"It's idiotic to think how he's become famous as the 'Tiger King' when he's so terrified of big cats," Rick Kirkham said

By Maria Pasquini and Karen Mizoguchi
April 12, 2020 08:00 AM
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More Tiger King is here!

After a week of anticipation, new special The Tiger King and I, an after-show hosted by Joel McHale, is now streaming on Netflix — and there’s plenty for all of the cool cats and kittens out there to sink their teeth into!

Although not every star of the hit docuseries returned for more, the show features brand new interviews from John Reinke, Joshua Dial, John Finlay, Kelci “Saff” Saffery, Erik Cowie, Rick Kirkham and Jeff and Lauren Lowe. (The series’ stars were all virtually interviewed by McHale individually in accordance with social distancing guidelines amid the coronavirus pandemic.)

Tiger King
Credit: Netflix

Detailing their newfound fame, those featured in Tiger King described how they have been adjusting to the spotlight.

“It’s a lot different actually. You’re waiting on somebody to come up to you. They care about the COVID-19, they want to shake your hand, get a picture with you. It’s pretty crazy,” Reinke said of being recognized in public, later adding, “I don’t consider myself a celebrity. I think I’m just a man on a damn documentary.”

Similarly, Saffery has been stopped by fans. “I don’t have any anonymity. I have been recognized in public places, which is new to me,” he said. “I was walking through Walmart on a late-night run, should’ve only taken me 10 minutes. I was stopped three times during a pandemic in Walmart.”

Kirkham, who has been living in Norway, showed McHale a two-page spread of a local publication featuring his photo on the front page. “Has Tiger King reached Norway? Let me show you the newspaper that came out yesterday,” he said of the Netflix series, which he called a “phenomenon.”

“Yeah, it’s hit Norway in a big way. It’s number one in Norway. I can’t even take a walk down at the fjord without somebody walking their dog, pointing, going, ‘That’s him! That’s him!’ in Norse. You hear Tiger King if I walk through the mall,” Kirkham added.

Jeff Lowe and Lauren Lowe: (1)

As for how they were portrayed in the series, there were mixed reactions.

“They tried to sensationalize a story a little to give it a villain,” Jeff said.

“I was portrayed as a drugged-out hillbilly. And that was not me then. At that time, I was four to five years clean. When my daughter was born, I decided to never touch another drug again,” said Finlay, who later told McHale he was shirtless for all his interviews because “why not show off” his tattoos.

However, former campaign manager Dial told McHale: “The way they did this documentary, it’s fair, balanced and I just think it’s a wonderful production. … The truth hurts.”

And Kirkham did not enjoy reliving his time at G.W. Zoo in Oklahoma.

“I regret ever meeting Joe Exotic because I went in because I saw there was a great opportunity for an incredibly wonderful show about big animals and this crazy zookeeper. But I too was sucked into the surreal world of Joe Exotic. I will never get over it, I still have nightmares, Joel. I still have nightmares today. I had nightmares last night,” he said. “And since this docuseries has been back, I’ve had more nightmares about having lived on that park. I want to put this chapter away, but it keeps getting bigger and bigger and bigger. The one thing that I think that can come out of this docuseries that is good is that people are now going, ‘free the animals.’ I think that’s the best thing.”

Tiger King
Credit: Netflix

Missing from the new show is Carole Baskin, the founder of Big Cat Rescue and Joseph “Joe Exotic” Maldonado-Passage‘s nemesis, who has been outspoken about her disappointment in the Netflix series, specifically for the “lies and innuendos” that suggested she “had a role in the disappearance” of her late husband Don — which Baskin has repeatedly denied.

Maldonado-Passage, 57, himself, who was found guilty in 2019 for paying a hitman $3,000 to kill Baskin and was recently transferred to the medical center of a Fort Worth, Texas, prison, is also absent, as is his husband, Dillon Passage.

Although the docuseries has been seen by millions of viewers in the United States, Maldonado-Passage isn’t one of them. Finlay told McHale that he and his fiancée “binge-watched” the series in “seven hours” on the night it was released.

Earlier this month, Dillon confirmed that while the disgraced zookeeper is aware of the series, as he’s in prison — where he’s serving a 22-year sentence for the attempted murder plot of Baskin — Maldonado-Passage hasn’t seen it yet.

“He’s in jail, so he can’t necessarily watch it, but once the show dropped he was getting hundreds and hundreds of emails to his jail mail, and he was ecstatic,” Passage told Andy Cohen on SiriusXM’s Radio Andy, adding that his husband is “100 percent” enjoying the spotlight.

joe exotic
Joseph Maldonado-Passage
| Credit: Netflix

“This is the notoriety and fame that Joe always wanted. It’s pretty ironic that he’s now stuck in a cage and can’t even enjoy it,” Jeff said. “He’s where he belongs and I would probably just tell him, ‘Gotcha.’ The USDA tried to take him down, PETA’s tried to take him down, Humane Society tried to take him down. Carole Baskin spent $2.5 million trying to take him down and we’re the ones who did it.”

Dial told McHale that Maldonado-Passage has been “communicating with some of his old fans and having them run Facebook pages so he’s getting all the messages people are sending, all the money people are raising for him. He’s getting all that,” adding, “He’s in the loop on this and he’s loving every minute of it. I guarantee that.”

Recalling how Maldonado-Passage was found guilty on all 19 counts, Dial also said he “wasn’t” surprised by the outcome. “People in Oklahoma hate Joe Exotic. He’s gay. This is a very red state and us gay folk are almost an endangered species here.”

Meanwhile, when Saffery was asked if Maldonado-Passage deserves to be incarcerated, he told McHale: “I think justice was served, but I still don’t want to see that man die in prison.”

Well, Kirkham thought otherwise. “I’ll be honest with you. I don’t think Joe Exotic will leave prison alive. I don’t think he’ll be able to stand it. Even if he got out with good behavior in 10, 12 years, he won’t live that long,” he told McHale. “What’s really eating him up is people like me who are getting so much attention instead of him. He doesn’t get any of the money that’s coming out. He doesn’t get any of the accolades or the opportunities. He doesn’t get anything. Except three meals a day.”

Claiming that Maldonado-Passage is “terrified” of big cats, Kirkham also said, “It’s idiotic to think how he’s become famous as the ‘Tiger King’ when he’s so terrified of big cats.”

As for dream casting a film adaptation of the Netflix series, the Tiger King stars gave their first picks.

Reinke, who has “refrained” from speaking with Joe Exotic, said he wants Matthew McConaughey to play him on the big screen, while Saffery chose actor Brandon Baker, who was best known for playing Johnny Tsunami in the Disney Channel series. (McHale chose Ken Jeong for Saffery, who said the Masked Singer judge would be an “amazing” choice.)

And Kirkham chose Billy Bob Thornton. “I think he might make a good Rick Kirkham,” he said, laughing.

The Tiger King and I is currently streaming on Netflix, as is Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.