The Tiger King documentary series currently sits at the top of Netflix’s “Most Popular” list. The timing of this new measure of transparency means that before long, Tiger King (a week-old release) will probably qualify as the longest holder of that title. This won’t benefit the doc’s subject — Joseph Maldonado-Passage, also known as “Joe Exotic.” Nope, in January 2020, this former frontman of an animal park in Oklahoma was sentenced to 22 years behind bars after being found guilty on 19 charges, including a murder-for-hire attempt on a big-cat-zoo rival, Carole Baskin, along with assorted wildlife violations of the Endangered Species Act and the Lacey Act. From prison, he’s still somehow posting rants against his “zoo” successor, Jeff Lowe, who’s now running the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park and, as the season finale suggests, has every intention of turning it into a second incarnation of a polygamist paradise.
Look, there’s a ton of insanity on display within Tiger King‘s seven episodes. Across the internet, one can already find several “lists” of the craziness — the mullet, for starters, and the breeding of big cats to excess, and the extreme polygamy and drug use and terrible conditions for both animals and humans — and the weirdest quotes and so on. I won’t retread all of that content here, but it’s enough to say that visitors to the park were unaware of Joe’s behind-the-scenes shadiness that persisted for years.
All of those goings-on are now topics of discussion of your social media feeds, and I’m sure Netflix would love to squeeze out a second Tiger King season, maybe even some sort anthology in manner of the Dirty John franchise. Kate McKinnon is already set to portray Baskins in a scripted series, though there’s no word of where that show will land. Tiger King is, dare I say, zeitgeistian, even if we don’t consider that this series arrived at a time of unprecedented self-isolation-bound binge-watching.
Let’s not discuss why this show is capturing folks’ attention (that’s obvious if you watch it). Instead, let’s focus upon the point where Joe grew so deluded that he believed that no consequences could possibly befall him. What I kept coming back to was this fifth-episode moment: the highlighting of John Oliver’s 2016 reaction to learning about Joe Exotic’s existence.
This moment was part of a Last Week Tonight segment on third-party presidential candidates. Not that Joe Exotic was ever a serious candidate (or that I’m gonna talk politics now). He was not, according to the guy who Joe hired as his campaign manager.
Oliver’s acknowledgement shouldn’t be seen as a harbinger of doom or even an example of the Oliver Effect (which should only be used for positive developments). I’m merely pointing out that, within the series, someone within Joe’s circle (a businessman named James Garretson) claimed that this was the moment in time where the “gay, gun-carrying redneck with a mullet” publicly blossomed into a tangible attention-monster. Joe was so pleased by the Oliver shoutout that this happened: “Joe got a big head. Even though they were making fun of him, Joe was the star.”
Again, I’m not suggesting that this was an impetus for bad behavior. Joe Exotic was never a good guy. According to all the statistics brought by Baskin (and Joe’s other enemies) to the media, he was pretty terrible to tigers, lions, alligators, and you name it. Later in the series, investigators found several skeletons of these big cats, which Joe eventually claimed was a mass euthanization. Simply put, it’s clearly illustrated within the series that Joe did evil things for decades, aside from his attention-seeking ways. Speaking of his drive for public adoration, Joe tried his serious hand at country singing (UPDATE: He’s not really singing those songs!) for awhile. Here’s a sample of his “work” in that arena.
So, yeah, there was also a fake public presidential bid (and then when that failed, a bid for governor), and here’s a quote from the video that freaked out John Oliver:
“First thing is, I am not cutting my hair. I am not changing the way I dress. I refuse to wear a suit. I am gay. I’ve had two boyfriends most of my life. I currently got legally married, thank God it’s finally legal in America. I’ve had some kinky sex. I have tried drugs through my younger years of my life. I am broke as sh*t. I have a judgment against me from some bitch down in Florida.”
And here’s the video that must be witnessed as well.
That led to news coverage (included in Tiger King), which asked, “Is America ready for the first redneck, gun-toting, mullet-sporting, tiger-tackling, gay polygamist president?”
That question doesn’t need to be answered here. Nor should I connect any dots at all. It’s enough to say that Joe Exotic belongs behind bars, and he belonged there long before John Oliver and his staff noticed the guy. However, it was only after Joe received Oliver’s attention that he became completely reckless in his wild pursuit of fame and power. His very bad behavior grew ever more public, and daringly so.
In November 2017, Joe (who truly felt that he should be “king”) grew so enraged after years of battling with Baskins (for big-cat-leading supremacy) that he paid a zoo worker $3,000 (and this conversation was recorded) to take out his rival. That worker, Allen Glover, told prosecutors that he pocketed that money and headed to the beach. After that plan failed, Joe offered $5,000 to an undercover FBI agent to kill Baskins (“just like follow her into a mall parking lot and just cap her and drive off”), along with an additional $5,000 after the story “was on the news.”
Viewers now know how Joe’s quest for ultimate big-cat power ended, which is confirmed by the Justice Department’s announcement of Joe’s departure to the big house (where he unironically complained of being caged like an animal).
You can watch the full John Oliver segment below, starting at the 1:40 mark, and Tiger King is currently streaming on Netflix.