When a friend invited me to attend the first CBS studio taping of So You Think You Can Dance (now in its 5th season), I did not think of it as a journalistic opportunity. However, on reflection, I was given no notice or instruction toward discretion, nor was I consigned to a grim and lengthy legal disclaimer, so, despite my lateness, a post seems the order of the day. Some of what I will say will be on view from 8 – 10 o’clock Wednesday on the FOX network, but I will make it my aim to enclose details that television viewers may be ignorant of. Even for fellow Angelenos, details of the movements and events inside a television studio lot are varyingly mysterious. Many have had their separate adventure to a taping of this or that, but, as I quickly found, separate shows offer separate experiences. No two are alike – or even similar.
So You Think You Can Dance (SYTYCD) happens to belong to a genre of show that I will term “fixed contest reality.” In such a genre, a host will travel across a section of the globe (in this case the U.S.), armed with a panel of judges, in order to audition and select candidates of a specific talent and bring them back to a television studio. Once the aspiring talent has been whittled to 20 or so individuals and brought to a TV studio, they are pitted against each other once per week, with the audience voting for performances they like best. Eventually, the audience will have weeded out all but one contestant who is crowned winner and awarded certain prizes. Talent can range from almost anything; dancing, singing, modeling, and directing have all been used in the past. The most famous example of fixed contest reality is American Idol. However, where American Idol is a signing context, SYTYCD is a dancing contest.
Now that you have their basic modus operandi, what is it like to among the So You Think You Can Dance live studio audience? In a word: grueling.
My friend and I left for the show around 1 o’clock and arrived at 1:45. After walking a few blocks from the Grove parking structure, we found a roughly quarter-mile long line of people milling in quadruple file outside the CBS lot. This was at 1:47. Come about 2:45, a sour faced woman wearing sunglasses and a walkie-talkie began to enumerate the tickets of line members a certain distance from the front (hopefully for reasons of place holding and not nervous obsession), and this included us. Then, as quick as she appeared, she vanished back into the CBS lot. At about 3:20, the line started to move and people were shown on to the lot and placed through security. Once cleared, the bulk of the audience was herded under an awning outside the building’s entrance where benches were placed in lines against the walls and running through the middle. The effect resembled the ropes designating appropriate line space for rides in an amusement park. Though, instead of ropes, think people.
About mid-way through the process, another walkie-talkie wearing steward (this time male) gets up on a bench and announces that this is their first day of studio taping (cheers from the crowd) and they expect it to be the best season ever (more cheers). No gum, cellphones, handbags, or extraneous contraband will be allowed in the studio (hesitant cheers) – oh, and by the way, you all will be standing for the near three hour taping of the show (no cheers).
At around 4:15, we were ushered in small groups into the studio. People before us had lined the balconies and stage perimeter and my friend and I were placed very close to the judges chairs, directly facing the raised platform which is the show’s stage. We both agreed that it was a very fine position for viewing the dancers. Unfortunately, an usher saw that both my friend and I were too tall to be where we were, as our heads blocked the teleprompter. A harried woman in black rushed over and commanded us to follow her to a more removed location off to the side of the stage. Both my friend and I agreed that our new position was inferior. Though, we had moved several feet closer to the stage and were facing the judges’ chairs directly. This placed us optimally for the section of the show where the performers receive criticism, and also gave us a rather intimate sense of the cast.
The So You Think You Can Dance studio (which I am told is also use for The Price is Right) is smaller than many people imagine. This is the first “wow” sensation studio foreigners will experience. Take everything you see on television and visualize it being about half that size. The audience (those in seats), which always looked to be a number in the hundreds is only about 100 men and women sitting in two sections. Actually, there are three sections: seats, seats, and a mosh pit. Celebrities and kin sit in one section of seats. Ex-contestants and friends and family of current contestants sit in a separate section. And the general audience is placed standing around the stage or somewhere obliquely in the corner (me).
