Everybody loves The Osbournes, the new MTV reality show starring fifty-three-year-old Ozzy Osbourne (the guy who gave us both Black Sabbath and heavy metal!), his wife, Sharon, and two of their three kids — Jack, 16, and Kelly, 17. It’s the biggest out-of-the-box hit in MTV’s twenty-one-year history, drawing an audience of 6 million that can’t get enough of the family’s antics: the fighting, the swearing, the ravings of the once-drug-addled paterfamilias.
But watching the show is an unsettling experience. Like the next person, I think it’s a riot; but by the time the half-hour is up, I find myself on my feet, shuffling around kind of like Ozzy, mouth agape. For a while, I thought it was because I couldn’t figure out why Ozzy would expose himself so. Certainly, with a personal fortune estimated at $57 million, he doesn’t need the money. At a press conference, Ozzy suggested he did it to expand certain boundaries and understandings. “What is a functional family?” he asked. “I know I’m dysfunctional by a long shot, but what guidelines do we all have to go by? The Waltons?”
A good point, perhaps, but I couldn’t buy it, because in the Osbournes’ 13,000-square-foot Beverly Hills toy-box manse, it’s Sharon who calls the shots, not Ozzy. As Ozzy said more recently, “Suddenly, I was doing the show. It wasn’t my idea. Sharon is my boss, you know.” Indeed, besides being Ozzy’s wife, she is also his manager — and a formidable presence in the music industry she is. Legend has it that she once got so pissed off at a promoter that she kneed him in the balls.
But what good reason could she have for wanting to share with the world her family’s most precious moments? Then it struck me: out of her deep love of Ozzy. He’s a former addict, and former addicts need to keep busy lest they become active addicts once again. With twelve cameras in the house six days a week, big-time backsliding would be out of the question, hopefully. So, that question has been answered.
And yet, I’m still bothered. People have said to him, “You’re becoming a parody of yourself,” and he has retorted, “I’m not becoming anything but what I am. As you see it is as it was.” I thought about that and wondered if it could be true.
In the early spring of 2000, I chanced to spend a few days with the family Osbourne. When I first met Ozzy in the offices of Ozz Records in Beverly Hills, he was pretty much the same character you see on TV. He ambled in wearing a black T-shirt and black drawstring sweat pants (one of the forty pairs he owns), with his hair flopping around in front of his eyes. He was stooped, and his tattooed fingers trembled, and the sixth sentence he ever said to me went like this: “I’m one of these guys, I wake up in the morning and I got a fucking problem: I’m looking for something to kill or blow up or some fucking thing. My head is just a running riot, and my nerves start shaking….”
He grinned, then wandered off to nuzzle one of the family’s dogs, Minnie the wee Pomeranian, leaving me sitting there in a cloud of his delightful cologne (Czech & Speake, No. 88, ninety-two dollars a bottle), rather amused — the same way I sometimes am now watching him on MTV as he calls for Jack to help him figure out the “fucking” TV channel changer and tells kelly that if she doesn’t want to go to the “vagina doctor,” she simply shouldn’t go to the “vagina doctor.”
I liked him immediately, and I was more than pleased with the way he and his family invited me to join them in everything they did. In fact, one afternoon I got to tag along as the entire crew, including daughter Aime, met with a TV executive to discuss a sitcom-type show that just might star the Osbournes. This was well before the MTV deal, and the show in question was going to be semifictional. Already, Jack had called it “obnoxious,” Kelly had called it “cheesy,” and Aimee, 18, had said she’d have nothing to do with it. They all asked about the family’s constant swearing. The executive said all naughty words would just be bleeped. “So, if Ozzy’s talking, there might be, like, fifteen bleeps in one speech, and it’d be funny!”
“OK,” said Sharon. “We can’t pretend to be people we’re not. Can we, Ozzy?”
“What?” said Ozzy, returned from some reverie.
“Say things like, ‘Oh, dang; oh, blast; oh, you are silly.'”
Ozzy blinked at her and shouted, “Fuck off!”
Later on, back at the house, Sharon said to Jack, “The thing about Ozzy, is that he can’t pretend to be something he’s not. He’s incapable of bullshit.”
Then Jack had an idea. “You know what I think we should do?” he said to his dad. “We should have a crew come out to the house for a weekend and see how we really act. It’d be like The Real World but with us.”
“Oh, that would be a fucking thing,” said Ozzy. “It’s got to get on television. All the weak hearts have to watch it.” He thought about it a while longer. “Hmm,” he finally said. “Good idea, Jack.”
So that’s pretty much how the idea originated. Then, in July 2001, MTV ran its highly successful Cribs episode on the family, and Sharon Osbourne pitched the network Jack’s idea despite Aimee’s objections. In fact, Aimee has long been conflicted about her father and his reputation. “I find it so annoying, people asking me if my dad eats bats,” she told me. “At school, almost every day, some retard would come up to me and go, ‘So, do you guys eat bats?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, all the time; you should come over, we’re having a bat barbecue this weekend.'”
