Sunday, January 9, 2011
The Lowest Job in Show Business or, Getting Paid to Clap
By Barry Dutter
You might think that being an extra in a movie or TV show is pretty much the lowest job a person can have in show business and still be considered a “performer.”
But there is a job that is even lower. It’s being a paid audience-member.
That’s right, in Hollywood, people actually get paid to watch TV. Or , more accurately, paid to watch the taping of a TV show and laugh and clap on cue.
It doesn’t pay a lot of money. Traditionally, it’s $8 an hour. But you couldn’t ask for an easier job. I mean, what could be simpler than sitting on your ass and clapping? It’s the lazy guy’s version of the American dream: getting paid to watch TV!
When you live in L.A., you see a lot of ads on Craigs List looking for people to do audience work. Funny thing is, the ads always try to make the job sound much more glamorous than it really is. They almost never say the words “audience work” in the listings. Usually the headline says something like, “Looking for new faces for TV!” -- as if your face is actually going to be seen on television. On most shows, the people in the audience are just blurs in the background.
Or the ads will say they are looking for “background performers” for TV. As if the simple act of laughing on cue and putting your hands together qualifies you as a “performer.” That’s a very classy way of saying “person who is one step above a trained seal!”
I did audience work shortly after I arrived in L.A.. As a lifelong TV-lover, how could I resist? I found it easier than extra work, because as an extra, you are often spending your day out in the hot sun, or out in the rain, or out in the cold, or sitting on a cold concrete floor in some warehouse somewhere.
But as a paid audience-member, you are sitting on comfortable chairs all day in a nice air-conditioned studio. As an extra, you may be called upon to spend your day walking or running or doing whatever the scene calls for. As an audience-member, your job is to simply sit, smile and clap. And pay attention. You’ve got to remember to pay attention to the show. I actually saw an audience-member kicked off a job with no pay when he was caught sending a text message while the cameras were rolling.
Most of the time the days are short -- three to five hours, generally, meaning your pay at the end of the day is usually about $40.00 cash. Not a huge sum of money. So why do people do it?
My theory is that many people in L.A. simply don’t want to work. They came to L.A. with visions of having a career in show business, and they are determined to do whatever they can to not do any real work -- even if that means a lifetime of being no more than an extra and a paid audience-member.
To give you an idea of how eager people are to get paid to do nothing in Hollywood, here is how a typical show might work: a group of 250 people will line up in the morning to be the audience for a show. After four hours or so, that group will be sent home and another group of 250 will be brought in to watch the afternoon tapings of the same show. And there a group of hopefuls that that stand out on the sidewalk, waiting, just in case the show needs to fill extra seats. That's over 500 people on a typical day, showing up to clap on cue.
I’ll never forget a girl I had met -- beautiful girl, tall, voluptuous model-type -- who told me her family just didn’t understand that she had left her small town in Minnesota and come to Hollywood to pursue her dream. My thought at the time was, “Really? Your dream was sitting in an audience and watching TV for an $8.00 an hour?”
Whenever you do audience work, there is always a guy who is in charge of the crowd, usually a comedian. He tells jokes, plays music, and does his best to get audience-members pumped up for the show.
Often he will have volunteers from the audience come out and do dance-offs to songs like Beyonce’s “Single Ladies.” For some odd reason, it’s usually the gay men who win these competitions.
There is a lot of down time during the taping of a TV show. As noted above, a one-hour show might take four or five hours to shoot. This means the audience can get bored and restless. The best solution to this is a quick injection of sugar. The audience-wrangler usually carries a bag of candy, and tries to get the audience energized by throwing out pieces of candy out to different sections of the audience.
You’d be amazed how easy it is to get grown men and women to behave themselves by tossing them a Tootsie Roll or a pack of Smarties.
Most of the time audience work is quick and easy. Occasionally it is grueling. I’ll never forget the one taping I attended that went for about 14 hours. Sure, it means you get paid more money, but try sitting and watching anything for 14 hours and maintaining interest. It isn’t easy.
The hardest audience work I ever did was for a court show. The set resembled a real courtroom. All the audience-members sat on hard wooden benches, like the kind you might find in a courtroom. They taped five episodes that day, and we had to sit through every one of them on those incredibly uncomfortable benches.
I developed a new respect for people who actually show up for jury duty.
Most people who do audience work are fairly young. Generally they are looking for audience members who are 18 to 30 and good-looking. If you’ve ever watched an awards show and noticed that all the people in the audience were young and sexy, odds are they were paid to be there.
One time I worked in the audience for a show called OUR LITTLE GENIUS. This was easily the most boring game show ever. A bunch of super-smart nerdy kids would answer super-hard questions for the chance to win big money, while some adult experts would testify just how hard these questions really were. The show was hosted by Kevin Pollack, who later went on to host MILLION-DOLLAR MONEY DROP.
When I watched the taping, I was suspicious that it seemed staged and phony. The kids seemed a little too knowledgeable about their favorite subjects. Sure enough, shortly before the show aired, the parents of one of the contestants revealed that their kid had been given all the answers beforehand. (More accurately, the kids were given factoids to study, and told, "These are the items you might want to study extra hard." Kind of like when a teacher tells you, "This will be on the test.")
