For many people reality television is a new way of life. America’s eyes are glued weekly to situation reality programs like “the Real World” and reality game and talent shows, like ‘America’s Got Talent.’ Since my wife Barbara and I were on America’s Got Talent (AGT) back in July, we have been asked many times what it was like to be a part of such a program. My party line answer has been that it was fun but also exhausting. I rarely get the opportunity to tell people what I mean by that, however. So, I wanted to share the experience with everyone from my own point of view, beginning with how we got involved with the show in the first place.
Barbara, who’s stage name is ‘Scout,’ and I have been on other national television programs before. After appearing on the now defunct WB network’s “Steve Harvey’s Big Time Challenge,” in March of 2005 we were contacted by several TV shows, including ABC’s failed “Masters of Champions,” and the Ellen Degeneris daytime talk show. Producers from all of the programs who contacted us were primarily interested in what we had done on the Steve Harvey appearance.
We are whip artists. That means we entertain people using various kinds of whips to perform dangerous-looking feats of daring. In 2005, I created the “candle whippers” routine. This routine involves two whips, seven candles, and a lot of energy. I crack both whips, twice each, at the same time and extinguish one candle at a time held about 10 feet in front of me on a horizontal stick by Scout.
I came up with that routine after a call from the Steve Harvey producers to show them my best trick. They had found me by way of an internet search and were curious about candle snuffing, since that was in my list of whip stunts. They asked for a video so I created the dual-whip candle routine from a desperate attempt to come up with something unique. We video taped what I thought was a really bad version of it and sent it off to the big wigs at the WB. From there things pretty much went on auto pilot. We got on the show, which was a ‘contest’ for $10,000, a guy who put rattlesnakes in his mouth beat us, and we went home. I guess you always lose out to good old-fashioned creepiness.
As glamorous, well-run, and exciting as these programs might seem from the comfort of your living room, behind the scenes they are anything but organized. They do a tremendous job at making everything work out in the end. But, unlike a movie production or live repetitive show, like a daytime talk show, the production crews of these shows struggle to put together what I call assembly line entertainment.
That means that they, like a situation comedy series, have to crank out a program either on a daily or weekly basis and have each one be at least of the same quality, or better. This is nearly an impossible task in itself but add to that the need to find entertaining or even ridiculously bad talent to place on an elimination list for a show like Americas Got Talent, and you have something even more difficult the assembly line method. They struggle weekly to find acts to put on their shows to keep the viewers either entertained or stunned enough to keep watching.
Back in February 2006 I got a call from two television programs from competing networks literally within hours of each other. ABC had a show in the works called “Masters of Champions” and NBC was working on a concept called “America’s Got Talent.” The NBC show was conceived first, if my information is correct, and the ABC program was a poorly-attempted facsimile. Producers from both shows had seen our appearance on the Steve Harvey’s program.
Now let me clarify something. People, and by people I mean performers who are trying to sound important, always get dramatic when they say things like ‘the producer called me.” They should really tone that down a bit. A ‘producer,’ in this context, is someone who is assigned a particular part of the show and is required to oversee the production of that segment. In the case of these reality game shows, the producers are working essentially as talent wranglers. Its their job to secure talent from either the base of working performers to which they have access, or, if the program is a talent show like AGT or American Idol, from the general population by way of some type of audition process. In many cases the programs have dozens of producers and production assistants who drift from project to project doing similar work for each.
The first producer who reached me was from the ABC show, “Masters of Champions.” This was to be a program where people with very specific skills or talents would be set to compete in a series of challenges against people of similar skills. Each competitor would be using his or her skill to achieve the final goal of the stunt. In our case, they requested a demo video of our work and some biographical information. They had already decided they wanted us on the show but now they needed to see where my whip skills fit their layout. I heard from them about a week after sending off the information they requested. If you watched “Master of Champions” at all, you’ll note that Scout and I did not appear on that program this year. Here’s why.
