Thursday, February 21, 2008
I grew up with action packed game shows, spending my weekends sitting cross-legged on the floor watching Nickelodeon’s GUTS and reruns of American Gladiators.
As I grew older, the shows died off, and my interests changed. Battle Dome, the horrific hybrid of wrestling’s drama and Gladiator competition, was the last gasp. I figured that was the end.
Then came the commercials.
“Remember Powerball?” a deep voice said. A quick clip of an updated set and cast followed the question. In the midst of this American Gladiators revival, I was giddy with excitement. Nostalgia overrode any sentiments I had about the state of television. I was pumped.
I watched the season premiere. Things were different, of course. (Hulk Hogan was involved--enough said.) Oh, and they incorporated falling into water as the end to any event. Extreme! Things felt good with American Gladiators back in the world.
So when a friend e-mailed me about joining him in Los Angeles in two weeks to tryout for the upcoming second season, I keeled over with laughter. The dreams of appearing on the show, slipping by Nitro and doing a post-game interview with Larry Csonka, had passed. But what about those people who would love nothing more than to appear on a show such as this? What do they put themselves through and why?
Luckily, a trip to Los Angeles wasn’t necessary, since Pure Fitness in Chandler, Ariz., was hosting an open casting call. All I needed was a completed application and a non-returnable photo of myself.
The night before the Feb. 9 tryout, I downloaded the application from the NBC Web site and drove to my home base for the weekend, my grandmother’s house in Peoria.
After I arrived, I sat down and took my first look at the application. It was a 28-page behemoth. The opening questions were generic and simple. I kept my answers short and sweet. At times, I attempted some humor, but for the most part, I tried to get through it as quick as possible.
Things were fine until I reached questions 42 and 43. I spent the next 15 minutes drawing a picture of myself and writing a short poem (I opted against the short rap option). After assuring NBC they aren’t liable for my death, or any other physical injury, I went to sleep.
A thin line of people snakes around the strip mall that sits next to the underwhelming Pure Fitness. It looks too small, and one would think that NBC could afford a larger place to make things efficient. But my 11 a.m. arrival (the doors opened at 10 a.m., and the NBC Web site suggested getting there two hours prior) doesn’t look as bad as I thought it may.
At the edge of the strip mall is a mattress store, which looks like the end of the line. It’s not. Making a sharp right turn, the line curves around the mattress store’s façade and turns into a mob of people standing in a pickup/drop-off alleyway behind the mattress store and a vacant building. My guess is that there is easily more than a few hundred people.
I get on my cell phone to call my roommate, with the intention of having him give me a pep talk. I’m telling him about the massive line and how discouraging it is when I reach the end.
But standing in line is pure entertainment. I catch a glimpse of an undersized cycling jersey on a flabby man before it goes under a green, velour sweatshirt, which is the top half of what now looks like a jumpsuit.
Before that man--Richard “Dick” Dynamo--gets into character, he talks to a cute woman in front of us and then begins to undress. The small, Lycra jersey appears again, and then the sweatpants drop, revealing a jockstrap on the outside of his spandex pants. His friend points a camcorder at him, and records Dynamo’s warm-up routine. He stretches, does jumping jacks and pushups all with grunting that is as sincere and boisterous as what you hear in porn. After asking others in line if “they’d like him to feed them their teeth,” Dynamo breaks character, asks his friend if they have enough, and heads toward the front of the line. I figure the recording will make its way to YouTube, which it has.
I begin talking with the guy standing to my right. His name is Brian Butson. I notice the brace on his right ankle, and we begin talking about basketball and our days playing varsity sports. We quickly transition to the intangible aspects of heightened competition. We fondly remember the adrenaline rush, the sense of a unified team and the more minute aspects of competing in an organized sport. “That’s why so many of these people are out here,” Butson says, “They’re trying to recapture that competition.”
It’s a good point, and a bit depressing, too. Why not stick to some YMCA clubs or set some personal goals and compete with yourself? Oh, yeah, the whole fame thing.
After two hours in line, without the entertainment of “Dick” Dynamo, I grow bored and begin listening to others’ conversations when I’m not speaking with Butson. To my rear left, a man is pontificating on weightlifting and bodybuilding. He has the credentials to back it up, though: His black beater hugs his self-proclaimed 5-foot-6-inch, 245-pound frame. He constantly shuffles in his Ed Hardy Slip-ons while filling out his application and cracks ill-conceived jokes that fall flat.
A few feet in front of me, another bodybuilder talks with a cute, petite woman about his career. Over my right shoulder, a woman in her late 20s discusses her plans to leap into acting.
These are only snapshots, of course, but they embody a large portion of people standing in line. And all these individuals form a cohesive entity with its own consciousness.
The line is like Entertainment Tonight on steroids. Gossip constantly makes its rounds. Conversations about other contestants in line, where to get food, or if any celebrities are making an appearance are circulating at all times. Everything gets passed through the grapevine, and when a rumor that the gladiator Wolf is speaking to people in line, everyone gets excited.
And sure enough, there he is.
His long mane hangs close to his ass, and he’s decked out in Hollywood fashion, including a ring on every finger. I’ve never heard him speak before, only howl, so it’s disappointing when he comes over to lecture us on our attitude.
