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Inside the Depths of Talk TV

Jen Pollack Bianco is a Los Angeles-based writer-producer

If Stripper A lives in New Jersey and Stripper B lives in Brooklyn, and they both leave their houses at precisely the same time, which one will reach the television studio first to disrobe in front of a live audience?

This is the type of problem that talk-show producers must answer on a daily basis.

Like much of America, I had an obsession with talk shows. But it wasn’t the drag queen make-overs on the stage that kept me intrigued. I was fascinated by what went on behind the scenes. Who found the people? Were the stories fake? I was determined to find out. So last fall, I secured one of a handful of unsalaried intern positions with a nationally syndicated talk show. I quit my job at a Los Angeles motion picture production company, packed my bags and jetted off to New York to check things out.

If “Rosie O’Donnell” is the Carnival Cruise of talk, I booked passage on the Titanic, “The Charles Perez Show.”

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During my investigation, I asked countless questions. Part of me feared being unmasked as an impostor. But producers, guests and professional experts freely gave me answers. It seemed as if all of them were jockeying to get a talk show of their own. I ran to the bathroom 15 times a day to write copious notes. While the staff might remember me as the intern with a weak bladder, I discovered that in a territory overrun by male strippers, cheating transsexuals and welfare divas named Aquanetta, the drama behind the scenes is twice as lurid as what the camera sees.

Each week, the staff of producers puts together six shows. That means finding about 40 guests to tell their tales, six “experts” to dole out advice and 700 audience members to fill the seats. The pace never lets up.

‘CLIP OF THE WEEK’

The first day, I report to the CBS Broadcast Center, where I’m led upstairs to the makeshift production offices. I am shocked to see barely anyone over the age of 30. An air of celebration fills the office. The crew is excited because Charles was awarded “Clip of the Week” on the E! Entertainment channel’s “Talk Soup.” Charles started on daytime working on the production staff at “Montel.” Charles, then going by his real name, Charles Dabney, realized that there was room on the air for a hip, young male host. He took his mother’s ethnic maiden name, reportedly pulled every favor that he could and wound up with his own show.

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As an intern, I am supposed to be assisting the production teams responsible for the two shows that are taping. Working in television is not glamorous: My primary responsibility is to baby-sit guests and make sure they are where they need to be when they need to be there. I am assigned to a green room where the guests are sent to hang out and are prepped for the show by producers. Most of the guests spend their time glued in front of the television provided for their enjoyment and tuned to our rivals: Sally, Ricki or Geraldo. Many of the waiting “Charles Perez” guests comment on how stupid panelists on other talk shows make themselves look on national TV.

During my conversations with staff members, I discover that at least five production crew members are aiming for careers in front of the camera. One member of the staff was auditioning to become MTV’s first gay veejay. He told me that he couldn’t understand why many of our guests would reveal their deepest secrets on a talk show. When casually asked if he was “out” to his family, the veejay-wannabe acknowledged that he wasn’t but said he was willing to come out for MTV.

WHO WRITES THIS STUFF?

A talk show is only as good as its producers. (This show had 14 producers, including the executive producer and supervising producer as well as producers and associate producers.) The producers are responsible for coming up with new show topics, finding guests willing to discuss them, locating experts on the subject and making it all happen in front of a live studio audience on a per-show budget of $5,500 or less. The producers at this show are hard-working, mostly twentysomethings who will stop at nothing to deliver programs worthy of “Talk Soup’s” “Clip of the Week” kudos--usually awarded to talkville’s most outrageous event.

One producer tells me that she came to talk after working for CNN: “At CNN, you are extremely sheltered. You have no sense of the marketplace. Here, I have the ability to try and create things and see how they fit into the marketplace. It may be sleaze, but it is my sleaze. Any other job would be a pay cut and less responsibility.”

Hanging around the production office, I listen to an associate producer on the phone trying to keep a guest from walking from an upcoming show titled “Neighborhood Trash.” He conveniently calls the episode “People Who Have Problems With Their Neighbors.” The prospective guest is upset because of a rumor that another panelist is being paid to come on the show. This isn’t the case. The other guest was persuaded by the producers to appear with a set of dentures, which the show’s producer negotiated at a bargain-basement price.

Now the associate producer is in the midst of damage control: “We don’t pay our guests. Your neighbor does need to have some work done on her teeth, but we are not going to pay her.” He then tries to persuade the guest that the appearance will benefit humanity: “Your neighbor is clearly a woman in a lot of pain, and we will have experts here to help deal with these issues.”