First they had no one to pair me up against in competition. Secondly, they couldn’t figure out what to have me do. Their only suggestion was one that moved me to decide not to be a part of the program at all. They wanted me to use two whips, as with the candle routine, and cut up fruit like a couple of kitchen knives worthy of a Ronco label. Scout was to be dressed in a sort of Carmen Miranda tropical fruit-covered outfit while I would be clothed in something more suited a fruit-juice salesman somewhere in the south Pacific. They wanted me to chop up the various pieces of fruit and put them into a blender to make a whip-cut fruit smoothie. Then we were all supposed to drink it after the stunt was over. What a bad dream that would have been!
Strangely enough, after literally weeks of phone conversations, interviews, and information exchanges, I declined to appear on their show. I would like to have as much national television exposure as I can get but not at the cost of my dignity and professionalism. In any case, I had someone from “Americas Got Talent” calling and trying to convince me to come on their show as well – and thereby hangs a tale.
The “America’s Got Talent” call came, as I mentioned, within hours of the first call from ABC. They were marketing heavily and were already in the process of holding live auditions around the country and reviewing mail-in audition tapes. I, on the other hand, had never even heard of this show until they called me. I’ve never really been a fan of any reality show. I’ve never watched “Survivor” or “American Idol.” But I did know what they were and, as an entertainer, to be wary of them.
The people who contacted me were pitching an “American Idol” kind of talent show for unique acts, so I listened, though skeptically. The AGT producer went on to tell me about how we would be competing for a million bucks against acts from all over the country. We would perform and be judged by three celebrity experts. David Hasselhoff, Brandy, Pierse what’s his name? Celebrity experts? I guess if my act had consisted of running on the beach in slow motion the Hoff is your man. Maybe if you’re interested in doing a scene from a second-rate sitcom you can ask Brandy to judge your work. As for the other guy, I have no idea what his place is other than to be the token grumpy English guy. But supersonic candle snuffing, along with most of the other talented performances on the show were out of their league.
These people didn’t bother me though. In fact, “Knight Rider” had been one of my favorite shows growing up and I was looking forward to meeting Hasselhoff just because of that. But my big concern was being unable to compete against larger flashier acts than anything we would be doing. Plus, had we been chosen to move ahead at all, the time commitment would have been enormous. Besides, the reality of it is that even if we had moved ahead, we would have been killed off eventually. So, we would have all of this time in for no real reward. Contrary to popular belief, you get nothing if you don’t win. There’s no second prize. You get your five minutes of fame and are quickly forgotten. It wasn’t a time commitment I was willing to make only to get our skills and performance trampled by blowhard Hollywood has-beens. So, I respectfully declined to appear on the program.
Unwilling to let us go, the producer who contacted me persisted in trying to get us on the show. She had worked on Steve Harvey’s program and felt that we deserved a second chance after losing to the snake guy by only one point. We received yet another call. This time they had a new concept. A few weeks had gone by and the program was picking up speed. It was growing in popularity and they had added more episodes to stretch the final outcome and add in more acts to compete for the million. They had built in a ‘result show,’ where the outcomes of the previous episode would be revealed in a dramatic way.
The problem was that they overloaded the show. It was time-heavy and talent-light. Of course, that could be said about the entire season. The final crescendo of each results program would be the announcement of the winner of that particular group. This person would move on to the final competition and closer to their million. But that only took about fifteen minutes, including another performance. They had almost 45 minutes to kill.
The producers of the show had decided to hold a secondary competition during the results show. It would be made up primarily of people who had been cut from auditions or those chosen from the talent base known by each individual producer. The audience rather than the celebrities would be the judges of this particular contest. Also, should we win we would only be required to return once more. After a lot of thought, I finally agreed. But now comes the long story that just isn’t right in short form.
We had accepted the request to appear on the show but a lot would happen between May, when the second call came, and July when we were to appear. In the process of ironing out details of our appearance I was asked many times, by different production personnel, to explain what it is we do. Over and over again I went into the explanation of the candle routine they were asking me about. “Wait a second,” I asked repeatedly, “don’t you have the video you asked me to send you?” “Yes,” each one would respond. “Did you watch it? Has anyone seen it,” I asked. After an awkward silence, each person would pass the buck to someone else saying that the other person had watched the video of our act. Each time whoever I was speaking with named someone I had already spoken with who had not seen the tape but named yet someone else who had. So part of the difficulty was trying to explain exactly what we do over and over again to people who weren’t really responsible for knowing about it in the first place.
