Dr. Phil Says Scream or Else!
“Look. The Hollywood sign.”
I tried to take a picture for my sister, who we’d roped into watching our boys all day, but my phone’s camera sucks. The sign looked like a dark blur. Just as well. My sister lived in that area for years doing movie makeup. It was more about geographical tracking than bragging about being somewhere she wasn’t.
The day was gray. The bus was dim, cold, full of groggy people. Quiet but for the drone of the motor and the hiss of the air vents.
I was wondering when someone would finally stand and say something to our group – forty of my husband’s coworkers and/or guests. Something like hello. Or welcome. Or Drew Carey has the flu today, so everyone giggling over the t-shirts they made to wear later on The Price Is Right is going to be sorely disappointed. Or anything.
I thought maybe they’d do it when we made it through traffic and got to our first stop, The Dr. Phil Show at Paramount Studios.
We pulled up in front of the building covered by a Wyland whale mural, and before the bus’s brakes were set, a blue-blazered audience coordinator was leaping up the stairs.
“Okay!” He was jarringly chipper for the early hour, his loudness a harsh contrast to the muffled sound before. “The show is starting! We have to get you all out of here and into the studio ASAP! No cell phones or cameras! Leave them on the bus!” Waving his hands, “Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s go!”
Suddenly, we were all on our feet, flinging electronic devices onto the bus seats as though they were about to detonate and running like mad through a roped-off line area and through security.
“Go, go, go!” They kept rushing us. “Dr. Phil is about to go onstage!”
Thirty seconds before, we’d been half asleep. Now we were racing into a studio full of screaming, clapping people. Music blared, the bass line shaking the floor. Lights flashed.
A toweringly tall Blue Blazer urged us toward seats in the front row of the back section. Other audience coordinators were waving their arms around, demanding that we scream, clap, act like Elvis was re-entering the building. Cameras were everywhere. People were going nuts!
Then this big mafioso type came swaggering out on the stage, waving blue Dr. Phil mugs. With a meaningful leer, he pumped one mug-filled fist toward a section of the crowd, and they went nuts. [Enter Man with Mugs, said the screenplay in my head. “Clap or the mugs get it!”] He did this a few times, urging bigger applause with a tight smile that also promised broken knees to those who didn’t comply.
Then another Blue Blazer was directly in my face. As the announcer’s voice thundered that the moment we’d all been waiting for was here, the man himself, blah, blah, blah, the Blue Blazer furiously scanned the crowd and then locked eyes with me.
With an imperious finger, he said, “You! With me!”
I was on the run again, across the center aisle and down a perpendicular set of stairs straight toward the stage. A shorter Blue Blazer directed me like a taxiing airplane toward an empty seat in the center of the second row. I didn’t have time to remove the “Reserved – Guest” card from my seat. I flung my purse down and obeyed the fleeing Blazer’s final orders to throw my hands in the air and scream like I’d won the lottery (mimed, of course – couldn’t hear words at this point to save my life).
And then he was there. Not Elvis, alas (or perhaps fortunately at this late date), but Dr. Phil. Maybe three feet away from me on the stage. So strange!
I stood among a gaggle of what looked like teenage girls from the corner of my eyes and pretended that my life’s dream had just been fulfilled, wondering what on earth prompted the Blazer to choose me to come on down. I wished it was American Idol or something where it would be fun to be down front. I had an unusual moment of self-esteem where I wondered if I looked cute that day or something. (Ha!) I wondered if it was because my shirt was purple, like two of the ladies in my row. Then, more like my usual morbid brain, I suffered a moment of paranoia that this was some bizarre form of intervention set up by my friends and family. Any minute now, Dr. Phil would look down and tell me to come on up. Then I’d be picked apart on national television and never show my face again. Luckily, this was not the case.
At last, it was time to sit, hands stinging from forcible clapping, and I suffered the pangs of self-consciousness, wondering how to sit and resist the urge to rearrange myself. Remember, not five minutes before I’d been half asleep on a gray, drab, silent bus. There had been no time for primping. Imagine someone coming into your room at dawn, shouting you out of bed, racing you downstairs and telling you to jump, scream, clap, make it convincing, and then have cameras aimed in your general direction that the entire world could watch you on ad infinitum.
So what was our show? A follow-up with a family of fourteen children who’d been abused by their cult-leader father. I hadn’t seen the original show – sorry, I don’t watch it – but the giant video screens filled us in. Cheerful.
Things calmed for a minute or two after that. He decided to redo the intro with a warning for parents to make their children leave the room before the episode began. He made a few different versions. I started to relax, nothing being asked of me for a minute. The girls next to me jingled and rattled as they adjusted their clothes, their bracelets, figured out how to fold their hands in their laps. Some older women behind me murmured to each other about how sad this one was, remember when they saw that show, etc.
