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One Night with Regis, Part Two

(Continued from part one...)

And then James Collier grabbed the Woman with the Clipboard and began to make Dirty Love to her right there in the middle of 67th Street while singing the theme to Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids.

Sorry. That was for cross-posting to alt.sex.erotica.teevee.

What actually happened after receiving the number 12 from the Woman with the Clipboard was I went to lunch. I needed to bulk up for the hours ahead. Also, I wanted to get indoors to warm up and feel my toes again. We were told to return at 4 o'clock and line up; I would not be late, because I would not be one of those people whose place in line would be taken by some latecomer who read the instructions on the ticket. I was an Experienced Line Person.

Somewhere between 3:30 and 4 o'clock I returned to line up only to discover that there was, in fact, a busload of Austrian tourists with special dispensation from their embassy to see Regis on line ahead of me. Or maybe they were winners of a local radio station contest or something. Whatever it was, apparently being number 12 did not, in fact, mean that I would be the twelfth person to enter the studio.

It didn't matter because I was getting in one way or another. I wasn't trained to take no for an answer.

The Woman with the Clipboard was once again joined by the second Woman with the Clipboard and again they began to shepherd the crowd into the studio. I shuffled my feet and made little "baa" noises as we were led forward. It occurred to me that the entire line would keep moving even if instead of a studio at the end we encountered a guy with a nail gun. Even so is McDonald's kept well-stocked with hamburger.

As we made our slow way in, the number of "Is that your final answer?" jokes grew to deafening proportions. No wonder it's the holder of the World Record for Shortest Time From Conception to Cliché.

We were taken in small groups of about ten to a spot just inside the door where we could prepare to go through a metal detector. This was to protect Regis Philbin, who is, of course, of utmost importance to national defense. My Swiss Army knife was taken and placed in an envelope for me to pick up on my way out; too bad I wasted all that time with the Mossad training to leap over the audience and kill Regis with the corkscrew.

James had to go through the metal detector several times. Eventually the security guards gave up and let him through anyway. Hint to would-be Millionaire terrorists: Wear an outfit with a lot of metal buttons, eyelets, snaps, and zippers so the guards allow you through before they find the bomb in your pants. A large chromium steel vibrator will also help speed things along through embarrassment. Feign surprise: "I left that in my pocket?"

At long last we hustled into the nerve center of ABC's dominion of the airwaves. The place where it all begins. The place from which Regis has taken over the Nielsens (the week before the taping, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? took all five of the top Nielsen positions). The studio.

The studio was very small. It looked much larger on TV. At first I thought it was perhaps because of camera angles, or focal length, or TV trickery; later I discovered it was because it didn't have Regis Philbin in it. Regis would be dwarfed by a puffy Shih Tzu.

The studio floor, in case you were wondering, was made up of plexiglass panels over a sort of bowl covered in mirror fragments. Some set designer stayed up long nights taking tokes from his hookah to think this up. I hoped he considered people of my size as I bounced across the panels to my seat.

From there I surveyed the studio. It still looked small. People scurried around setting up lights and cameras and prompters. Other people shuffled family members of contestants from here to there. Two video projection screens were set up just above and behind the audience sitting in the front of the stage; I was seated to one side, behind Regis. I realized I would be spending the whole taping looking at the back of Regis' head. Thanks to Phil and his piece on the show, all I kept thinking was "Gasbag."

Eventually everyone was in their seats. The bustling began to die down. And out came the Black Comedian to warm us up.

You know the Black Comedian. You don't know this particular guy, but you know the Black Comedian: black enough to be black, but not so black as to alienate the white folk. Hip, but not too hip. Not one of the guys from Def Comedy Jam or Showtime at the Apollo. One of the guys from Uncle Tom Tonight. You know the guy. He makes a couple of jokes about how all black people look alike to whites, maybe a fried chicken joke or two, picks on the brothers in the audience, maybe says something about how white guys can't dance. You know the guy.

He gave us some guidelines for audience behavior -- I wasn't paying attention as I was too busy warming up my voice for shouting out the answers to the stupid contestants -- and then introduced us to the show's producer, Mike Davies. You might remember Davies as the pommy Brit who gave us such wonderments as So That's the Name of the Teacher from "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and Who Said Drew Carey Could Improvise?

Davies attempted to awaken us from the line-induced coma we had all slipped into. He instructed us on how to applaud and noted which rows would be visible over Regis' and the contestant's shoulders. He pointed out that since on TV the audience appears to be a thousand strong, but is in reality a tiny group of two hundred, we all needed to clap like five people. Then he told us to keep a stiff upper lip, V for Victory and all that rot, and returned us to the urban-but-not-too-urban grip of the Black Comedian. He in turn introduced the stage manager who then took us through the various Levels of Clapping so the sound guy could set the recording levels. The Clapping Levels are: small; medium; loud; and loud with hooting. Each of these Levels can be done with a slow or quick fade. Stomping of the feet was not permitted because the set would collapse.

For the record: Ten minutes of continuous clapping is exhausting.