Even more frustrating was the timeframe we were to be given on the show. I was originally told that we would have two minutes, but that they wanted the ‘candle whippers’ routine, which barely lasts 25 seconds. I was still unsure what else to do. We were told to come out with our “best thing.” When I asked why, I was told we could actually be, for lack of a better word, ‘gonged’ off of the program and have our time cut short. That was an annoying proposition – to go through of this just to get the hook?
When you put a stage show together you do it in a method that builds drama and excitement for the audience. One trick leads to another each time getting a bit more challenging – at least it looks that way to the audience. This leads to a great finish and leaves the onlookers speechless – you hope. So the idea of coming out with our best thing first was going to be a task for me. As preparations progressed our stage time was being whittled away little by little until, in the final show, we got just about 40 seconds to do the best thing we had. So already this whole process is insane and here in our story, we haven’t even gotten to California yet.
The next nerve racking part of this was the application process. Even though their producers had called us, and not the other way around, we were still required to complete all the standard application paperwork. The application included a thirty-some-odd page background check that was incredibly invasive considering we were just going on a game show. Between Scout and me we filled out over 67 pages of documents just to appear on the program for about 45 seconds. The NBC legal department did a thorough criminal, financial, and employment background check and we waited – and waited.
Weeks passed and Scout and I were ironing out our performance that would ultimately conclude with the ‘candle whippers’ routine as the finale. Then came yet more call from the production staff. “Would you be willing to try to set a record on TV during your routine,” they asked? “Sure,” I said, what record?” They had no idea. They had been talking to the Guinness Book of World Records about having participants try to set various records during the results show instead of a general competition. I already have a pending world record, but they wanted me to figure out something different to do on their program but, all of that that eventually went away. Only Camille Trout, the hula-hoop artist, ended up doing a world record attempt.
Finally, after a last minute interview by the NBC attorneys the night before we were scheduled to leave, yes I said the night before, were on our way to Hollywood. We got the call about 3PM on the day were supposed to leave and they had scheduled us to be at the airport for a 6:30PM flight from Columbus, Ohio to Los Angeles. We arrived at the Columbus airport with barely an hour and a half to spare but there was yet another glitch. Our tickets hadn’t been entered to the airline’s system yet. The travel agency used by AGT’s production company had not yet processed the payment for our tickets. In panic, I called the travel coordinator at NBC asking what we were to do. “Just give it another five minutes, and try again,” he said. So we waited for about five minutes and the transmission finally came through to the clerk’s console. Finally, we were on the move – sort of.
The flight from Columbus to Chicago, where we were to catch our connecting flight to Los Angeles, was uneventful. Unfortunately, after boarding the connecting flight we ended up sitting on the runway for almost two hours due to a power failure on the west cost causing the loss of air traffic control from Las Vegas to San Diego. The pilot informed us we were going back to the gate, and within a few minutes of our parking again someone fixed the problem and we turned around and headed out again – two and a half hours later.
After a long flight, made longer by the shut down of LAX and most of the other major airports on the west coast, we finally arrived at the hotel in Los Angeles at about 2AM California time. Yep, it was 5 in the morning to us. We were exhausted but we had a 7:30AM call to meet the ride to the studio. We were scheduled to be on the set at 8:30AM for a full day of rehearsal. The next morning, still not well rested, we scarfed down breakfast and headed to the van waiting to take us to Paramount Studios in Hollywood, about an hour-long drive from the hotel because of LA’s crazy traffic.
At the Paramount lot, the rehearsals consist of a lot of waiting. We were housed on Stage 11 and the AGT set is on Stage 16, just down the street. Stage 11 was to be our new home when we weren’t on the set. When I say ‘stage’ I am talking about an enormous, airline hangar-type building with sound-proof fabric and wire mesh on the inside walls used to house different movie and television sets. The various stage buildings we were working in on the Paramount lot were where Star Trek: Voyager, Mission Impossible III, and many other well known films and TV shows were made. This section of Paramount was built to produce Jerry Lewis movies in the late 1950s and 60s and is known as the “Jerry Lewis Wing.”
