Thursday, October 13, 2011

Deal Me In!

Four years ago, I appeared on "The Price Is Right." Now I take on "Let's Make A Deal." And this time, I got the eligibility questions out of the way up front, so game-show fanboys, you don't get to hate on me this time.

5:30am – Wake up. Get into my Royal Stewart kilt. Chug some hot cocoa and hit the road. The show time on my ticket says 11:30am, but I don't know how early I need to be at the studio to make it into the taping. Nothing on the Internet gives any clues. I figure 3 to 4 hours in advance will be fine, if the lines are anything like “The Price Is Right.” But this is a less-popular show.

6:30am – On the road, I hit the first of several traffic congestion spots on “the ten.” All through Los Angeles, cars are backing up in certain spots with no discernible explanation. Maybe too many people are trying to merge into traffic, slowing everyone down, but I don't see that happening.

7:15am – It amazes me how Angelinos put up with this every single day, sitting in cars crawling around at a snails' pace, wasting at least an hour, more likely two, out of their workdays on a backed-up stretch of concrete. You would think a massive effort would go into telecommuting and shorter work weeks, but people aren't clamoring for that. I figure if we took only 20 percent of the cars off the road through alternative work schedules, you'd see a vast improvement.

8:00am – I've gone from the 10 to the 101, also known as the “Hollywood Freeway.” But through downtown, it's more like the Hollywood Parking Lot.

8:15am – I'm in the area of Sunset Boulevard and Van Ness. My destination is the Sunset Bronson Studios, also home to KTLA-TV. But first, I have to find a place to park. I am advised I can't park in the studio lot, so I have to find someplace on the street, someplace legal, someplace safe. I loop around a few blocks, hitting the brakes once to avoid hitting a teenager who walked out in front of me in the middle of a left turn. I find a place on the street near the studio's main guard shack. I park and walk up to it, in the full regalia.

“I have tickets to 'Let's Make A Deal,'” I say to a glass box full of security agents, some overweight.

“Go down and make a left,” one guard says. “The check-in is in front of the tower.”

I walk down that way, a lone Scotsman in the morning, and look for the check-in point. But underneath the iconic mock KTLA tower is nothing but a brick wall and a gate. I can see a trailer marked “Let's Make A Deal” through the bars. But nobody's there to check me in.

There is, however, one lady sitting on a bus bench.

“Are you here for 'Let's Make A Deal?'” she asks.


“So am I! I'm the first one here!”

Angel, as she's called, has gotten here bright and early. She's a designer working out in Marina Del Rey, but she's also selling real estate – and she'd like to win some cash to help get her fashionable side going. She's wearing a costume of her own design: satin tinged with black, adorned with a giant butterfly on the front. It's classier than most of the costumes I see on the show.

9:00am – Others start arriving, some in costume, some unadorned. One lady is carrying around an M&M display box as part of her candy costume, and she's getting an offer of duct tape to hold it onto her.

Angel and I sit on the bench and watch buses roll by us with the people inside giving us a slightly puzzled stare, unaware of why were here. Hollywood power players cruise past in their luxury cars, phones pressed to ears. A man rolls up in a battered car and takes a cell-phone picture of the Scotsman and the Butterfly lady he just saw out his side window.

“I knew that was going to happen,” I say.

9:30am – The sun is reminding me that this is going to be an unusually hot day for October in Los Angeles. It should be 20 degrees cooler than it is, and I'm wearing three layers of clothing. But I'm willing to wait.

10am – One of the contestant coordinators comes out and starts passing paperwork down the lines. I know the drill. Read the rules, fill out the forms. This is where I have to make my full disclosure. Unlike last time, the rules are clear and on paper in front of me.

“I have an eligibility problem,” I tell one of the guys in the blue “Let's Make A Deal” polo shirts. “I work in the newsroom of a CBS affiliate. I don't have anything to do with the show, but I work for an affiliate.”

“I'll check,” he says. Maybe there's a chance. He ducks back behind inside the gate and returns a minute later.

“Sorry,” he says. “You're not eligible. But you're more than welcome to be in the audience.”

That's all I needed to hear. Just get my kilt and I on television.