“You guys need to take your personality and multiply by 10 when you get in there,” he says. “If you’re just one-tenth what that Dynamo guy was, you’ll be great.” He goes on to criticize Dynamo’s antics.
I’m pissed that he didn’t howl once. People flock to him for his autograph or a picture.
Boredom turns to agitation after five hours of waiting. The repetition of sitting for 20 minutes, standing up to move 10 feet, then sitting again is taking its toll. I grab some Chinese food from nearby while Butson holds my spot in line. I eat on the sidewalk that we’re waiting on.
The massive man in the black beater looks down at me and says: “I can’t wait to see what that looks like on the gym floor.”
Some girls in line with us are begging Butson to show them his picture he’s handing in with the application. It’s him shirtless with his puppy. “That’s why I kept it hidden for so long,” he says to me. I laugh.
This guy has me beat, for sure.
After that, he tells me he’s only here because his wife held him to a comment he made about the gladiators looking beatable. Turns out he’s 28 years old and married. I never would’ve guessed.
It’s sunset, and the sky looks beautiful during the golden hour. It’s too bad that we’ve now migrated to a more enclosed area that traps the stench of body odor. We progress slowly, and after eight hours of waiting, when the sun has set, we are 40 feet from Pure Fitness’ entrance.
Close to 8 p.m., a man comes out of the gym and attempts to quite the crowd. “We have a problem,” he tells us. He says he’s the casting producer, and in his 10 years he has never had something like this happen.
Apparently, the facility closes at 8 p.m. and the Pure Fitness staff is getting upset that more applicants are outside. Two new rules are made for the last 60 of us in line: Men who can’t do 12 pullups in 30 seconds should leave, and women who can’t do seven should also take off. The group of potential celebrities is in uproar. The casting producer offers a few concessions because of the situation, but among us only one person leaves.
We get closer. People begin twitching or swaying due to nerves and anticipation, because we’re next to the entrance; a few calm their nerves by stretching in the parking lot. I can see through the large windows what’s going on inside. It’s nothing too intimidating, just two pullup machines. A casting director lets me through and slaps a sticker on my chest.
I am No. 584.
I stand in another line, this time single-file (organization, for the first time). A man at a desk takes my application, which I made sure was in proper order, and then a woman snaps a mug shot of me. I thought the photo I provided of me drunk in Las Vegas and pointing at the camera would suffice, but I guess not.
My pretentious guard finally lets down, and I get nervous. In a bit of a daze, I meet the casting director who will lead me through the workout. I don’t even catch his name. We start with pullups. He informs me of the required 12 I’ll need if I want to continue to the next exercise. The first eight come easily, but I feel tired, so I let go of the handles and rest for a second. “15 seconds, you just need four more,” he says. It’s terrible. He begins counting down form five. When he reaches one, I get my 12th pullup with my body quavering.
We move over to the next event, up-downs. It’s a drill that football players are accustomed to. Basically, I have to touch the ground with my chest and stomach, and then return to an upright position. “Do as many as you can in 30 seconds,” he says. He starts the timer and nonchalantly twirls it around his neck as I begin panting. I have no idea how many I do.
Next up, I karaoke through a ladder--meaning, I face perpendicular to the ladder and place one foot in front of the other, switching the lead foot each time, while also making sure both feet touch in between each rung. Lacking good foot-eye coordination, I embarrass myself. I maintain a slow pace while cursing and laughing through the entire drill.
“Alright, now we’re on to suicides,” my casting director says. I noticed the drill earlier and made an off-handed comment about some of the people dogging from cone to cone. “Watch it, that may be you soon,” the guy said. I think, “fuck him” and proceed to sprint to the cone 25 feet away when I hear the word go. I need 10 trips, down and back, as fast as I can. On the last one, I can’t feel my legs.
I get a high-five from the casting director, and he takes me to the final step – the interview.
I meet another man, whose name I give no attention to. I’m out of breath. My head is swimming. He asks me why I’m trying out for the show. I ramble on about GUTS and American Gladiators. He asks me about dreams for the future. I ramble on about journalism. And then comes the curve ball.
“Pretend you’re the commentator doing play-by-play for our show with Matt Kielty taking on the gladiator Titan,” he says. I stare at him. I bide for time and ask him to clarify if he wants a particular event or for me to act it out. He says no to each.
“Fuck,” is the first thing I say. I joke about how that probably isn’t appropriate for on-air. And then I proceed to humiliate myself.
Hell, I could’ve pulled Bill Murray’s Cinderella story improvisation from Caddyshack, but instead I settle for some terribly cliché voice and a horrendous breakdown of me beating Titan. It ends with me trailing off: “And Kielty slams the ball into the … ca … receptacle thing. OK, I’ll talk to you later.”
He stares at me, and I shake his hand and make for the door. I see Butson, and we congratulate each other. It’s a quick end to our eight hours together, but I feel terrible.
I’m queasy once I get outside. A woman is pacing back in forth on the phone. She sounds like she is near the point of crying. “They said ‘Jaime, you’re the best we’ve had all day. The way you did those drills was amazing!’ Oh my God! I’m on cloud nine!”
I go blank and lean against my car … while I begin vomiting. I don’t think she notices. I don’t care if she does. I get in and listen to the Walkmen’s “What’s In It for Me?” and start driving back home.
I’m happy I did it. I’m happy I saw why others do it, and the shit they go through for their chance at 15 minutes of fame.