HOLLYWOOD – Once you step foot aboard the garish red 24-seat TMZ tour bus, parked just off garish Hollywood Boulevard where glazed-eyed tourists in ill-matching outfits dodge garish characters dressed as Michael Jackson, Marilyn Monroe and Elmo, you sacrifice all claims on dignity and can no longer hold the moral high ground.
You have officially become one of those people – the celebrity-obsessed, the gossipy gawkers who care infinitely more about Kim and Kanye than, say, the Syrian conflict. Like, maybe if Bashar Assad got in a booze-fueled car wreck with Bieber on Sunset and Doheny, then, like, maybe I'd pay attention.
For the next two hours, you will cruise the teeming streets of Hollywood and Beverly Hills, where every aspect of celebrity bad behavior will be, well, celebrated and mocked in equal measure.
Good taste? Fairness? Compassion?
Sorry, bub, you surrendered all that at the Starline Tours check-in counter when you plunked down $55 to be entertained and titillated by lurid tales of this modern-day Babylon.
Really? What did you expect, a sober, even-minded Ken Burns documentary?
This is TMZ, the pop- culture-besotted website and TV show that mines the depths of Tinseltown scandal and disseminates it to the slavering, slack-jawed masses. It doesn't take itself or its subjects all too seriously, though it prides itself on the scoop. Scoop, in this case, being anything from an A-lister overdosing in a bathroom stall to a sex tape featuring a wayward child star.
In case you still harbored any sense of decency, TMZ tour guide (and one of the show's producers) Nasrene Nikpora quickly sets you straight about the "celebrity safari" upon which you are about to embark.
"Some people get on the tour bus and think they're way too cool for TMZ," said Nikpora, through a wireless mike in the front of the bus. "I'm like, dude, the secret's out. You're on a red bus. People are gonna see you around town. Chill and have a good time, or I will embarrass you if you look like a sour puss."
You look around, and no one else looks chastened. They had no reason. They have gone out of their way to take the tour – one couple traveled from Romania, another from Australia – and they equate TMZ as part and parcel of the Hollywood experience.
And the bus itself is almost a rolling TV show. It's equipped with four video monitors and a booming sound system so that when a bus stops at an infamous location of celebrity malfeasance – say, Winona Ryder's Saks Fifth Avenue shoplifting caper – Nikpora can roll the tape after giving the introduction. The live guide and the canned voice serve as a snarky, often hilarious tag team.
Mostly, tourists say, the setup provides a you-are-there realism.
"We watch the TV show and wanted to see what they do," said tourist Michelle Moreira, from Miami, who brought her teenage son Lewis. "It gives you the inside, what's really real about these people."
TMZ's astounding success – eight years after its debut, it's arguably grown into America's go-to gossip source – is a prime example of how the barriers blur between reporting on celebrities and becoming a celebrity. Call it the Seacrest Line, in which a measure of fame comes from basking in the refracted light of the truly famous.
But, unlike lightweight competitors such as "Access Hollywood" and "Extra," TMZ is more obnoxious than obsequious, at once lambasting and venerating its subjects, yet all the while acknowledging that its very existence depends on a steady stream of mockable exploits.
Just as TMZ – its name, by the way, stands for "Thirty-Mile Zone," a movie- industry term too boring to detail here – hoisted celebrity-reporting to new heights, its foray into bus tours attempts to do the same thing to Hollywood tourism.
As the Los Angeles Times opined before TMZ's maiden voyage in 2011, "younger visitors are more interested in the happenings of reality stars such as Kim Kardashian than the homes of actors Lucille Ball or Lionel Barrymore."
It doesn't take long to discover that, on a TMZ tour, an incident such as Britney Spears' head- shaving exploits of 2007 is considered the stuff of sepia-toned newsreels. The Fatty Arbuckle scandal? Well, that belongs with those Ice Age fossils at the La Brea Tar Pits, old-timer.
You get a sense of TMZ's short shelf life of fame at the very first stop – the Roosevelt Hotel, at 7000 Hollywood Blvd., just a crack rock's throw from the famed Chinese Theatre.
"Miley Cyrus was just caught with Justin Bieber there the other day," Nikpora chirped into the mike. "They might be dating, might not. I don't know whether you care. But there's really big stars who stay at the Roosevelt."
Nikpora paused, a Jack Nicholson-like smirk spreading across her face.
"Like Honey Boo Boo child," she added. "That one make you wanna holla?"
Then, Nikpora rolled the tape, and an announcer with a voice so abrasive it could corrode metal continued.
"The Roosevelt Hotel, home to Teddy's nightclub, one of Lindsay Lohan's favorite hangouts, probably because her ex-girlfriend Samantha Ronson DJs here," the voice intoned.
