Thursday, August 19, 2010

I Survived a Ride on the Conveyor Belt of Love!

By Barry Dutter

On January 4, 2010, I became part of TV history when I was one of 30 men who rode the Conveyor Belt of Love in a one-hour special shown on ABC.
We had actually taped the show the summer prior, and at that time, none of us knew that it would go on to become one of the most notorious reality shows of our time.

Television critics like to hold up Conveyor Belt of Love as a shining example of everything that is wrong with TV today. Most reviewers felt that the idea of bringing men out on a conveyor belt and putting them on display like meat in a deli was degrading to everyone involved.
Entertainment Weekly has adopted Conveyor Belt of Love (or CBOL, as it‘s called) as their go-to punch line for “bad reality TV.” One online critic noted that ABC’s airing of the show was tantamount to the network committing a “hate crime” against its viewers.

There are countless dating shows on TV today -- everything from THE BACHELOR to THE BACHELORETTE to BAGGAGE -- and while other shows have gone on to have bigger ratings and bigger impact on pop culture, it seems that CBOL will always have a special place in the hearts of those who love cheesy TV.

The premise of CBOL was simple enough: five women sit in a row and watch 30 men slowly ride by on a conveyor belt, one at a time. Each man steps off the conveyor belt and is given 60 seconds to try to impress the ladies. If one of the women likes the man on stage, she holds up a paddle that says “Interested.” The man then goes off and waits in a designated area for a date with the girl who chose him. If she doesn’t like a guy, she flips the paddle over so it reads, “Not interested.” Any man who receives five “not interested” votes must step back on the Conveyor Belt, where he is whisked away backstage.

At the end of the show, each of the five women goes on a date with her favorite guy.
There are various other rules about what happens when two girls pick the same guy or if a girl wants to trade her guy in for another one, but I’m not looking to rehash the rules. I just want to tell how it all went down from the point of view from someone who was there.

It all started, like most of my jobs in television, with an ad on Craigs List. This one was looking for guys to appear on a dating show. I’m single and I like being on TV, so I figured I would try out.
At the audition, I was asked to explain why I would be a great choice to be a contestant on this show. I borrowed an old joke from a long-forgotten SNL skit and announced, “I’m a very handsome man!" Then I did a few impressions: Sean Connery. Elvis. I joked that I do a surprisingly good Cher impression for a straight guy. I even sang a Cher song, but the casting lady informed me that I would not be able to sing any actual hit songs during the show because the rights would be too expensive.

At the close of the audition, I was asked if I had any special talents or skills that I could perform on the show. I mentioned that I was pretty good on a pogo stick. The casting lady thought that would be a great talent for me to display on TV, but if the idea of the show was for men to try to attract women, jumping on a pogo stick seems to be a pretty bad way to do it. I can’t imagine any woman in the world being turned on by a guy on a pogo stick.
Not to mention the fact that jumping on a pogo stick while riding on a moving Conveyor Belt sounded pretty dangerous to me.

I left the casting office, not sure if I was going to be picked to be on the show.
A few months later, the casting lady called and said the show was picked up as a pilot for ABC. The taping had been scheduled for a hot August day in 2009, when I was to be one of the first 30 TV pioneers to take that historic ride on the Conveyor Belt of Love.

The day started early, as TV tapings most often do. I arrived at about 7:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning at a sound stage in Burbank.
There, I met the 29 other guys who would be taking that ride with me. It was an eclectic bunch, for sure. A mix of actors, athletes, magicians, and other showbiz wannabes. We didn’t know it at the time, but one of the contestants was a gay porn star, and another was a post-op transsexual who used to be a woman.

Yes, that’s right -- in what must have been a huge surprise to the network, one of the 30 men on the Conveyor Belt of Love was a woman. (It’s a sad commentary on the world today when you can’t get a group of 30 men together without one of them being a woman!) The way she rocked that sweater-vest should have been a dead giveaway! (See pic at right)
He/she did a great job of keeping her secret. It wasn’t until after the show aired that I found it an article on the Internet that spilled the beans.

