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Apr. 10th, 2012 | 06:34 pm

I said no the first six times.

The seventh year, the seventh season, after an hour-long phone call with William the freelance producer, I think, well, it’s in my mom’s city, and there’s money in it, and this project we’re working on, the one that can’t get booked because nobody’s ever heard of it? It could use some exposure. And I say, “Yes.”

And, with William, I start mapping out the act.

“What the producers really like is the fire trick,” he says. “But bigger. Can you add some aerialists?”

William thinks it’s important it be big. America’s Got Lawsuits (If You Reveal The Outcome Before The Episode Airs) is focusing on group acts this year. I know one fire-dancer, two jugglers, six acrobats and a pole dance team that have done this show. I know fifty more entertainers who will never do this show, who have said no seven times.

I know we’re not going to win.

I know the contract says “Producers of America’s Got Lawsuits reserve the right to determine the winner by any means they choose.” I’ve heard about the holding rooms, about showing up at 7AM in full hair and makeup and waiting in a convention center ballroom full of chairs for twelve hours, for three days, and then being told, “Everyone else, sorry, you won’t be doing your acts in this round, you’ll be flying home tomorrow.”

William has gone through the act with me. We have storyboarded every four seconds and provided a recommended shot list to the director. Everyone in the act has been issued a plane ticket, a room at the Hyatt, and a list of instructions from Aubrey, our perky brunette Production Assistant.

“Remember guys!” chirps Aubrey, “Never look directly into the camera! It ruins the shot!”

I have met the rigger and the pyrotechnician; we have run the full act once and the fire section three times, for the stage manger, the director, and the fire marshal.

And here we are.

The glossy black stage gleams.

The new judge on the left, a shock jock brought in to expand the demographic, wears his sunglasses all the time. The lady in the middle, married to someone famous, smiles supportively. The man on the right twirls the straw in his water bottle. (“Fist bumps only!” said Aubrey, “No handshakes, no hugs!”) He will not drink from anything not handed to him wrapped in a towel, his assistant hovers out of frame with a bottle of hand sanitizer.

Up to this point, we have been guessing what role we will be cast in, how the editors will choose to show us to America. The pre-interview questions—

“Could you say that again, but touch on your street performer background?”

“Could you phrase it something like, ‘This is our big chance?’”

“Just say, ‘We’re here to win’, and make it really big, OK?”

“Can we do that again? One of you glanced at the camera.”

Our guess on the edit is Small Time Big Dreams or Scruffy But Driven.

Before we start the act, the sunglassed judge tells us he thinks street performing is sad and pathetic. We talk about theatricality, about performing for people regardless of their ability to pay, about shows for war orphans in Kosovo. I don’t know if any of that will fit our eventual edit. The lady judge smiles supportively. The straw twirler twirls, and we hold briefly for a new water bottle and a squirt of sanitizer. He’s given a new straw and unwraps it himself, the assistant taking the end of the paper wrapper without touching him.

With a burst of nothing—the sound cue is late—our act begins. The sound kicks in. The singer sings. The aerialists spin in a whirl of colored fabric. The fire-eaters await their cue. And at second number thirty-nine of the act that William has scripted with my complicity, my brain begins evaluating.

What’s that sound? Has something gone wrong?

Fast check. Aerialist Number One, still in the air, her split is beautiful. Aerialist Number Two, his split amazing. Aerialist Number Three is in a flaming aerial hoop. Is she on fire? No. Good.

What’s that sound?

And as I step into position to pass a flame from my tongue to my partner’s tongue and down the line of eight people (second number fifty-nine, midstage close shot) I realize,

That’s booing.

“Hup!” to cue the group and I set my tongue on fire, pass the flame to the right.

Have we ever been…booed before? By a sober person? With a home to go to?

Have we ever been booed by an entire audience?

No, I don’t think we have.

