What Have We Done for Us Lately? by Burt Ritchie
Wanda Sykes was funny. So was the Dog Whisperer, Cesar Milan. He brought a rap star’s pit bull and made the pooch growl at the host, Carson Daly, on command. Everyone in the audience loved it.
But these were fleeting moments of redemption in a miserable presentation. Carson Daly was insufferably flat. His timing was horrid in a way that made people who knew nothing of comic timing feel like impresarios. But still, even this lack would be redeemable had the host shown even the slightest bit of empathy for the crowd. He didn’t.
But the audience was compensated, monetarily. Their time was gone, but it was replaced with cash. If they made it through two hours they were generously rewarded with twenty-five tax-free dollars placed directly in their hands as they exited Stage 9.
The man who handed out the money had a ponytail streaked with grey. He wore glasses and t-shirts. Each and every one of the individuals he gave money to had answered the same ad on Craigslist. They had called him on the telephone. He was plenty cordial and amply curt.
All they had to tell him was their name. Not just anyone was allowed in the Universal Burbank gates. Carson Daly’s show may have been a joke, but right next-door Ellen was filmed. Somewhere else on the property was Jay Leno. Young NBC pages were everywhere -smug in their navy blue jackets, working towards fulfilling the dream of getting paid to work in the television industry,
If you were on time, dressed nice, the man with the ponytail might ask you to return. If you were an attractive female able to sustain conversation, you were moved into the front row. Maybe Carson Daly would notice you, maybe someone in the band, maybe not. There are plenty of actresses in Burbank.
But there was one more option. You might also be asked to attend some other event that compensated at least as well. These things could be great gateways, or more likely, another tedious set of hours fake-laughing. But a lucky few were known to move on to being corpses on ER or car bomb victims on Law and Order - tasks that require more than the ability to clap when you are bored.
One such offer was extended to a somewhat timid young man. He was new to the LA thing, but not the world. He wasn’t interested in being toyed with and had no movie star aspirations. Heaven help the fool.
Sensing a kindred spirit, the man with the cash softly asked, “Are you available on Friday night?”
Our young man was new, but not so new that he didn’t know the answer, and how fast he was supposed to deliver it. “Yes, sir.” The sir might have been a little much.
“Can you come to a filming on the CBS lot? In Hollywood? It is a political show. Dress nice like you did tonight.”
“Be there at 6:45. If you are late, you are out.”
Throughout the entire conversation they both had their hands on the money.
So, several bowls of ramen noodles, a few bouts with fitful sleeplessness on his friend’s couch, some televised World Series games, and many walks around suburban Sherman Oaks later: Friday came.
The CBS crowd was a whole different beast than the one at NBC. Everyone gathered beneath a row of palm trees in a courtyard. Some of the Carson Daly regulars were there –the woman who went wild with her plastic surgery, the Asian frat boys. Our young man sat there with them on a short concrete wall that housed a bed of wilting flowers.
“Ok, listen up,” the man with the ponytail greeted them after checking them in and allowing for general milling, “this is Real Time with Bill Maher. That means it is live. That is what real time means. You got it? That means you have to keep it together and be reasonable. This page has something he wants to tell you too.”
A worried blonde boy muttered underneath his breath. “I’m not a page.” But he had on the jacket. Herding this crowd of delinquents was just one in a string of nearly impossible tasks he had been assigned. He felt destined to fail. “Ok, this is a quality show. People pay to come see this. The reason we have you here is because the crowd is mostly Hollywood liberal types. But we want to attract all sorts of guests. So your job is to clap, applaud, laugh, and generally support anything conservative or Republican. Can you do that?”
Everyone knew the right answer, nodded.
“Oh, and the only other thing is you won’t be sitting together. You will just be filling in wherever there are available seats. Above all else do not let the people you are sitting next to know that you are being paid. I repeat: at all costs do not allow anyone else to know you are getting paid.”
Our boss chimed in, “In fact just forget you’re getting paid from now until I put the money in your hand. Enjoy the show. Be bastard Republicans. By the way, Cardinals just won the World Series.”
Our young man tried to register some enjoyment. He always rooted for National League teams. But he just couldn’t make himself care about the Cardinals.
They formed a line.
Our young man was sandwiched between the plastic surgery woman and a rough, tough fellow, a little older than him, to whom the woman giggly talked.
“That’s right. I don’t need to do this for the money. But I love it, don’t you?” She had a great smile, even if her lips had gotten weird.
“No. ma’am. I am doing this for the money. I am trying to stay clean.” His voice was hoarse, Southern.
“Where are you from?” Our timid young man asked, hoping it was the South.
“New Orleans, man. I lived there my whole damn life until Katrina came. Then I went to Houston, but they didn’t want me there. For a while I thought I could go back.” It didn’t take much to get this fellow talking. “But then I found out my house was gone, all my stuff, and the government was giving me $2000. So I came out here, And I was high for almost a year. Real high. Heroin high. Hardest thing in my life, kicking that shit.”
