I Was in a Paid Studio Audience

“Seeking non-union background audience members that are eager to participate and not shy about a little camera time. We pay out cash at the end of each taping. Business “UPSCALE” Wardrobe (BRIGHT SUMMER COLORS/NO SOLID WHITE), and high energy requested.”

I love a good subculture. I particularly like groups that seem to possess something mysterious, unspeakable and fiendish about them. They seem maddeningly impenetrable, despite the fact that very few people if given access and opportunity would ever want to join. Polygamists used to be like rock stars in this way. Super sexy even in all that hideous gingham.  They were taboo breaking, suspicious of outsiders, and they weren’t talking. That all changed a few years ago.  Somewhere between “Big Love” and “ Sister Wives” plural marriage took a brutal turn into “dull town”. The same phenomenon seems to have occurred with Racist Skinheads, Latino street gangs, and dudes who are housed in “SuperMax prisons”.

It had been a long time since I’d stumbled into a strange little world. In film school, people would share stories about crewing on films with hundreds of extras. Epic tales of the craven schemes hatched by professional extras to get bumped from the designation of “extra” to the much more lucrative category of “day player.” Having never encountered it myself, I took these stories as I would Aesop’s Fairy Tales or anything by Dr. Seuss. They were entertaining but not to be taken literally.

“All paid jobs absorb and degrade the mind.” –– Aristotle

I arrive at 12:55 (having been warned in a message on the casting hotline that 1:00 pm was my call time and that at 1:01 p.m. I would be considered late) I’m sporting my flowery summer dress and four-inch wedge-heeled ankle boots. It’s 117 degrees in downtown LA. The hottest day in recorded history. My dress has long sleeves. The line stretches from the studio gate, down the street and around the corner. We are separated by gender. I’ve just entered the world of the “paid audience member.”

“Eternal nothingness is fine if you happen to be dressed for it.” –– Woody Allen

Still standing in line on Sunset Blvd at 1:30 pm sweating in a very un-business wardrobe like way, feet aching, back sore, I’m starting to wonder if this is the best way to make quick cash. I need a diversion. I start looking around and it dawns on me that this is a real multi-culti heaven. We were a sidewalk “salad bowl” rotting in the Tuesday afternoon heat.

The ethnic breakdown is roughly 40% African American, 30% White, 25% Latino, and an Asian girl in a porno-tight slit skirt with a large red flower behind her ear.  She looked like central casting’s version of a Polynesian hooker. I mention her because she seemed to be the only “audience member” of Asian decent.

Thing is, on the surface this all appeared pretty chaotic but, look a little deeper and there was an entire caste system in place. There were two distinct groups. “The Regulars” who show up every week, rain or shine; this is their gig and they are “lifers.” They know the production staff by name and they know the procedures. For some, this is a valuable experience, the recognition of which imbues them with an air of confidence. For the others, this delusional kingdom they’ve inherited has left them warped and mad with power.

The other group (of which I suppose I am now a member) is “The Newbie’s.” We all sort of look like freshman (whose mommy’s dressed them in their best new big kid clothes) on the first day of high school.

“You simply have to put one foot in front of the other and keep going. Put blinders on and plow right ahead.” –– George Lucas

It’s 2:00 pm when we’re marched through security. Our purses, pockets, and bags searched. It’s a post 9/11 world and we all take it in stride. Then I realize they aren’t searching for drugs or weapons. NO. Their task is to catch people smuggling in the prohibited IPhones, Androids, and Nokias. Having been warned the night before that discovery of a phone would qualify as grounds for immediate dismissal, my Blackberry is locked away in my car. We haven’t been apart this long since…ever. I miss my phone.

At 2:15 we sit down in the small television studio. The “Warm-up Guy” (hereafter referred to as W.G.) bursts in, a ball of frenetic energy and desperation. His job can be either a stepping-stone to a successful career in comedy or, for the older comics, the last stop on the way down. He had that ageless look that so many people in LA have so, I couldn’t tell which way his career was headed. He wants to know where the loud and enthusiastic people are seated. Much “whoop whooping” ensues. It’s almost unbearable.

“The Regulars” use this time to remind W.G. who they are and just how energetic they can be. For us shy Newbies, we are given a demonstration in four parts: 1) Clapping: Clap loud, clap hard, and clap high. It looks better for the camera if you hold your arms out and up in front of your face (we look like an audience of trained seals begging for fish). 2) Always smile. Try to look like you are having the time of your life. 3) When the four hosts of the show (three women and one man) enter and exit, they are to be given a rousing standing ovation. This particular demonstration took extra time, as we seemed to have a problem looking both spontaneous and frenzied with adoration. 4) Keep in mind that you are being watched at all times. The most excited audience members would be rewarded with a free lunch coupon to Chipotle (I call this the “dignity for tacos” program). Those incapable of summoning psychotic enthusiasm on command (me included) would receive the endless hairy eyeball transitioning to a crazy wall-eyed look from W.G. For just a moment I actually worried that I might never work in this town again…

“Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you mad.”–– Aldous Huxley

Bad top 40 music, old rap, and ancient disco blasts from the speaker system as we wait and wait and wait to begin the taping. W.G. dances around like he’s Xing the night away Les Deux. The show is about gossip. Thirty minutes of semi-famous comedians gossiping about people far more famous than them. I think it’s supposed to be like a funny live National Enquirer. It’s not. The thing about gossip is that it’s a bit like masturbation. Sometimes it’s enjoyable, other times it’s a bit sad and lonely. Either way, one thing is for sure, I would not want to do it in front of a paid studio audience!

“Eighty percent of success is showing up.” –– Woody Allen

Standing in the “Get Paid” line outside the studio after the show, I can’t help but overhear the conversation of two gals behind me.  “Email me and I’ll get you into my agencies. They’ll have you working every week. Big TV shows like, I just did an episode of Private Practice.”

I can’t help myself, I have to ask: “Are you an actress?” I never actually got an answer. Just a few heavy eye roles. One of the nicer girls took pity on me and explained how all of it worked.

A lot of these people work as extras. (Paid Audience Member being a “step down.” If extras are considered the bottom-feeders of the Hollywood machine, “Paid Audience” work was like the bottom feeders bottom feeder.) Professional extras register with numerous agencies. The more agencies you register with, the more work you get.  They have to pay a sign up fee to each agency and then monthly dues and for that, they are sent out to movies and TV shows and music videos.  On the days and weeks that they can’t find work, they work as paid audience members. I actually feel more broke and exhausted just considering the possibilities.

It’s a little after 5:00 pm when I arrive at the front of the line and give the production guy my name. He hands me thirty dollars in cash for four hours of work. $7.50 an hour, fifty cents less that California minimum wage. Walking away, I think “well, if I don’t find something else before next Tuesday, maybe I’ll do this again.”

“You’re an idealist, and I pity you as I would the village idiot.” –– Stanley Kubrick TC mark

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  • Brandon Scott Gorrell

    seems bleak

  • Brittni

    I actually saw this ad on craigslist and thought to myself, “I could do this…I wonder what it's like.” Interesting to hear about it now first hand. Now that I read this, I probably really don't want to do this.

  • Emily

    I want the taco! I've never done this work but I did experience the joy of being a “featured extra” oh, the hilarity of that social step up.

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