When a hit television show enters its seventh season, it’s only natural for the producers to want to mix up the formula a bit. A classic way to do this is to add a cute kid whose only job is to make precocious wisecracks. Usually the cute kid is there because another kid who served this role has entered the awkward preteen years and it’s now just sort of sad when he or she says things that one would usually expect to come out of the mouth of a world-weary adult. In TV writers’ rooms, this is known as introducing a “Cousin Oliver,” so named thanks to Robbie Rist joining the last season of The Brady Bunch to try to liven up the proceedings once the youngest siblings, Bobby and Cindy, were aging out of what they had been hired to do five years earlier.
After watching the first episode of the seventh season of Shark Tank, it’s clear that the producers decided that its roster of sharks–Barbara Corcoran (66), Mark Cuban (57), Lori Greiner (45), Robert Herjavec (53), Daymond John (46), and Kevin O’Leary (61)–were becoming a bit long in the ol’ shark’s tooth and perhaps adding a Cousin Oliver had become imperative.
And what better Cousin Oliver than the guy who kept Two and a Half Men’s money train and puerile sex jokes going for an additional four seasons? The guy who’s been a television star since 1998 but is only 37 years old? And hey, didn’t he play a billionaire Internet entrepreneur on Two and a Half Men? Hell, he’s the most credible cinematic Steve Jobs–for the next two weeks.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome “prolific investor and venture capitalist” Ashton Kutcher to the Shark Tank.
Ashton is one of three guest sharks joining the entrepreneurial-themed “structured reality” program this season, along with “billionaire Silicon Valley titan” Chris Sacca and “music industry pioneer, tech investor, and branding expert” Troy Carter. And that’s why I’m here: Each of these three has a meaningful connection to Fast Company. Ashton was the subject of a December 2009 Fast Company cover story on his early social media prowess and efforts to turn that into a business. Carter was featured in one of editor Bob Safian’s Generation Flux features as well as a subsequent profile that explored his deft bridging of the tech and entertainment worlds. Sacca’s Lowercase Capital has invested in six of the 50 entrants on our 2015 World’s Most Innovative Companies list.
So why are the guys I’m used to seeing covered by Fast Company in one way or another now on reality TV? What does it say about our innovation economy–and how it’s represented on this show–that Carter, Kutcher, and Sacca are here? What does it say about the health of the tech sector? Sacca and Carter are famous to me but are they TV personalities? Ashton has mostly made a career out of playing charming dumb guys but can he show America that he’s actually smart and worthy of being considered a grade-A venture capitalist? (For the Dude, Where’s My Car? crowd, that’s a horrible pun: Ashton’s previous investment firm was called A-Grade. He now invests through Sound Ventures, which is a horrible pun that we can mostly pin on his partner, music manager Guy Oseary).
Two more disclosures before we dive in: I’ve never watched Shark Tank until now. To prepare to recap, I watched parts of two pitch segments, one for full-length refrigerator magnets, and I don’t even remember the other one. And I’ll admit that I am most interested in seeing Sacca. Alas for now, he and Carter only appear in micro-clips in the preamble for the season. Ashton is the guest shark sitting in with Cuban, Kevin, Lori, and Robert. I am immediately disappointed that there isn’t a guest shark pen present on the set with the three of them ceaselessly milling about waiting to be called into the big tank.
Fittingly, the episode appears to operate as both an effort to haze the new guy and for Ashton to show off that he knows what he’s talking about. We get a taste for both during the first segment, a pitch for Beebo, an accessory designed to help a parent feeding an infant to free up the hand not holding the baby. Cuban starts Ashton’s initiation by putting his sample Beebo on Ashton so the actor-slash-investor is now wearing two and given the conical form of the product, it’s clearly meant to imply that he has breasts. (Is he always this sullen or is the subtext here “I’ll show you, Cousin Oliver, that I can still be the cute one even though I am the second-oldest shark on this panel”?) Ashton takes the casual misogyny of Cuban’s power move in stride while arrogant baldie Kevin makes the first offer. He wants a whopping one-third of the company for the $200,000 the dadpreneur says he needs rather than the 20% stake initially offered. Bobby Hairdo, aka Robert, is out. He just doesn’t get it. Cuban also doesn’t think the problem being solved here is big enough and he’s out. Since when is separating Buy Buy Baby! shoppers from $39.95 for $10.86 worth of injection-molded foam not tackling a big enough problem?
Ashton works hard to show that he’s a real investor throughout his first game. Hell, no one has mentioned that he’s an actor and a TV star! With the Beebo, he jumps in quickly to share that he’s a new dad and loves feeding time and sees the need for this product, even going so far to name drop several baby bottle brands. When the deal turns to him later on, Ashton asks smart, specific questions but says that his value-add expertise is in pushing the marketing campaign and not selling hard goods and getting them into big-box stores at the right price point. He’s out.
