Unreality TV: Irish Mike and His Big Giant Swords

Amelia Smith and Michael Craughwell, star of the reality TV show
Our winter of fame

My husband, Michael Craughwell, started making YouTube videos when he made his first giant sword in 2007. At the time, the user name MichaelCraughwell was taken, so he went with MichaelCthulhu, after H.P. Lovecraft’s dread god Cthulhu. (Luckily the denizens of the Internet have a much easier time spelling Cthulhu than they do Craughwell.) About a year and a half ago, and dozens of sword videos later, a Hollywood production company contacted Mike about the possibility of making a reality TV show about him and his swordmaking, something like the videos, only in a longer, for-TV format. At the time it seemed fairly unlikely, but in July of last year the contracts were signed with the Discovery network, and the production crew rolled in (not precisely in that order). Between the cast and crew, we had about 20 young guys hanging out in the yard all day, sitting under pop-up tents for hours in between shoots, staring at their iPhones, and playing endless games of Cards Against Humanity.

Michael "Cthulhu" Craughwell. -Photo by Michael Cummo

Michael “Cthulhu” Craughwell. -Photo by Michael Cummo

“Irish Mike” was the star of the show, which Discovery would end up calling Big Giant Swords. During filming, he often worked day and night, playing his part in multiple takes of sometimes grueling scenes while the production crew was on the clock, then going back to do “actual, Newtonian work” building the weapons for the next day’s shoot. I appeared onscreen occasionally, to remind Mike to pay attention to the bottom line and/or to get some sleep instead of spending the whole night on the Internet. In between, I just had to keep the house cleanish and the children out from underfoot, while I harangued the crew to pick up their coffee cups. They brought us lunch and were fairly pleasant to hang out with, so it wasn’t all bad.

The show aired in the depths of winter, from mid-January through February. We marked the premiere by going to watch it at the Wharf with assorted cast members and friends. I’d say that we celebrated, but the lead-up to the first episode was nearly as anxiety-ridden as the contract negotiations had been. “Reality TV” is also called “unscripted TV,” but the producers keep notes about what they want to have happen in each scene. This not-a-script isn’t shared with the “talent,” and it’s still only a rough outline. After the filming, editors far away in Hollywood take dozens of hours of footage and shape them into neatly packaged, dramatic 40-minute episodes. We knew that the technical quality would be very good, but we had no idea what to expect from the story.

The next morning, Twitter lit up with #BigGiantSwords. For the six weeks of the show’s premiere run, I think that Mike spent about 12 hours of every Wednesday on social media (up from his usual two to three). The production company made up a second Twitter profile for Mike, because no one in Hollywood could spell Cthulhu. With my newfound auxiliary fame, people were suddenly tagging me, messaging me, and even occasionally retweeting me. I was actually using Twitter. Facebook was busier, too, but the change was less dramatic.

Detail of one of Michael "Cthulhu" Craughwell's swords. Photo by Michael Cummo

Detail of one of Michael “Cthulhu” Craughwell’s swords. Photo by Michael Cummo

Around the Island, my newfound fame was mildly entertaining. Keep in mind that it was winter, so the supply of actual celebrities was at its annual low, and people were a little bored. I had a lot of positive feedback, both about the show and my role in it, but only a few people in my usual orbit recognized me primarily from the show. We kept living our everyday lives, and people who knew me from the grocery store, the playgrounds, or my old day jobs would sometimes mention the show if they’d seen it. The real fun was when Mike and I went to New York City for three days so he could be in a Sprint ad. People stopped him on the street in Manhattan to say how much they loved the show.

Seeing myself on screen, I sensed a gap between the televised version of reality and the flesh-and-blood version, a gap that’s fundamental to the very nature of storytelling. As soon as you tell a story about someone, whether it’s a newspaper story, a TV show, or even a bit of gossip, that someone becomes a character for the duration of the story. Characters are not people; they are likenesses of people, with goals and motivations which weave into a story, whether or not they share many characteristics with the actual person who stumbles along through their usually boring daily life.That said, the show is as close as television has gotten to the “real Vineyard” in a long time — maybe ever. Our co-stars were all Island natives — Ameri-Mike Robinson, Johnny Rich, Erik Bang-Birge, Jamie Rogers, and Matthew Barton, the apprentice. We are variously competent at one thing and another, reasonably good-looking for the most part, and getting along by the skin of our teeth. Technically, we still don’t know whether or not there will be a second season. One winter of TV fame is more than my allotted 15 minutes, anyway. Mike is now working on a board game, as well as making the intricate replicas of video game swords that made him popular on YouTube. I’m trying to spend less time on social media, and writing books and trying to get people to read them.

Amelia Smith writes articles about the Vineyard, novels about dragons, and occasional blog posts about nothing in particular. She lives in the woods of West Tisbury.   

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