10:15am – The contestant drill is a bit more comfortable than the “Price Is Right” routine. After passing through a metal detector – in which I have to take off all my clan badges and pins from my tartan sash – the staff leads us to a pair of trailers. In one, we turn in our paperwork and get two pictures taken: one for records purposes, and another for a souvenir. Stand in front of a green wall, look excited, and the photo wizards will superimpose you over a still picture of the LMAD set.

It's a costly memento: $20 for each print. But nobody has a choice, since cell phones and cameras aren't allowed inside the studio.

A small costume shop is located inside the first trailer for those who came unadorned. If it seems like the same outfits keep reappearing on the show, it's no coincidence. The shop rents simple outfits for about $10 to $20.

10:30am – We're led to the second trailer, where our contestant producers brief us on what makes good television. First, excitement is crucial. Second, any prize is a good prize, even if you don't want it or you already have one: “Take another!”

“A couple of weeks ago we had a lady on who got a $500 gift card to Bloomingdale's,” the producer tells us. “And she says, 'I don't like to shop!'”

“Did you rip that card out of her hand?” somebody asks.

“No, but I wanted to.”

Then the interviewing begins. It's just like “Price,” as the producer goes in groups of about 15 people down the line.

Angel, on my left, is prepared. I've coached her on what producers are looking for in a contestant on the bench outside. She is full of enthusiasm: “I wanna win some Mon-EY!” She does well.

Then the producer comes to me. “Christopher.”

I bow.

“Are you from Scotland?”

“No, but my ancestors are.”

“Why do you not want to be considered as a contestant?”

He says that because the contestant number card I'm wearing below my nametag has a giant X through it.

“I would like to be eligible,” I explain. “But they tell me I can't be. But I can do a Highland Fling, though!”

11:00am – The staff leads out out to sit on a long bench outside the studio, just like “Price.” We're advised of the location of the restrooms and the snack bar, which should be opening up any minute now. I make a run for the Necessary.

11:30am – I grab some water and chips for Angel and a hot dog for myself. It's getting hotter. “I'm wearing three layers of clothing,” I explain to people, typical for the 18th Century, but not the most comfortable for 21st Century Los Angeles.

11:45am – The wait continues. I'm hoping it won't be much longer, since all the coordination work is done. The time on my ticket said 11:30. I'm thinking that wasn't an actual taping time, but a deadline time to make it into the taping. I could've come two hours later and still made it on.

Noon – Another line of contestants is parked across the narrow walkway from us. People are forming yet another line to use the restrooms. It's hot and getting hotter. But everybody's still in good spirits, eager to win money or a car or some appliances. Angel is still pumped up. I'm conserving my energy.

“You took off your hat!” she observes.

I had to. It was trapping heat.

12:30pm – A lady next to me wonders what I do for a living, and I tell her I produce television newscasts. Before long, the conversation turns to how I got into the business, how I do what I do, and how I survive it.

“First, be willing to work in a small market,” I say, taking on the slight air of an old journalism professor. “When you move up, you're going to savor those times when you were working in Lincoln, Nebraska. Second, learn to do as many things as you can, so you can have a skill set. Be versatile. Third, find a life outside the business, whether it's church, preferably, or something else. Get away from the newsroom and get a fresh perspective on life.”

Angel, who has slipped off to get into an air-conditioned trailer for a few moments, returns during the tail end of my lecture, which is leaving people either spellbound or bored. I can't tell which.

“What are you telling them?” she kids.

“How to make it in the news business.”

1pm – We're still waiting. It's still hot. I'm still wearing three layers of clothing, and even in the shade, with all of us sitting shoulder to shoulder, it's hard to stay enthusiastic. I don't know why it takes so long to get everything prepped. I'm hoping we're just a few minutes away from the studio.

“We'll be going into the studio in about 20 to 25 minutes,” a production assistant says.

I guess not.

A clipboard is circulating among us, asking us to put down our names and email addresses for future taping information. “Write quickly!” Angel announces. “The faster we get it signed, the faster we go in!”

1:30pm – Finally, we're inside Studio 1 on the Sunset Bronson lot. As always, the set looks smaller in real life than it does on TV. There's seating for about 200 people, all in costume. We won't need any paid seat fillers this day. LED lights are everywhere, along with Vari-Lites, scoops and spots overhead. Five studio cameras stand in front of the three curtains in front of us: two jib cameras and three traditional pedestal mounts. All of them are HD capable, I think, but LMAD is one of the few shows not recorded in HD.

