Ringgold, Ga., residents Christa Stephens, Irwin Koplan, Joan Koplan, Brian Taylor and Dennis Starr were cast in AMC reality show “Small Town Security. AMC Photo
Joan Koplan keeps a DVD hidden in her nightstand that very few people have seen.
A chronicle of her first step toward cable fame, the local footage captures an hour-long discussion in the sitting area at JJK Security and Investigations in Ringgold, Ga. The topic is an employee’s impending sex change. Dennis — formerly Denise — is talking, in graphic detail, about how sex reassignment surgery works. Elderly Cousin Neal goes on a tear about pubic hair. There is farting and a lot of laughing by Joan, who is thinner and happier than she is now.
That was more than three years ago. Now it’s August, post-summer television season, and Joan and the crew are celebrities in a holding pattern. The eight-episode season two of their reality television show, “Small Town Security,” has recently finished airing, and the production company and network, AMC, are negotiating money and the show’s future. The talks are taking longer than expected, and the weeks reveal Joan as unnerved, worried about returning to small-town obscurity.
Dennis Starr, JJK operations manager; Brian Taylor, the private investigator; Christa Stephens, the secretary; and Irwin, Joan’s husband, carry on with business, investigating cheating spouses, patrolling businesses at night and delivering court summons across North Georgia.
Koplan, on the other hand, stays still, in the same metal chair that she sits in on the nationally broadcasted show, her coarse black hair a bit cockatoo, her black eyeliner a bit misdrawn, crumbs on her black polo shirt.
And the most important question every day, at least to Koplan, is one that no one has an answer to: Will there be a season three?
“Have you heard anything?” she asks the employees, who beg her not to call the producers.
“It looks good,” Starr tells her. Every. Day.
And it does look good. AMC is still promoting the show on its website. The producers sent a note recently saying how proud they were of the cast. Previous calls to network bigwigs have hinted, strongly, at a third season.
In her purse she keeps a printout of an email that Charlie Collier, president of AMC, sent her, assuring her that he enjoys their quirky 30-minute show. She retells how Leanne Elias, a talent executive at E! Network, once told her that she was going to make Joan a big star.
She doesn’t want “Duck Dynasty” kind of pay. She doesn’t even care about the money, she tells producers. She just wants the fame, the love, the visitors. Her subdivision neighbors don’t seem interested in her. They never visit or talk, she says. There are days when she isn’t sure her own children or her own husband love her.
“When I give my opinion to my family, I don’t get that much attention from them,” she says.
So even on the weekends, she sits in the metal chair at the JJK office, waiting.
And the fans, they do eventually come.
On the tail end of a weekday in early August, a well-dressed woman from Atlanta wobbles on high heels up the office steps, and lights a smile when she sees Joan in her chair. She calls her partner in Atlanta.
“You won’t believe where I am!” she says on voice mail.
She asks Koplan for a hug. She asks for a picture.
When the woman finally leaves with an autograph, Koplan hides her face to cry.
“I just can’t believe this,” she sobs. “If I ever lost this, it’s over for me. It’s over.”
If you have seen “Small Town Security,” you probably fall into one of two camps — the obsessed or the repelled.
For some, it has cult draw. Fans say it’s authentic, touching and genuinely funny. They are rooting for Koplan to remain famous, to be able to be more active despite her Parkinson’s disease diagnosis. They are rooting for Irwin to get more energy and save the struggling business. They are rooting for Starr to find his true identity.
People magazine gave the second season premier three stars and says it had “a believable frumpiness and a welcome knack for the unexpected,” and the Huffington Post says this year that the show was giving “birth to one of the most inventive reality TV romps of the decade.”
The same scenes that would repulse many — Irwin using a wooden stick to break up his large bowel movements so they can flush down the toilet, Koplan gifting Starr with a prosthetic penis, Irwin choking on a mouthful of wasabi, Irwin trying to sell his poop stick on eBay — endear others.
Other critics were harsher. Pete Vonder Haar, a Houston Press writer, says there was nothing redeeming about the show.
“With ‘Small Town Security,’ AMC seems to think it has something ‘quirky’ and ‘off the wall.’ In reality (no pun intended), it feels like something the North Korean government broadcasts to sap its citizens’ will to live,” he wrote.
And few were harder on the new show than some Ringgold locals.
“Hey good job, you made our small town look like crap,” wrote James Phillips on Joan’s Facebook page. “You made yourself and your employees look like fools too.”
“I watched 10 minutes of the first episode and felt disgusted. That show is a joke. It’s embarrassing and pure stupid to get on national television and act like trash. Clean the makeup off your teeth and watch your language,” wrote Amber Vick.
Starr says JJK lost five security accounts the day after the debut.
Joan ignores the name calling, protected by a fame bubble, knowing she has her own website on AMC, knowing there are photos of her on Google standing next to stars from “Mad Men” and “The Walking Dead” — AMC’s two huge ratings juggernauts — knowing there is the possibility of another contract and another season.
Still, “Small Town Security” viewer dent can’t compare to franchises like “Duck Dynasty,” which pulled in 11.8 million viewers for its fourth season debut last week. An average night for “Small Town Security” is 130,000 to 150,000 viewers, according to Nielsen ratings.
Since 1984, the JJK office, a driveway length away from the Ringgold Police Department, has been a strange place.
