Everybody knows that video killed the radio star. Unsatisfied, it broke down the Wall, ended the Cold War and became the “planet’s Esperanto” before exploding onto screens of every size in an orgy of reality TV. And that’s just the beginning, according to Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato in their debut publishing venture, The World According to Wonder: 1991-2012. “TV is a medium not even a hundred years old,” they write in the book, assuaging those who fret over the decline of our culture. “Reality TV is just the hormonally raging teen.”
To commemorate the first 21 years of doing what they love to do—which has consisted of alternately rattling and soothing that hormonally raging teen—Bailey and Barbato have formed their own imprint, publishing a colossal, full-color compendium that illustrates how they’ve played stopwatch with the ever-shifting zeitgeist, while thriving in an industry that operates on “NO.” Bailey and Barbato are the founders of World of Wonder Productions, a Hollywood purveyor of cutting-edge documentaries and eye-popping entertainment that nabbed an Emmy in 1999 for their documentary Party Monster. They’ve told the story of many an outré outcast of celebrity, as the titles of some of their documentaries attest: The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Inside Deep Throat and Becoming Chaz.
Charting our highest aspirations and lowest common denominators, their work has explored (some might say, exploited) the arable land where the saccharine and the profane intersect. If, as they write, Warhol was the chief “architect of the time we live in,” then Bailey and Barbato lay claim to being its “architectural historians,” as they told me, using video (and film) to document the cultural builders of our time.
The World According to Wonder: 1991-2012 features 290 stunning portraits of nearly all the people who have been part of the accomplished duo’s “post-Warhol era” factory, reflecting the company’s inclusive leanings. Stars behind the scenes, assistants, screenwriters, agents, directors and former acquaintances are given the same full-page Technicolor gloss granted the duo’s usual, more known co-conspirators: RuPaul (and her Drag Race posse), Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, and the ubiquitous Pamela Anderson.
Weighing in at 8 pounds, the tasty tome comes in a cardboard case that opens to reveal a 396-page burst of...well, wonder. Its cover, a play on television’s candy-colored test pattern with a bar of Day-Glo orange inserted, signals the intentions of high-wire art director Trey Speegle and the vivid recollections that flow within, compliments of Bailey, Barbato and their in-house wordsmiths, James St. James and Stephen Saban.
“The book was never conceived as something of this magnitude,” says Bailey, sitting across a long conference table from Barbato, in a telephone interview from their headquarters on Hollywood Boulevard. “It was going to be a slim pamphlet with just a few photos.”
“The book was like The Blob,” adds Barbato. “It just kept expanding.”
Which would be a suitable way to explain their entertainment empire.
The two met in grad school at NYU. Barbato, from New Jersey, was wearing a T-shirt picturing Marcia Brady with the words, “I’m sorry,” repeated across it. Bailey, just five days in America and not yet exposed to The Brady Bunch, thought, “What the hell is this?”
Barbato laughs at the memory. “Fenton was wearing florescent lime/lemon leopard pants, high-top sneakers, hair in a bun like Catherine Deneuve. We clicked immediately.”
The couple, romantic for a time, remain devoted creative partners, even though, as Barbato says, “we can barely stand to be in the same room with one another.” The writing process for the book consisted of drafts passed back and forth. For inspiration, they turned to the writing style of St. James, author of Freak Show and Disco Bloodbath, a book that World of Wonder produced (as both a documentary and feature film) as Party Monster.
“In this age where everything’s going digital, it’s just such an anomaly,” says Bailey of their “big ol’ fashioned book,” so “perversely appealing,” they were “determined to self-publish it.”
This determination to chronicle the perversely appealing has always been the couple’s calling card. Since they did not have the budget, or the backing, in their early days to make the documentaries they wanted to, Bailey and Barbato set up shop on Manhattan’s public access channel and created viral-worthy “clipumentaries” long before YouTube. With some early help from forward-minded decision-makers in British television, World of Wonder got the chance to pursue its own kind of programming, eventually gaining a foothold at a number of American networks, which now pursue them to create for the “disenchanted and disenfranchised outsider,” also known as their target audience.
Despite their ratings, their real estate, their second Emmy for the nature documentary The Last Beekeeper and their seven Sundance-premiering films, Bailey and Barbato still encounter their share of no’s. They’re currently pitching a Real Housewives-style retelling of the real life of Jesus. “For some reason, everybody thinks we’re joking,” scoffs Barbato. “It’s not a sacrilege pitch. We’re thinking that the modern idiom of media now is reality television, so why not take that and apply it to The Greatest Story Ever Told?”
There have been no takers...yet. And that’s all right in the World of Wonder. “I think losing is the new winning,” Barbato says. “Our best films are the ones that don’t get any recognition at all.”
Tom Eubanks is a writer and editor living in New York. In publishing for over two decades, he also represents authors and artists. He’s currently working with fashion icon Pat Cleveland on a long-anticipated memoir.