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In trying to explain the current spate of self-styled "reality" TV shows and the flotsam and jetsam of society who wash up on the shores of our TV screens - journalists are swift to quote Andy Warhol's famous maxim about everyone having their 15 minutes of fame. But I think of another equally prescient commentator of the world's foibles. It was Noel Coward who once drolly observed that television wasn't something to watch - it was something to be on. And I think that it is Coward's long-ago take on TV that partly explains this current obsession that nonentities can rise above their station in life if only they can be on a station on TV. Be it via "Jerry Springer" or "Divorce Court."
Of course the current popular location for self-exposure is "Survivor." Unlike many of the literati - I find certain saving graces with the program. For one thing the very word "Survivor" is now less likely to conjure up the image of a mediocre 80's band providing music for mediocre Sylvester Stallone movies. Now it brings to mind the notion of 16 narcissistic individuals conniving to win a million dollars - the relative pittance put up by deeply cynical TV executives who are raking in hundreds of millions in advertising dollars playing to our collective voyeurism. The Eye (of the Tiger) Network as CBS might be called in future.
This weekend I had the opportunity to observe the phenomenon that drives relatively normal people into becoming Rupert Pupkins - desperate to eat worms in front of cameras to become the new King Of Reality.
CBS are currently holding casting calls throughout 21 American cities - to find the next 16 individuals who want to play "Degrade Myself In Front Of The Nation." When they announced that there would be such an open audition in my hometown Hollywood, I decided to attend and observe first-hand the would-be Survivors. The good citizens of this berg who would risk everything to be the next Richard or Rudy. The Jerri or Alicia of the fall season.
The auditions were called for Saturday between 10am and 4pm. When I arrived at the CBS studios in Hollywood at 9.55am I discovered over 2,000 people snaking around Sunset Boulevard - ready for their close-up. It was a good-natured crowd. Just your average L.A. auditioners taking the morning sunshine by standing in a never-ending line wrapped around a studio. The ages seemed to range from late teens to early septegenarians - with the majority being Gen X-ers in their late 20's and early 30's. Many were well prepared for the ordeal. I saw auditioners applying sun-tan lotion in varying SP factors, drinking bottled water sporting various designer labels and several comfort-loving individuals who had brought portable beach chairs and recliners to help them endure what looked like a 3-hour wait. They did not look like the hardy types ready to brazen out an extended ordeal in the outback - let alone the Hollywood jungle.
The rules of the audition were quite simple. Each person had to fill in a 6-page application form - and then deliver a 3-minute peroration direct into a video camera as to why he or she would make the ultimate Survivor. The application form listed 24 different eligibility requirements.
Point 6 was comforting. "You must not now be a candidate for public office and must agree not to become one until after initial broadcast of all programs in which you appear, if selected as a contestant." The knowledge that all those considering a run for positions ranging from President to town dog-catcher are ineligible - is a relief. Perish the thought that the program might attract professional Machiavellians. It's amateurs that this program wants.
There were 46 direct personal questions. Number 18 enquired if you had been treated for any serious mental illness within the last three years. This isn't a disqualification per se. In fact it may be an assistance. I suspect that the producers just want to ensure a FULL RANGE of mental disturbance among the finalists rather than have say, two competitors with the identical strain of delusional schizophrenia.
You had to list your favorite TV show. (Putting "Temptation Island" or C-Span "The Week In Politics" would not be advisable.) And number 24 "Are you a vegetarian or do you eat meat?" is a deceptively polite inquiry. This is not because they wish to order you a special meal on your flight to the exotic locale. It's because vegetarians make the best face of disgust when asked to consume a crunchy bug.
The million dollar questions were number 36 "What would be the craziest, wildest thing you would do for a million dollars?" and number 37 "What would you NOT do for a million dollars?" The ideal answers respectively being "Waste three hours standing on line on a nice Saturday morning" and "worry about my self-respect."
I felt it my reportorial duty to chat with a cross-section of candidates - and yet I knew I had neither the time not sufficient tolerance towards the emotionally-disturbed to speak to all 2,000. So I decided to play the part of Survivor producer Mark Burnett and try and quiz just 16 competitors who were trying to prove they could survive a Hollywood audition. However I was to find that, like watching the "Survivor" program itself, or eating semi-rancid potato chips when one is starving, it's hard to stop.