After a minute, stage hands brought in a tan leather couch, an end table, and a matching chair for Dr. Phil, positioning them on tape markers. A glass of water was placed with touching reverence on a very specific spot upon the table. The audience, well dressed and hushed but for scattered rustling and coughs, made me think of being a little girl in church. All that was missing was soft organ music and beams of sunlight from the stained glass windows, sparkling with microscopic holy dust. But we had stage hands as altar boys, and the cameras substituted nicely for the eye of God. Or maybe Santa Claus. Catching your every naughty and nice moment. I tried to sit still. Wondered what they were piping in with the air in this place.
Show time again. Dr. Phil came back. More footage was shown of the struggles of the grown children of this family, and then three of the sisters came out. They were very near, since I was in the second row.
I listened and thought the craziest things. I obviously wasn’t genuinely in the moment. I was worried about how to hold my face. How to seem engaged enough to be worthy of my seat in the mosh pit without reacting to their story in an offensive way since they were looking right at me half of the time, it seemed.
I found out why it seemed like they were looking at me a minute or two into the show.
Someone on stage made a comment and the man directly in front of me said, “Amen.”
Another comment onstage, and he said it louder, “Amen!”
A moment later, it happened again — louder and more emphatically, “A-MEN!”
My jangly-rattly friends and I stared. Had he felt the church vibe, too? Decide to take a step further?
I had just enough time to wonder if maybe the audience got rowdy at this show, when Dr. Phil turned toward Mr. Amen and said something about how it seemed their brother had something to say.
Then I knew.
I was sitting with the family.
Lord. Hopefully not surrounded. I imagined trying to get a job someday and someone saying, “But aren’t you part of that cult? I saw you on television!” I hadn’t thought about the blue laminated “Reserved – Guest” card before that. I was so out of it. So not a morning person and so jarred out of reality.
Now I didn’t just worry about my face during the possible random audience shots. Now I had to watch my hands. Glancing at the monitor, I seemed to be in the shot when they would talk to those right in front of me – not only the brother but two sisters and their therapist. My hands were right at the level of the brother’s face, just to the side.
I am neurotically self-conscious in day-to-day life. Now I was inwardly freaking about what respectfully folded hands would look like versus the frightened clutching hands of someone under an interrogator’s lamp. I worried that they could see my stomach and strove to pull it in tighter. I could see from my peripheral vision that my hair was a mess and longed to push it behind my shoulder, but I didn’t dare move. I never saw my face on the monitor, just the zone between my neck and chest, but I’ll see when the show comes out just how terrible I looked. It’s all about me, right?
The show went on. The siblings bickered. He said, she said, you’re lying, no you are, etc. I could hardly concentrate. It was just that surreal to me. And I must be a closet narcissist because I kept having thoughts that any minute now, these people might stand up, explain they were all actors, and the show was really all about me after all. Man do I need coffee to be a person in the morning, and I had none yesterday.
Despite all my paranoia, I was having a good time. I swear. It was very interesting.
I thought the commercials were odd. In the mid-nineties, I went to a taping of Bob Barker’s The Price Is Right. They did the show in real time, and Bob would talk to the audience during commercial breaks. On The Dr. Phil Show, he’d say they were going to take a break, a Blue Blazer would clap threateningly in the wings, and we’d all join in. There would be about ten to fifteen seconds of silence, and then we’d all be urged to clap again by the extra loud hands of that same Blazer. Just enough time to wiggle in your seat for a second and glance up at the infinite lights and cameras.
As we entered maybe the fifth or sixth commercial break, a Blazer was abruptly at the end of our aisle, glaring at us. The two girls to my right and I had just been adjusting our shirts, rearranging our hands, wiggling in our seats, and I thought maybe we were in trouble, were being switched for more obedient audience members. He did, in fact, bark, “You three! With me!” Out we went, and he took us back up to where I’d started – first row of the back section. I waved to my husband. They ran out with more chairs for us, and we sat, confused.
I think what happened is they needed our seats for the family members on stage. They came out into the audience for the last shot. Because that was pretty much it. I didn’t even hear what they said or did. It was too quick. And then Dr. Phil left the stage, we all went “nuts,” and then the Blue Blazers were barking at us to leave in sections.
And now I remembered that no one had ever talked to our group that morning. We didn’t have badges, didn’t know each other, had no instructions, and we were being released into a very crowded alley of sorts with more Blue Blazers on patrol, peering at people, calling out things I couldn’t understand. All I knew was there was no Price Is Right on the itinerary anymore, as was the original plan, because I’d done my Googling the night before.
At long last, I thought that one of the guys in the crowd might be with us. I asked him, and, yes, he was. We were pushed aside by some speeding Blue Blazers. The crowd pressed in on us, deafening as they shouted over the din of the HVAC ducts overhead. He didn’t know what we were going to do, but he pointed out the woman who was supposedly our leader.
I worked my way over to her, and she didn’t know the plan. They were calling around to see what to do. She didn’t say anything about TPIR, and I didn’t ask. So more milling ensued, trying not to lose sight of her in the sea of humanity.
