It isn't easy to make SallyAnn Salsano jealous. But the creator of MTV's "Jersey Shore" - who brought us Snooki, the Situation and Pauly D - says that envy was her first response when she saw the brand-new TLC reality series "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo": "I was like, '... Why aren't I doing that show?' "
Alana Thompson, better known to the universe as Honey Boo Boo (or Honey Boo Boo Child to her ardent followers), became a frilly sensation following a breakout stint on the TLC's "Toddlers & Tiaras" in January. Honey Boo Boo's over-the-top personality, stomach-talking talents and lively stage performance - energized by "go-go juice," a blend of Mountain Dew and Red Bull - made her an overnight star.
So naturally, the spirited beauty pageant contestant landed her own spinoff show, "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo," which reached a season high in its third week with 2.3 million viewers last Wednesday - positioning it as one of the network's highest-rated shows while turning the pint-sized star, who turned 7 on Tuesday, and her family into a polarizing pop-culture phenomenon.
A Google search of "Honey Boo Boo" yields more than 65 million results - including YouTube parodies, GIFs (a graphic image on a Web page that moves), spoof Twitter pages for her former pet pig Glitzy, a "Redneckipedia" to decipher Honey Boo Boo's lexicon and, for the more literary-inclined, poems about the family.
"Before the 'Toddlers & Tiaras' episode, I saw a lot of people talking about (Alana) online," said her mother - and reality star in her own right - June Shannon via email. "Then the show aired and everything went viral. At that point, everyone seemed to know who she was - from Georgia to New York to L.A. ... even big-time celebrities like Mario Lopez."
Picking up where "Toddlers & Tiaras" left off, "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" has kept people talking. But that doesn't mean all the chatter has been good. USA Today said the show - which features bits like Glitzy the pig, the family pet, "oooohing himself" on the kitchen table - is "either the end of civilization as we know it, or a loving picture of joyous redneck family values."
Clearly some of the interest is derived from laughing at the family's peculiar habits. But Shannon says, "I've never felt like I was at the butt of a joke because I am always able to laugh at myself."
Howard Lee, TLC's senior vice president of production and development, said the decision to give the young girl and her family their own show was a "no-brainer."
"Just with her single appearance on 'Toddlers & Tiaras,' we saw that everybody was just so captivated by this little girl's personality - and by her mom, June, too," Lee said. "People were asking about them, they wanted to see more about them. There was just a hunger from our audience."
The network has had its share of pop culture-tugging shows that range in controversy: "Jon & Kate Plus 8," "All-American Muslim," "Sister Wives" and "19 Kids & Counting." On Tuesday, the network launched "Abby & Brittany," which follows conjoined 16-year-old twins.
With "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo," Lee said, "it goes back to everything that we do here in that it is very authentic, honest - we just kind of captured the imagination of our public by showing you how other people live."
Rich Juzwiak, a staff writer at Gawker well-versed in all-things Honey Boo Boo and reality TV, was more pointed: "TLC is a gentle freak show," he said.
"Jersey Shore's" Salsano believes that despite the regional eccentricities - roadkill meals! - audiences can relate to Honey Boo Boo and her family.
"I think when people are real, viewers gravitate toward that," Salsano said. "I think that America's fascination with them is interesting. I think more people live like them than we think. Not everyone is from L.A. and New York, you know? And I think it's a subculture that everyone knows exist, and there's jokes about it, people hear about it - but very seldom do you get the real day-to-day look on these people."
Tom Rogan, co-founder of Authentic Entertainment - which produces "Toddlers & Tiaras" and "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo," said the response has been unlike those for the company's other productions, which include Food Network's "Ace of Cakes" and Bravo's "Flipping Out."
"I don't think anything quite rivals the immediate, widespread attention that this show has gotten," Rogan said. "This past Friday, I was watching 'Real Time With Bill Maher' and he made a joke about how Sarah Palin was happy that she didn't have to go to the convention because it was on the same night as 'Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.'"
Meanwhile, the family's thrust into reality stardom has already ignited scrutiny, with reports recently revealing Shannon's 1998 arrest on counts of contempt of court and theft.
There are five episodes left of the first season, which will culminate with a one-hour season finale in late September. As of now, Lee said the network hasn't decided what lies ahead for the show: "Right now, we're really enjoying watching them."
Whatever happens, Shannon is trying to take it all in stride. "If it lasts, it lasts. If it doesn't," she wrote in an email, "I can say that we've enjoyed our adventure. But I don't think Alana is going away any time soon."