But on the day of the taping, no one suspected anything. We were all focused on what we would say and do in our 60 seconds on stage.
Before being brought on stage, we were kept separate from the female judges, so as to keep everything fresh during the taping. The holding area for the guys was a huge room with lots of couches. There was a ping pong table, and an area where the game Rock Band was set up for anyone to play.

All in all, it was a great room for guys to chill in while waiting for their turn to impress the ladies. After each man had taken his ride, we were free to go. I wound up being one of the last 5 guys to go, which meant I was there for almost the whole day -- about 14 hours, all told. We were all paid the basic non-union TV day rate to be there. For those guys who got to go first and then leave, the pay was pretty good. For those of us who had to stay the full day, not so much.

I chatted up some of the other guys in the room. One of the other contestants -- a chubby guy who looked like Chris Farley -- remembered me from a previous audition -- we had both tried out to play a Dad on MTV’s show, Parental Control.

One contestant told me he had won $50,000 on ABC’s Wipeout. I’ve been on tons of game shows and all of my winnings combined don’t equal $50,000, so I was very jealous.
As we waited to go on, a producer came by and interviewed us one at a time, to go over our routines. I was asked if I had brought my pogo stick. I said no. I just didn’t see how it would benefit me in any way. The producer was disappointed, but she felt I still had enough material to make for an entertaining 60 seconds.

When booking a show like this, casting agents like to find contestants they can put in easy categories: The Dumb Jock. The Sensitive Guy. The Angry Guy. The Crazy Guy. Etc. In my case, the PA was struggling to come up with a label for me. She would have loved to have been able to label me “The Pogo Stick Guy." But it just wasn’t going to happen. Instead, she smiled as she proclaimed, “I guess you’re the Personality Guy.”
(I would rather she had said, “The Funny Guy,” but whatever…)

I wasn’t the only one concerned about performing a dangerous stunt on the Conveyor Belt. Another contestant was identified as an online skater, but when his time came to meet the girls, he simply carried his skates in his hands, rather than attempt the risky move of riding skates on a moving Conveyor Belt.
One by one we were called onstage to ride that ol’ Conveyor Belt of Love. One of the contestants was a Hawaiian muscleman who did a turkey call. That’s the kind of thing that casting agents love to see because it’s weird and outrageous and looks good on TV -- and pretty much guarantees that the guy won’t get picked by any of the girls.

One of the judges was an Asian girl who was not impressed by the turkey caller. She told him to
“go back to wherever you came from.”

The Turkey Caller did not take that well. Actually, he went ballistic. He stormed backstage and looked like he was going to trash the place. He was about to put his fist through a wall when security came and managed to calm him down.
His main beef? According to him, Asian girls always hate on Asian guys. He didn’t mind getting rejected by the other four girls. It was the way the Asian girl had shot him down that set him off.

Fortunately the Turkey Caller cooled down and was sent on his way home. That was the only real drama that I saw that day. No reality show would be complete without at least one meltdown --even if it didn’t make the air.
After what seemed like an eternity, my time came to ride the belt. I had 60 seconds on national televisions to say whatever I wanted.

My first reaction on riding out there was that the five girls were all attractive. The Asian girl was especially pretty. Some reviewers later dubbed her “a Tela Tequila rip-off,” but she really as the star of the show. She flashed her “Not Interested” sign for 29 out of the 30 guys on the show. The only one meeting her rather high standards was a bodybuilder who wore only a Speedo and carried a small dog in his arms for the entire show.
I’m convinced that if CBOL had become a series, that Asian girl would have turned the words, “Not interested” into a national catchphrase!

I wasn’t sure if any of the girls would appreciate my humor, but I was more than willing to give it a try.
(A quick side note here: one of the five girls on the judging panel was an actress who used to work the Sunset strip dressed as Wonder Woman, posing for pictures with tourists. I had actually met her at Comic Con a few months prior and had had my picture taken with her, though honestly, I didn’t recognize her without her Wonder Woman costume on!)

As I stepped off the conveyor belt, I led with my Sean Connery impression. (In a perfect world, I would have worn a tuxedo for the bit, but I didn’t own a tux and they weren’t paying enough for me to rent one. Still, a tux would’ve really helped me stand out in the crowd.)
Speaking as Sean, I said, "Hello, ladies. My name is Sean Connery. You may remember me from such films as… ‘James Bond.'” (For the record, I know there is no movie called "James Bond!”)
I quickly dropped the Connery impression and revealed I that my name was Barry. I referred to myself as “a very handsome man.”

