Me and The Big Guy
By Eric Rivera
You know, being No Reservation’s self-proclaimed #1 “FAN-atic” comes with its fair share of responsibilities…well at least I like to think so. Especially when the host of said show is Anthony Bourdain. It seems few people can inspire the sort of unruly, foul-mouthed, disturbing yet hilarious misbehavior that Tony seems to inadvertently incite from his fan base.
And if having unruly fans that worship him, while simultaneously shitting on every small mistake or misstep he makes, weren’t bad enough for the big guy, he is then actually told that he has to share an entire episode of HIS show with one of these lunatics. Enter the concept of the “FAN-atic” special. I’m sure all of you know the story by now. Submit a video telling Tony about a place you would like to show him, why you want to take him there, and possibly win a chance to travel with him and his crew to some exotic destination
Out of thousands of submissions, four were selected. They were then invited to go to New York, where all four potential contestants would face off in a deadly Battle Royale-esque competition where the last one left alive would win the trip with Tony. Well… it wasn’t that grim, although I’m sure Tony would have loved that. In the end Danya won the whole shebang and the 3 remaining contestants: Augusto, Nelson, and I were left in the cold. So sad.
But that would not be so. In the final moments of my interrogation in New York at the hands of Tony himself, he said, “Eric, whatever happens when this thing is over, I just want you to know that you and I will be making television together.” I took the whole comment as a sort of consolation prize, if and when things didn’t turn out in my favor. As much as I wanted to believe Tony’s words, I try to at least sometimes, keep my feet grounded in reality. In the end, I felt that the opportunity I was given to travel to New York and sit down for a one on one conversation with Tony, was more than I ever expected was going to happen after submitting my 2-minute video.
Roughly one year after my No Reservations experience in New York, I found myself sitting, exhausted, on the corner stool of the boxing ring at Kiatphontip Muay Thai Gym in the outskirts of Bangkok. We were seconds out from the beginning of round 3 of my fight with the gym’s star and resident champion, Jompop Kiatphontip. Tony was in my corner doing his best Burgess Meredith in Rocky impression and telling me, “Whatever you do Eric, just try to avoid those jumping knees to the face he is throwing at you. Those look like they might hurt.”
While Tony is giving me advice, two Thai kickboxers roughly between the ages of 9 to 11 are massaging my already bruised legs and telling me, in broken English, to “kick, kick, punch, punch.” Producer extraordinaire Tom Vitale, production notebook in hand, paces outside the ring while biting his fingernails, later telling me that he thought we were just going to do some “light sparring.” The geniuses behind the camera, Zach Zamboni and Todd Liebler, hover around the ring with dozens of different cameras trying to catch as much of the action as possible, no doubt waiting for that awesome unexpected television moment where Eric gets kicked in the head and knocked senseless. Segment Producer, Diane Schutz, simply watches from the background, amused that I am getting my ass handed to me by a Thai, a little more than half my size.
As the rounds continue and I try to stop Jompop’s onslaught of flying kicks, knees, punches, and elbows, I can’t help but wonder if Tony is glad that finally, someone other than himself is getting beat up, humiliated, and/or having pain inflicted upon them for the entire world to see. Initially, the idea I pitched to Tony was for him to step in the ring and do a little pad work and maybe do a little light sparring with me. His obvious response, as some of you may have seen in the Saudi Arabia/”FAN-atic” episode was “No way am I going to step into a ring and get my ass kicked.” Fair enough.
If there is one thing I learned from my experience in Thailand with Tony and the No Reservations crew it’s that making this show is in no way, shape, or form, an easy task. I went on this trip determined to show Tony and the entire crew that I wasn’t just going to come along for the ride and play Samantha Brown for an entire week — drinking cocktails and eating good food. I wanted to show Tony and the viewers, the beauty of Thailand and their national sport of Muay Thai, which has become a huge part of my life. And I wanted to show my appreciation for the opportunity they had given me by assisting the crew in anything they needed while also learning what it was really like to be part of this show, even if just for a week.
Every single day was a sweat soaked experience of countless hours of scouting locations in the blistering Bangkok heat, watching Zach and Todd shoot hours upon hours of b-roll footage-most of which we will never see – helping them lug around what has to be literally pounds of equipment, and watching Tony do take upon take of a food scene in order to get the perfect shot of food porn. I watched as Tony and crew waded knee-deep in mud in order to get the freshest cockles for a planned food scene in the middle of the Gulf of Thailand, which never happened due to inclement weather that nearly capsized our boats.
Everyday would start early and end incredibly late, leaving us all completely exhausted and hungry (for a travel show that revolves around food, I was surprised by how little we actually ate). I realized how hard it must be for everyone on the crew to take these lightening fast trips to the other side of the world and produce an entire show in a matter of days, hoping and praying that everything goes according to plan, even though more often than not, it doesn’t.
And Tony, man you have to respect Tony.
The producers more often than not rotate after every shoot so that the person that just got done shooting in, let’s say…Korea, doesn’t have to shoot in India the following week. But Tony, well he’s “The Dude,” he’s the star of the show, he has to be on the next flight to the next location no matter how exhausted he is from the previous shoot. He can’t take a break after being humiliatingly man handled by an Uzbek masseuse or getting nearly crushed by an out-of-control ATV. He can’t complain when being offered warthog rectum in the Serengeti or fermented shark’s fin in Iceland. He has to pull himself up and do it for the fans, and man does he do it with grace.
At the end of my trip to Thailand with Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, I came to realize how much Tony and the entire Zero Point Zero Production’s crew that are behind this beloved show we know affectionately as “No Res,” bust their ass to make sure they keep us happy. So…during Round 5 of the fight the crew and I had planned for the Thailand shoot, I realized that the only way I could really show how much we “No Res” fans really love the show, was to get up and fight this Thai champion, even if it meant getting my ass kicked on national television.
It was my way of showing them my appreciation of this opportunity they had given me. I was suffering, sucking in hot Bangkok air while going kick for kick, elbow for elbow, and toe to toe with a Thai champ. But everytime I felt like passing out I would remember that Tony and the crew had kept their promise…we were indeed making television together. And seeing how Tony has been shot with a taser, punched in the face by Miguel Cotto, and crushed by “lucha libres” in Mexico City for the sake of good television, this was the least I could do for the big guy. It won’t be you getting your ass kicked in the ring today Tony…it will be me, and I will do so gladly.