When word leaked that the "little geniuses" had been prepped in advance, an embarrassed Fox had only one possible course of action. After weeks on intense promotion, the network canceled OUR LITTLE GENIUS before a single episode ever aired.
On behalf of those of us who suffered through the taping of several episodes, I can safely assure the rest of the TV-watching public that you missed nothing! Have you ever seen the promos for a new show and thought, "I wouldn't watch that show if they paid me!" Well, I was paid to watch OUR LITTLE GENIUS, and trust me, no amount of money would have been enough to make it worth your while.
Not every TV show needs to pay their audience. THE TONIGHT SHOW, for example, gets so many eager tourists coming from out of town to see it every day, they don’t have to pay anyone to be there. AMERICAN IDOL is a cultural phenomenon. They also get their audience for free.
Sometimes a show turns out to be more popular than the network had expected and they find that it‘s not necessary to pay an audience to watch it. When NBC launched a new show called THE SING-OFF in 2009, they hired 200 people to be in the audience. But so many fans wanted to attend the taping of the show, NBC sent all the “professional” audience-members home. I was hired to be there that day, but me and my fellow audience-members were each paid $16.00 cash for our two hours of waiting in line before they sent us home.
When you live in L.A., you can’t always get acting jobs every day. Sometimes, you find yourself with a day off. On those days, making $40 to $60 cash for some easy audience work does not seem like such a bad gig.
One day, I got an audience gig that wound up costing me big money, and I quit doing it forever.
It all started when I got booked to be a contestant on a new game show called LATE NIGHT LIARS. This was one of the dumbest game shows I had ever seen. It involved listening to statements from four puppets and trying to figure out which one was telling the truth.
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again -- game shows and puppets just don’t mix! But the show paid every contestant $500 just for showing up. And if you won, you had the chance to make a quick $10,000.
So despite my misgivings about the show, I decided to try out for the show. When I arrived at the audition, I was pleased to see my old friend Sarah Jane was doing the casting. She had previously cast me on THE SINGING BEE and CATCH 21. I’ve auditioned for her many times before and she always recognizes me.
I hadn't won any money on either of those other shows. Now here was her chance to to make it up to em by casting me on this dopey show. Sure enough, a few days later I got the call saying I was in the contestant pool for LATE NIGHT LIARS.
Two days before I was scheduled to tape my episode, I saw an ad on Craig’s List looking for audience members for a “new late night talk show.” I called my contact at SRO (Standing Room Only -- the company that provides audiences for TV shows) and told her I was willing to work as an audience-member, though I didn’t know which show it was for.
The next day, I showed up at the studio and was horrified to find that the show I was doing audience work for was LATE NIGHT LIARS -- the same series that I was scheduled to appear on the next day as a contestant!
I should have walked away at that point and skipped the audience work. The show had never aired before, so if I witnessed a taping in advance, it would have given me an unfair advantage over the other contestants.
My instincts told me to take the $50 loss for the day and come back the next day for the $500 and the chance to win 10 grand. But I figured I had already driven all the way there, and maybe nobody would notice me sitting among 100 people in the crowd.
No such luck. As soon as we were seated, I looked up and saw Sarah Jane --
I thought that maybe she wouldn’t see me. But I was seated in the third row. I felt like I had a giant spotlight shining on me. She noticed me instantly. There was still time for me to get up and go home. But I decided to stick it out.
Stupid mistake. I made $50 for being in the audience, and lost out on the $500 or more I would have made as a contestant.
As soon as I got home, I sent Sarah Jane an email where I explained to her what had happened. She wrote back saying that she had noticed me in the audience and that I would not be allowed to be on the show.
She added that there were no hard feelings, and she even offered me the chance to be on a new dance competition show that she was also casting. I don’t dance, so I respectfully declined, but I was gald that she wasn’t mad at me. I was sure that our paths would cross again on some other show in the future.
That day marked the end of my career as a professional audience member. I decided that if doing audience work was going to possibly cost me better-paying gigs, it wasn’t worth doing.
I don’t miss it. Sure, I sometimes watch TV at home and think, “I could be getting paid for this!” But then I think back to the time I was waiting in line outside of a studio, getting ready to do some audience work. A tour bus drove by with a sarcastic driver. It was one of those cheesy Hollywood sightseeing tours that the out-of-towners eat up.
The bus driver looked over at me and the other people, in line and said over his loudspeaker, “Thank you for getting paid to clap.”
It was a funny line, one that he probably used every day. But none of us in line were laughing. How dare he mock our noble profession! We were professional audience-members, dammit. We had a proud tradition of laughing and clapping on cue.
Sure, we were only making $8.00 an hour. But we clapped like we were getting at least $12.00!
I’m not ashamed that I got paid to watch TV. Heck, I once met an L.A. resident who told me who was doing a sleep study.
Getting paid to sleep? Hmmm. Maybe that's the REAL American dream!