“Were you actually in the storm?”
“Fuck yeah. Fucking swimming. My fucking dog died.”
“Jeez man, that’s horrible.” Our young man didn’t know what to say.
“Hey will you do me a favor man?”
“I don’t know.”
“Will you look at my stomach? I got stabbed last night and I just want to know what you think.”
The man who escaped Katrina pulled up his shirt. There was a gaping stab wound. It looked deep but it didn’t cover a large area of skin. There was dried up blood around it and some white puss inside of it.
“How the hell did that happen? I really don’t know that that is all right.”
“I was high as a kite on cocaine last night, man. And I was out at a bar right here in Hollywood and
I got in a fight. I don’t even remember what. I got this loud voice. It is always getting me in trouble, man.”
The page firmly pushed our young man’s shoulder. “All right, move along you guys, get in there. It’s show time.”
Inside, it was ice cold. Another page directed the plastic surgery lady to the front row, our young man to a seat in the very back on the aisle, and the man with the stab wound one row closer, also on the aisle.
Our young man politely nodded to the man-and-woman couple beside him, well-dressed Hollywood types. They turned up their noses as if the boy was not only poorly groomed and dressed, but late. The woman sat next to our young man. For a minute it looked as if the couple considered switching seats but worried they would appear judgmental. Our young man could be anyone. They knew to bring sweaters. They discussed the organic, five-star meal they’d just eaten and questioned the wine pairing.
The bleeding man turned around and asked our young man, “What the hell is a conservative by the way? What am I supposed to do?”
The couple looked mortified. New Orleans man was right: his voice was loud. Our young man couldn’t decide how best to translate this information, but he had to think fast. “Just cheer for whatever the rest of the crowd doesn’t.”
The show began. Extremely entertaining, it made Carson Daly feel like high school math class.
Harold Ford Jr. came on a big screen to the side of the stage via a live satellite connection and Bill Maher criticized blatant racist advertisements against the senatorial candidate. The man from New Orleans cheered because everyone else shook their heads. Our young man tried to cheer as well, but the icy stares of the couple weakened his performance.
Then Arianna Huffington came on the screen and traded some quips with Bill Maher, who seemed extremely likable and smart. It was hard to disagree with the things they said because they were mostly common sense with a humorous undertone.
There was a panel of three guests. Harry Belafonte had a great voice and talked upliftingly about a youth camp he ran for inner city children in rural Tennessee. Christine Todd Whitman was the ex governor of New Jersey and Andrew Sullivan was a gay, conservative blogger.
At one point Andrew Sullivan called conservatives and Republicans cowards. The Katrina survivor clapped because he heard the word conservative, then booed inappropriately loud when he realized the comment was negative on the conservatives. Our young man leaned forward and whispered that you aren’t supposed to boo, only clap or remain silent.
But overall, everything went fine. On stage they fired jokes, made points, acknowledged and provoked arguments over minor incongruities. None of the guests seemed conservative at all. It wasn’t hard to cheer inappropriately. Our young man forgot about the wounded man in front of him who, in turn, forgot he was wounded.
Then Bill Maher stepped out on his own to do a segment he called “New Rules.” He joked about Halloween, closeted Republicans (the stabbed man booed, Maher heard and rolled his eyes), and Prop. 87. This, oddly, was the most divisive issue amongst the crowd. The way Bill Maher framed it the bill was just about lessening our dependence on foreign oil by using alternative fuel sources. The crowd disagreed. Or thought there was some other issue at hand. Plastic surgery lady, the man from New Orleans, our young man, and everyone else getting paid was confused, but felt acutely aware they were different from the others.
But then, the last new rule really heated things up (the couple took off their sweaters). Bill Maher looked directly in the camera and said, “ New Rule: America must stop bragging that it's the greatest country on earth and start acting like it. Now, I know — I know this is uncomfortable for the faith-over-facts crowd, but the greatness of a country can, to a large degree, be measured.”
The New Orleans native cheered.
“Here are some numbers: Infant mortality rate, America ranks 48th in the world; overall health, 72nd; freedom of the press, 44; literacy, 55th. Do you realize there are 12-year-old kids in this country who can't spell the name of the teacher they're having sex with?”
The crowd roared with laughter. But Bill Maher wasn’t letting them off that easy.
“Now, America, I will admit, has done many great things: making the New World democratic comes to mind, the Marshall Plan, curing polio, beating Hitler, the deep-fried Twinkie. But what have we done for us lately? We're not the freest country. That would be Holland, where you can smoke hash in church, and Janet Jackson's nipple is on their flag.”
The stabbed man yelled, “It’s not funny. What about Katrina? Where was the government?” He was able to raise his voice above the crowd’s mirth. Our young man, remembering that the poor man’s dog drowned, patted the man on the shoulder.
