manages to trash other tours (which, they say, amount to "Oh, that's Brad Pitt's mailbox!"), the Walk of Fame ("where celebrities pay $30,000 to get their own stars that homeless people can pee on"), O.J. Simpson (who, Levin explains on video, is legally a killer but not a murderer) and many of the stores and restaurants the tour passes (Kitson is "a store of overpriced crap," Mr. Chow the home of "wildly overrated meals").
The TMZ Tour is no Starline (though it is operated by Starline), and it certainly isn't the tour for anybody who wants Hollywood history that dates back much further than Lindsay Lohan's first arrest.
This is a tour for people who think Hollywood is full of sleazy no-talents but who are nonetheless fascinated by every last one of 'em, and a tour from people who love simultaneously mocking and riding that sleaze all the way to the bank.
It's fun, in a dirty kind of way, but you sort of need a shower afterwards even if you don't go on a hot day.
This Wrap writer took the tour on the Fourth of July weekend, giving up a Saturday morning to ride the bus and hear all about the starlets and studmuffins I normally try to avoid.
And while it was a couple of hours of mildly entertaining sleaze, I figure the tour deserves a breakdown in the same snarky tone with which they treat everything they show us.
So here goes:
9:15 Our tour guide is a guy named Keith, who works for TMZ and apparently appears on their TV show. As we wait for everybody to board, we learn that the TMZ show shoots at 6:00 a.m., so Keith has to get up really early every day. And Harvey Levin gets up even earlier, because he goes to the gym at, like, 3:30 in the morning.
In time honored tour-guide form, Keith asks all of us tour-goers where we're from. I tell him that I'm from Hollywood, and that I live about a mile west of our starting point at Hollywood & Highland.
"Hollywood?" he says. "What the hell are you taking the TMZ tour for?"
If you’re reading, Keith, consider this your belated answer.
9:30 When Keith hears that one couple is from Chicago, he announces that that burg "has gotta be a way cooler city than L.A." Our city, he says, doesn't have any destinations like Times Square or the Empire State Building.
(Actually, Chicago doesn't have those either. But apparently it has things like that.)
9:40 Two video screens on the bus leap to life, with the same screeching voiceover artist who appears on the TMZ site and TV show. His is not exactly the voice I'd chose for this hour on a Saturday morning, but I guess he works as a wakeup call.
9:45 Keith announces that if we spot any actual celebrities, he's going to jump out of the bus and interview them with his handy video camera. He promises to do this even if he doesn't know who they are — which, he says, is exactly what happened the day before, when the bus encountered somebody from a Bravo design show.
The videos available on the TMZ Tour website suggest that these celebrity sightings do not happen particularly often. The tour has been operating for about a month, with three tours some days and four Thursday through Sunday — and the video evidence of celeb encounters is a motley collection that includes Cee Lo Green, Diddy, Flavor Flav, Adrian Grenier, Johnny Weir, Bai Ling, Jillian Reynolds and Jose Eber.
On a slow weekend morning, I'm not expecting that we'll run into the Cruises or the Hankses, much less the TMZ holy trinity of Lohan, Hilton and Kardashian.
9:50 We head west on Sunset Blvd., and learn the following: Paris Hilton was arrested for DUI at In N Out Burger. Brad Pitt once dressed up as a chicken to lure people into El Pollo Loco. And at the strip club featured in a Motley Crue video, you will no longer find the Crue," but you might get a staph infection."
10:00 The Laugh Factory prompts the first of several video tributes to "the power of TMZ." (Yeah, that's a direct quote.) A couple of blocks later, at the Chateau Marmont, they play us a 911 call made by Josh Hartnett, who was suffering from really bad vomiting and diarrhea.
Did I mention it's Saturday morning?
10:10 For a minute, Keith gets tired of mocking celebrities like Cuba Gooding Jr. and Fabio (yeah, he's shooting fish in a barrel there), and plays what seem to be video plugs for a Hollywood lawyer, the Soho House club, and the Sierra Towers condos.
We drive slowly. Several of the cars that are caught behind the bus swerve around us, honking angrily.
