Letters From Los Angeles

Photograph by Thomas Hawk

You Are the Best Audience Ever

A live studio audience is one part mosh pit, two parts Godot. A Glendale taping becomes a hostage situation.

You know that depression you experience after watching, in one sitting, an entire season of America’s Best Dance Crew? Where you feel pinned to the couch by the weight of your own disappointment, watching the closing credits as you shake your head and think, “I just know Da 2 L3git Shorteee Cru could have gone all the way—if only I had been there in person to cheer them on.”

Well, there’s a cure for that. Services like On Camera Audiences and Audiences, Unlimited specialize in placing human beings—or something close to them—in the studio audiences of live television broadcasts, from Dr. Phil to Hannah Montana, to can’t-miss reality TV competitions like Oxygen’s new Hair Battle Spectacular, which promotes itself with this strategically vague description: “Each one-hour episode will have fantasy hair designers vying for the precious title of who will reign supreme and be named champion.” (Yes, champion. Of something?)

Being part of the action at a television taping can transform otherwise passive TV viewing into a genuine life experience, to remember forever. And it’s true. I was recently part of a live studio audience and I will never forget it, no matter how hard I try.

My friends and I arrived at a theater in Glendale, Calif., around 7 p.m. to attend the semi-finals of a reality competition for stand-up comedians. Glendale is a Los Angeles suburb located far enough away from the epicenter of the entertainment industry that the only Hollywood “heat” it experiences is from the annual wildfires. Glendale is also stubbornly unhip, and has plenty of parking—the natural habitat of the average studio audience. In fact, since I was a kid I’ve only known Glendale as a studio audience kind of town. In the closing credits of daytime TV shows, the announcer would often pitch tickets to viewers “if you’re in the Glendale area.” Just as I grew up believing Botany 500 was a brand of clothing made exclusively for game show hosts, I thought all studio audiences were harvested from massive human farms in Glendale, Burbank, and Pasadena.

We were escorted by a production assistant. I asked if he was a comedian. He said he wasn’t, and proved it by making a joke about having appeared on To Catch a Predator.Ordinarily, I wouldn’t leap at the chance to attend a TV taping. I’ve been to a few, and they tend to go on longer than you’d hoped, with far more time spent waiting and taking instructions than sitting and being entertained. But I had three friends competing on the program, and this was a comedy competition. And, of course, I love to laugh. (You would already know this if you’d read my personal ad.) Also, my friends and I were granted VIP access, which afforded certain privileges. For one, priority seating, which allowed us to bypass a long queue of young ladies dressed for the club and guys dressed for the premiere of the new The Fast and the Furious movie. VIPs were also exempt from a security frisk, because VIPs never cause any trouble—just ask Claus Von Bülow. More importantly, security let us keep our cell phones and digital cameras. The majority of the studio audience was required to surrender their Sidekicks and pink, bejeweled PDAs to guards holding plastic evidence bags, robbing them of the ability to perfectly capture the electricity of the TV taping with shaky, inaudible, thumbnail-sized bootleg video recordings.

We were escorted to our seats by a young production assistant. He looked familiar to me. I asked if he was a comedian. He said he wasn’t, and proved it by making a joke about having appeared on To Catch a Predator. The PA tried to seat us down front but we were afraid of making eye contact with any contestants we knew, so we asked to be moved to seats closer to the rear of the theater. This insistence resulted in being seated directly behind The Worst People in the History of Studio Audiences. Minutes later, the women seated in front of me whipped her head around and very sharply scolded, “CAN YOU. PLEASE. STOP. KICKING. MY CHAIR?” I looked down at my own feet, which were firmly planted on the floor, as they’d been since we were seated. Before I had a chance to protest, her friend cut me off, adding, “I felt it, too.”

I have a mixture of pity and scorn for warm-up comedians. As someone with experience as a stand-up comedian, I do not envy their task: Keep a large, impatient audience of possibly questionable intelligence happy and entertained, or at least reasonably distracted from the lighting and audio adjustments that can indefinitely postpone the reason everyone is gathered here in the first place. It’s kind of like stepping out in front of a lynch mob and telling them, “I know everyone’s here for the big lynching, but first, are there any single people in the crowd?”

Though there are warm-up comics who maintain their integrity and try to build a genuine rapport with the audience, the majority resort to treating the studio audience like infants. They come armed with T-shirt cannons, snacks, and jokes about people with two-way pagers that are as old as two-way pagers.

This taping was no exception. The warm-up was a bland white guy who might have spent that afternoon preparing for a commercial audition, practicing his “mmm-mmmm-delicious!” face in the mirror while holding a pantomimed Taco Bell Tortada in both hands. After making sure we were all having a good time, he taught us the proper techniques for laughter and applause. “Now let’s try a small laugh, growing larger, then ending with applause!”

“You’ve been a great audience,” the host said. “So hang tight just a little longer because we’re about halfway through.” That’s when a live TV taping became a hostage situation.Then he grabbed people from the audience and brought them onstage for sexy dancing to thunderous hip-hop while the rest of us practiced our applause skills. Some audience members really took to the whole sexy dancing thing, and it was hard to tell if they were ordinary civilians or hired dancers. As this was in Los Angeles, it’s possible they were both.

