Reality television producer Jeff Jenkins has worked with a lot of big personalities in his career, including the Kardashians, Paris Hilton and Mariah Carey. His newest show, Bravo’s “Luann and Sonja: Welcome to Crappie Lake,” features former “Real Housewives” Luann de Lesseps and Sonja Morgan. But despite their reputations — de Lesseps is a former countess and Morgan was married to JP Morgan’s great-grandson, after all — Jenkins found himself surprised by just how down to earth the duo were.
Check out TheWrap’s interview with Jenkins below to learn how the duo was cast and if they really stayed in that motel while filming.
Did you watch “The Real Housewives of New York” prior to working with Luann and Sonja?
I am a fan of “The Real Housewives of New York.” I watched “New York” really for Luann and Sonia, because they’re just so unexpected. You never know what will come out of their mouths; they’re so funny. And they’re like sisters who can quarrel and then immediately make up and think nothing of it.
Had you worked with Bravo before? There’s the notion of the “Bravo wink,” — letting the audience in on the joke or controversy and having them judge for themselves.
I personally had not worked with Bravo. Previous to this, I’d worked extensively with E!, which is part of the NBCU family, and also with USA Network, also part of the same family, but not with Bravo, which has very specific kind of benchmarks for what they deliver to their viewers. What I was really happy about is that the creative executives over at Bravo were open to changing their formula a little bit. And we, the producers at Jeff Jenkins Productions, were open to compromising on what we typically do. So it was a lovely compromise. And to see Bravo doing a half-hour reality sitcom, that’s really exciting.
The term “half-hour reality sitcom” encapsulates the fish-out-of-water, “I Love Lucy” nature of the show, which finds these two socialites in the middle of working-class America. But it must’ve been a departure for your crew, as well.
When we hired the 50-person crew, we let them know they’re going to Benton, Illinois. They’re going to be staying at a hotel that’s 40-50 minutes away from the primary shooting area. It’s not L.A., it’s not New York, it’s not Miami. They’re not going to have 20 fine-dining options. They’re not going to have Uber Eats.
So it was our responsibility to let the crew know what it’s like before they signed their deal. This isn’t like shooting “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” where we’re in Malibu and Calabasas and Beverly Hills, and when we take a vacation, we go to Thailand or Morocco.
Frankly, it reminded me so much of Season 1 of “The Simple Life” [with Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie] in Altus, Arkansas. The closest place to house the crew was one hour away and it was a truck stop with motel rooms. We lived at a truck stop. These folks on “Welcome to Crappie Lake” got to stay in an actual hotel, though certainly nothing as glamorous as traveling around with the Kardashians.
What were the challenges of filming “Crappie Lake”? Certainly the 90-degree temperatures and 90% humidity?
I think everyone was challenged by the heat. I will say, back on “The Simple Life,” Paris and Nicole were teenagers, right? They tried everything they could do to weasel out of doing work or staying at a house that they thought was less luxurious than it should be. Sonia and Luann? They lived in that motel for all those weeks. They did not cheat. They did not say, “Oh, the cameras have stopped and now we go to the Hilton.” They lived in that motel and all of the labor-intensive improvements, they did it.
Did they do everything perfectly? No, they effed up a lot of stuff. But when you total the equation, they’re leaving that town much better off than when they first got there.
What made Luann and Sonja special for this series? When you think “Housewives,” people like Ramona Singer and Dorinda Medley also come to mind.
I have to give all the praise to casting these two to NBCU and [executives] Jenna Rosa, Sezin Cavusoglu and Rachel Smith. They know the cast members on all of those “Real Housewives” franchises so in-depth they’re like family or therapists.
So it was really their brilliant foresight to go, “OK, here are the adult Paris and Nicole. They’re the funniest.” And I think NBCU casting also knew Luann and Sonja would actually commit and won’t try to phone it in.
I had a lot of different other types of people in mind, not even necessarily NBCU talent. And so at first, I was skeptical. I was like, “Really? You want to put on talent on a brand new show who’ve already been on your network for years and years?” Thank God they made the choices that they did, because it was really brilliant and perfect — and I can take no credit for it.
Finally, what surprised you most about Luann and Sonja after filming with them?
I was surprised, frankly, that they lived in the Benton Motel for all those weeks. I thought for sure, halfway or two-thirds of the way through, they would quit.
I was also surprised that there was a lot of hookups. These ladies have game! Luann flirting with the fireman and Sonia hooking up with Mr. Richard from the bar? I need to, like, take a note from these ladies because it will improve my dating life.
“Luann and Sonja: Welcome to Crappie Lake” airs Sunday nights on Bravo.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.