In Stage 11, Scout and I cleared out a large area and surrounded it with folding chairs to make a perimeter so I could practice without people walking into my whips. There were dozens of other folding chairs grouped in clusters all around the building. Clearly, people made camp here in the long days before the shooting of each installment. Since you had to be accessible on a moment’s notice by the production staff, they wanted everyone kept in one place. So once you were there, you didn’t leave until the end of the day.
Because of the sheer size of the room, most people had enough space to practice and relax between rehearsals. Also in the huge room, there was a table full of snacks, beverages, and other refreshments. This is known as the ‘craft services’ table. This tradition came about as a necessity on film and television studio sets because of the unbelievably long work days. Craft services provide snacks all day, hot breakfasts, lunches, and dinners for the cast and crew.
Along with our food service, the production assistants were left with us throughout the day. It was their job to make sure we were where we were supposed to be when we were called to be there. We called them the ‘babysitters.’ Scout and I had two more people assigned to us because of our unbelievably dangerous candles (insert sarcastic tone here).
We had a effects specialist named Eric and a fire marshal that were our shadows the entire time we were on the studio lot. We were not to even get the candles out, much less light them unless those two guys were there. Eric proved very helpful. He found a lighter for us that would light our candles more quickly. He also helped make sure the huge cooling fans on the set were turned off to keep my candle flames steady during our runs. When the fans were on, the increased air flow caused the utility candles we use to burn faster and hotter, exposing the wicks more quickly and increasing the viability of the flame.
(Whip nerds pay attention to this part) To make the candles go out with as little effort as possible, the candle needs to be burning normally and I have to hit a space about the size of a dime right in front of the wick with air from the popper of the whip. If the candles wick is too high, the space I have to aim for becomes wider but taller requiring me to use more force to create more air and increasing the danger to Scout due to noise and wax splatter from excess wind. Removing the excess airflow from the set helped to make it easier to put out the flames and the trick flowed more smoothly. Plus, combined with the fans from the studio air conditioning, it was hard to get the candles to light in the first place with all the set fans running.
The rehearsal process is long and seems random but there is a method to the madness. It’s long, arduous and tiring and lasts all day. That process is really difficult for me at first because the production crew really has no idea how to place me us the stage, position cameras, or set stage lighting. Once I’ve done the routine a few times they eventually get how it needs to work. Usually during the first day of rehearsals we are asked to run through our act kind of quickly. During this period, we learn where they want us to stand, when to move, the order of various activities that go on during the show, and our cues.
This also serves the purpose, though maybe not by design, of making us more accustomed to being on this particular set making everyone less nervous by the time the curtain goes up on the actual show. During the last couple of dress rehearsals on the day of the live broadcast, all of the big bugs have been worked out and we then go through the whole show a couple of times with Regis there to familiarize himself with what’s going to be happening.
One thing that turned out to be a major concern was the amount of wax released by our candles onto the Plexiglas stage. The entire set is made of sheets of white or colored Plexiglas. It’s lighted from behind by neon and fluorescent lights. The crew was afraid someone would slip on the wax droplets which glazed the surface of the set where we were working.
Always thinking, the stage hands got some wax paper and taped it to the floor right behind Scouts mark – the place where we had determined she needed to stand. The wax could drip safely onto the paper which could then be removed later with little effort preventing the dangerous spot on the stage. In a taped program, this wouldn’t even be an issue since they would take the time to clear away any problems between acts. In a live broadcast however, you don’t get that luxury.
The set itself is a lot of aluminum, video displays, rear projection cameras, miles of cabling, a lot of black fabric. Oh yeah, and enough ‘duck’ tape to make Tim Allen weep. Not to mention the hundreds of people required to make all of this work. These shows are temporary. They have a shelf life. Once done, the sets need to be easily dismantled to make way for another creation, so there is little glamour behind the scenes. Unfortunately for us, it’s also designed to absorb sound.
Needless to say the acoustically absorbing surroundings affected our act worst of all. The sound absorbing fabric and wall coverings are designed to minimize back stage noises, and outside sound bleeding through to the microphones. The cracking of the whips can barely be heard in the playback of the routine and many people have commented about on chat groups that they think I didn’t crack the whips at all. On Steve Harvey’s show, they had a microphone on Scout and when the whip cracked at her chest, you heard it. They opted not to microphone her on AGT since she didn’t speak. That left the audience, at home and in the studio, unable to hear the whips crack every time. I assure you they did. Just ask Scout. By the end of the second day her ears were ringing.