Until his death during season one, perverted Cousin Neal came to poke fun at the size of Stephen’s bottom, among other things. The next door neighbor, a retired ambulance driver, dropped by with pineapple upside-down cake and stayed to watch the antics. Sometimes a police officer would come by to say hello. A jolly, grey-headed security guard kisses Koplan whenever he leaves for patrol.
JJK was a casual place, too. Koplan and Irwin took naps on a backroom futon. People felt like they could be themselves there. It didn’t exactly exude Hollywood, Starr says.
But Left/Right Productions, based in New York, thought it would make good television after receiving a promo video from the Koplans. Left/Right reshot the promo and shopped it to AMC.
For Koplan, the news was something she’d been dreaming of for 50 years. One of the narrative arcs on “Small Town Security” is Koplan’s hunger for fame. On the first episodes, she explains how she had wanted to be a singer while growing up in Manhattan’s Gramercy Park, how she had acted in a movie when she was a teenager. Her parents were OVERSET FOLLOWS:inattentive, she says. She had few friends.
The show also explains her failed political ambitions while living in Ringgold, her attempt at small town popularity.
She ran for Catoosa County sheriff three times starting in 1986 when her daughters were very young, and lost each time. In 1991, when Phil Summers was elected with 4,379 votes, she received 111.
“I don’t know why she wasted her time,” says Joe Barger, who has been Ringgold’s mayor for nearly 40 years. “She is a different person than most.”
Years later, she started a local cable access show called “The Joan Koplan Forum” on UCTV, but was kicked off the station because of lewd content, says Judy O’Neal, who runs the station.
Then the 10-people production crew for “Small Town Security” came to town. They followed her. They followed her staff. They told her not to change a thing.
“For year and years I was laughed at,” she says.
Aside from the couple’s two daughters, there isn’t much the show hides from viewers. Bodily functions, sexuality, work habits, cleanliness and inappropriate feelings are discussed between co-workers.
What watchers don’t see is the aftermath of reality television.
They are still using old, outdated computers. They wear the same clothes. The Koplans’ home needs repairs. Starr was able to have part of the sexual reassignment surgery, but he still sleeps in the back of the JJK office. Koplan says she needs therapy, but doesn’t think she can afford it.
Compared to other reality stars, the group makes little. Starr wouldn’t specify an amount but says it’s around $4,000 an episode per person. In comparison, the “Duck Dynasty” cast makes $200,000 an episode, split between nine adults and 11 kids, according to an article in Deadline Hollywood.
“We aren’t rich people,” Starr says. “It hasn’t solved my problems, but it’s helped a lot.”
But ask Starr whether he wants to see the show renewed and he pauses.
“For her sake I do,” he says.
They try to make extra money off the attention. T-shirts with the JJK logo sell for $20. Joan signed up to be a spokesperson for a diet company. They recorded a song titled “Speecy, Spicy Meataball,” based on Joan’s tagline from the show that they hope to market.
The other night she went to sleep at 9 p.m., woke up a little after midnight and never went back to sleep, wondering about the season three renewal.
Before the sun is up, she sits outside the security office in her car. When the door opens, she goes to her chair and waits for fans.
In a week she plans to fly to Los Angeles, the place where she says she truly belongs. There, she’ll stay in an $800 a night room discounted by her talent agency. She’ll call Leanne at E! Network and ask for a meeting. Maybe she can get on the show that pokes fun at reality television, “The Soup.” Clips from “Small Town Security” have been featured on the show before, including the special, ” The Goodest Moments of Redneck Shows,” which ran the clip of Irwin trying to unclog the toilet with his stick.
She hopes, like last time, that people will recognize her and start their sentences with “Oh. My. God.” She hopes they will say they love her show, that they love her.
“It’s unbelievable how people are treating me now,” she says. “I am actually helping people. I make people feel good. It’s just unbelievable.”
Still, the joy of stardom is always followed by tears. No show airs forever. What will she do when the rest of America forgets her name?
“Quit crying,” Taylor says one time when she starts to worry about the third season announcement. Again. “Cheer up,” he says.
Local people ask O’Neal, who renewed “The Joan Koplan Forum” on UCTV before “Small Town Security” started airing, how she can stand the show. It’s money, she says. It’s business in a small town hit by the recession of the carpet industry, pummeled by a tornado.
“I am totally disappointed in the town. She has done what she has done, and they still will not accept her,” O’Neal says. “They don’t understand what the show is about … They are not meant to be ‘I Love Lucy.’”
A week before Joan takes flight to LA, she is eating at Cracker Barrel off the main Ringgold exit on Interstate 75. She picks through the blousy shirts in the gift store, says they’d be perfect for Hollywood. She looks around nervously.
“People are always looking at me,” she says.
Before lunch, an older woman with a white, kinky perm approaches her and tells her how much she loves the show.
“Are y’all going to have a third season?”
“Yes, we are,” Koplan says, even though she doesn’t really know.
At the end of lunch, Koplan asks the waitress if she knows who she is.
The waitress, embarrassed, says no.
“Who are you?”
Contact staff writer Joan Garrett McClane at email@example.com or 423-757-6601.
Joan Garrett McClane has been a staff writer for the Times Free Press since August 2007. Before becoming a general assignment writer for the paper, she wrote about business, higher education and the court systems. She grew up the oldest of five sisters near Birmingham, Ala., and graduated with a master's and bachelor's degrees in journalism from the University of Alabama. Before landing her first full-time job as a reporter at the Times Free Press, ...