Remember: Our phones were on the bus. We were hours from home. If we got stranded, we would be in some trouble.
Coffee arrived, and we joined the throng. I took just one sip, however, before remembering the activities that follow coffee drinking. Mournfully, I watched as my warm, heavy cup fell with a thud into a nearby trash bin. Didn’t need to worry about bathrooms in that chaos.
More roar of the crowd. More roar of the HVAC and other assorted machinery.
And now the Blue Blazers were shouting at us again in the language of Peanuts adults. Out of the wah-wah-wah-wah, I gleaned that the second taping was seating. The anonymous crowd began flowing toward the studio door. My husband said he saw some people from our group in the line. We saw no signs of Fearless Leader. Should we go? We decided yes and allowed the tide to wash us back into the studio.
In we went, and this time a smiling Blue Blazer took us directly to the front row – but all the way to the far left, so not prominent.
This time, we got to hear more from Man with Mugs. This time he was Man with CD Collection — bribes/rewards for a few extroverted audience members. He was the crowd warmer. He warned us of the things I’d figured out on my own before – don’t you dare fidget, pick, adjust, etc. (“Remember, you’re not watching television. You’re making television!”)
After he gave away his prizes, doing the old, “Hi, how are ya, where ya from?” routine, the music and lights went up, and, for some reason, a video of Cher appeared on all the screens. Her music blared, and they set about riling us all up into a screaming mob again. The madness began anew.
This time, the show was about men who needed to re-examine their dreams of a career in music versus taking care of their families. A little more humorous than the last show but still sad at points. David Foster advised them on their prospects – but just from a taped video on the big screens. Actually in the studio was Kimberly Caldwell from American Idol. She was the final guest, advising these guys on how to balance their dreams with their responsibilities.
I was much more relaxed for this show, knowing what to expect, being in a really close but less prominent seat, being allowed to sit with my husband. It was fun.
At the end, Kimberly Caldwell came out and sat about eight seats away from me in our (curved) row. It was so strange. I remember watching season two of American Idol during Hollywood week and the whole “story” they created, vilifying her versus Julia DeMato. I grew to like her as the season progressed, and I’ve seen her host shows and do red carpet stuff, get asked out by David Cook on live TV. I was more excited to see her than Dr. Phil. Nothing against him. I just never watch his show, but I’m a fan of American Idol.
The second taping ended, and we were shooshed into a different chaotic, industrial alley/holding pen. After a long minute or two, we saw our fearless leader handing out phones from a box – I guess a few people didn’t want to leave theirs on the bus. But no one said anything to anyone else. What the heck came next? We didn’t know. It was hard to find a place to stand without getting knocked around or glared at by Blue Blazers.
At long last, a Blue Blazer shouted that our group’s bus was that-a-way, so, obediently, we boarded. Gratefully scooped up our phones. Other people followed. The woman in charge took a head count, and she conferred with the bus driver. I heard them bandying around ideas. At last, someone shouted that we could go to the Farmer’s Market or Hollywood Boulevard for our lunch. A few people (who conveniently had sack lunches) yelled to just go home, but most of us were hungry and without provisions. The bus driver decided Farmer’s Market (I swear it seemed like he made the choice), and, so, off we went.
I didn’t care where we went. I just wanted food, a bathroom, and the security that I’d be able to get back on the bus and get home afterward.
Turns out, I’m old school. Last time I went to the Hollywood farmer’s market, it was a farmer’s market only – stalls, fruit, vegetables. Now it seemed it was just a mall. A nice one, but a mall. Russell and I shrugged and dove in – we had only an hour before the bus left – and after hiking up and down the length of the mall, seeing no produce, just Banana Republics and Cheesecake Factories, we chose a place called Marmalade Café because it had a nice patio and seemed central.
(Turned out we’d bumbled into The Grove. The farmer’s market was still there, behind it – just couldn’t see it through all the hustle and bustle of the mall.)
While we were there, I noticed all kinds of pretty and/or colorful people, many of whom seemed familiar. Just types, I figured. Clones. Wannabes. One guy looked just like Sean Penn, holding a tiny video camera over his head, filming something as he walked along the street. I meant to take a closer look as he passed, but just then my husband told me that his fish was still frozen in the middle (ick), and I missed my chance. I shrugged. What would Sean Penn be doing at a mall? Later, my sister told me that The Grove was the mall they always write about on entertainment blogs. She confirmed that she always saw stars there, and that might very well have been Sean Penn. We’ll never know.
I had a lovely lunch, though – grilled goat cheese and spinach salad, iced tea, hot sourdough rolls. We walked around a little afterward, and then we headed back for a two-hour bus ride home.
And, so ends our field trip. Now we have to tape Dr. Phil every day until our shows air. They “couldn’t” (or wouldn’t) tell us when they would air. I can’t wait to see what the shows look like finished. And I hope that if I made it into any of the final shots, I look less like an idiot than I felt.