Wednesday, December 19, 2007

More Like American BADiators

A couple of weeks ago I went with Akela to a taping of American Gladiators, which she had scored an invite to through her kickball league. Apparently joining a kickball league for grown-ups is not only a great way to meet people and get some exercise, but also helps you get into TV tapings. Who knew?

I met up with Akela at a bar where she and her kickball friends were eating, and we headed for the Sony lot. There was a certain awkwardness driving onto the studio lot, which felt queasily like crossing a picket line. But we weren't there to work, and it was a weekend, so there were no writers picketing, so it seemed okay.

A long line of people had formed inside the parking garage. After doubling back to our car to stow away our camera-equipped phones, we joined the line, only to be notified that the start of taping would be delayed by an hour to an hour and a half or so and we were free to leave and come back later. The kickball gang adjourned to a nearby bar and returned at the appropriate time, only to spend another half-hour or so waiting in line in the very chilly parking garage. As kickballers idly tried to remember the names of the original American Gladiators, I discovered that automobile terminology seemed to be fertile ground for Gladiator-sounding names. Nitro! Ignition! Diesel! Sparkplug! Hubcap! I don't know how many of these were actually names of Gladiators, but they sounded convincing to me.

Finally, a group of us were led onto the lot... where we emptied our pockets at a security checkpoint and were herded into yet more lines waiting to enter the studio. Eventually, I resorted to playing the brick-busting Arkanoid game on my iPod as Akela cheered me on. Shortly after I started my second game, our line was allowed into the studio.

The American Gladiators arena was big, but not as big as you'd expect. Somewhere, a smoke machine filled the air with just enough smoke to make all the spotlights look impressive. And there were lots and lots of lights. Other than that, it all looked pretty cheap.

So, we took our seats in the arena, which didn't exactly seem like brain surgery. One wonders why it takes the staff hours to fill the seats with people when it seems like you might do just as well to let everyone in and say "Find yourself a seat." I mean, even if you personally assigned every individual person a seat, you should be able to get people into a room faster than this. Good grief.

Anyway, the warm-up guy was doing his duty keeping the crowd occupied with a spelling bee, which stumped a few audience members until someone correctly spelled the word "daiquiri," which, I was surprised to discover, I would not have known how to spell. The winner received an impressive Target gift card for something like $300. Next, Warm-Up Guy called on some more volunteers for a contest he called, with no small amount of fanfare, the Man-on-Man Slow Jam. He began the long process of recruiting ten guys from the audience, finding a place for them to stand, then climbing up to the bridge in the middle of the arena in order to pull up a particular song on his iPod (Couldn't he get someone to help him press play? It didn't seem very efficient that it took Warm-Up Guy five minutes to get to his iPod every time he wanted to lift our spirits with a song). All the while Warm-Up Guy continued to build up the Man-on-Man Slow Jam: "I promise you... you have never seen anything like... the Man-on-Man Slow Jam!" By the time he was through, nothing could have delivered the astronomical heights of awe and disgust described by his build-up.

In the end, the Man-on-Man Slow Jam was what it sounded like: Five pairs of guys were made to slow dance with each other, to amuse the audience with the unusual sight of two men dancing close and even touching! Eww, gross! The whole thing seemed like it would have been a bit more shocking and hilarious a few decades ago, before gay people were invented. But I guess as long as no one at the taping had ever seen one before (except for maybe some of the Gladiators), the game still worked. Some of the guys threw themselves into the gag with more explicit abandon, popping their shirts off and wrapping them around each other while freak-dancing away, while other pairs, perhaps intimidated by their competitors' rapid escalation of warfare, quickly gave up on attempting to dance at all. One pair was disqualified during voting when a guy reached into the game course, plucked a ball from the ball bin, and attempted to throw it into one of the ball baskets. As the hours wore on, Akela became more and more concerned that no one would ever retrieve the ball.

She needn't have worried. Here's why:

You would assume that when you go to an American Gladiators taping, what you will see is a reasonable approximation of the show American Gladiators. That is, you will see an episode unfold more or less in sequence: You will meet the contestants, see a few events, and end up with winners. Sure, there will be down time, and it will take a bit longer to set things up than it does on TV, but you will be rewarded for your patience by getting to watch the whole spectacle live.

Unfortunately, it doesn't work like that at all. Instead, they needed to film interviews and promos first. The interviews seemed to be conducted offstage, which suggested that there might have been a better time to film them other than when an arena full of people was waiting. The promos consisted of new host Hulk Hogan and some woman who is supposedly known from women's boxing or something standing together, flanked by the contestants and gladiators, and saying things like, "Are these four challengers ready to face your American Gladiators? The battle begins NOW!" followed by a series of flamethrowers going off around them and the battle not beginning. Meanwhile, we were all instructed to cheer enthusiastically. I kept myself entertained by yelling cheers like, "Yay! Hulk Hogan! Gladiators! Muscles! Battle! Fire! Heat! Lights! Noise! Aaaahh!" Several takes later, I began simply yelling Hogan's lines, since by then I knew them better than he seemed to. Other kickballers cheered on Helga, the stocky female viking gladiator.