A few tourgoers snapped smartphone photos of the Roosevelt's facade, its stately 1920s Spanish colonial architecture.
"And, if you're over 50," the voice continued, "this is where JFK would allegedly sneak in through the laundry room to hook up with Marilyn Monroe back in ancient times."
You don't have time to muse on presidential affairs. The bus doesn't linger anywhere. Like a shark, it's always moving forward. Lots of celebrity hot spots to hit, not a lot of time, especially with L.A.'s notorious traffic.
Next up, a block down on Hollywood Boulevard. Nikpora pointed to an El Pollo Loco and rolled tape:
"Before there was Angelina, before there was Jen, there was only one love in Brad Pitt's life – El Pollo Loco, specifically the one coming up on your right. Yes, it was at this exact fast food restaurant that Brad Pitt got his big break – standing outside dressed as a chicken. Soon, Brad went from handing out flyers at the joint to hiring them as caterers on his films. And that is clucking awesome."
The raunchy pun elicited chuckles from the group, which was game for anything. No prudes aboard. But the next two stops didn't exactly send pulses racing – the Seventh Veil, a strip club where Mötley Crüe filmed its video for "Girls Girls Girls;" and Gardner Street Elementary School, where Michael Jackson attended the sixth grade.
But when Clarence the bus driver pulled over at the corner of Sunset and Courtney, Nikpora asked, "You people from Romania and Australia, do you know what we find on street corners in America? Hookers!"
Roll tape: "(This) is where Hugh Grant made the worst decision of his life, and no, we're not talking about (the movie bomb) 'Did You Hear About the Morgans?' It was was here that Hugh picked up prostitute Divine Brown for a $60 good time in his car. But when cops noticed his brake light flashing on and off, the whole thing blew up in his face. And hers."
Nikpora cringed, even blushed a bit when glancing at the few teenagers on the bus. Still, her snark won out: "Aren't you glad you brought the kids today on the TMZ tour?"
The stops came fast and furious after that. Highlights included the Laugh Factory (8001 Sunset Blvd.), where "Seinfeld" star Michael Richards' racist rant derailed his career; the Body Shop strip club (8250 Sunset Blvd.), where actress Megan Fox reportedly had a "fling with a lesbian stripper named Nikita;" and the Chateau Marmont, best known to old-timers as the hotel where John Belushi ODed in 1982.
But, as the tour instructed, the Chateau is known for so much more. Nikpora noted that "Lindsay Lohan, America's sweetheart, lived here for 46 days and racked up $43,000 in expenses. Crazy! That girl spent $500 one day just on alcohol." Then the TMZ video played a 911 call from actor Josh Hartnett outside the Chateau, asking for medical assistance because he had diarrhea.
Nikpora: "TMI, Josh!"
It could be argued that the whole tour is "too much information." But the tour group was ready for anything, from the Viper Room, where River Phoenix died, to the Four Seasons Hotel, venue for Paris Hilton's sex tape, the courthouse where "Lindsay Lohan wrote F.U. to the judge on her fingernails."
The only thing missing from this orgy of celebrity slagging was in-the-flesh celebrities. Nikpora told the group to be on the lookout and that, if a real live celebrity was spotted, she'd film the specimen from the bus. "You'll all be on TMZ!"
There was only one close call 90 minutes in. Nikpora paused in her spiel near a valet parking area and swiveled her head.
"Oh my gosh," she said, "I thought that was what's his face for second, Anderson Cooper?"
A voice from the back shouted out another name?
"Who'd you say? Richard Gere. Oh, that works too."
All that could be determined is that it was a slender man with gray hair.
The prime spot for trawling for celebs is one of the tour's final stops – The Ivy, an upscale bistro with a white-picket fence patio on Robertson Boulevard. Clarence idled the bus's engine across the street from the eatery and, in an instant, someone on the bus yelled: "That's the 49ers quarterback!"
"Colin Kaepernick?" Nikpora asked.
She grabbed her video camera, hustled out of the bus with two tour volunteers and tried to approach Kaepernick and a small entourage. But the quarterback, known for his scrambling ability, turned on his heels and walked down the street out of camera shot.
Back on the bus, Nikpora told the group, "That's the first celebrity in a while to reject us. I had a feeling he'd react like that. He hasn't been kind to TMZ before."
Then, she led the bus in a cheer: "Go, Ravens!"
It was just dripping in snark. So mean. So fun. So TMZ.
STARLINE TMZ HOLLYWOOD TOUR
The TMZ bus tour of Hollywood and Beverly Hills runs eight to 12 tours daily, starting near the TCL Chinese Theatre at 6925 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. Cost is $55. Tickets and information: www.tmz.com/tour.
Call The Bee's Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145 Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.