“And, sadly, we're no longer a country that can get things done, either. Not big things, like building a tunnel under Boston or running a war with competence. We had six years to fix the voting machines. Couldn't get that done. The FBI is just now getting email!”
Laughter commenced. But the man from New Orleans was really getting upset now. “It’s not funny.” Our young man swallowed hard. A page in the door glared at them. The Katrina survivor didn’t notice, though. He was staring intensely at the stage, shaking his head, flushed with anger. Bill Maher went on some more. Most of the people getting paid were silent, they were too aware of their position, forced to tune out.
The couple was applauding uproariously, our young man noticed.
“In most of the industrialized world, nearly everyone has health care. And hardly anyone doubts evolution. And, yes, having to live amid so many superstitious dimwits is also something that affects quality of life. It's why America isn't going to be the country that gets the inevitable patents in stem cell cures, because Jesus thinks it's too close to cloning!
“Oh, and did I mention we owe China a trillion dollars? We owe everybody money. America is a debtor nation to Mexico! We're not on a bridge to the 21st century. We're on a bus to Atlantic City with a roll of quarters.”
Christine Todd Whitman snorted, “Bring those quarters to Atlantic City, yes.”
“And this is why it bugs me that so many people talk like it's 1955 and we're still number one in everything. We're not. And I take no glee in saying this, because I love my country, and I wish we were. But when you're number 55 in this category and number 92 in that one, you look a little silly waving the big foam ‘Number One’ finger.”
The wounded man from New Orleans was cheering loud now. Job be damned. He agreed and it was important that he was there. That he was real. That he showed he agreed. Our young man followed his lead. The plastic surgery lady even turned around from the front row and, looking back at them, covertly flashed a thumbs up.
“As long as we believe being the greatest country in the world is a birthright, we'll keep coasting on the achievements of earlier generations and we'll keep losing the moral high ground. Because we may not be the biggest or the healthiest or the best educated. But we always did have one thing no other place did. We knew soccer was bullshit.”
The New Orleans man stood up and clapped furiously, yelled loudly. Tears streamed down his face. Everyone else sat and clapped, Bill Maher noticed the wounded man and nodded at him while slightly turning his head to one side and making his eyes big. New Orleans man stayed standing and repeatedly pointed towards Bill Maher. The crowd still sat, clapping; some quizzically tilted their heads toward the exuberance. Our young man stood up. He looked back at a disapproving page. But he clapped away. A tingle touched his bones and made him shimmy.
Bill Maher finished, “And...and we also had a little thing called the Bill of Rights. A great nation doesn't torture people or make them disappear without a trial. Bush keeps saying the terrorists hate us for our freedom. And he's working damn hard to see that pretty soon that won't be a problem.”
Everyone, paid and paying, hungry and fed, loved it. The Katrina survivor, ecstatic, slapped the little guy in a sweater vest beside him on the back, hard. It truly felt like America in there. Even in the dissent, it felt like there were people who cared enough to care. This was being broadcast live across the nation, to those who could afford, or chose to afford, HBO. Our young man touched shoulders with the rich woman and slapped the wounded man on the back. In turn, the man who had lost everything in a hurricane turned and pointed at the page in the doorway. When the page shook his head disapprovingly, the wounded man hurt himself with the jerky motion of flipping the bird.
The show ended, there were a few more laughs, so on and so on. Everyone came back to reality pretty quickly.
Back in the courtyard behind the studio, the ponytail man told everyone one by one that they did a good job and handed out cash until he came to the New Orleans man and our young man. “You guys didn’t do your job. The page said you were standing up yelling for Bill Maher. You were supposed to be conservatives.”
Outside the studio lot, back on Fairfax, the plastic surgery woman, the Katrina survivor, and our young man watched the traffic whiz past.
“Hey, do you boys want my money?”
“Are you serious?”
“I really don’t need it. You guys do. God. I wish they showed that stuff on free TV instead of stupid Carson Daly.”
She hugged them, hailed a taxi, and left.
“Hey, man,” the wounded man asked our young man, “you know that stuff that man was saying in there?”
“Yeah.” A lot was said. But our young man got the gist.
“Was it true?”
“I think so, most of it. Maybe a little slant on it or something.”
“But the facts, man. When he said numbers and stuff, they have to be real right?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“That is messed up.”
“Yeah, there are a lot of things to be worried about right now.”
“I was still stuck on Katrina, but there is a lot more.”
“Katrina was big, man. Especially for you.”
They walked to the end of the block, neither sure what they were going to do, neither had anyone to go home to.
“Will you get a burger with me?”
“Then some beers or something?”
“Let’s get wasted. Just don’t let me get high, at least not on heroin, ok man? I really don’t want to get high, but I really want to get high. You know what I mean?”
“Yeah. I want to get high too.”