“Tiger King” is a Lot of Fun

Brendan Ulmer, Writer

During this time locked up in quarantine, we’re all looking for all sorts of ways to pass what seems like an unlimited amount of time. Lucky for us, Netflix blessed us with one of the most entertaining documentaries that I have ever seen.

The story of Joe Exotic (AKA the Tiger King) and his downfall is Shakespearean and dramatic, while his antics and behavior is absurd and often wildly amusing. “Tiger King” is one of the most enjoyable viewing experiences one could have in their entire life.

The reason that “Tiger King” is so entertaining is that they present you with character after character who lead unfathomably crazy lifestyles. Joe Exotic is an extremely flamboyant, yet intensely bitter, polygamist zookeeper who seduces straight men using methamphetamine. Doc Antle uses his zoo to groom young women and has accumulated three wives through the process. Carole Baskin runs a zoo without paying her employees, may have murdered her ex-husband and her new one could largely be described as obedient. This is honestly just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the people “Tiger King” presents to you.

The main criticism I’ve heard against “Tiger King” is that they left out a great deal of misconduct that Joe engaged in throughout his career of running the zoo. While I do understand how one could walk away with that impression, Rick Kirkham, the man who was going to produce his reality show, goes into great detail in the after-show about all of Joe’s wrongdoings that he witnessed in his years at the park. So, it’s not like the producers turned a blind eye to this like it wasn’t a big deal. The reality is, Joe’s frequent use of the n-word just didn’t really play an important part in the story of his downfall, so the filmmakers felt like they probably didn’t need to include it.

While Joe Exotic is technically the protagonist, he’s also portrayed as the deeply flawed person that he is. You may find yourself rooting for him, but chances are you probably won’t walk away from your television believing that he’s a great guy. I mean he talked about his ex-husband Travis’s genitals at his funeral, in front of Travis’s mom. He’s portrayed as ludicrously selfish, insecure, delusional and often machiavellian, but he also got scammed by people he thought would help him and I think we root for him because we have a soft spot for that. 

If you’re judging “Tiger King” as if it was a biography about Joe Exotic, sure, it falls short. But what it really is is a story about a complex power struggle in a fringe subculture that not many of us knew anything about before these documentaries.

I love fringe people because it’s so easy to live a life where all you come across is people with normal interests, normal beliefs, and normal lifestyles. It’s a fun change of pace to take in content from someone who has a pig tattooed on their forehead every now and then. That’s why Joe Exotic makes such great television; he’s about as fringe as they come, yet he’s wildly outspoken and hungry for the limelight. John Oliver saw it when he included him in “Last Week Tonight”’s piece about third-party Presidential candidates in 2016. Rick Kirkham saw it when he went to film a whole lost reality series on Joe. And finally, Netflix saw it when they produced this wildly popular documentary about him. Joe Exotic makes for good TV.