Last year when Gabe lost the 2012 Videogum Oscar Pool he had to go on the TMZ bus tour of Hollywood. It was great. For one, I did not have to do anything. For two, Gabe had to do something that sounded terrible. A dream come true! This year, Gabe beat me in the 2013 Videogum Oscar Pool by one point. I had chosen the terms of our bet and in the event that I lost — an event that I clearly didn’t consider seriously enough — I agreed to attend a taping of The Steve Wilkos Show. (Steve Wilkos is a former bouncer from The Jerry Springer Show who was given his own talk show for reasons I don’t even think Steve Wilkos himself understands.) Why didn’t I choose a slightly less offensive show? Why didn’t I choose a show that actually taped in New York City, rather than in a soulless studio in Stamford, Connecticut? Why did I think The Hobbit was going to win so many Oscars?! All questions that only got more question-y and less answer-y throughout my day at The Steve Wilkos Show.
The day began at 8AM, waiting outside of an Old Navy for the Steve Wilkos shuttle. My friend Max agreed to go with me, because you’re never supposed to let the crew of The Steve Wilkos Show take you to a second location by yourself, and as we approached the place where an e-mail told us the shuttle would be picking us up (“in front of the back of the Old Navy”) we saw a line of exhausted-looking people all staring straight ahead. Oh, good! The line had no clear beginning or end and there were no signs indicating that this was, in fact, the line for the Steve Wilkos shuttle (though there were discarded Maury Show tickets on the ground, no joke, which was promising), so we stood at one end and hoped for the “best.”
The e-mail said the shuttle would be there promptly at 8:30, but that you should get in line early because it is first-come, first-served. That e-mail was a fucking liar. It is possibly my fault for thinking that enough people would get in line at 8:30AM in 20 degree weather to spend a day at The Steve Wilkos Show to necessitate getting in line early, but regardless I entered the 15-person line just a bit after 8. 8:30 came and went. “The shuttle is not usually late,” said a woman standing nearby. “Oh no, how many times has she lost her Oscar Pool?” I wondered. “She should stop participating in the contest!” When the woman walks away to investigate, a few girls standing nearby comment that they’ve seen her in the audience of the show before. Which means they, too, are regular audience members on The Steve Wilkos Show. A terrifying new world reveals itself. But not the shuttle bus.
We wait and wait and wait. “This is a nightmare,” I say. “This is the beginning of a nightmare,” Max corrects. Finally a bit after 9, a young man who wouldn’t look out of place on The Real World goes through the line handing everyone Steve Wilkos Show tickets. It’s really happening! Or is it? We board the bus and wait and wait and wait. Who are we waiting for? Somebody! From what I could gather, a few of the people who work on The Steve Wilkos Show also live in New York City and ride the shuttle to and from work every day, so we were waiting for one of those lunatics. I understand that in this economy it is hard to turn down any job, especially one in the entertainment field, but man oh man! You don’t have to live this way, you guys! YOU ONLY GET ONE LIFE! YOGOL!
The bus took off a bit after 9:30. (So, just to recap, this has been 1.5 hours and we have not even left the city yet.) The showtime on our tickets said 10AM, but we would now not get to Stamford until close to 11AM. On the website it said that sometimes groups are held there for two tapings, so I assumed that by the time we arrived we would have missed the first taping and would be herded into the second. This belief grew stronger when the bus driver told us that after the taping they’d be giving us pizza, but not to stay too late and eat TOO much pizza because the bus would be taking off at 2:00. “Definitely no problem,” I thought.
Something I want to mention is that while on the bus I overheard a woman talking about how she was seeing the show for her birthday and I felt one of what would by the end of the day amount to many pangs of guilt. “I’m seeing the show because I lost a contest and I’m here to make fun of it and complain about it.” What a fucking jerk! But also: This is a nightmare show where you (SPOLILERS AHEAD) boo at child molesters and unwed teen moms whose exes are calling them sluts. Do something else for your birthday, maybe?! Watch your favorite movie and eat your favorite dessert, or something. Why choose to be stranded in this brightly-lit sadness factory?! Lady! STOP IT!
So we got there around 11 and each of us was given either a green or an orange ticket and asked to separate into green and orange ticket groups. Max and I are were the orange group, which was smaller than the green group, brought in first, and seated in the floor-level seats. Max and I decided that “orange” meant “more camera-ready” and congratulated ourselves on our accomplishment. Cool accomplishment!
