Chances are you’ve worked with someone like Jeff Lewis. Or worse, the people who work for you think you’re a lot like him. He’s the boss on Bravo’s Flipping Out (10 p.m. ET, Tuesdays), a reality series that pretends to be about a guy who does real estate deals and house renovations in L.A., but is really about the horrors of having a boss with extreme OCD.
Lewis’ employees often crack under the strain of his bizarre rules. He wants the labels of his water bottles turned the same direction on the fridge shelf. Not wants, requires. He verbally abuses a gofer for bringing back a fast-food taco with onions on it and when he orders a latte, it’s supposed to be delivered into his hand at precisely 150 degrees, meaning it should be poured hotter to allow for cooling off in transit.
The Sun King wasn’t this demanding of his underlings. It’s scary. And utterly fascinating to watch.
One longtime victim, er, employee on Planet Lewis is Jenni Pulos, executive assistant, battle-scarred runner of errands and passer-along of phone messages. In the first two episodes of Season 2, she’s been in tears on-camera worrying about the worsening of Lewis’ obsessive behavior. In her years with Lewis, she’s quit or been fired a number of times and then come back for more. Complicating—or easing—the situation is that her husband Chris also works for Lewis. This season Chris was “promoted” from “trash guy” to “house manager.”
Jenni bears a strong resemblance to Julia Louis-Dreyfus, which helped when she pitched Flipping Out to Bravo. That’s right, she’s one of the producers. Flipping Out started out as a pilot called The Wannabes, about people like Jenni and Chris who had tried to break into the acting biz for a decade and never quite made it. In the footage they showed to programming execs, there were shots of Jeff Lewis going off on his Jenni and Chris at their day job. “Who’s that guy?” asked the cable execs watching the pitch. Make the show about him and you’ve got a deal, Jenni was told. She and Chris rejiggered their concept overnight into a Seinfeld-cum-real-estate-flipping idea, with Lewis front and center (with his label turned out just right). Jenni’s now a consulting producer, meaning that technically she’s Lewis’ boss on the TV show.
TV Maven caught up with Jenni by phone as she drove to an acupuncture appointment in Santa Monica. Just like Lewis’ cat, Monkey, Jenni gets the treatments to deal with stress. Here’s our conversation:
Since The Hills, we’ve become wary of the authenticity of some reality shows. How real is Flipping Out really?
Jenni: You’re gonna see how real this is this year. People can’t believe that we are this big dysfunctional family and Jeff is that way. It’s real. That’s all I can say. When the camera’s not there, we’re like, if only those people could be here right now. The 150-degree order is still being placed. I’m not just combining the mints in the tin for TV. This is all how it goes down on a daily basis.
Does Jeff watch the show and see how crazy he comes across?
Jenni: Jeff has seen the show and, for all of us, when you watch your life being replayed on television, you’re forced to learn lessons. We’ve all taken away what God or the universe is trying to tell us. It’s been an interesting experience.
You seem to have blended several successful concepts: Seinfeld plus Will & Grace plus Extreme Home Makeover.
Jenni: Jeff calls it a docu-soap. I want people to take away something from it. I don’t want it to be trainwreck television. We wanted it to also be informational about how to renovate and sell homes.
Everyone’s had at least one nutty boss, but Jeff seems like he’d be impossible to please. How do you stand it on a daily basis when the cameras aren’t running?
Jenni: Jeff can get away with those crews being at his beck and call because he’s constantly employing them. People come up to him constantly and say “This is how I am, too.” I think that it [the OCD] is something you can cope with. And for me, I enjoy a challenge. Jeff is a challenge. But he and I have a friendship. It’s difficult. It’s hairy to be friends with someone you work with.
How has the show changed your job and your life?
Jenni: I’ve totally changed as an actor. Let me tell you, it’s very difficult to just get [TV shows] made. It takes a village. When I came into acting, I came in for the wrong reasons. I wanted attention. I wanted to be famous. With age and experience, you grow and change. I just want to do beautiful work now. I’m looking for different things now. I’ve learned about another career. To be a great actor, you need to take in everything.
Flipping Outshoots for four months. What do you do the rest of the year?
Jenni: We go back to work. We go back to the job sites and I’m at the computer. I keep telling Jeff “no touching.”
Have you picked up any of Jeff’s idiosyncrasies?
Jenni: I find myself repeating myself. You know how he does it. But the straightening of the trash cans-- I can’t wrap my head around that.[Jeff constantly readjusts the outside trashcans to keep them from hitting the side of the house.] The white wall makes it worse. I’m talking, like, a quarter of an inch here. If there’s a cup in the car, he says, “We’ve got trash in the car! What’s going on here!”
Is there an upside to OCD?
Jenni: Well, it’s also what makes him super talented. His attention to detail is amazing. I would want to buy one of his houses. But it is difficult for him. He does not handle stress well.
What’s harder, working for Jeff or being constantly asked for Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ autograph?
Jenni: I have a story about that. I was in Newport recently in this restaurant and I went to the ladies’ room with my 80-year-old Greek aunt. A girl comes up to me and says, “Do you know who you look like?” And I say, “Yes, Julia Louis-Dreyfus.” And she says, “No, there’s this show about this crazy real estate guy and there’s this girl named Jenni.” I say, “That’s me!” and she says, “I work for somebody just like that.”
Did you ever think you’d find stardom by just being yourself on TV?
Jenni: I was a waiter for years. I’ve done a lot of stuff. This has been good for me. I’ve turned my day job into a TV show. I’m just enjoying the ride.
Elaine Liner currently writes arts and media criticism for the Dallas Observer and other publications. A graduate of Trinity University, with a master's from SMU, Liner teaches writing and criticism on the college level. For a decade she wrote for daily news…