Not in the early years of dirt shows at two-bit medieval faires. Not at new festivals in new countries, navigating foreign social cues. Even the teenage Gypsy boys wanted attention more than to tear us down, and when I learned to say Tumen boot! I love you! in Roma, it stopped them like a switch. Not in the slums of Mumbai, stepping around eddies of trash to crack the whip. Not in Mexico, the freshly-ironed children shyly pressing single pesos and cookies into our hands.

At the eighty-seven second mark (exactly on time, exactly as William and I scripted, wide shot then cut to judges), I am already disconnected, awaiting the verdict I already know. I smile and thank the judges for their feedback. Maybe if we aren’t funny or angry, they will leave us on the cutting room floor. Even when the shock jock judge turns to the crowd, exhorting them first to cheer him and then boo us again, louder, I think only,

Those jeering young men ages 18-25 are certainly his demographic.

Even if I could win a verbal fencing match the edit would make me a Loser. A Bad Loser or a Bitter Loser or an Arrogant Loser Who Had It Coming.

The first exit interview, immediately offstage with a rapper-turned-TV-host, is called the “kiss-n-cry” by most producers. We neither kiss nor cry. I grin directly into the camera and say, “Hey, we’re already professional entertainers and this was just another gig!” and high-five the host.

Edit that like a Loser, motherfuckers.

We bail on the second exit interview, telling Aubrey we’re sorry, but we’re finished. And Aubrey, who is a local, listens shocked when we tell her about the booing and escorts us past five security checkpoints and out of the building. I hope that this lack of footage will help us be no-one, not even a two-second clip in a montage. That the mother called to the stage to be reprimanded for her six-year-old twins’ salacious choreography or the water-skiing squirrel or the girl whose father cuts her hair while blindfolded will be far more fascinating. There is nothing compelling about polite, upbeat professionals.

Later, my mother reclaims her cellphone from the audience security point and tells me that the audience was coached, their cue to boo was the crewman with the white sign in front of stage right. We learn that the audience was seeded with plants, paid to be there, knowing who wins, the locals who lined up for tickets instructed, “If someone next to you jumps up or makes an X, you do it, too!” Knowing that the contest and the voting and the judging is rigged, I don’t know why it surprises me so much that the audience is rigged, too.

America sure does have talent, but that’s not what this show is about. Talent’s not in the 90-second bites boiled into montage clips, not going with the breakdancers “Goin’ to Vegas!”, not listening to the singer stopped at two bad opening notes (this is round three—we were recruited, but that singer waited in line and has twice been told “You’re good enough!”). Talent is back in the driveway where the breakers popped and locked on flattened cardboard boxes. Talent is lip-syncing in its bedroom. Talent is hanging with the adult beginner aerialists back in the gym in Memphis, working out on borrowed equipment, their bodies aging out on borrowed time. Talent is singing with its friends in the car with the stereo up and the windows down.

And that’s the shield that keeps me gracious on mic while the 18-to-25-year-olds jump up and down, howling for our third X. Back at the hotel, showering out hairspray and removing the last of the glitter from my eyes, I wonder just how dumb this mistake will turn out to be, how many Americans this summer will see me and see a Loser. But as I hang up costumes and plan the route to the next gig, and the next gig, and the one after that, I thank the universe that I am up there taking scorn, instead of watching and dishing it out. Even standing up to boos and jeers and the caustic acid of three judges in the twilight of their celebrity—their downward trajectory still a place higher than I will likely ever reach—even that is better than waiting for opportunity to knock, for lightning to strike. Waiting for a life to begin. Waiting for a dream—any dream—to arrive.



If whipchick had taped a popular American reality show last week, she would probably be contractually obligated not to reveal the results. If she wrote about it, she'd change all the names.
 