To keep the audience from under-excitement, SYTYCD tosses out an entertainer for all sections of the show that are not being taped. This is how we were introduced to “Josh” (or “Sam,” or “Paul.” I know it was something monosyllabic and unthreatening). For those that have never had the unique pleasure of being fluffed, you will not understand why the five minute breaks allowed to “Josh” to practice his MC act were so excruciating. You see, television shows must maintain an audience’s spirit, or vigor, throughout the episode’s taping. For shows that run commercial free, this is not a problem. The show itself is sufficiently interesting to keep an audience awake. However, commercialized television has breaks. In order that the audience does not dose, and thus becomes less enthusiastic, shows will hire someone to jump on stage the moment the cameras cut to commercial. Colloquially, this is known as audience fluffing. If it is a comedy program that you are the live audience for, the producers will usually be decent enough to send someone out that is passably funny. But for most shows, the “Josh” or “Pam” that is dispatched to keep you awake will more resemble a desperate aspiring actor hired off the street and pumped full of adderall (which cannot be too far from the truth).
Our “Josh” had us play a few icebreakers before the show began. The idea, I think, was to make us seem all good friends when the cameras were rolling. In my case, this backfired. After “Josh” had instructed us to turn around and hug the person behind us, the girl standing in front of me turned, gave me a quick up and down – which I returned – followed by a look of disgust and the back of her head. I only wish that the cameras had been shining on that glacially cold rejection, and that they captured the wondrous expression that must have been on my face. My general enthusiasm never picked up after that and, though I have not reviewed the tapes, I doubt very much that I was good fodder for stock happy audience footage.
Speaking of stock footage, everything that can be faked is. I am not exaggerating. That clip where they pan the audience and everyone is cheering and clapping – they recorded it before the show started. That moment when a judge talks about someone in the audience and the camera flashes to them for a reaction shot – they get those shots during the break. If the audience member is waving, or crying, or cheering, or clapping, it is because a producer told them to. When the camera hones in on a supporter’s magnificent sign that says “Go Contestant X, Y, or Z,” and usually shows the family or fan clapping and crying with pride – that moment is canned during the break. And as to those magnificent signs – they are, you may have already guessed it, fake. Before the show, producers will equip volunteering fans with signs of support for one contestant or another. They do this to ensure all cast members receive an equal show of support. Apparently, there are people working each week to think of creative new ways to say “Go Contestant X.” As my friend pointed out, that would be a pretty sweet job.
To many, this news may come like the revelation that the earth is round or that wrestlers are actors. I will say that, despite the utter deceit of an audience that is instructed to boo on cue (or to, as we were chided, “cheer louder”), the talent, which is to say the dancing, is genuine. All of the night’s performances were thoroughly entertaining, even from the corner of the stage. Though, and this is an interesting problem, many dancers were swallowed by their choreography. SYTYD showcases originally choreographed routines for all their dancers, and so it was that frequently during the nights production it seemed there was a secondary contest between choreographers that was usurping the stage. Nevertheless, it made being in the audience worthwhile, but how much of that is owed to the dancers is hard to guess. Pay attention to the jazz routine choreographed by Wade Robison, as it stole the show.
Was there any off-camera bricker bracker that is worth mentioning? There was a moderately hilarious interchange between the judges and Tabitha and Napoleon (a married hiphop choreography duo) about the night’s first routine. The beginning section had the dancers lying on the floor, faux in bed, and then waking into their dance number. Guest judge Adam Shankman (choreographer from Hairspray) made a suggestive remark as to what he thought the couple might be doing rolling around in bed. Cut to the audience shot, where choreographer Tabitha can be seen laughing and falling into her husbands arms, which might have been fine but for the wall in front of the seats. Amusingly, this wall allowed for a television viewer to see only Tabitha’s head popping up and down as she tried to mask her laughter in her husband’s lap. Whether or not the suggestive action was her reply, the motion set the whole audience laughing and will probably not make it to tape. There were a few other funny moments – Cat Deeley (the show’s host) asks judge Mary Murphy if she can raise her eyebrow to imitate a contestant, to which Ms. Murphy responds she’s had too much Botox – but in most cases the cut material is a merciful edit of judge overly comfortable with the sound of their own critique.
So, after two and a half hours in line and another two and a half standing in the studio (we were finally released at 7 o’clock), was the experience worth it? If there is a television show you really love, or that has actors you’re dying to see in person, then being in the studio will feel magical. There will be a surrealist tinge to the moment when you step inside and glance the programs’ set and cast for the first time. From the start of the program to its finish it may feel very strange – oneiric, even. Your parting gift will be an extraordinary memory that will not fade, and can be replayed in life’s duller moments. To those people for whom the above words apply, it is worth it. To anyone else: stay home and have a better time watching TV (or doing pretty much anything else).