The Untold Truth Of Joe Exotic's Producer Rick Kirkham

Rick Kirkham, the TV producer who worked at Joe "Exotic" Maldonado-Passage's zoo for a year filming a reality show that never got made, has spoken up about what really went on behind-the-scenes to inspire Tiger King, and the reality is anything but funny. Kirkham shared the dark details during an April 1, 2020, episode of David Spade's show, Lights Outand got incredibly candid about life at the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Oklahoma.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of Kirkham's claims, here's a little background on him: The cinematographer and reporter received a bachelor's degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Central Oklahoma in 1981, according to his LinkedIn page, and he has worked on various projects, including Inside Edition.

Kirkham also struggled with drug addiction at one point, so the mayhem at Joe's zoo was not entirely foreign to him. In a 2007 interview with Oprah Winfrey, for instance, Kirkham shared that, although he has been sober for years, he once interviewed President George H.W. Bush while high on crack. But even with such a tortured past himself, Kirkham shared that his time working with Joe Exotic was "dirty and nasty." Yikes.

So what is the man who spent hours on end filming the controversial zookeeper really like? We reveal the compelling truth below. 

How did Rick Kirkham get involved with Joe Exotic?

Rick Kirkham shared with David Spade on Lights Out all about the year he spent at Joe Exotic's zoo, and said of watching Tiger King, "What a trip it is to look back on that year." Kirkham referred to the zoo as "dirty" and "nasty," explaining how he lived at the zoo in a mobile home with his camera crew, finding it surreal to fall asleep to the sound of lions roaring every night.

So how did an accomplished journalist who anchored for Inside Edition (as pictured above) get tangled up with such a wild, mullet-loving man? It all boils down to the allure of money. As Kirkham explained it to Spade, after learning about Joe and his small-time internet show, he got the idea to make a profitable reality series. Kirkham, who understood the ingredients necessary for a hit, remembered thinking, "I'm going to retire on this guy." 

Realizing the potential for success, Kirkham supposedly Joe, "I'll produce your little internet show if you sign a contract and let me have a camera behind that crew and produce a reality show of the entire thing." Joe responded, "Absolutely! Make me famous and I'll make you rich."

The rest, as they say, is history.

What really happened at Joe Exotic's zoo

Although Rick Kirkham mostly recounted the hilarious antics of working for Joe Exotic, the producer also let fans in on the dark side of the production. Kirkham alleged to David Spade in Lights Out that during filming his reality show, he captured footage of Joe allegedly killing animals for fun, citing one supposed incident where Joe walked up to a tiger he didn't like and shot it in the head.

Kirkham also elaborated on the suspicious fire that destroyed all of his reality TV footage and killed alligators supposedly belonging to Michael Jackson. The producer noted how he and Joe got in a fight two days earlier about the fact that Kirkham owned the rights to all of the footage, and claimed that Joe had left town for a funeral after changing the locks on the studio that burned down. "I basically owned Joe Exotic, and he was not happy," Kirkham said about the situation.

The producer had backup hard drives of all the footage in safes, but the fire was "that hot" that it melted the metal cabinets down. When Joe later tried to accuse Kirkham of starting the fire, he pointed out how nonsensical the allegation was, as the show was his entire retirement plan.

What's life like for Rick Kirkham now?

After leaving the G.W. Zoo, Rick Kirkham experienced mental health issues, as he admitted to David Spade in Lights Out. "I had to see a shrink," he revealed. "I went in-patient for a week at one place in Dallas, Texas, just to get my head back on straight."

One of the biggest issues for Kirkham was that he knew about four or five months into his stay that what he was filming wasn't right. "I knew that I sold out my own soul," he candidly said. Still, the reporter stayed on because he had invested so much time in the project, and had planned to sell the show for $1 million. But as we mentioned above, a studio fire at the zoo literally burned his dreams to the ground.

Despite his personal struggles and setbacks, Kirkham maintains a positive outlook. "Karma came back for both Joe and I," he told Spade. "He's famous but he's sitting in prison."

Kirkham now lives in Bodø, Norway, with his wife, according to his Facebook page, and he works as a freelance reporter for Norwegian paper BODØ NU. He also produces TV and film projects for RealReels, per his LinkedIn.

All in all, it sounds like Kirkham is doing well despite his dark year spent with Joe Exotic.