As soon as I said that, one of the girls flashed her “Not Interested” paddle. One down, four to go.

I continued, “Ladies, do you like a guy who can cook? Do you like a guy who can play guitar? Do you like a guy who’s good at making things with his hands? Do you like a guy who can really dance? A guy who's really good in bed? Well, if that’s what you like… you’d better pick one of those other guys, ‘cuz I can’t do any of that stuff!

I added, "But that’s ok. Because I may not have a big bank account. I may not own my own home. I may not have a job. But I’ve got something those other guys don’t have. (Pause) I have a GREAT ASS! Look at my butt! Isn’t it awesome?”
(I should note here that I stole the “great ass” line from Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman.)

At this point, the Asian girl fired back, “My man has a better ass! Look at it!” She pointed to the man she had selected -- the bodybuilder wearing the Speedo.
I wanted to argue that my ass was better than Speedo Guy’s, but it was hard to prove -- I was wearing pants and he was in a skimpy little swimsuit. My only option at that point was to drop my pants and moon the girls. But I had been warned beforehand about not mooning anyone.
I knew ABC could always blur me later, but since it was only the first episode, I decided to keep it clean.

All five girls were now showing me their “Not Interested” paddles, which meant it was time to leave. I looked back and saw that the conveyor belt was not moving. Now I didn’t know what to do. How was I supposed to ride off into the sunset if the conveyor belt would not carry me away?
So I continued my routine.
“Now I’d like to do another impression,” I said, “since the first one went over so well!”
One of the girls shot back, “Why don’t you do your impression of someone leaving!”
(A very funny line; I’m convinced that the writers were feeding girls lines from off-camera.)
I replied, “I would love to, but the Conveyor Belt isn’t moving!”
One of the girls explained, “You’re supposed to step on it first!
They had told us that before the show and I had completely forgotten! That is so typical of me. I’m on a show where the only thing we have to do is successfully ride a conveyor belt, and I can‘t even get that right!

I stepped back on the Conveyor Belt and began my slow ride off the stage. As I was exiting, one of the girls, again, being prompted by a writer in her earpiece, shouted out, “Do your Cher impression!”
I had about five seconds left before I was whisked backstage so I just slipped into my Cher voice and said, “Good night everybody -- and God bless you! -- the same farewell that Sonny and Cher used at the ending of every episode of their 1970s variety show.

The last thing I heard as I rode off the stage was the voice of one of the five girls summing up my routine by saying, “Worst Sean Connery impression ever!”
With that, my ride was over. Once I was backstage, I was led into a small room for an “exit interview.” This is where each contestant who was not picked was given the chance to vent and say why the girls should have picked him.

I really wasn’t mad that I didn’t get picked. I still got paid the same either way. So for my exit interview, I decided to play it for more laughs.
I said, “First of all, clearly none of those girls knows who Sean Connery is!” The interviewer asked if I was mad at the comments the girls had made about me. I replied, “It doesn’t matter. Because no matter what they say about me, I still have a great ass!”

As I was leaving, a P.A. came over and asked if they could get some footage of me jumping on my pogo stick on the conveyor belt. Again, I had to inform her that I still had no pogo stick to jump on. She was disappointed, but there was nothing I could do for her at that point.
And so my day came to an end.

It was about six months later that CBOL was given an airdate. January 4, 2010, on ABC, at 10:00 pm, right after the two-hour season premiere of the Bachelor.

The Conveyor Belt of Love did pretty well in the ratings. It won its time slot, holding on to a nice chunk of its Bachelor lead-in. About 6 million viewers tuned in to see me do “the worst Sean Connery impression ever.”

One of the great mysteries of our time is why the Conveyor Belt of Love was not picked up as a series. It seemed like such a great fit with the Bachelor. There are many, many shows on TV that do not attract 6 million viewers.
We may never know the reason why CBOL was not picked up. I mean, ABC is the network that airs a series called Dating in the Dark, so it’s not like they are opposed to unconventional dating shows.