Warm-Up Guy continued to promise the crowd that despite all appearances, there would be a game -- which, as the hours wore on, seemed increasingly unlikely. He attempted to placate the crowd with candy, which, like his iPod, also took him five minutes to retrieve, but this led to a new injustice. Our section was denied candy, as the scantily-clad girls in charge of distribution ran out before getting to us. Henceforth we occupied ourselves solely with cries for candy. "Candy! Candy! Candy!" we yelled in lieu of cheers and applause as Hogan performed another round of promos. Finally we got Warm-Up Guy's attention, and he gave the girls more candy to distribute. Naturally, our girl went straight to the last section that had already received candy, and squandered the lion's share of the supply giving them candy again, even as, twenty feet away, we shouted in vain that she was in the wrong section. When she finally arrived, there was little candy left and we didn't get any.

Our fruitless quest for candy was the last entertaining thing to happen. They shot more promos, this time with different contestants, and it became clear there was no chronological sense to what was being shot. Warm-Up Guy was still promising a game, but Hangin' Tough was the only event he would mention, and I began to suspect that by "game" he meant "single event we hope will satisfy you people whose time we've wasted in order to have a cheering crowd in the background of our asinine promos."

Crew members started breaking apart the ball game that sat before us, and we realized no one was going to play it. Someone finally retrieved the red ball that was vexing Akela -- and dropped it casually into the blue ball side of the bin. The rings for Hangin' Tough were on the other side of the arena, where no one was sitting, and before Hangin' Tough could begin, most of the audience would have to move to new seats. I had other plans for the evening, and I was now painfully familiar with how long it took this operation to put people into seats. Akela and I left, along with several other kickballers whose patience was exhausted.

So, my take on the new American Gladiators? It's strike filler, so it should be avoided on principle, but most importantly, it was a big stupid waste of my time and for that alone deserves to fail.

But we learned a lesson. It was one we should have known already, but some lessons you need to learn more than once. In this case, the lesson was that attending a live TV taping is supremely unworth it. When you see or hear an audience on a TV show, do not envy them. Despite their enthusiastic vocalizations, rest assured that you are enjoying the show far more than they are. They are there, applauding under duress, for your benefit, so you can enjoy the show in the comfort of your own home. They had to stand around all day to get in there, and sit through laborious set-ups and re-takes. You get the finished product.

Think about it this way: If seeing things live was so great, we never would have needed TV in the first place.



Anonymous said...

I remember back in elementary school one of my friends went to an American Gladiators taping and described pretty much the same thing.

So basically, you got scooped 18 years ago by an 11-year-old.

Anonymous said...

Also, talk show non-douchy game show tapings aren't so bad. Jeopardy and Win Ben Stein's Money were taped in pretty much real time, with slightly longer breaks between segments. I went to a taping of Politically Incorrect back when Bill Maher was funny, and that was okay.

Using the phrase "Back when Bill Maher was funny" makes me feel really really old.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

They had to stand around all day to get in there, and sit through laborious set-ups and re-takes. You get the finished product.

Some sitcom directors apparently do make an effort to make the taping fun for the audience, though fewer now than before.

A commenter on my blog once said that he (or a friend) went to a Happy Days filming and while the director, Jerry Paris, actively encouraged the audience to clap and cheer and be obnoxious, he also got the whole thing on film in under an hour, and it was done straight through like a play.

James Burrows also has, or used to have, a reputation for lean n' mean, fast work; on the NewsRadio DVD they say that the filming of the pilot was incredibly fast and streamlined.

crystal said...

i was supposed to go to one a few weeks ago but it was at universal... weird! are two networks doing this show? i ended up missing it. sounds like i won in the end. 2nd point- it was revived and brought back into production before the strike. espn2 (or whatever network shows the old repeats) has been showing little teases and promos for the new season for almost a year. in case that makes you feel any better about things.

Rodimus Prime said...

Well, you finally post and I'm at home on dial up (without my handy "bookmarks" there to provide me with your blog address) and it takes me forever to read it.

Very good assessment of our Gladiators experience, and I appreciate you remembering my vexation with the red ball (bastards still put it on the wrong side!). I still have no idea if I'll watch Gladiators when it comes on. Every time an ad came on at home my mom would point to me and go, "Weren't you at one of those?" and I'd end up grinding my teeth for reasons she couldn't fathom, even after I explained it to her.

Sorry to invite you to something totally shitty, but at least you got a good post out of it:)