After the clap check my arms fell off. Then they showed us a clip from a previous episode where the contestant won a million dollars. Hey, it looks just like TV. Then the Black Comedian returned and tried to excite us by giving away t-shirts. If a person could name an American sitcom with a theme song with lyrics, and the Black Comedian couldn't sing it, he would give that person a t-shirt. If he could sing it, he would give them tickets to a comedy club. This was a little like the old joke about the contest: First prize is a week in Philadelphia, second prize is two weeks.

The woman next to me won a shirt. I examined it closely. It was not the cheapest object I've ever held but I did make a note to wash my hands after the taping.

This little game of the Black Comedian's would continue during all of the breaks for the next two hours. He even ran a round "for the brothers" in which he challenged the only two black men in the audience -- a natty fellow in a suit and James -- to sing the theme song to Good Times for a shirt. The natty fellow declined but James wrinkled his brow and dredged up from the bottom of his soul the song -- and he sang it, baby.

Just so you know: James Collier is the Black Man With No Funk. But he got his shirt anyway.

At long last, it was time to introduce the Man of the Hour. The Black Comedian wound up and brought out the only man ever named after a high school, Regis Philbin!

Regis Philbin is quite diminutive. I mean, he is really little.

"Get a good look!" Regis yelled, projecting all the way to Little Italy. "It's the only time you can see me without her!"

Not only is Regis the only man ever named after a high school, he's also the only man whose entire career consists of bitching about the date what brung him.

He made a few more hilarious comments and vanished backstage again. More t-shirts were distributed by the Black Comedian. Songs were sung badly. Meanwhile, the set was readied.

Around this time I began to realize something. The realization spread upward, starting at my inner thighs, screaming as they were from the effort of holding my legs together so they wouldn't be leaning on the people sitting on either side of me. From there it moved to my butt, which was beginning to moan softly about the naugahyde-covered steel bench it was sitting on. My lumbar region chimed in, then my middle back, then my neck, and finally I realized:

Being an audience member is grueling. I had stood on line for over an hour in the rain; then I had again stood on line for almost four hours in the frigid afternoon. After that I was engaged in a ten-minute forced clap; now I was sitting here while Mr. and Mrs. Everyperson thought up sitcom theme songs for this UPN blaxploitation reject to sing in exchange for booty. And the taping itself had yet to begin.

Next time I'm pushing for the Who Wants to Climb Mount Kilimanjaro? assignment.

Still, I sat there, along with 200 other feebleminded jerks. Because, hey, it's TV. Point a camera and a microphone at any one of us and we become sheep. Sure, we could refuse to clap. We could shout out answers to the drooling contestants. We could leap up and demand that Regis make an accounting for his existence before a just and angry Jehovah. But we don't. It would take a crypto-anarchist cynic with balls of titanium to do so. Because all the people giving you orders are so sincere. And so nice. And because, hey, it's TV. We'll do anything for TV.

Just when I was thinking of popping out for a quick epidural the taping finally began. Regis came in and all of the would-be contestants were brought in to sit at their Fast Fingers consoles around the stage and finally the first actual contestant was brought in, along with his wife, who got to sit in the special Spotlight Seat.

James and I took bets on which of the Fast Fingers contestants would be first to make it to the actual game. I chose the guy who looked like Colin Quinn because looking like Colin Quinn is a sure sign of intelligence.

The first contestant was great. He was handsome and personable. He was a graduate of Annapolis, for crying out loud -- here was a guy who, I thought, could go all the way. But then he pulled two of his lifelines for an easy question, one even having to do with water. What else do they teach in the Navy, anyway? The question: Where can the world's largest supply of fresh water be found? The Antarctic ice cap, Lake Superior, Lake Victoria, or some glacier no one outside of Norway has heard of? HelLO? Antarctica is a continent, there, buddy -- it just doesn't get any bigger than that.

By using his Call a Friend lifeline, though, he answered one question I'd had about the show. On the televised show, Regis just says, "AT&T will get them on the line now," and poof! There's Big Ed live from Skokie or wherever. On the set, Regis just says, "AT&T will get them on the line now," and poof! There's Big Ed. So apparently the contestant gives out the phone number of their lifeline before they get to the set. As to whether or not someone checks to make sure they're home, I don't know. All the lifelines were home when anyone called while I was there. But Regis' prompter, which I could read from my seat, did instruct Reege to get the proper person on the phone, so perhaps sometimes the lifeline isn't there.

More amusing, however, is that Reege's prompter also instructed him on how to answer the phone. It actually read, "HI, THIS IS REGIS PHILBIN HERE." You'd think he'd have that much covered. At other times he was expected to fly without a net: Sometimes it just read, "AD-LIB INTVW" or "MAKE KATHIE LEE RFRNCE." But making a phone call he needed help with.

Our Man from Annapolis also chose to poll the audience on a question, this one asking who wrote the Janis Joplin song "Me and Bobby McGee." I had promised myself I would be the one percent to put in the wrong answer when this came up, but I liked the Man from Annapolis, and anyway this was a genuinely difficult question, and one I knew the answer to, so I answered "Kris Kristofferson" (Bobby McGee was originally a girl's name, but Janis turned it around -- I knew listening to classic rock would come in handy someday).

