Much to the consternation of the world's laugh track aficionados (hi, you two!), most game shows, talk shows, and sitcoms are still filmed in front of a live studio audience. But hasn't it always seemed a little odd that there are apparently tons of tourists for whom there is nothing better to do in Manhattan than sit in on an episode of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Sure, people like Jon Stewart can pull in a crowd, but who the hell are all these people laughing at Jay Leno's terrible jokes?
That would be me. I'm more than happy to do all those things and more, because they pay me to do them. Almost every show that features a live studio audience has hired me or people like me. Here's what I learned getting paid to pretend to be interested.
Frequently, an entire season of a TV show will be filmed before the first episode even airs. This creates a problem for reality shows that involve season-long competitions like Project Runway or The Biggest Loser. They want the audience for the big finale to be full of crazed fans rooting for the frontrunners, but aside from the contestants' family and friends, nobody has any goddamn idea who these people are yet.
Perfectly simulating the average contestant's post-finale fame.
In that case, a helpful prop person will go out to Walmart the day before and buy up their entire inventory of poster board and glitter glue. They stay up all night using their high school presentation skills to decorate signs with hearts and smiley faces and terrible puns on the contestants' names. They then distribute the signs to the paid audience before taping, creating the illusion that the contestants have a rabid fan base.
When you see someone in the audience of this type of show holding a sign declaring "Chris is my hero!" it's entirely likely that that person couldn't have picked Chris out of a lineup five minutes ago.
He might even be meaning to support someone else entirely.
If you're on a set with both paid and unpaid audience members, they can't let the regular fans know that there are imposters in their midst. It would ruin the magic of watching the KKK duke it out with Jerry. That's why the production crew has code words they use to separate the paid participants so we can take care of business away from disgusting, common eyes. When it's time for the paid participants to line up and accept their filthy blood money, an assistant director (AD) will announce something like "Adam's group, please exit to the left -- everyone else can stay seated," but there is no Adam. There never was an Adam. Adam is a lie.
Fans wave signs for him, but that don't mean shit.
But they can't always keep us separated. One time, the area where the paid participants were conducting our post-taping business was right between the studio and the parking lot, so the unpaid participants had to walk past us to get to their cars, and many of them were quite rightly suspicious.
When they asked what was going on, the wranglers had to scramble to make excuses. "Oh, they're waiting for a different show!"
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"But they look just like the people in the audience with us two minutes ago!"
"So all audience members look alike to you? That's racist."
Weirdly, I guess no one asked which show and if they could watch, too, having apparently just realized that the list of better things to do in the city includes all of the things.
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The producers of a show that has to pay people to watch it have about as much confidence in those people's enthusiasm as you would expect. That's why, before taping starts, a wrangler or AD will show up to give basic instructions. "When this happens, look left. When this happens, look right. Here's the 'laughter' sign. Why don't you give us a practice laugh? Uh. Can you laugh louder? More convincingly? Oh God. Please laugh. I should have gone to law school."
Lawyers are a comparatively honest lot.
If it's a talk show or game show, they'll pretend to be the host making their entrance so you can practice applauding and cheering. You will never, ever do this loud enough on your first try, necessitating the wrangler to walk back and forth across the stage a minimum of two or three times, shouting, "I know you can do better than that! Come on, I can't hear you!" smiling as if her job depends on it, because it does.
But no matter how many pep rallies they've been to, sometimes a wrangler just can't inspire that cooperation. During one filming, the audience was supposed to stand up, but for some reason, the entire upper deck refused to do so.
"Not until you resolve the situation in Darfur."
Another time, a sitcom had booked Dr. Phil as a guest, and they didn't tell the audience because they wanted it to be a genuine surprise. Well, the good not-a-real-doctor showed up an hour late, and by that time, the audience was too restless to even feign giving a shit. That's why ...