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Comments {119}

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(no subject)

from: anonymous
date: May. 29th, 2012 01:28 am (UTC)
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Hi Allison! It's Taylor (from Germantown Starfish Circus)! I am so glad you posted this. I would have never thought that a show I believed gave the people with true talent a chance, would be such a fake and rigged joke. My brother and I read your posting outloud and felt sickened by the truth. People need to be educated on the reality behind these type of shows. I knew that when an older man who could sing the Adams family theme song was sent to Vegas, and you all were x-ed out, that something was up. I for one think you all are great, and have helped me a lot in my endeavors to learn aerial silks. Keep up the good work, hope to see you on your next stop in Memphis!

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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: May. 31st, 2012 08:24 pm (UTC)
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Thanks for the good words! In the end, for the performers it was just another gig, and some gigs are better than others.

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You did well...

from: anonymous
date: May. 29th, 2012 04:41 am (UTC)
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You did well and took the higher road. Thats class. If it's it's one thing I've learned - reality tv is only as real as the producer wants it to be. I love what you said in your exit interview! :) Ses Carny

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whipchick

Re: You did well...

from: whipchick
date: May. 31st, 2012 08:25 pm (UTC)
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Thanks, Ses - glad you liked the essay!

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(Deleted comment)

whipchick

Re: Glad someone views the experience in the same light....

from: whipchick
date: May. 31st, 2012 08:26 pm (UTC)
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Thanks, and yeah - I think a lot of viewers don't understand that "reality TV" still ends up making its own story, rather than being a documentary :)

"Not all exposure is good exposure."

Sing it :)

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Illusions Vick

Thanks

from: Illusions Vick
date: May. 31st, 2012 12:59 pm (UTC)
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Thank you for writing this piece. Sorry you had that expereince. I am one of those acts who have passed every time AGT called, reading this lets me know it was the right decision

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whipchick

Re: Thanks

from: whipchick
date: May. 31st, 2012 08:26 pm (UTC)
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You're welcome, and thank you! It's a story I'm glad I'm able to write :)

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law suit, eh?

from: anonymous
date: Jun. 4th, 2012 06:32 am (UTC)
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That was a wonderfully told story that has the ring of truth.

I hated the Gong Show and I dislike this one too ... not because I've watched either more than once but because they teach audiences that the rude way that the judges act is an appropriate response to an entertainer that one doesn't like.

I know that they salt their line-ups with intentionally bad acts so that there was a clear storyline that justified the booing and gonging and snickering threats to gong or X.

Not on reality shows but in reality, on the streets, people just keep on walking when they don't like an act and performers learn to get better or they find something less difficult to do than trying to stop strangers, gather them into a crowd, turn the crowd into an audience and then entertain them in exchange for whatever they wish to offer afterward.

These low consciousness shows play on our desire for "exposure" but you can die from exposure and the slimy situations, producers and "celebrities" depicted in your writing are real whether this is a work of reality or fiction.

I do have to wonder how far they would go with a well publicized show trial up against a smart mouth like yours. I mean, you know, ... if you were to have an experience like the one that your protagonist had. There'd be a few things to think about ... the consequences of winning or losing the law suit ... and perhaps more important, who would benefit most by the telling of this story in the court and in the press. I do think that the old show-biz dictum that there is no such thing as bad publicity might work better for street performers than for those with a secret to protect.

... just wondering.

Tom Noddy

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whipchick

Re: law suit, eh?

from: whipchick
date: Jun. 5th, 2012 03:56 pm (UTC)
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I agree about it being a poor lesson for audience members; I also find it frustrating, as an entertainer, to hear audience members say, "You're so good! You should go on America's Got Talent!" as if participation in a reality show were the "big time".

A trial would certainly be interesting :) Of course, the ultimate defense against libel is the truth, so it would be interesting to ask some TV executives, "So, does your show rig the audience to boo contestants? Because if you don't, this isn't about you, and if you do, it's not libel."

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Travis

(no subject)

from: revsphynx
date: Jun. 4th, 2012 11:58 am (UTC)
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Thanks for giving me the ammo to continue to shoot down their offers. Getting up to 10 phone calls and e-mails a season really starts to get old.

