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."
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.
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.