Many people have asked why we only did the candle routine since it’s difficult to see from a distance and the studio did not have audience monitors like many shows use. The monitors allow the studio audience to see the close up shots the people at home see. Borrowing from another Regis Philbin program, here’s my final answer. We did the candle routine because that’s what they wanted us to do.
You really get no choice if they call you. If you audition for them they only get to see what you show them. Since we’ve been in the public eye for a while we have established signature routines. They tell you to use what they have seen and usually won’t let you vary from that. So for all of the critics out there who said I should have selected another stunt to use, like a highly visible newspaper slice, now you know part of the reason we chose the candles. Another reason was that that routine belongs to me. Everyone out there copies routines from everyone else. If you truly have something that’s yours in whatever your craft, hold on to it. Those instances are rare in the performing arts and especially in the western arena arts.
Once all of ‘orchestration’ of the show was done, it was time to go on. It was about 6PM in California and things were all ready to go. We knew our parts. We knew our marks. Each of us was given a large number to stick on our chest. The audience would use that number to vote for their favorite performance. We knew it was live. You could really tell the people who were not used to doing a live show by their tension level. But I’m not referring to the performers. I meant the crew. Clearly, these people were used to doing a taped broadcast where they could fix problems as they arise if necessary. Since Scout and I always did live stage shows, it really didn’t affect us too much.
I can’t say I’ve ever had any kind of stage fright but it can seem quite different when people are talking about millions of people watching you. In the studio though, there are fewer people in the audience than most of our regular performances so it really isn’t that intimidating. You don’t really notice the cameras because you’re busy concentrating on your work and the ‘star struck’ quality of working with Regis had worn off about the first time he referred to the 6 in our group as ‘not worth a million dollars.’ Give me a break? Did you even watch the show, Reeg?
Fortunately, even though we were all rushed through our routines, everyone did well and had a great time. Once we were all finished they herded us back to Stage 11. All of that work was over in less than five minutes. It’s kind of surreal when you’re doing it then afterward it just seems like a daydream because it went so quickly. Back at stage 11, I got the idea to put our show number stickers on pieces of colored paper and use them for autographs. We spent the last half hour at the studio changing out of sweat-soaked costumes, packing our gear, taking pictures, and signing each other’s number stickers.
Around 7PM, we climbed into our van for the ride back to the hotel. We were all happy with the outcome and we were all talking about getting to the hotel in time to get some dinner and watch the show together. Since the show aired on a 3 hour delay in California, we still had the opportunity to see our show that night, even after the rest of the country had seen it live. Our AGT companions commandeered a side room in the hotel restaurant boasting a big-screen plasma TV on the wall. We got to watch ourselves and cheer for each other once again.
After a good dinner, we all sat around and chatted a while before calling it a night. It was an exhausting week but a lot of fun. Scout and I finally got a good night sleep and hopped a plane back to Ohio the next morning. We were home by 5PM and it was all behind us.
Thanks to our new found friends, Larry, Camille, The Douglas Lee, and Nicolas, and none of us taking it too seriously, a very stressful and difficult experience was instead a great time. I would do it again myself, but it isn’t for everyone. If you are interested in being on one of these kinds of shows, but need to have everything your way, you might want to reconsider before going to an audition. These people are pros and will work with you as much as they have liberty to, but if you choose to give producers a hard time, or decide you’re a wannabe diva just keep in mind that you are replaceable. There’s always another act.
So as you can tell, it wasn’t as easy as it looked. There’s a lot that goes into a show like that. My hat’s off to all of the Million Dollar contestants who stuck it out for several weeks at a time and took abuse from people who had no business judging their talents. So many people who are big name talents these days would never have made it if they had to go on these shows. To the up and coming artists out there, keep working on your art. Keep getting better. There’s only one of you regardless of who else is doing what you do. You are unique and you can make a difference in your craft. Keep the heart and break a leg.
If you’d like to see some candid behind the scenes photos of our group of performers sent to me by cigar-box master Larry Clark, just visit our website at http://www.thewhipstudio.com.