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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: Jun. 5th, 2012 03:57 pm (UTC)
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They were unusually persistent this season - I think they may be running out of people who will agree to be on the show :)

There are some excellent reasons to do a reality talent show - so if you do ever find the offer tempting, be clear with yourself about what you hope to get. Even then, it can still be surprising what you end up with.

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(no subject)

from: anonymous
date: Jun. 4th, 2012 12:51 pm (UTC)
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It's too bad this is a work of 'fiction' because I know of four acts who went through the same experience.

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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: Jun. 5th, 2012 03:58 pm (UTC)
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I've heard it's pretty common.

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David Lichtenstein

AGT

from: David Lichtenstein
date: Jun. 4th, 2012 04:13 pm (UTC)
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Hey you're writing is really good. I had a roughly similar experience with AGT, I had never seen the show and only watched a few clips in the days before. You researched AGT much better then I did and you still fell for the schtick. I found the backstage scene at Got Talent very creepy, what with them running those fake interviews over and over, softly bullying people into saying what they want them to say. I got into small conflicts with with perfectly nice production assistants because the army of PA's are there to enforce the rules and channel you in the right direction.

It was in a gorgeous old vaudeville theater in Tacoma and the collective reaction of 700 22 year old males was a very strange audience. And I've done college shows, street shows and clubs full of drinking 22 year olds, but this audience was particularly, selectively stupid. After my 30 seconds, and my two X's the celebrity judges tried to give me a hard time, but they are slow too and I cut them off. I hope that doesn't sound snobby, I don't call people stupid often, but it's a strange atmosphere they build up there.

Afterwards I was afraid that my AGT "rejection" would come up at the top of google video searches for me for years. But no. Although many people over the last couple of years have recognized me from my 2 seconds of fame, (And every time they do I think "you watch that shit?") but the clip is nearly impossible to find on the web because the AGT army of legal assistants keeps it off youtube.

If only a real variety show, like Le Plus Grand Cabaret du Monde, had become the international TV standard.
Leapin' Louie david at comedytricks dot com

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whipchick

Re: AGT

from: whipchick
date: Jun. 5th, 2012 04:00 pm (UTC)
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I think your assessment of the backstage culture there is spot on - and I'll say, they are very, very good at their jobs!

Wouldn't it be amazing to have a real variety show on TV? Years ago there was a show called The Secret Cabaret on British TV that was wonderful.

On the up side, we won on Dragon's Den in Canada a few years ago, so that was probably our reality show karma :)

Thanks for stopping by, and I'm so pleased you enjoyed the writing. I've heard of you for years, and it's a pleasure to cross paths!

Allison

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been there learned that

from: anonymous
date: Jun. 4th, 2012 04:39 pm (UTC)
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Thanks. As a veteran of that particular foreign war I can nod sagely and try not to remember the more painful moments.

"It's television!" is the line from one producer that still rings in my ears. She said that just about every time they did something fairly despicable by real world standards. Imagine someone chirping, "it's disembowelment!" in a cheery, British accent and you'll get close to what it was like.

You put your heart into it, and your time and money. You get little if any support from the production people until at least the third round. Even then, if you're not singing or dancing, it won't be much.

I tore a muscle in my arm the day of my last stunt, and because of my limited range of motion I failed to get a critical piece of gear on straight. The end result of that mis-adjustment more or less spoiled the trick--though the stunt was no less dangerous.

I got off easy, only being accused of trying to cheat in front of millions of viewers on live TV. (Too long a story to explain.)

If you're a variety act and you choose to go for it, know that all you have any business hoping for is a few seconds of good video. (Also, if you do magic and happen to employ an equivoque, know that the editors don't care what they cut out or put out of order--even if the trick makes no sense when they're done.)

In the end I got what I wanted out of it, but the price was much higher than I expected.

