You need not wait for the results from the Census to know one thing: There are more colorful characters per capita in New Jersey than in any other state in the nation. You can’t swing a cat without hitting a freakin’ Snooki. Just take a drive down the Garden State Parkway through the Jackass Belt, hang a left into any one of a dozen or so shore towns, and pull into the first hoagie shop you see: Don’t be afraid. Talk back to Vinnie! That’s how it’s done. You will get exactly the sandwich you want no other way.
One thing you learn growing up at the Jersey shore is how to be mouthy and funny and loud while—if you get the mix exactly right—still retaining a certain charm. It’s a skill learned from hanging out in diners. The most telling fact about Jersey is that the state is home to 600 diners—more than anywhere else in the country. The fact that my mother was a waitress in a diner is not particularly surprising to anyone from Jersey. Everyone works in a diner! And what did my parents miss the most when they retired to a farm in West Virginia? Loud, mouthy, funny people.
Historically, mouthy New Jerseyans have had an outsize impact on American culture. Martha Stewart, Frank Sinatra, Wendy Williams, Dennis Rodman, Tara Reid, Jerry Lewis, Whitney!—all from the Garden State. There are lots of theories about why the state tends to produce famous people, but the most sensible one is that proximity to Manhattan tends to over-stoke the crazy dreams of all those face-pressed-up-against-the-glass strivers.
Now, of course, one needn’t leave Jersey to fulfill his or her attention-seeking ambitions. Cable television is overrun with self-described guidos and guidettes. Why New Jersey? Why now? And why so many Italian-American caricatures? (I grew up with a lot of Snookis and Situations; to my ear and eye, there is nothing off-key about Jersey Shore or The Real Housewives or Jersey Couture). My friend Rob Morea, who still occasionally slips into a Central Jersey patois—“I’m just sayin’ … ” becomes “I’m just schayin’ … ”—believes the popularity of Jersey on television is that everyone misses The Sopranos. Something, no matter how inferior, had to fill the giant hole left behind when James Gandolfini (Westwood!) retired his lovingly precise portrayal of Tony. And those bitches on Housewives have more than a little in common with Carmela. They may keep a “classy” house and get a lot of pedicures, but they will cut you.
My personal theory is that reality TV is currently in its peak-oil phase. There is not an unlimited supply of the sort reality-show producers depend upon: outrageous, unanalyzed characters with enough self-regard to allow cameras to show them behaving like clowns. The Jersey reality-television boomlet is a bit like the Deepwater Horizon disaster: It is now painfully obvious that the industry is desperately drilling deeper and deeper for the outrageous, often pent-up characters America is addicted to. And now they have come to drill down where they know there is a deep reserve, a place guaranteed to unleash a gusher: the Jerz.
But don’t take my (or Bravo’s) word for it. The Jersey shore isn’t all Snookis. Come see for yourself all the wondrous natural resources Jersey has to offer—the beaches, the hoagies, and, yes, the characters—before they pump the well dry.