I selected my finalists on apparently similar criteria to the way that cast members for the actual show are picked. I sought out those who looked or behaved in a bizarre fashion. And I believe I picked well.
Take for example Duncan - a 36-year old factory sales rep who showed up in a dapper black pinstripe suit ("not Armani - it was made in Hong Kong") while most around him were dressed in tee-shirt and baggies. Wasn't he over-dressed for the audition I inquired. No - he'd worn the suit to prove that one couldn't judge a book by its cover. You could put a man who looked like "corporate America" in the middle of nowhere and he'd survive he said.
I asked Rusty, 29 and from Montana, if he knew where the next "Survivor" series was to be held. He'd heard rumors of Africa or a South American rain forest. Was he worried about existing in a tropical jungle? "Nah. I survive L.A. And that's a real jungle." Judging by this I wondered if he was a your standard unemployed actor - but discovered that he just looked like one. He was a salesman for a trucking company. Apparently life is equally tough for those in L.A. who are NOT actors.
Chris (32) WAS an actor. A struggling one he said. But he was determined to endure any hardship.... pay any price... bear any burden... to win the million dollars. What if the series was shot in Antarctica? I asked. Well that was different. He was from Alabama - and he didn't like the cold.
"Eternity" was a rapper from Jamaica wearing a leopard print sari (imitation) who said that she was game for anything. "The sky's the limit!" Was there any locale that scared her? "No there's no place on earth I haven't been." On a whim I asked her about her travels to China... "That's the one place I ain't been..." Figuring that "Eternity" was perhaps her showbiz name - I inquired what her parents had called her and was told "Anthony." Closer inspection revealed this to be correct. I bade HIM goodbye - and wondered if the show might make the same mistake as I had - and how entertaining this would prove for the tribe.
Robin was definitely an L.A. female. She had the biker tattoos and punk chic look. Dyed black hair, 21 and from South Pasadena. Which had obviously given her much to be alienated from. She was a waitress/hair-stylist (Hollywood abounds in interesting hyphenates) who liked the idea of the show as a way to meet new people. Didn't she meet plenty of people in her chosen professions? "Yeah, but you can't tell them what you feel. A waitress gotta keep her mouth shut." But wouldn't she risk being voted out if she expressed her true feelings on the show. "That's their problem" she said - looking rather too much like Joan Jett for comfort.
Around this time I became aware that the endless line and being grilled by me were not the only endurance tests these brave individuals were facing. Many were also having to survive that ultimate stress - an on-camera interview with Jay Leno. It seems that the prospect of creating one of his trademark "Jaywalking" people-in-the-street segments with this many disturbed people to choose from was irresistible to the "Tonight Show" host - who was wending his way through the crowd employing a similar selection process to mine.
I stood and watched Jay do his witty deed with Joseph an African-American kid from South-Central L.A. - who said that he'd be useful in the wild because he was a trained carpenter. "That'll come in handy" said Jay "there's always a need in the jungle for shelves." "No" said Joseph - "I could build a stove!" I left the scene as Jay, not over-subtly, pointed out the inherent drawback in lighting a wooden stove.
Next I encountered Balloon-Man. His real name was Sean - but since he'd fashioned exotic headgear for himself out of a number of colored balloons - I gave him his tag. Do you think the balloons will work for you? I asked. Well it got your attention and Jay Leno's attention. Touche. We media types fall for this every time. He is a self-described "street performer and children's entertainer." He thinks he'd be a good show contestant because he'd be the court jester.. the tribal fool. And because he had a recipe for barbecuing penguins. How did he survive Jay Leno. Not too well apparently. Jay had had the temerity to make fun of him.
Among the older competitors I encountered 70-something white-haired Jeanne Carmen a former 'B' movie starlet. I wouldn't have called her that myself - but she proudly showed me the latest issue of Mojo magazine with a photo of her younger self with a very early-period Elvis Presley - and that's exactly how she was captioned. Being on "Survivor" would be a career-topper for her, as well as a crack at that cool million. She took me through some of her life from the cotton fields of Alabama to her first chorus role on Broadway - age 17 - alongside Bert Lahr. I heard something about her performing a trick in which she could drive a golf ball 250 yards using my face as a tee before I made my excuses and deserted her for Kristin who was in full safari garb - complete with a javelin.
