6 Realities of the Secret World of Paid TV Audience Members
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.
Those Super-Fans With the Signs Are Probably Fake
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.
The Shows Really Don't Want You to Know About This
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!"
"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.
The Reactions Are Well Rehearsed
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 ...
They'll Do Whatever They Can to Get the Reactions They Need
It's not uncommon, particularly on a criminally unfunny sitcom, to bribe the audience with prizes. Whoever laughs the loudest at Ashton Kutcher's terrible joke will get a DVD set of an actual good show, for example. On these sitcoms, the wrangler will often be a stand-up comedian who will try to get you to laugh with his own jokes between bouts of Ashton Kutcher giving your brain a colonoscopy.
"Couldn't you just give the funny comedian his own show?"
"No, that makes entirely too much sense."
I once sat in on a taping for a sitcom called Friend Me starring Christopher Mintz-Plasse, better known as McLovin, about the riveting behind-the-scenes operations of Groupon. It was exactly as good as it sounds, which is why you've never seen it on TV. They showed us the pilot before the taping began (as is customary for a show that hasn't aired yet, so the audience can get an idea of what the hell is going on), and boy, you could hear a pin drop on J. Lo's ass on a pillow-top mattress in that studio.
That ominous silence sent the production team into overdrive. As the taping began, that poor wrangler was frantically running back and forth between the "laughter" and "applause" signs, eventually pulling out every physical comedy gag he could think of to get us to respond. The cameras are rolling, McLovin is Grouponing, but we're not laughing at him -- we're laughing at the comedian balancing a ladder on his nose just off camera.
The laughter didn't sync up with any scripted jokes. I'm not even sure there were any scripted jokes.
Sure, that's some base level clown humor, but everything is relative. Next to watching a hackneyed sitcom die right there on set, those circus tricks are practically Arrested Development.
The Audience Is Occasionally Full of Junkies and Burglars
I'm not under any illusions about how hard it is to do my job. You will get no "Hey, man, that deep fryer is a lot more complicated than it looks!" rants from me. Anyone with a pulse can sit and clap, and you don't even necessarily need that if you've got a sufficient system of pulleys. Like most unskilled jobs, it doesn't pay very well -- about $40 per session -- but it does pay cash on the day, because I'm not going to sit through McLovin's terrible jokes if I can't immediately go out and get blackout drunk before that experience stores itself in my long-term memory.
If the network had any brains, they'd have gotten us drunk before.
Now, think of the type of folks you know who would go out of their way to make small amounts of instant hard cash for no skilled labor. Yep, most studio audiences are made up of struggling actors and even more struggling junkies.
You can tell by the way they nod off in the middle of a taping. You can also tell by their tendency to burgle and assault people. Paid audience members will show up to a taping that's already full with the hope that someone will drop out and they can take their place at the last minute. Fistfights have broken out over those spots.
Although they might have been ADs and wranglers trying to fire up the crowd.
Some particularly enterprising lowlifes rubbed their remaining two brain cells together one day and figured that if the studio is handing everybody $40 at the end of the day, there must be a stash of cash sitting around somewhere. And they were correct: An agency representative's car was broken into, and $20,000 went missing.
That was not a typo: The show had 20 grand earmarked just to pay people to pretend to enjoy themselves.
At Some Point, You Will Applaud for a Human Rights Violation
There were two shows that I sat in on that got incredibly uncomfortable for the audience. The first was an extreme spelling bee hosted by Alfonso Ribeiro, aka Carlton from The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. It sounds like a fever dream, but I am not making this up.
It was named Spell-Mageddon. Definitely by Carlton himself.
The show lasted one season, which is actually pretty amazing, given that the contestants had to spell words while being tortured with electric shocks. People were screaming in pain, but listen to the audience in that video -- they're clapping and cheering like good little drones. It was like a televised Milgram experiment. At least you can take consolation in the fact that live torture does not make a random sampling of people clap-happy -- the show had to pay for those reactions.
The other one, which, despite the better nature of God and man, is somehow still on the air, was the accurately titled Bet on Your Baby. On this show, parents place wagers on their infant's ability to complete certain tasks for a chance to win that amount toward a college fund for the child. I'm pretty sure I've been witness to the end of more than a few marriages thanks to this show.
"Eh, the baby was the only reason this marriage started. Figures that it would end it."
One woman pulled her husband aside off camera and lost her entire shit at him after he failed to help their child do his tricks as well as she would have liked. With so much money at stake and tensions so high, I'm almost certain there was some post-performance child abuse going on. But you don't think about that -- you awwww for the child, make sad noises when the parents lose, and cheer when they win. Any calls to child services must be made on your own time.
Manna is looking into paying people to laugh at her jokes on Twitter.
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