This is a bummer and what’s likely our first evidence of how TV will flatten the Fast Company sharks into one-dimensional characters. Ashton did an AMA over at Product Hunt (one of his portfolio investments) just 15 days earlier and when asked about what he does for companies, he responded, “I think the celeb and branding aspect is really only a small portion of what we do. In fact if I feel a company is only interested in that I generally choose to not invest. Celeb endorsement isn’t gonna make anyone’s product better. We focus heavily on helping companies grow. Sometimes that comes in the form of shaping the brand and the messaging but more often than not its about really understanding the customer conversion channels.” All that is quickly shaved off so Ashton can be the social guru, as we quickly see when Lori jumps in and undercuts arrogant baldie by asking for just 30% but pushing Ashton to go in on the deal with her because she wants his “social marketing connections.” All of a sudden, he’s in if Lori will split the investment with him.
And just like that, Ashton loses his Shark Tank virginity and he’s plunked down $100,000 for a 15% stake in a product that the founder wanted to call Boobie until his wife vetoed it. From the look on his face, Ashton seems a bit disgusted with himself for wasting the proceeds of three minutes of work on Two and a Half Men on this. But late Friday night the guy got his tweet to Ashton’s 17.1 million followers.
Two themes emerge as the show goes on: 1) Kevin O’Leary is not happy about having his show co-opted by precocious youths and he basically asserts himself and is going to try to make the show about him. This, of course, is also a classic behind-the-scenes subplot of many sitcoms over the years: The dad or teacher character wakes up one day and the focal point of the show has become the kids and he’s unhappy about it. Has Kevin been the Simon Cowell of mutual funds (the Richard Hatch of small-business lending?) for six seasons? If I’ve been unaware of this for six seasons, I consider myself truly blessed. But he seems particularly p.o.’d and certainly for this episode made himself the cartoonish villainous focal point. 2) Ashton Kutcher is a TV star who has that special ability to connect with viewers on the small screen.
These two ideas coalesce during the third pitch, for McClary Brothers Drinking Vinegars, a Detroit hipster’s artisanal, preservative-free revival of a long-forgotten 18th-century-era mixer. “We’re rethinking vinegar,” the woman says as confidently as she can. Bobby Hairdo downs a gin cocktail in one gulp and I immediately like his impish spirit a bit more even though his shiny cream-colored suit should remind Jess the entrepreneur of a Colonial Era patent medicine hawker. (Personally, Robert reminds me of the insight by It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Rob McElhenney that a lot of sitcom stars oddly get better looking the longer they’re on their shows.)
In hindsight, I wish McClary had said she’s disrupting vinegar, because maybe that would have resonated more, especially after the judges experienced her products before they were mixed with alcohol. They all look like, well, like they just smelled a particularly strong vinegar fart, albeit one infused with pineapple and fennel seed. After Robert and Lori get the vapors and bow out, arrogant baldie dominates again. “It’s four guys and a dog who drink this product,” Kevin says, which is both too mean and a bit charitable, because I don’t think there are any dogs that will drink vinegar.
After a pause as if he wasn’t sure whether he should risk alienating his new coworkers, Ashton jumps in. “You’re belittling people and that’s not ok.”
Kevin shoots back, “I want an answer.”
Ashton: “She gave you an answer.” I am not even sure of the question anymore but when Kevin tries to respond, Ashton gives him the hush finger. And it works.
Ashton, now firmly in command, praises the woman for her extraordinary packaging and casually showcases his knowledge of kombuchas and the Bragg’s Apple Cider Vinegar crowd. If anything, Ashton has bigger ideas here than the entrepreneur does, and he lets her down gently by suggesting that she needs to work on a broader vision for him to get behind it.
For the rest of the show, Ashton is effectively the host. Perhaps he’s remembered that he’s a star and even savvy businesspeople have to Google the Kevin O’Learys of the world to figure out exactly why they’re here. Or maybe he just realized that his best shot at a Creative Arts Emmy is to steal the statue for Outstanding Host for a Reality or Reality-Competition Program out from Hollywood Game Night’s Jane Lynch. In the final segment—a truly dumb RFID wallet accessory that shouldn’t even be an Indiegogo campaign but somehow sparks a competition between three sharks to get the deal—Ashton naturally jumps in to direct traffic while Kevin, Robert, and Lori shout at the overmatched entrepreneur and each other. He’s a star, all right, and I am going to be disappointed if he’s not on next week.
Welcome, Cousin Oliver. You’re much more Leo DiCaprio on Growing Pains than Brian Bonsall on Family Ties.