Mixed in with the patter, by the way, are a few errors. Michael Jackson did not attend Gardner Street School "for many years," but for only one year, sixth grade. And the Doors were not "the original house band" at the Whisky-a-Go-Go; Johnny Rivers was.
10:15 On Santa Monica Boulevard, we turn a corner and pass Eric D'Arbeloff, the co-president of Roadside Attractions. I turn my head and hope he doesn't see me.
10:30 Nearing Beverly Hills, the video screens play a colossally tuneless song with lyrics like these: "Beverly Hills, it's flowing with Botox/Where you see fake boobies for blocks and blocks."
Keith says the voiceover guy who sang the song came on a recent tour and apologized to the customers for the song. But where's our apology?
10:35 Keith gets a text message, and says he has to reply. This is weird, and a little annoying.
Just before we turn onto Rodeo Drive, the screens show a video mocking the Beverly Hills City Council for giving the key to the city to the Kardashians.
The point is undercut somewhat by the fact that the screens then immediately go into a lengthy and boastful explanation of how TMZ turned Kim Kardashian into a star.
10:40 Rodeo Drive. On the inaugural tour, this is where the bus ran across Diddy. Here's the video, complete with Harvey Levin, tour guide Keith and the same obnoxious voiceover guy:
Today, no such luck. So Keith points out Bijan, Prada, Harry Winston and a bunch of other boutiques. Here's what we learn about each of them: 1.) They are really, really expensive; 2.) Only stupid rich people go there.
(They don't mean you, Diddy. They're big fans, honest.)
Given that the tour's basic M.O. is to mock most of the restaurants and shops as being ludicrously pricey, it seems weird when we spend an entire block hearing uncritical things about a restaurant owned by one of the "Real Housewives of Beverly Hills."
Does this tour have sponsors we should know about? Or is this their way of paying somebody off for some hot "Real Housewives" scoop?
(Is there even such a thing as hot "Real Housewives" scoop?)
10:45 We go past L'Ermitage, and hear about the Verne Troyer sex tape. Then the Four Seasons, where we hear about the Paris Hilton sex tape. Keith stops texting long enough to give away a TMZ T-shirt to a passenger who watches a video and correctly guesses that Keanu Reeves will wave at the camerman instead of giving him the finger.
10:50 Opposite the Ivy, the bus pulls to the curb and stops. Keith explains that the place attracts so many stars that TMZ always has a paparazzo stationed outside. Then a short guy in a black T-shirt walks up to the bus. "Look," says Keith. "It's my boss."
And, of course, it is: Harvey Levin climbs aboard and draws oohs and aahs from the tourists. He says, 'Hi,' tells us he loves the tour, asks how Keith is doing, and poses for a photo with a woman whose birthday is today.
Before he leaves, he hands Keith a couple of rolled up bills. This appears to be a not-very-subtle hint that it's OK to tip the driver. Then Harvey gets in his black Porsche and drives away.
Suddenly, Keith's texting make sense. (My theory: if we'd run across any real celebrities, Levin would have skipped the rendezvous. But since we didn't, we got Harvey.)
11:00 We head for the Grove. (Normally I do everything I can to avoid the Grove, but it's part of the tour because Cloris Leachman drove her car through a pedestrian area there, and Suri Cruise went to the American Girl shop.) On the way, we stop so that a guy on the bus can use the restroom at Swingers. While we wait, Keith tells us a story about the time he lied to the cops. I assume the statute of limitations has expired.
11:10 There's still time to trash a few more stars, and also hear a lot about how fabulous it was for TMZ to break the story of Michael Jackson's death.
We also get to see a bunch of celebrity mug shots, as prelude to a drive-by at the LAPD's Hollywood station. Apparently this is the best place to get arrested, because unlike every other station they don't release mug shots.
11:20 Before we get back to Hollywood & Highland, Keith says he has to show one more video. It's Levin, telling us that it's OK to tip Keith. This, apparently, is for those of us too dense to catch the meaning of Harvey handing Keith a few bucks right in front of us half an hour ago.
I check my wallet. All I have are 20s.
Sorry, Keith. Sorry, Harvey.