Somewhere on the placid and shadowless hills of Hollywood right now, Ed Begley Jr. is grazing, Adrian Grenier is going into rut and Cee Lo Green is struggling to reach his own mouth with the entrails of a lesser animal. These and hundreds of other celebrities live harmoniously in the national reserve called the "Thirty-Mile Zone," from which TMZ took its name. There are no cages here, no exhibits, and nothing hibernates because it is perpetually summer. I learned as much while riding an open-air bus on the TMZ Hollywood Tour -- Secrets and Celebrity Hotspots, an experience that was equal parts adventure and humiliation.
The face says "optimism," but the camera angle says "I was too embarrassed to take a conspicuous photograph of myself in this context."
If you are unfamiliar, for the modest price of $50 a person, TMZ permits you to idle in Los Angeles traffic, to see the stars themselves clustered like constellations and, if you are very lucky, to touch one right on the face as it eats from your hand. Of course, that's assuming there are any out to see and touch to begin with; more often than not, the stars are hidden behind the ivy walls of houses and hotels, sleeping in their prides. Instead, most tours are treated to the quiet seething of other drivers, the not so quiet screams from the schizophrenic homeless and a healthy dose of Hollywood disenchantment. If that doesn't sound like fun, then I'll save you the trouble of taking one of these tours and tell you exactly what happened on mine last Friday.
The tour is an extension of the show, with one big exception: The anonymity of your living room is gone. My presence made me complicit in the stalking of celebrity scandal, and I just had to sit there and accept it. Pedestrians, restaurant patrons and children in passing cars stared at our tour, their mouths open in disbelief that a bus carrying so much shame could be so red and so loud.
The bus is roughly the color of an infection, like a swelling filled with ... well, filled with us, I guess. And it shouts. The bus plays video clips throughout the tour, and the fire-alarm voice of the TMZ narrator blares out of a silly number of speakers.
For the first 10 minutes of our ride, a guide stood at the front and said there would be a reward for spotting a celebrity. It was an extra-large T-shirt. Then he told anecdotes about the TMZ newsroom while trying not to topple over around sharp corners.
"Once someone found a human head on the trail up to the Hollywood sign," he laughed. "They tried to sell pictures to TMZ, and Harvey Levin told them, 'If it's not the head of a Kardashian, then I'm not interested!'" He left a pause that I think we were supposed to fill with either laughter or applause, but no one was sure which, so we all opted for silence instead. Then we watched a video clip about Dane Cook's dog shitting in a courtyard.
Stuck in rush hour traffic and fresh out of material, our guide started "riffing" with the pedestrians who passed by. He would call out to them, ask their names and then, without the slightest hint of irony, ask if they were famous. They were not, it turned out.
"Good," said our tour guide, "because otherwise we would all be wondering why you were walking instead of driving." He put his hand up like he wanted to shield a secret. "DUI!" he sang.
The seats were designed so that I couldn't slouch lower than the wall of the bus.
Someone mistook an SUV for Shaquille O'Neal. Then she confessed that she didn't actually know what Shaquille O'Neal looked like, but that she heard from a friend that he shows up on a lot of these tours. She did not win the T-shirt.
I snapped a hasty picture just in case.
We stopped outside the Viper Room to see the spot where some celebrities threw up and at least one died. While everyone was taking pictures, a man who had been crumpled motionless on the sidewalk stirred awake and shuffled over to us. Up close, I could see that his nose was running and he was, impossibly, chewing on a mouthful of food despite having just woken up. Flecks of it shot out in all directions as he orally inundated our group.
"You recognize this?" he pointed to his face.
"Yes, that's a face," I told him, accurately.
"No, do you recognize my face?" he coughed. There was a precarious moment where he nearly drowned in his own spit. "I'm the guy, remember? I'm the guy! The guy! You want my picture?"
"Uh," said the woman in front of me.
"Aaaaaagggh!" he countered.