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whipchick

Re: been there learned that

from: whipchick
date: Jun. 5th, 2012 04:02 pm (UTC)
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I'm glad you were able to pull something positive from your experience; for me, I got a good piece of writing and the personal victory of holding my composure under stress, which was a first for me!

In real life, I got lucky - 5 seconds in a montage, no name.

Now I have to go look up what an equivoque is :)

Thanks for your insight - and thanks for stopping by.

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Nicholas Penney

Wow

from: Nicholas Penney
date: Jun. 5th, 2012 04:43 am (UTC)
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The reason I feel tv rots the mind is because of stories like this. I hate tv, that's why I became a performance artist lol. At best, I watch documentaries, I rather learn something in my free time

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whipchick

Re: Wow

from: whipchick
date: Jun. 5th, 2012 04:03 pm (UTC)
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I'm not a huge TV person - but I'll admit, reality TV is a guilty pleasure of mine when I'm cleaning house and need something silly to listen to!

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skivee

About that...

from: skivee
date: Jun. 5th, 2012 06:07 am (UTC)
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Have I told you lately how much I love you? *Muwah*
some friends reported much the same culture of lies in the supposed redo of a local restaurant. And, yes, the customer's were shills on that show as well. One server was told by the show to make a certain mistake, then fired for doing it...for real. She got her job back days later, but they really screwed with her.
Other insults and problems were staged for the cameras at the instruction of the crew, then ripped on by the host.
A nasty bunch of Imperious jerks.
...and the great unwashed think that this is reality. This is why the far right gets traction.

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whipchick

Re: About that...

from: whipchick
date: Jun. 7th, 2012 04:02 am (UTC)
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Wow. Yeah, and in the long run, we won one reality show, so I guess I can't complain! Glad you liked the piece :) Miss you!!

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times they are a changing

wow...

from: thedamenoir
date: Jun. 5th, 2012 08:29 pm (UTC)
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A friend of mine posted this to her page and I read it... this was almost exactly my experience. Me and my partner smiled through all the prodding interviews that tried so desperately to get us to say something stupid or angry, and we left heads held high with smiles on our bright red lips. But I have to say, knowing the boos are planted is a very healing thing for me. The room was huge, and filled to the teeth with people who screamed hatefully and cruelly at us. To have what was probably 800 people booing you off the stage... and let's not even talk about the british comments...

Thank you so much for sharing your story. It makes my personal experience seem less overwhelming... even though it was years ago.

Keep being glittery and fabulous, darling!

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whipchick

Re: wow...

from: whipchick
date: Jun. 7th, 2012 04:04 am (UTC)
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I'm really glad this was helpful for you - when I got this comment, it made me think, yeah, that's why I'm writing about it - we're not alone.

Glitter glitter all the way!

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(Deleted comment)

whipchick

Re: We had the same thing happen...

from: whipchick
date: Jun. 13th, 2012 07:23 pm (UTC)
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I'm glad you found this helpful - your comment really warmed my heart. It's nice to know we're not alone, isn't it? I'm glad you also came out OK and strong in your resolve!

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not hothead

(no subject)

from: not_hothead_yet
date: Jun. 5th, 2012 09:05 pm (UTC)
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absolutely awesome, the story and the telling.

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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: Jun. 13th, 2012 07:23 pm (UTC)
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Thank you :)

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Honesty in a Reality Show? Impossible.

from: anonymous
date: Jun. 5th, 2012 11:05 pm (UTC)
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TY for what you wrote. After my BFF was on "Spouse trade" and told me all about her experience I can't watch "reality" shows any more, not even DWTS.

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whipchick

Re: Honesty in a Reality Show? Impossible.

from: whipchick
date: Jun. 13th, 2012 07:24 pm (UTC)
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It's tough - I have to admit I do enjoy some reality shows, but I'm a lot more conscious about seeing the participants as (unwitting) actors rather than accepting it as a real portrayal of their personalities.

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