THE PERFECT SHOW

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What makes a perfect show? A production assistant tells me: “Good-looking people with nasty stories.” Outgoing guests are also a plus.

Before one taping, I am asked by a pair of obnoxious guests on a segment called “Summer Loves” to buy HoHos or Twinkies or some other type of fattening snack cake so they can hurl them at obese and obnoxious audience members who “dis” them. I play dumb and tell them that there are no such goodies available in the building, but the associate producer provides the snacks to the guests. She knows their purpose, but conflict makes for good television.

At a production meeting, the director expresses concern about Troy, a guest who is supposed to appear on today’s show. “Wasn’t Troy just on ‘Jenny Jones’?” the director asks. The program’s producer says no way. “How about ‘Sally’?” Producers are worried about experts who make the talk-show rounds. The producer insists that Troy is a talk-show virgin. The staff is thrilled. “Fresh meat” is getting harder to come by.

GUEST RELATIONS

Guests on “The Charles Perez Show” are required to present two forms of identification, which I collect and photocopy. This is a precaution the show has taken ever since a guest appeared and told a bogus story. The IDs of choice are welfare cards. One guest presents me with both a welfare card and a premier membership to Bally’s Fitness Clubs.

I go down to the lobby to greet guests for a show on the effects of drugs. The first to arrive is a hefty woman who is in a wheelchair as a result of a drug-related car accident. She immediately tells me she needs to use the ladies’ room. Since CBS will not allow the guests to roam freely through the Broadcast Center, one of my intern duties is escorting guests to and from the bathrooms. Unfortunately, the restroom for the disabled is being repaired, so I attempt to wheel her into the largest ladies’ room. Once in the stall, I have to pick her up out of her wheelchair and plop her down on the toilet seat. I excuse myself until she needs me to hoist her back on the wheelchair.

A few minutes pass. I lurk by the sink. Then plumes of smoke begin to appear above the stall. Knocking on the stall door, I remind her that this a nonsmoking building, and she puffs away for a few more minutes before stopping and asking me to help her back onto the wheelchair. The guest summons me for bathroom duty three more times that day, and I am also sent out to buy some Poli-Grip for a guest whose dentures are slipping.

Later, I am in charge of escorting the professional expert, who arrives with his own cache of makeup. I overhear guests complaining about the green room, “ ‘Maury’ has a waiting room for the audience. . . . The food at ‘Carnie’ is much better. Don’t you have Pepsi? ‘Geraldo’ serves Pepsi.”

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One producer tells me that her production team likes to take talk “to a different level.” This new level includes girls who love gangbangs, cybersluts and porn star Ron Jeremy.

I respectfully request that I not be assigned to Jeremy’s green room. Many Perez staffers approach Jeremy for autographs. I stand backstage with Jasmine St. Clair, star of the adult film “World’s Largest Gang Bang II,” who seems to be casting co-stars for her next feature. She asks me if a certain attractive production assistant is well-endowed. The guy in question, whose job often finds him fending off nymphomaniacs, is blase about the “compliment.”

‘WORST LIFE CONTEST’

One of the producers on the staff started as an ambitious secretary on the show.

During the pre-show production meeting for one of her shows, “The Worst Life Contest,” the director reads the script for the program. The director asks: “Some of these topics are really serious. What sort of music do you want to use?”

“It can be upbeat,” she insists. “The guests know that this is going to be a fun show. They know to keep it light.” By flipping through today’s show packet, you can get a feel for the light subject matter: Diane’s son got lead poisoning from eating paint chips in her rat-infested apartment; Nalani gained 70 pounds only to then discover she was pregnant; and Phil-on was shot three times by his best friend.

The producer has persuaded a resort in Jamaica to donate a vacation for the winner. She briefs the guests, reminding them that this is a show about one-upmanship.

“Truth be told, this show is not about your problems. I don’t care about your problems,” she says, before backpedaling. “I mean, I care about your problems, but my primary concern is having a fun show.” A welfare mother with an elaborate set of false nails mutters under her breath: “She got it right the first time. She don’t care about our problems.”

Her segment is up first. Tears well up in her eyes when she begins talking about her children. The producers stop the show and yank her off for getting “too serious.” She is spitting mad when asked to leave the building. Describing one of the producers with a string of expletives, she tells me she is going to mail host Perez one of the dead rats from her apartment. Later, I overhear the producer saying that “my reality is that I either hurt somebody’s feelings or I don’t have a good show.”