"Aaaaalright!" said our guide, and we were on our way.
While waiting at a red light with nothing to look at, the guide noticed I was wearing my seat belt and laughed unapologetically at me. "Look at this guy! Wearing his seat belt! Everyone look," he said. Everyone did.
I thought "There's nothing funny about safety," but I didn't have the courage to say it.
We stopped at the corner where Hugh Grant was caught with a prostitute. Her name was Divine Brown. She wanted him to pay her $100 to go to a hotel, but he only had $60, so they went to a dead street instead. Then they both got arrested. We all had a good laugh about that.
This is what most of the tour looks like: empty streets where something happened once.
As everyone took pictures of the street, I used the opportunity to quietly undo my seat belt.
We pulled across two lanes of traffic in Beverly Hills because someone saw Suze Orman walking her dog. It turned out to be a young boy in a denim jacket. Everyone really wanted that T-shirt. Our guide used the opportunity to tell us that Beverly Hills is planning on making its own fragrance.
"It supposedly smells like Tori Spelling," our guide said. "What do you guys think Tori Spelling smells like?"
There was clearly a right answer he was looking for, but no one seemed to know what it was.
"Soup?" I wagered.
He looked at me like he hated me, or felt bad for me, or maybe both. "Money," he said. "It's supposed to smell like money." Then he asked my name and said it to himself a few times, like he intended to remember it. We watched a video clip of Snooki too drunk to stand up. The balding man next to me took a picture of the television screen before turning to me. "She's pregnant now," he said, and snapped his fingers like we had both missed our window of opportunity.
Near the end of our trip, we were idling next to the hotel where Verne Troyer made his sex tape, and it finally happened. A celebrity crept anxiously out of the foliage across the street and cocked its head, deciding whether it wanted to run away or not. Everyone went silent and stared. It was Cary Berglund, a local reporter for the channel 4 news, best known for the coverage he did during the heated city council debates when residents wanted to change the street numbers on their houses because they didn't like "4"s.
NBC Los Angeles
"Who wants to see the inside of a real news van?"
He waited for the traffic to clear and then strolled toward our bus, waving. Our guide turned to the tour and covered his microphone with a hand. "Quickly, does anyone here want to talk to him or have a picture taken?"
"Good," he said, and our bus lurched out into the road. I watched as Cary realized what was happening, and being the consummate professional, the smile never left his face. He spun around in a single motion and walked with the same deliberate stride back to wherever he had come from.
That was the closest we got to success. He was technically from television but, sadly for Cary Berglund, that didn't qualify as extraordinary enough for the TMZ tour. He was just another narrator of the overdoses and car crashes of real celebrities.
The bus pulled back into the lot where we started and everyone climbed out. Our guide told us we should stop in front of Grauman's Chinese Theatre to see SpongeBob SquarePants before going home. No one seemed that excited about the prospect until he also mentioned that SpongeBob once got into a fistfight with two teenage girls in the street.
Predator and Master Chief are just sort of hoping he'll pass without an altercation.
And ultimately, that's exactly what separated this tour from every other other sightseeing tour you may have seen trundling through cities. We were not interested in the architecture of Hollywood, or the history of the studios, or the complex melting pot of diverse cultural influences. No, we wanted to know where cartoon characters made people bleed, where the vaginas of heiresses fell out of cars and where exactly Josh Hartnett was when he shit himself so badly he had to call 911. And that's precisely what we got. But the tour won't let you do it discreetly. They want you to acknowledge that you are part of the ugliness, that you don't just get to judge from the sidelines without being judged as well. Ultimately, you get to pay $50 to be reminded that you're kind of an asshole for two hours. If that's actually TMZ's intent, then they are doing a phenomenal job, and now I kind of respect them a little bit more.
It was the Chateau Marmont, by the way.
For more from Soren, check out Oh Canada: Exploring America's Majestic, Pointless Neighbor and Helicopter Hunting: The Best Thing a Conservationist Can Do.