MTV Show Sends Contestants to '70s House'

It's bad enough having to endure five weeks of shag carpeting and polyester leisure suits. But imagine having to give up cell phones and the Internet! It’s more than most humans can take, especially if you were born after all these things were invented.

Welcome to MTV’s "The 70s House (search)," where 12 contestants aged 18 to 25, found themselves living in a time warp. No more laptops, PDAs and iPods. They had to eat, speak and dress ’70s-style.

"At first I didn’t care what we had to do," says contestant Peter Asencio, 23, a Los Angeles real estate investor and loan officer. "But then they said, ‘It’s the ’70s — there are no cell phones, computers.’ I’m like, ‘What? If I don’t have my cell phone, my heart’s not beating.’"

Each week, the dozen divides into two teams to complete different tasks assigned by Oscar, a man who speaks only via intercom (a la John Forsythe on "Charlie’s Angels"). At all times, the contestants must remain in ’70s mode, tossing off lingo such as "groovy" and "dyn-o-mite," dressing in poly-ester shirts and platform shoes and listening to disco. Every so often a special buzzer goes off and contestants have to interrupt everything —even sleeping and showering — to do the hustle.

The losing team’s two lowest-scoring contestants are then sent to a ’70s game show-style elimination round. Show co-hosts Bil Dwyer and Natasha Leggero pose period-oriented questions and the contestants’ answers make Jay Leno’s Man on the Street interviewees look like the members of a Mensa convention.

"It was fascinating that they didn’t know what we assume everybody knows," says Jessica Samet, senior vice president of MTV series development. "One question was ‘Stairway to (fill in the blank).’ One guy said, ‘Miami.’ The contestants also thought the Iran hostage crisis took place in Canada. And apparently our Bicentennial was in 1972."

With contestants exhibiting this level of ignorance, picking the show’s "winner" seems a risky proposition at best. But there will be a winner, and he or she will get a trip around the world, an office full of technology from sponsor Hewlett-Packard, a new Volkswagen Beetle and, of course, a year’s supply of Turtle Wax.

The idea for the '70's House" show came from writer Aaron Lee ("The George Lopez Show (search)") Shooting started last spring in a Pasadena house that was perfectly retro The kitchen, which features a rotary phone bolted to the wall, makes one want to reach for Dramamine: wallpaper with burgundy, yellow and orange daisy patterns clashes with a linoleum floor of dark geometric shapes.

The production crew added its own touches, scouring for treasures in prop houses and vintage clothing stores, and finding niche retailers. Bathrooms feature products such as Jean Nate, Old Spice and "Gee, Your Hair Smells Terrific" shampoo. Bucket seats, portable record players, round Panasonic phones and 8-track tapes grace the other rooms. But the piece de resistance is a round bed with a bedspread and headboard covered with long gray fur.

Filming the show has proven intense for those who remember the decade all too well. "Our reaction has been, ‘What were we thinking?’" says Dwyer. "Some of the kids are getting it, and you feel for them. They’re actually beginning to understand this decade."

In recent years, several TV series have sent people time-traveling. PBS has broadcast "The 1900 House (search)," "Frontier House (search)," and, most recently, "Regency House Party (search)," a dating show whose participants observed the mores of Jane Austen’s England. "The 70s House" mines laughter from the spectacle of the kids struggling with "hardships" their parents easily managed to navigate.

"The lack of technology forces them to live in a world that they’re unaccustomed to and that’s funny," says Samet

But life in the ’70s presented-some unexpected "challenges."

The contestants actually had to use a stove, quite a switch from punching a microwave timer.

"The concept of cooking a frozen dinner was totally impossible; it took 20 minutes," says Samet, with a laugh. "Some of the girls gained as much as 10 pounds drinking Tang and eating Swanson Hungry Man TV dinners. For us, it’s nostalgia; for them it’s annoying."

The contestants did have one link to the present, though: the so-called "2000 Closet," a confessional in which they could speak in modern vernacular on a land-line telephone and, of course, to the camera. "I can’t believe how much the world has changed since then," says Asencio. "They didn’t have seven different ESPN channels or fax machines. You would literally have to mail something. Thank God I was born when I was born."