Finally, though, Annapolis Guy blinked. After $250,000 he hit the question asking what Newton Minow was referring to when he used the phrase "vast wasteland." James and I knew the answer was television, but then we are the vast wasteland experts.

So the Man from Annapolis left the stage. And Regis, who on the show appears to walk upstage to stand, actually walked upstage, turned and stood on two helpful footprints marked on the floor, and then spun and walked offstage. This was followed by much bustling as cameramen moved around and the Woman from Annapolis was hustled off to hug her new money. In a little while, Regis returned and stood on his mark and the taping began again. On TV, this looks as if it all happens right in a row.

During the first part of this taping I was mesmerized, not by Mr. Annapolis' performance, but by the simple mechanics of running this show. For certain shots, the two roving cameramen would move down steps, or back up, and unfold tripods, all in complete silence. The boom camera would swoop in or out. I found myself sometimes watching the studio monitors instead of the actual action; apparently, given the choice between live and Memorex, I prefer Memorex. Before a commercial break Regis' prompter would read "THROW TO BREAK." Whenever we applauded, Regis was inaudible, so we missed much of his throwing to break; we had to follow the waving stage manager with our clapping.

And before we returned from one of the breaks, the stage manager called out "SUBFLOOR!" whereupon several people rushed out from the wings. They used suction cups to remove one of the plexiglass floor panels and replace it with a nice clean one (people had been walking on the original one); then two men lifted the panel behind that one and waited. The boom camera was lowered into the opening, below the floor; in order to do this one of the roving cameramen had come over and pointed his camera at the boom camera, so the boom guy could see on the monitor that his camera didn't hit anything going in. Then Regis returned from the break and videotape started rolling; the boom camera took its shot of Regis and Mr. Annapolis from under the floor and swept upwards as the two subfloor guys moved forward, replaced the plexiglass, and ran off back into the wings -- in complete silence.

Bet you had no idea how complicated that simple-looking five second shot was.

So after the Man from Annapolis chickened out, it was time for the Fast Fingers round. And my man Colin Quinn won. Pay up, Collier, you stud.

There was an immediate break as someone had to go get Colin's friend or family and put them in the Spotlight Seat. Colin's "friend" arrived. Our friend Colin has a life partner, it seems.

Colin didn't do as well as Mr. Annapolis, despite being a Harvard Law grad. His Ask the Audience question was "Where do golfers putt?" and I gleefully entered "sand trap." Then he got stumped on the $250,000 question, even after calling a friend: "In Vladimir Nabokov's novel Lolita, what was the title character's real name?" I cannot believe anyone doesn't know this, especially not an English major-Harvard Law grad-turned actor, but there you go. (The correct answer is "Dolores.")

Another Fast Fingers round brought us Schoolmarm, a bright-eyed schoolteacher who burned through several questions before we finally ran out of time. And believe me, we couldn't wait. By the time Schoolmarm was answering Regis' questions, I had discovered the "grue" in "grueling" -- it was trying to climb up my ass.

After all of this, I had found that being a contestant on Millionaire is both easier and harder than it looks. The problem of being halfway intelligent in front of 278 trillion people vanishes in the studio; the damned show doesn't even go out live and the cameras are almost invisible. All you need to do is be halfway intelligent in front of 200 people or so, and with all the handy things to distract you -- the little computer screen, your glass of Poland Spring water, Regis Philbin's giant head -- even that can't be hard.

However, there are occasional technical glitches, and these can be cruel. The Man from Annapolis, for example, asked for his 50/50 lifeline (on the question about fresh water), whereupon the computers stopped working and he had to sit there for ten minutes contemplating his answer while the bug was worked out. Ten minutes of sweating, of waiting, of tension. Not the measly ten seconds it will appear to be on the show when it airs Sunday. During Colin's stint there was a fifteen minute pause after he gave one of his answers while various things were worked upon; no one explained why there was the pause, but there it was. Poor Colin was stuck twisting in the wind of Mr. Philbin.

There is one final ignominy. After the taping is through, any questions Regis flubbed have to be re-recorded. Apparently never having heard of looping, the stage manager then has to go get Regis and the contestant -- who has, by now, slunk off with his tail between his legs -- and have them recreate the scene where Regis reads the question. So when Regis is reading the question about Lolita on the show, the Colin sitting there is not the Colin who has to answer that question, but the Colin who already whiffed the question and lost his chance at a million dollars.

And as if returning to the scene of your defeat isn't humiliating enough, right after he reads the question again Regis takes great pleasure in bellowing out, "WRONG!" right in your face. Because, after all, he's been dying to do that all night. All season, in fact.

The show was over. The retakes were finished. Regis thanked us and disappeared like a whack-a-mole. The contestants went off to sleep with their new-found wealth. The Fast Fingers people drifted off, their shot at fame and fortune swirling around the ABC bowl. The Black Comedian tossed away his last t-shirt. I picked up my knife as we were ushered out into the night.

And I returned to my corner of the TeeVee stable and began to write, my only company the clicking of my keyboard. And Collier's mad howling over his t-shirt victory.


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