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Lizard Lick Towing's Ron Shirley and the mythical promises of reality television

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You gotta hand it to Ron Shirley, the star of truTV's Lizard Lick Towing—that boy never runs out of marketing ideas.

Take that blond faux-hawk on top of his big ol' dome, for instance. While renting out the close-cut areas on either side of his head for ad space has probably occurred to him at some point, he's got a much better idea this afternoon.

"I'm tellin' you dude, I'm callin' it 'the Bo-hawk,'" he says over the phone to some unidentified "Bo" in his cramped little office inside Lizard Lick Towing and Recovery. He pitches the idea as if he's just come up with a perfect lithium ion car battery that will change the world forever.

"'Cause I'm always callin' people 'Bo'—how you doin', Bo? What's up, Bo?"

So he's gonna patent that phrase, just you wait and see. Maybe he'll trademark some of his other catchphrases too, like "Having more fun than a possum in a persimmon tree" or "No matter how you clean a skunk, he's still gonna stink."

Minutes after I arrive at his repo business on N.C. Highway 97 in Wendell, east of Raleigh, on a typically busy day, I'm already struck by how much of the staff's time is spent on the marketing-and-TV side of things. The repo stuff is going on somewhere, I'm sure, but from what I'm seeing, it's all about building the Ron brand.

Employees, including Ron's 28-year-old sister Sandy, are constantly being dispatched to pick up this and that promotional item—including T-shirts to hawk at their booth at the Dixie Deer Classic at the State Fairgrounds that weekend. And of course, there's memorabilia for sale at the on-site gift shop that opened six months ago.

Ron also does some publishing: His ronshirleybooks.com just put out Lizard Tales: The Wit and Wisdom of Ron Shirley, featuring autobiographical tales, hard-learned lessons and plenty of Ron-isms like "Hotter than two hamsters farting in a wool sock."

There's also a Lizard Lick Towing cookbook on the way, as well as a book of Ron's poetry. The former contains the key to such dishes as Bobby's Body Slam Sauce and Repo's Rib Rub. His poetry includes such verses as the following, copied from the truTV website:

  • I sit again on the brink of destiny, apprehension separating the waves of validation
  • Calculating the improbable existence of the life I have cremated aimlessly
  • Self condemnation running ramped about the waters edge as I contemplate diving
  • The Mythical promise of a society that embraces the apathy of surrealism.

The whirlwind started for 38-year-old Ron Shirley, his wife Amy and their loyal sidekick Bobby Brantley in 2009, with the premiere of All Worked Up, a show about dangerous jobs, on truTV. That show spawned the six-episode Lizard Lick Towing, which aired its season finale on March 14. If you missed any episodes, Ron says there will be reruns; and you can watch clips at trutv.com/video/lizard-lick-towing. All Worked Up is currently in production, and Ron's crew is about halfway through 13 episodes, which are filmed every other week. He says he has no idea whether the Lizard Lick Towing show will be renewed, and Turner Broadcasting can't confirm, either.

"Brother, it's kind of like a bulldog on the back of a meat wagon," Ron says, kicking back for a second in a multicolored Hick Life shirt, ever-present yellow Oakley shades perched on top of the Bo-hawk.

"You just stand there and eat until you run out of food, and you wait for somebody else to put a little more food there."

Both shows are the work of the reality television production company RDF, which discovered Ron's wife, Amy, a few years ago—she was a champion power lifter and a mortician, and a mother of three (now four), which made her a perfect character for the ABC show Wife Swap. So the Shirleys were approached to be on the show. They turned it down.

"I didn't want to put my kids through that, to be honest with you," says Ron, an ordained minister who holds himself to certain standards about how he behaves on television. He points out that in all the dozens of rough-and-tumble TV episodes he's done over the years, he's never once been seen cussing or throwing a punch ("That's Bobby's job").

But RDF liked the couple so much, the company asked to film them at work, at their longstanding Lizard Lick repo business.

"They came down the first day, the cameraman got shot at and we've got a show ever since," Ron says with a laugh.

And so it all began on truTV, formerly known as Crime TV, the reality channel owned by Turner Broadcasting. Once a place where murder-trial junkies could get their daily TV fix, since 2008 it's been a channel for watching people crash cars, run from police, act stupid and beat the crap out of each other.

On All Worked Up, Ron and his repo crew share screen time with traffic cops, security people, process servers and others whose lines of work could earn them an ass-whippin' from an enraged citizen at any moment. The Lizard Lick Towing show is built from the same template. Week after week, the crew goes out on a risky repo job. The person getting towed isn't feeling cooperative, and it's on. Or some hothead will show up at the office with a baseball bat or ax, demanding to get his vehicle back, and it's on.

