Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Fear and Loathing in the Showcase Showdown


Neither Geoff nor I had ever consumed peyote, but we both agreed the experience must be something like a taping of The Price is Right.

Consider the similarities:

Distortion of time and space

The first noticeable similarity between the taping of The Price is Right and a psychedelic experience was the complete distortion of time and space. Throughout the day, I experienced persistent confusion over what time and day it was and where I was supposed to be. This began immediately as I took my spot in line behind 246 other people on Beverly Boulevard at 4 a.m. on a Tuesday morning (after coming home from the El-P show and only sleeping for one hour). It lasted throughout the day; a day that ended with piles of free cheese samples from Whole Foods, picking Drew up from LAX and eating pizza while Geoff played God of War II. By the time the whole thing was over, it felt as though one week had passed.

Heightened awareness of bodily functions

I wasn't cold during the first hour I stood in line; probably because I was distracted by Super Mario on my Nintendo DS. But by 5 a.m., I had to put the DS away because my hands were going numb and I had to draw them into the sleeves of my hoodie to get my blood flowing again. But the hoodie wasn't enough to keep my body from convulsing and I shivered violently for the next hour and a half, well after the sun came up and Geoff and Ryan arrived in time to receive the first of our passes at 6 a.m.

Repetition and Cycles

Attending a taping of The Price is Right involved a lot of standing in line and waiting for pieces of colored paper with numbers on them, which were exchanged for other pieces of colored paper with numbers on them, etc. etc., ad nauseam.

First, we had to wait in line to get an "order of arrival" pass at 6 a.m.
Then, we got to leave, but had to come back by 8 a.m. to wait in another line for a "priority" pass.
Then, we got to leave again, but had to come back by 10 a.m. to get our "final" pass.

Then, we waited in the CBS holding area (a patio with a few metal benches) to exchange our final pass for an identification card, and exchange our identification card for a cardboard badge, and exchange our cardboard badge for a Pricetag Nametag. We sat there, lined up numerically, from 10 a.m till 1:30 p.m., until we were finally taken around the corner in groups of ten for interviews.

Delusions of grandeur

"What if we assassinated Bob Barker?" Yes, this is what Geoff asked me as he drove to Starbucks during our first break. The route to the nearest Starbucks from Echo Park seemed unnecessarily lengthy and, for a second, I was convinced he was driving me to a gun shop in Glendale -- but, nope, it was just a Starbucks.

The familiar becomes strange

After Starbucks, we returned to CBS studios and parked at The Grove. The Grove is a very strange place at 7:30 a.m. It's abandoned, except for a team of Latino janitors scrubbing the floors and fountains. And the music -- that ambient jazz still plays at 7:30 a.m., even though the place is deserted.

The strange becomes familiar

After we got our second pass at 8 a.m., the "priority seating" pass, we were released for our second break and walked over to Pan Pacific Regional Park. None of us had ever been to the park before, and I think we were all surprised by its size and amusements. Besides a soccer field, a pirate-themed playground, and plenty of open space, it also has a Holocaust memorial and a smattering of 70's era fitness equipment -- monkey bars, balance beams, and wooden posts of various sizes.

Unusual cravings

After we left Pan Pacific Regional Park we decided we should eat something else to prepare us for the long day ahead; something with more nutritional value than a Starbucks donut. So we walked over to the Farmer's Market but, in spite of its diverse offerings, couldn't find anything we wanted. We finally settled on two different kinds of sliced salami from Mr. Marcel's Gourmet Market (both delicious).


Back in the holding pen, we were smashed together with our fellow contestants, most of whom were from elsewhere in the US and had that certain middle-American varnish, if you will. Many were shouting and singing at the encouragement of the PAs. One off-duty PA -- to torture us? -- stopped by to lead the crowd in a few renditions of "The Brady Bunch" and other popular and intolerable television theme songs.

We had to sit there for three hours.

Periods of intense introspection

At 1:30 p.m., we were finally allowed to leave our metal benches and walk around the corner to sit on more metal benches, to be interviewed by a producer in groups of ten. This is how they choose the contestants. The producer only asks two questions -- where you're from and what you do -- so you better have yourself summed up in a pithy, enthusiastic answer. After thinking about it for awhile, all my tired brain could come up with was, "I'm a writer from Los Angeles." This will not get you on the show. Apparently, screaming "WHOEVER GETS ON THE SHOWCASE, IMA JUMPIN' ONSTAGE WITH YA!" will.

Sensory overload

The theater is just as trippy as you might imagine, with its day-glo banana yellows and electric oranges and whatnot, but it's even trippier in person because everything's smaller than you expected, and tangible. And the intolerable crowd you've spent the last four hours with keeps chanting and screaming for Barker's blood on cue.

Heartbreaking revelations of the human condition

I had to wonder how others in the audience, many of whom had traveled across the country and had been standing in line since 5 p.m. the previous day, could maintain their unflagging enthusiasm throughout the entire grueling process. Even though all I had to do was take a day off work and drive 10 minutes down the street, my own enthusiasm had been beaten down and sullied. I suspect that the Price is Right die-hards were sustained by the magic of television and their overwhelming desire for 15 minutes fame. Until the era of Reality TV, The Price is Right was the easiest way for the common man to a) get on television and b) win big -- you didn't have to know the name of the seventh Pope; you just had to fill out a self-addressed stamped envelope, fly to Los Angeles, and pay careful attention to the price of laundry detergent. A contestent can enter the studio as an Average Joe, but he can return home as a Star, forever known in his small town as the guy who won the drum set on the Showcase Showdown.

Finding God

Or maybe it really is just Bob. Because in spite of my exhaustion, and disappointment at being seated in the WORST seat in the house (in the front row, but in front of the announcer's podium, which blocked most of the view), Barker charmed my middle-American soul like only he can. It was kind of like the ultimate Sick Day -- I was tired, let down, bored and beaten, but then Barker took the stage and made everything okay.

Irreversible, life-changing experience

For better or worse, I will never feel the same after The Price is Right. It was like peering into something you were never meant to see: you feel privileged for the view, but soiled by the knowledge. Like when Dorothy sees the Wizard. Or when Ashton Kutcher travels through time in The Butterfly Effect. Or when Scientologists go out on boats and learn that L. Ron Hubbard is God.

Many thanks to G n' R for going with me -- I couldn't have done it without you guys.

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