Casting Call 

1 July 2007 tbs.pm/2160

The way US game and reality shows hunt for contestants can become quite a circus, as Chase Erwin discovered when he tried to get on to Deal or No Deal.

What would make a car dealership give up 80% of its showroom floor on a busy spring weekend? What would make 4,000 people stand outside in unseasonably cold temperatures for upwards of five hours? Not to win a car, not to offer concert tickets. Perhaps not even a Royal or Papal visit.

No, the reason these maniacs, myself included, spent all that time going numb in the cold was to tryout for the US version of the international game show Deal or No Deal. The American version is set up differently from the British or even the Dutch ‘mother’ version. People send in application forms, and videotaped vignettes highlighting the reasons they deserve to be on the show. People are called up individually by the show’s producers, and are flown to Hollywood to tape the show. Boxes are replaced with 26 cases (and 26 models, each assigned their own case), the jackpot of £250,000 is trumped to the American-standard $1 million, and Noel Edmonds and his red cards are replaced with comedian Howie Mandel and his obsessive-compulsive disorder.

The show has been a runaway hit since it premiered Christmas Week 2005. Avoiding the ‘celebrity specials’ which ruined predecessors Who Wants to Be A Millionaire and Weakest Link in their US runs, Deal has maintained a stronghold on audience figures and airs two to three times a week on NBC.

This spring, the producers instigated the “Deal on Wheels Tour 2007”. A specially crafted bus sporting figures of Howie on the banker’s phone and a handful of the models was commissioned, and a staff of about 30 casting directors from Endemol USA rode across the States in it, stopping at many cities along the way, and causing an uproar wherever they headed.

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Indeed, an uproar is what happened in the Dallas suburb of Grand Prairie, the third stop on the tour. An estimated 4,000 people, some having driven from as far out as Houston and northern Oklahoma, turned up. Parking was almost instantaneously a nightmare. The queuing line wrapped around the front of the car dealership sponsoring the event, out around the employee and guest parking lots, and around the corridor into a neighboring business. My mate and I planned to be there about a half hour earlier than the advertised start time of 10:00am. When we queued up, we were about the 3,000th people in line.

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Die-hard fanatics of the show had apparently gotten to the dealership the night before, braving a severe storm that actually spawned a tornado just miles away, and slept in the wet, chilly air overnight.

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This is no longer an uncommon occurrence. American Idol audition stops are notorious for having thousands of attendees, many getting in line a full 24 to 36 hours before the doors open. Millionaire, now itself a syndicated half-hour game, had to alter its application process to more fairly randomize who gets selected to appear on the programme. Even the ‘gold standard’ game shows, Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy, cause masses of crowds when their tour buses reach suburban America.

Perhaps the ‘black sheep’ in the casting circles here in America is Big Brother. The US version of the Orwellian game has substantially different rules than any other version in the world. After the first series garnered less than stellar ratings with the original ‘back to basics’ format, new producers were brought in to retool the game, closing voting off from the public, and instead turning Brother into ‘Domesticated Survivor,’ with the contestants voting themselves off and ultimately selecting a winner. Critics often chide the show as being too overtly sexual and derisive, especially any time alcohol is provided in the house (read: every day), and this has led to the show collecting fewer applications from contestants.

Big Brother USA producers try to do two casting calls in each metropolitan area: one in the immediate area of the selected city, and one in a more remote, rural area usually 40-80 miles from the city. Again, Dallas was selected as one of the cities, and while its casting call hasn’t been held yet, the rural call in the town of Sherman has already occurred, but with a total of 40 applicants.

Interestingly, the game shows – Wheel, Jeopardy, Price is Right – have stopped accepting mail-in applications, preferring Internet entry instead. Indeed, Jeopardy now holds its contestant exams exclusively online. Ironically, it is now the new, hip reality games like Big Brother and Deal that now want your postal mail. They require a 2-5 minute videotape, as well as photographs of each applicant. Casting directors want vibrant, exuberant personalities on their programmes, not the everyday housewife or college student prone to appear on Wheel or Jeopardy.

The paper applications are quite invasive: they ask for things as necessary as medical and criminal history, to less than helpful questions like “Name a time in your life you felt really embarrassed” The Deal or No Deal application even asks for a self-portrait and a four-line poem or rap. The applications can span as long as 12 pages or more, but they absolutely will not be accepted in the mail unless they come with that videotape.

Perhaps a videotape was the more appropriate method for us Deal hopefuls. Two to five minutes would be more time to explain our motives for wanting to be centre stage with our chance at a million dollars. Because of the sheer size of the crowd at the bus tour, Deal‘s casting team had an entirely different set of rules. The videotape rule was abandoned, though in most cases casting calls will videotape your audition live. Groups of ten were instead trotted to each casting director’s table (eight in all, though no more than four at a time were actually available), and each applicant had thirty seconds to say all the relevant information: name, age, location, occupation, and reason for applying.

There was also one other rule they announced over the public address system: “Please, please, pleeeeease,” they began, “do not spend the whole thirty seconds telling us how much you like the show.” Casting directors are not there to hear bum-kissing. They want to know about the applicant, and whether that applicant has the charisma and the moxie to become a contestant.

My group finally met with a casting director about 2:30pm. In our group of ten, three did exactly what they were told not to, kissing the producers’ bottoms. One even had their thirty seconds entirely scripted and memorized, with lots of puns and witty remarks directed to the show’s mysterious banker. Some took their allotted time to talk about memorable experiences, like kissing a celebrity or being selected for the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyworld. My approach was to talk about my determination to earn some money to help my ageing grandmother finally get the retirement she richly deserves.

After the ten of us had our turn, the director asked two of us to stay behind. I wasn’t one of those asked, so my audition was over. Our applications were filed and stored, and we went home. This may not be the end however – we were notified even though we weren’t held over for additional questions, we could still be called up to appear on the show, be it in a month’s time or in a year.

Only time will tell. One supposes the call from the casting department is a more excruciating wait than the call from the banker.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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