The show wraps up, and Ted, a victim of accidental castration, emerges the winner. Ted jumped from a train trestle and was accidentally castrated by a sign obscured in the bushes. Ted’s private parts were reattached, but he is “sexually challenged.” Ted tells me he can’t wait for the trip, but he’s going to need a platonic date. Ted’s story will go on to earn “Talk Soup’s” “Clip of the Week” honors.

DESIRABLE DEMOGRAPHICS

The show tapes three days a week, two episodes a day. On non-taping days, I work in the audience department trying to scrounge up demographically desirable audience members to fill the 100 or so seats. When I arrive at the office, the head audience coordinator is upset. Tribune Entertainment, the production company that owns the show, keeps changing the audience demographics. The current demand is for “corporate"--i.e., white suburban--audience members.

The audience coordinator knows this is problematic: “White people don’t ask questions. Urban audiences are much more dynamic.” “Ricki Lake” has had much success with an “urban” audience. “Geraldo” skews older and more suburban. To screen out the “urban” types, the audience department is told to stop answering phones when the show airs locally in hopes of weeding out the Bronx and Brooklyn fans. We also have to check off an ethnic background on those who call in and ask for tickets, although we can’t legally ask the caller. When a man named Terminator Jefferson from the Bronx requests tickets, I am told to assume he’s “urban.”

THE MISSING GUEST

While helping prep a show on “Secret Crushes Revealed,” I learn that in daytime talk, success depends on the resourcefulness of the show’s producers. One of the program’s scheduled segments is to feature a woman who has a crush on a male stripper whose shows she frequents. But when the stripper fails to show up half an hour before the taping, the frenzy begins. Losing a guest just moments before the show is not uncommon, but finding a male stripper who can be here in 20 minutes and is willing to disrobe in front of a live audience proves to be a wee bit difficult. Two of the show’s producers are phoning away trying to locate another male stripper.

An associate producer suggests that we let a hunky production assistant on the show pinch-hit. Before he is forced to shed his clothes in the line of duty, two potential strippers are located: a personal trainer in Brooklyn and an exotic dancer in Jersey. Trying to calculate which stripper could be here first, a producer makes an executive decision and sends cars for both. Before booking them, the producer tells them that they have to take off their clothes but that they can’t show too much flesh--thongs are strictly forbidden. We have to keep it classy, because this is, after all, national television.

ICEBERGS ON THE HORIZON

A few weeks into my internship, one of the key staffers grows increasingly paranoid.

The audience coordinator is concerned because audiences are getting harder and harder to find. This week, “Geraldo” had to cancel a taping because of lack of audience. “Mark Wahlberg” scratched a program because its audience was too “urban.” “Sally” had to do a show with an audience of just 45.

At a meeting, one of the producers congratulates a staff member for locating a missing guest and calling and informing him that “he reeks of urine--I am going to clean him up and bring him in.” The producer tells the employee that the sponge bath was above and beyond the call of duty. The staffer receives a round of applause.

During my last week on the job, two producers circulate a memo. Taping schedules and show packets have been disappearing, and one producer fears that they may have fallen into the hands of rival producers of “Geraldo” or “Gordon Elliott,” both of which have offices in the building. Now we have to keep the schedules out of sight.

THE ICEBERG HITS

It’s my last day on the set. At the production meeting, the crew is moderately subdued as we discuss the first taping, the topic of which is teen suicide. A production assistant is passing around photos of a suicide victim in his casket. The producers readily agree that they should air the photo, which they admit is shocking but might dissuade others from taking their lives. The supervising producer can’t take her eyes off the photo. “It’s so gross.” She passes it around for other staffers to see.

When I was hired, I was told I would be reimbursed $10 a day for travel expenses. Today, I receive a check that is supposed to contain my stipend. Somehow, the daily payment has been downgraded to about $1.25. I bump into the woman who hired me and ask about the discrepancy. She glares and tells me that the amount was changed and claims that this was announced in a staff meeting. “You should have been there.”

The iceberg hit right after the new year, when a Tribune executive arrived and announced that the company had ceased production on the show. Staffers were told to pack up and leave. Charles took the news with moist eyes.

Some of the casualties have resurfaced: One producer almost immediately got hired at “Ricki Lake"; another is working for a news operation in New York. One production assistant is working as an assistant on “Saturday Night Live.” Charles Perez is reportedly working on a new pilot for a variety news show. Will it happen? Stay tuned.


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