Retro-rock warm-up music is pumping into the studio, staring with The Cars' “Just What I Needed.” And people are dancing. I'm still getting back in the spirit of things, sitting quietly and taking in the workings of a network TV production: our contestant producers are on the stage with their clipboards and pencils, making their final list of potential players. I spot a seating diagram in one of their hands, something presumably to help host Wayne Brady find those who make the cut.

1:45pm – Announcer Jonathan Magnum comes out and welcomes everybody, reiterating some of what we've heard before the contestant interviews about how to look great on TV. He introduces Cat, the show's new DJ and keyboardist, who is revving up the dance music to get everybody moving. It's a nice throwback to LMAD's early days, when Ivan Ditmars led a live band on the show.

2:00pm – Showtime at last! The crowd goes crazy for Wayne Brady, who begins the show right in the middle of the audience. He picks a couple – the man dressed as Popeye – to play the first game, “Panic Button.” They have a console with six buttons, and three open curtains with prizes in front of them. Three buttons do nothing, but three others close one of the curtains and forfeit the prize behind it. The task is to press three buttons and hope to close as few curtains as possible. The first press closes nothing. The second closes the curtain on a living-room set. But the third does nothing, leaving them with a hot tub and a motor scooter worth $10,000 total.

Wayne shows them two more buttons: one will open that closed curtain. The other will close the other two curtains. After some debate, with the lady making the decisions, they decide to take what they have and quit. It turns out the button they would've picked would've opened the closed curtains.

2:10pm – More music pumps in as the PA's get the stage ready for the next contestants and adjust some prizes behind the curtains. The commercial break takes a lot longer in the studio than it does on TV, so Cat's music keeps everybody enthused.

The next game involves three players, three envelopes, and three deals, all tradable for a curtain or a box. We see our first “Zonk” of the show, a trip to the nation's largest termite mound. According to the official rules, Zonks – the show's worthless prices – generally mean some small monetary compensation for the contestant who ends up getting them, although this isn't readily disclosed to the audience. But Wayne makes an exception for a Navy sailor who chooses a curtain and ends up with one.

“You chose to serve your country,” he says. “That's the best choice. I'm gonna give you $300.”

2:30pm – Two ladies are playing an elimination game to see who will end up with a car. Six boxes are in front of them, but only one of them has the word “Car” inside. They take turns choosing, turning down offers of money to stop. One of the ladies is somebody who has been sitting next to us all afternoon in line. Angel and I shout out numbers, but in the end, nobody ends up with the wheels.

2:30pm – “Want some candy?” Jonathan throws out Tootsie Roll pops and Tootsie Rolls as Cat spins some more music during a commercial break.

2:45pm – It's Wayne's Beauty Salon, a skit where the host and sidekick Jonathan get to dress up in fake wigs while offering a deal to a lady... who ends up getting zonked.

3:30pm – Jonathan holds a dance contest. As much as I want to do a Highland Fling, I don't get picked. Instead, three others make it, and they can dance – well.

3:45pm – Time for the Big Deal, and we're back to Popeye and his lady. Wayne asks them if they want to go for it.

“Is there a zonk?” Popeye asks.

Ugggh. Ugggh. Ugggh. If this guy actually watched the show – which Wayne points out – he'd know there's no zonks in the Big Deal, although it's possible to trade down. After hemming and hawing, this befuddled couple decides to go for it. They end up trading away the $10,000 in prizes they won for Door #3, which nets them something about $2,000 less. It's not quite a Zonk, but not the most satisfying conclusion.

3:55pm – Some audience members win money in the quickie deals if they have a make-up kit on them. One woman, unfortunately, does not. Wayne doesn't mind: “She doesn't need make up!” he announces and awards her a quick $100.

4:05pm – The PA's invite people to stay around for the second taping, but I have to hit the road. I don't want to be driving in Hollywood after dark, and I have a dinner engagement with my Dad. I came with nothing, I left with a picture, and I enjoyed the experience. Not a bad deal.

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