The sexy dancers all received prizes—generic L.A. souvenir T-shirts, size XXXL—and then it was time to meet the show’s host. This was the exciting part, as it provided us with our first glimpse of someone famous. In this case, famous = a supporting cast member of The Office. He engaged the audience with a few eyebrow waggles and finger points, eliciting the kind of riotous and largely unearned approval that is typically reserved for famous people. After that brief formality, he got down to business, i.e., the business of mumbling lines off a teleprompter.

To say the host phoned it in is too generous. He was faxing it in—delivering most of his lines in a low monotone while standing still, arms hanging at his sides. Occasionally, he would dart his eyeballs around or shrug his shoulders, which I guess was meant to communicate humor, or remind us that, despite all appearances, he did not require any medical attention.

Each stand-up comedian competitor had three minutes to perform—plenty of time to determine which of them was the funniest person in the world. Each comic raced through his or her act, and the audience responded enthusiastically. But even without our intensive training, the comics genuinely earned their laughs. Even when they fell into archetypes—the Surreal One-Liner, the No-Nonsense Italian Guy, the Embittered Old Road Comic—nearly all of them were engaging and sharp. Throughout these performances, The Worst People in the History of Studio Audiences were happily engaged in an ongoing high-decibel conversation that I couldn’t really make out—the subtleties of their chat unfortunately drowned out by the chatter from the incredibly rude comedians onstage.

Occasionally, the host would announce a two-minute cool-down period while his brow was being mopped and his feeding tube replaced. During these, bathroom breaks were granted to audience members—those of us who screamed loudest or waved our arms most wildly. The woman sitting in front of me jumped at her opportunity to visit the restroom, and made a scene when she wasn’t permitted to leave again, 10 minutes later, to smoke a cigarette. In protest, she sat in her seat with a cigarette dangling from her lips (great for camera). The only thing that seemed to soothe her mood was singing a flat version of “I Will Survive” at the warm-up comic’s request. For her effort, she received a “HOORAY FOR HOLLYWOOD” T-shirt.

After three hours of laughing, applauding, sexy dancing, and begging strangers for permission to perform basic bodily functions, the audience’s energy was starting to wane. Most of us probably hadn’t eaten dinner, and a certain kind of entertainment fatigue sets in after sitting through 11 comedians in rapid succession. The show’s host lumbered to his mark onstage and thanked us for coming out. “You’ve been a great audience,” he said, adding, “so hang tight just a little longer because we’re about halfway through.”

That’s when a live TV taping became a hostage situation. The audience collectively lost its shit.

Suddenly, 800 people had to go to the bathroom. The PAs marched through the aisles enforcing crowd control; their all-black uniforms and headsets lent them the appearance of riot police at the ’99 W.T.O. protests. The woman seated in front of me was not taking any of this very well. With cameras rolling, she turned on her friends and screamed at them—screamed—about how disruptive this experience was to her life, and how it wasn’t even worth the $36 she was being paid.

Wait—she was being paid? I didn’t know such a service existed. Apparently, she was a professional live studio audience member. Even more depressing, she was horrible at her job.

The warm-up comic was released into the audience for some light-hearted crowd control; a suicide mission. His powers were so diminished at this point he had to dig deep and unleash the warm-up comic’s equivalent of the Enola Gay: a large bag of candy. Audience members pounced on miniature Tootsie Rolls and Starburst like they were antivirals. Civilization had broken down. While some tore through the wrappers of their snack-sized Milky Ways with fangs, a stringy, possibly strung-out audience member whose low-slung skinny jeans were losing their feeble struggle against gravity began an impromptu dance-off with a yet-to-be-determined challenger. Several audience members stepped up to him, serving and being served, as the rest of the audience whistled and roared for more chocolate.

Proceedings continued bizarrely. At one point I woke up from a hunger-nap to see the warm-up comic organizing a macabre dating game where a bachelorette contestant stood onstage with a souvenir T-shirt draped over her head like an Abu Ghraib prisoner hood, while three suitors danced around her. You could almost feel our humanity peeling away. Later, I got into a yelling match with The Worst People in the History of Studio Audiences, when one of them began booing a comic. The comic was a friend and, while I was certainly coming to her defense, I was also grateful to have an occasion to tell this person (repeatedly) “YOU NEED TO SHUT THE FUCK UP, RIGHT NOW.” Like they say in show business, anything can happen on live television.

Finally, after five hours, we were granted our freedom. My friends and I stopped for drinks and food in the only place still serving both in Glendale, and as we were exchanging our survivors’ stories and waiting for our midnight quesadillas, I noticed the familiar-looking PA who had seated us earlier, having drinks at a nearby table. That’s when I remembered how I knew him: he was Luke Verge (I had to look that up), the winner of Bromance, another reality-based contest on MTV. I really rooted for Luke on that show.