In between all the fighting there are story lines, and those, it must be said, are just depressingly bad. My first thought after seeing the first episode of Lizard Lick Towing was that my headline would be "North Carolina now claims the worst reality show on TV," although, God help me, I wouldn't want to endure the research it would take to back up that claim.

The office dialogue between Ron, Amy and Bobby on the show is stilted and contrived —like it was done in takes at some director's behest. It's unfortunate, really, because these folks are much funnier and more likeable when you meet them together in person.

Then there's the issue of suspension of disbelief, which in theory shouldn't even be a problem with a reality show. Take, for instance, the parolee in Episode 1, a tattoo artist who beat Bobby's ass on camera with the help of some biker buddies with no apparent fear of going back to prison. Folks, if you believe this stuff is "real," then you're about dumber'n a possum playing in traffic on Fourth of July weekend (or something like that).

But Ron and Amy insist the violence, at least, is real—they had a cameraman who was hospitalized with a concussion in Louisburg two years ago to prove it.

And Ron says there's a reason some people sign that release paper to appear on the show, even though they're risking prosecution for some of the criminal things they do on camera.

It starts with Ron agreeing to not have them arrested on the spot.

"I would never get the guy on TV" if that happened, he says. "I use the police as leverage."

That doesn't stop people from getting busted anyway. Ron, Amy and Bobby all told me about the U.S. Marshals who showed up at their door the morning after one show aired, because they were looking for some fugitive who had appeared.

"We have a lot of police support for our show," Ron says. According to Amy, they also have celebrity fans such as Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr., so what do I know?

They also have everyday fans driving hundreds of miles to visit them. When I first arrived, two guys showed up at the door, hoping to get their picture taken with their hero. They drove two and a half hours to see Ron, but they got turned away because Ron was "too busy" (with me, which made me feel kind of bad).

I asked one of the visitors, 33-year-old Corey Newsome of Ahoskie, what he likes so much about the show.

"Just everything," he says with a shrug, seeming a little irritated by the question, like I'm accusing him of being some weird fanboy. "The way they get the cars—the way they be talkin' and stuff."

Ron's show may not get Jersey Shore ratings, or earn him a Jersey Shore paycheck (far from it, on both counts), but it's made him a rather strange version of a working-class hero for his small but loyal audience.

Strange because, while he's got homespun appeal, with all that wit and brawn, he's also working for the man—the banks that hire him to repossess stuff from cash-strapped folks, during brutal economic times that are about to get worse for the working poor if deficit hawks and union-busters continue to get their way.

So why do Ron Shirley's working-class fans embrace him, knowing full well that he's the guy hauling away cars and trucks from people like them, on behalf of banks?

"Well, nobody ever really thinks about that," Ron says, "because when you take the grand scheme of things, the banks lend money, you know, you borrow money and you don't pay for it? They come get it! And everybody knows that. It's been like that since day one, Bo."

Perhaps to better smooth things over in the community, Lizard Lick Towing throws a pig pickin' each year, to which they say they invite the people whose property they've repossessed.

Where Ron comes from, you don't ask for a handout—certainly not from the government. You persevere. If you're going through hard times, that's what church is for.

"That's what working, striving and persevering is all about, and I tell them all, Bo, that that snail made it to the ark—through perseverance."

That's one aspect of his business, too—"The Eastern Chapter of the Dirt Church on Wheels," he calls it. As a minister, he aims to spread the word "wherever the booms drop."

And he does more than just preach perseverance, he says, telling of the assistance his church has delivered to neighbors in desperate need. He goes on to talk about all the times his crew donated property that was abandoned in his storage shed to homeless people living in a tent city on Highway 70.

It's hard not to like Ron Shirley in person, and you can't blame him for trying to make the most of his celebrity while he can. From the looks of things, none of these LLT&R folks are getting rich yet.

Certainly not 41-year-old Bobby Brantley, Ron's best friend, co-star and top recovery guy, who showed up late in the interview. He's a hard-working dude who still drives a truck between filming for the show and doing actual repo jobs for the company—which, Ron insists, is still the top priority, appearances aside.

Before engaging me in a brief political debate after spotting the Obama sticker on my car (he's not an Obama fan, although he volunteers that he "has nothing against his skin color"), Bobby talks a bit more candidly than Ron or Amy about whether some of the stuff on the show "really happens."

"Some does, and some they stage," he says. "I'm not gonna tell you any stories. Sometimes we have to egg 'em on a little bit: 'What you got? What you got? What you gonna come get me with?' We might have to ... poke 'em a little bit, to get them riled up."

And yes, some of their antagonists really are just excited to be on TV, he admits.

"Some people are like,'Oh, yeah! You need me to do something else?'"

When you've got one shot at glory, you'd better make it good enough for a "clip of the week" somewhere.

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