I guess it just wasn’t meant to be. In some ways, I like the fact that the show never made it past the pilot. This means I will always be part of a special footnote in TV history, as one of the 30 men brave enough to take a ride that is almost as well known as that of space pioneer Neil Armstrong.

Some people said the show was rigged, because some of the guys riding the belt were (gasp!) actors who they had seen on other shows before.
In response to all the critics, all, I can say is, who else do you think tries out for TV dating shows? Certainly not people looking for dates!
L.A. is a city filled with people who want to be on TV, and reality shows are a great way to get some exposure and make some easy money. It is only natural that you will see some of the same people on the same types of shows.

When Conveyor Belt of Love aired, I was really seeing it for the first time. I had been kept backstage for most of the show, and really had no idea what was happening onstage.
It was a fun show to watch.

My first reaction was that on TV, as is so often the case in life, guys who are tall and good-looking get a free pass. While most of the guys on the stage were doing magic tricks, making balloon animals, dancing, anything they could to entertain the girls, the guys who looked like male models didn’t have to do anything -- just stand there are smile!
That was clear discrimination against those of us who are under six feet and do not look like Matthew McConaughey.

The next thing I noticed was that some of the guys were clearly not taking this competition seriously. One guy came out and did yoga poses. Another guy dressed in a tutu and danced like a ballerina. These guys were shot down so quickly,I wondered why they had even bothered to show up.
One young black kid, about 18 years old, came out and handed a rose to each of the five judges. He told them he was “single and ready to mingle.” The girls thought his pick-up line was so cheesy, they sent him packing. (Later, backstage, the kid revealed to me that the producers had told him to use that tired old line. Clearly he had been set up!)

The transsexual almost got picked by one girl, but later got traded in for another man -- presumably, one who was born with a penis. Since the original gender of the transsexual was never revealed, you have to wonder if even anyone at ABC knew the truth. (That could have made for an interesting post-show date for one of the girls, that’s for sure!)

My sixty-second routine was cut down to about 20 seconds on the televised show. I felt like they left some of my best material on the cutting room floor, but so be it. A one hour show really only has about 44 minutes to fill, and they had to show 30 guys riding the Conveyor Belt, plus footage of the five dates at the end of the show. If you figure 30 to 60 seconds for each guy, plus all the exit interviews and various chit chat with the girls, they easily had enough material to fill a two-hour slot instead of just one.
(Not only did they not show my exit interview, they actually didn’t show any of the exit interviews for any of the 25 guys who got shot down.)

The big surprise on the show was that the big Chris Farley -type guy got picked by the cute blonde at the end -- a choice so unexpected, one has to wonder if there was any prodding from the producers in that decision. Other than that, most of the girls picked the guys youy would expect shallow L.A. girls to pick.

I was hoping CBOL would get released on DVD, with all that deleted footage, but that never happened. The 44-minute entire show aired on Hulu for a few months, after which it faded away, never to be seen again.
Even youtube barely has any clips from the show. It’s almost as if it never existed!
Fortunately the people who saw CBOL will never forget it.

If history has shown us one thing, it’s that no TV show stays dead forever. I like to think that someday, some enterprising TV executive will bring back the CONVEYOR BELT OF LOVE. It’s such a natural crowd-pleaser, it would be a sin not to bring it back.
The show was so entertaining, you couldn’t look away. It practically redefined the term “guilty pleasure” for our generation. Where else could you see a magician, a gay porno star, a street performing Wonder Woman, a Tila Tequila wannabe, a male ballerina, a tranny, and the world’s worst Sean Connery impersonator, all on one stage?

The reviews for CBOL were mostly negative, but even the critics who thought the show represented a new low for TV still found something to enjoy in it. One reviewer said that half the contestants seemed like they were trying out for the blooper reel of America’s Got Talent, which was not that far off the mark.
Another web critic commented, “At the end of the show, the five couples go on a date and the other 25 guys presumably begin a life of denying they were ever on a show called "Conveyor Belt of Love."

Denying? Far from it! I can’t speak for the other 24 CBOL rejects, but if they are anything like me, they hold their heads high and say, “I rode the Conveyor Belt of Love!”
That is something most men will never get to say.
Not even Neil Armstrong!