On the end of this very serious-looking javelin the twenty-something Kristin from Granada Hills had speared a toy lion cub. "It's to show how I could survive" she explained. "But it's only a miniature plush animal" I pointed out. "But it proves I could kill if I was hungry..." I asked her what gave her the killer instinct. "I teach thirty 5th grade kids" she said simply.
"Fan" - a 23 year old pre-med student from Westwood who sported a ginger-colored Johnny Rotten hair-do - hailed Richard Hatch as his hero. "He did what he had to do to win." Fan was prepared to do everything Richard had done "except get naked."
Sprawled out on a beach blanket on the slow-moving line I encountered Tu-Tu a beautiful Amer-Asian girl of 26 who was so languid ("I'm a beach nut") she could barely raise herself up to speak. Did she have the guts and drive to fight her way through a series of brutal encounters I inquired. Well - looks were deceiving. She politely explained to me that she had spent several years undertaking training in the Military Police reserve at Fort McClellan, Alabama - experience she had turned to good use since she now was in real estate. I apologized and deferred to her decision to rest up for her ordeal.
I found a sharp-eyed woman wandering the line much as I was, gazing at the assembly of wannabes. She turned out to be Lynne Spellman - Casting Director for the series. Even though she and her associates would be evaluating entrants by their video tapes she still regarded it useful to scour the line trying to sort out the wheat of the true contenders from the the chaff of Tinseltown showoffs.
She told me that the show receives literally thousands of home-made audition tapes from would be tribe members - and that she and her staff have to wade through every single one. I asked what sort of behavior she had seen. Apparently EVERYTHING. Many aspirants have felt it necessary to prove how open-minded they are and indeed open-palated. Among improbable comestibles she has seen consumed on camera have been worms, crickets and a school of goldfish. She also reported seeing a man video-taped in a hospital who claimed to be a gynecologist. He was munching on what he said was placenta.
I asked to describe how proud she felt to be part of a show that inspired such civilized submissions. She explained to me very patiently that it wasn't the show's fault. People just want to be on TV. I guess she was just following casting orders....
Jean was an "aspiring actress" and dressed like an extra from 60's safari series "Daktari" - a fact that had also caught Jay Leno's eye. He had in fact encouraged her to twirl for his camera to show off her Banana Republic duds. Unveiling her jacket to reveal her lacy bodice had been her idea. Would she be comfortable in that outfit on the show? "They allow you to take one luxury. My luxury is to dress like a Valley Girl."
Michael (a 41 year-old audio engineer) looked to be an unlikely cast member. He was hobbling on two crutches. "I have a shattered kneecap" he explained. But this was no problem for him. "It'll be healed by the time they shoot the series." And what if he wasn't 100% fit by then? "My 90% is better than all these people's 100%" he said gesturing at a slew of actor-ish types behind him.
One of the most imaginative applicants was a 27 year-old Mexican waiter called Victor who was wearing nothing but some tan leather chaps which he confessed he'd made from an unwanted sofa. He also had a pal he introduced as his agent - who held a huge sign giving 10 reasons why his client should be selected for the show.
Reason number one was that because Victor was apparently the only waiter in L.A. who did NOT want to become an actor. (Though apparently he was happy to have an agent.)
I wandered down to the front of the line. Under a canopy I discovered 3 camera set-ups - each VHS camera on a tripod operated by a person in a "Survivor" tee-shirt. It was like a conveyor belt system. They were loading contenders into director-type chairs and then clicking the stopwatch. Three minutes of high-sales pitch - then press the eject button and load in another batch of Richard Hatch aspirants.
I decided to watch some of the would-be Survivors give their all.
"Narm-mah-yah, Horr-ang-ee, Yer-koor...." one girl kept murmuring with her eyes closed and her hands in the universal position of prayer. Then she opened her eyes and said - "I'm Donna and I'm a marathon runner. I'm the ultimate Survivor. Thank you for listening." After she finished I asked her what she had been saying. "It's a Buddhist chant" she explained "but I have no idea what it means." Apparently a pal had told her that it might impress the producers.
Mike a chunky 28 year-old payroll administrator looked like someone who'd lost a serious bet. He was wearing a fluffy pink and white bunny outfit with some outsize mammeries. He was carrying a cardboard sign that said "I Will Starve For Survivor 3" - which didn't look like such a bad plan of action for him. Mike was grumpy because he felt Jay Leno had made a fool of him. "He treated me like I was some type of joke." One wondered how many seconds he would have lasted in the Australian outback.
