As his unfortunate appearance on TV this morning made clear, Falcon Heene is not the most willing participant in the story of his balloon non-flight. And if his dad is in fact a fame-whore, he really sucks at it.

Falcon's explanation of why he hid in a garage for so long while the entire nation prayed for his safety — "we did this for a show" — has lots of people speculating that the whole balloon incident was a hoax. Richard Heene's refusal to let his son explain — instead he fulminated about how "appalled" he was that Wolf Blitzer would even ask — seemed both suspicious and graceless. And TMZ now says that the local sheriff's department is "investigating the situation." But even if Richard Heene's fears that his son had flown off in a balloon were completely genuine, what's clear from his (many) TV appearances is that while he loves publicity, he's really, really bad at it.

As most people with Internet access know now, the Heene family was previously on Wife Swap, where Richard made a "bitchmeter" for swapped-wife Sheree Silver and said, "You're a man's nightmare. I'm so glad my wife was born in Japan." His family also has a YouTube page chock-full of weird videos, including one in which he rants about makeup while doing dishes. But all this on-camera experience didn't prevent Heene from looking halting and strange on Larry King.

Nor did it make his three energetic sons actually want to be on TV. Last night, the two older ones were sort of able to sit still, but Falcon basically acted like a human slinky, leading Tracie to point out how unlikely it was that he would willingly stay put in a garage for four whole hours. He also may have blown his family's whole scheme, but what's most obvious from his squirming and on-air vomiting is that this is a child who belongs outside playing, not in front of a camera lens.

Unfortunately, that's not his dad's plan. On Larry King, Richard said he had his kids make YouTube music videos — including the semi-creepy one above where the kids complain that pajamas are "pussified," and one dresses up like Mr. Hanky — because he wanted to get them into music, and hoped that seeing positive comments on YouTube would inspire them. But what parent in his right mind hopes to inspire his kids through YouTube comments? Maybe one who desperately wants attention for himself and his family, but who's so lacking in media savvy that (again, as Tracie points out) he thinks he can get little kids to lie convincingly on national TV?

A lot has been said about parents like the Gosselins who work the media system to parlay their cute broods into TV careers. But what Richard Heene shows is that even parents who work the system badly can now get more than 15 minutes of fame. His unvarnished weirdness makes him kind of riveting to watch, just as his kids' unruliness makes them kind of refreshing. But it also shows that a medium that was once the province of child actors — professional kids mature before their time — is now open to kids who are totally unprepared and not mature at all. Both systems have their problems, and it's hard to say which is really worse. The new one, though, appears to cast a wider net. It doesn't take talent to get on TV anymore — it doesn't even take media knowhow. All you need is a dad who's willing to let America watch you vomit.

Sheriff's Dept. Investigating Balloon Family [TMZ]
Interview Sets Off Skeptics Of Balloon Drama [NYT]
Balloon Dad's Blatant Misogyny [Broadsheet]
Balloon Drama Unfolds On TV, Web [LA Times]