So, when she decided to leave home for the four-month duration of the shoot, no one in the family was surprised. And finally, last fall, the fun, or whatever you want to call it, began.
“I’m just Dad,” Ozzy recently said. “It’s kind of a fucked-up life, really. A rock star is supposed to say, ‘Get me the Vicodins!’ Or, ‘Run me a bath in fucking Perrier water!’ I get fucking dog shit up to the elbows and an earful of fucking abuse.”
According to the ground rules set by the Osbournes, however, there are certain things the TV audience will never see. You will never see Ozzy sitting on the toilet, nor will you ever see him doing with Sharon what might come unnaturally in the bedroom. That’s fine by me. But as I watched the show and thought about the Ozzy I’d met, I also began to think about what else you weren’t getting, and it started to bother me more and more.
Two years ago, Ozzy was a cigarette fiend; cigarettes were his only remaining addiction. He lamented it, and told Sharon he had quit, but many were the hours we spent together, smoking, only to stub out our butts PDQ when Mama Sharon walked in the door. She was never fooled. She’d look at Ozzy and demand to smell his breath. “You asshole,” she shouted one time. “Fucking, fucking bastard, bastard.” And they both started laughing.
I loved these moments, because they spoke of transgression and forgiveness, which is always in short supply. But I also loved when it was just Ozzy banging around the house, gnawing on a hunk of chorizo sausage and soliloquizing about the are of his extraordinary life. Growing up in England a severe dyslexic, a high school dropout and a small-time thief with a love of song, he helped start Black Sabbath in 1969, sang mud-thick tunes about paranoia and became a star. In 1978, however, the band fired him for being too big a fucked-up fuckup.
After that, he thought about killing himself, then he met Sharon (whose gangster-type father happened to be his manager), and she took over his career. With her help (and a couple of pots smashed over his head), plus Ozzy’s own nose for notoriety (bat biting, etc.), he went on to sell about 70 million albums as a solo artist and to become the face of the phenomenally successful heavy-metal tour known as Ozzfest.
“Dreams are what it’s all about, really” he said one morning. “I’m living proof of that. But I haven’t gotten away scot-free, and it isn’t fun looking back. There’s an awful lot of guys that didn’t make it. The list is endless, the number of guys that either committed suicide, OD’d, shot themselves, fucking drowned, fell off the fucking this or that, or got it in a car wreck, or just never woke up, you know, choked on their own vomit, froze to death, set themselves on fire. For every Ozzy Osbourne, there’s fucking ten dead bodies: Bon Scott, John Bonham. Randy Rhoads.”
Rhoads was Ozzy’s best mate and Black Sabbath’s guitarist. In 1982, while Ozzy and Sharon slept in the band’s parked tour bus, Rhoads was barnstorming around in a small plane, which suddenly crashed and exploded.
“This has gone through my head a thousand and one times,” Ozzy told me. “Had I been awake, I would have been on that plane, probably sitting on the fucking wing.”
He thinks about this all the time. And, on occasion, one of the kids will ask Sharon about what happened that day, and Sharon will explain it to them: “The plane hit the bus, cracked the bus and went through into a house, and it was just a fucking nightmare. The house caught on fire.”
“Wasn’t there a deaf guy in the house?”
“Yes, there was, Jack; and your dad ran in there and got him out. It was just horrible. And then a week later, I had him auditioning new guitarists.”
“Because your dad was in such a bad state of shock. I knew that unless we got up and did something, Ozzy would be over.”
Witnessing this conversation, you can’t help but be moved. I could see Jack’s eyes light up at the thought of his dad’s heroism, and it was a lovely moment. It’s all part of the rich history of the Osbourne clan. At times, it’s been a terrifically ugly history: In 1989, for instance, a slobbering-drunk Ozzy wrapped his fingers around Sharon’s neck and tried to strangle her. But it’s also been miraculous beyond understanding: She forgave him.
According to MTV president of entertainment Brian Graden, however, the show’s 6 million viewers will never get a chance to be touched either by Ozzy’s heroism or by Sharon’s ancient devotion. “We see it as just an entertaining half-hour that takes place in the present,” he told me. “So, no, I don’t think it’ll go back into history. Anyway, the Osbournes aren’t like that. They live in the present.”
But, of course, that’s not exactly true. The show is what it is, a comedy, fine. But the Osbournes do have a history that they talk about, at least occasionally, and it bothers me that anyone could want us to believe otherwise. They are more than what you see on MTV. They are much more.
“The real fact of the matter is,” Ozzy said a few weeks ago, “sometimes I look at this TV show and I feel sad.” He went on to try to explain what he meant but, as sometimes happens with Ozzy, his words failed him, and you were just left with him feeling sad about the show. When I’m not laughing, I’m feeling the same way.