A spunky El Salvadorian girl called Nayelly was fired up - wearing a tight tee-shirt with the words "Boy Beater" emblazoned across her chest. "Won't that intimidate the male producers of the show?" I asked her. "No - men like to be smacked around" she explained. I guess she hadn't watched Rudy in action.
Next up was one of the great contenders. Dressed in safari duds with green camouflage paint smeared on his face and brandishing a military water bottle with a muddy concoction - up stepped Michael. "I'm Michael Morningstar" he announced to the camera. "I'm 47, I'm married with 3 kids and I want to do this! I'm an assistant scout master, and I'm not frightened to kill!" He held up a lanyard round his neck bearing two outsize animal teeth. "These come from a havalina I killed recently! That's a wild hog and I can't wait to kill again! And I'll drink swamp water!" I watched astonished as he then gulped down several inches of the cloudy liquid.
He finished up by performing a striptease, ripping off his jacket and shirt to reveal a semi-buffed torso. "Not bad for 47!" he exclaimed - then added that he was a health care expert and even if he wasn't selected he was offering to give free medical seminars for all CBS executives. (I guessed that the swamp water might be an extra charge.)
I asked him where he was from. "Flew in last night from Sugarland, Texas" he answered. Apparently a friend had mentioned it to him. I pointed out that he could have just sent in a tape by mail. "And miss this?" he asked gesticulating at the circus behind him. He had a point.
And still they poured forth. One woman dressed as a beauty queen complete with tacky crown and a sash that declared her Mrs. United Nation. "Shouldn't that be 'Nations' plural?" I asked? "Oh that's a different organization" she explained and gave me a card which confirmed that she was indeed the winner of this little-known contest for married women. Not affiliated with the United Nations. Whew...
J.D. started off by singing the theme song from "Gilligan's Island - and then bellowed at the camera "Look me in the eye! I AM the Outdoors!" Afterwards he confided to me that he was also a 47 year-old dental technician. As previously noted, everyone in L.A. is a hyphenate. His business card probably reads "Dental Technician/The Outdoors."
Tony was clearly the winner in the outrage stakes. I watched slack-jawed as the 33-year old self-styled "Internet Entrepreneur" from Orange County pronounced that he was "into recycling" and he was prepared to "eat anything." At which point he smeared a semi-melted Kit-Kat bar all over his face - leaving no doubt as to his message. I asked him if he had planned that rather gruesome stunt long ago. "Nah! Made it up a few minutes ago in line. Cool huh?!" I realized that he'd been standing in the sun for several hours - and made a mental note not to watch "Survivor 3" if he was perchance selected.
Maybe these contenders had not read the small print on the application form they'd signed. They had all given CBS the irrevocable right to use these video-tapes (including those of rejected applicants) in any way they see fit.
(Coming soon to a late-night TV slot near you: commercials for a home-video called "Survivor-Applicants-Gone-Wild!" You won't believe what these wacky folks reveal when the cameras are rolling! Order now and get the bonus tape "Topless Co-Ed Survivors." Send $9.95 plus $30 shipping and handling. No C.O.D.)
Finally I sauntered over to my competitor in cross-examination - Jay Leno. Leno was sporting an amused expression as he completed yet another interview. What did he think about the parade of characters he'd been interviewing. "Well - this is just your typical Hollywood casting call. You have everyone from Harvard PHD's to your average street psychotic." Did he - as an NBC star -worry that by doing this feature he was helping boost a show on a rival network. "This isn't about networks. This is about TV." Clearly tapping into the "Survivor" phenomenon transcends traditional network reticence to promote shows on competing TV webs.
Finally, as Leno spotted another likely candidate I asked him how he thought HE would fare as a "Survivor" candidate. He paused a beat - perhaps reflecting on his own career path through the shoals of network TV executives who had underestimated him - and simply said: "I already survived!" He shot me a sly grin and strode off to interview another member of the freak show that was Survivor 3: The Hollywood Audition."
It's time to pray for a settlement of the imminent writers' and actors' guild strikes. I have seen the future of "reality" TV - and it's going to be extremely tough to survive.