At first, you always think that being in front is ideal, but much then when you are crushed against the barricades at a concert, or teased by a comedian, you quickly realize that it is actually the opposite of ideal. And the Steve Wilkos Show is no exception.
But before the actual Steve Wilkos Show started the crowd had to be warmed up. What, do you think we could just get on with this parade of child molesters and abusive husbands without a dance contest to set the mood? What do you think this is, A COURT ROOM? LOL, IT’S NOT! The Real World-looking guy from before asked the audience if anyone wanted to win a t-shirt and brought a few people onstage, including one woman he knew by name (I will not say her real name, but let’s call her Lauren). He explained that Lauren is a regular here (a concept that had become too familiar by that point), and the moment the music began she lifted up her shirt, shook her belly around, and bent over and shook her butt around. It made me very uncomfortable, but everyone else loved it, and she won the dance contest. Congratulations, Lauren, I guess!
While I don’t fully support her dirty contest-winning tactics, I DO support adding this Steve Wilkos shirt to what I can only imagine is a room that over time has become solely dedicated to Steve Wilkos shirts and (the [much better] consolation prize) Steve Wilkos mugs. “Honey, we’ve got another shirt for the room!” “Ah, you won!”
After the dance contest, Steve himself comes out to answer a few questions from the audience. Well, almost. Before he appears, Real World lays down a few ground rules — no asking to rub his head and no asking for a hug or an autograph. Fair enough! Most of the questions he gets are literally just brief compliments — “You fine!” is one. “You look good for your age!” is another. Hahah. Then the lady who said that the shuttle isn’t usually late — remember her? — stands up and tells him “happy birthday.” (Again, not a question, but.) He tells her he hasn’t seen her in a while and she said that she’s been having a lot of medical problems that have kept her away. For whatever reason Steve does NOT press her about the medical problems (???) and moves on to a woman who asks — very sweetly and genuinely — if anyone on the show is ever faking their problems. Steve explains that they are definitely all real (C’MON, STEVE!) and that he reads a lot on the Internet about the show being faked, but that that stuff is bullshit. (I immediately become concerned that Steve is going to read this blog post. If you’re reading, Steve: You get it, right? You seem like you get the deal and like you’re just trying to do your job.) (We all have to do our jobs, Steve, I clearly know that as well as anyone now.) (But most of them are fake, yeah?) (Just between you and me?) (Steve?) “Yesterday we had on a guy accused of raping a young girl — why would he come on TV and say that if it was made up?” Steve explains. “WHY WOULD HE COME ON TV AND SAY THAT EVER?!?!?” the audience demands. Just kidding. We’re totally cool with the conceit of this show! (Once the show begins, the stories do seem fake, but the ideas behind them are not fake and, as it turns out, they are not fun ideas.)
AND NOW IT’S TIME TO BEGIN!
I had never seen any episodes of The Steve Wilkos Show, so before attending the taping I looked at some clips on YouTube. For research, obviously. You don’t just go to the taping of a show without doing your research. The guests are generally child molesters (I know I keep saying that and that it is not a thing that you want to read over and over again, but honestly 80% of what I saw was centered around an accused child molester) (this is a terrible show to watch for entertainment!) or people who don’t believe their baby is actually their baby. They are given lie detector tests and blood tests and at some point Steve Wilkos throws a chair in frustration. Unfortunately (“unfortunately”) I don’t believe I’m able to disclose what happened in the stories I saw because of some thing I had to sign, but I WILL say that one of them was about a guy who was accused of molesting his own daughter. (Duh, it’s daytime TV!) At one point the man stormed off stage, the show cut, and Pink’s “Get This Party Started” began pumping through the speakers. No other moment encapsulates the Steve Wilkos experience as perfectly as this moment.
I’m not sure if you’ve ever had to BOOOOO someone accused of a horrific sexual crime against a child while a camera is pointed at your face, hoping to get a “good” reaction, but it doesn’t feel natural! And it is NOT FUN! And it is emotionally exhausting!
Even so, I left the taping in relatively high spirits, which in retrospect were gained largely from the idea that the whole ordeal was over. “That wasn’t SO bad, but I’m very very glad it’s over” I said to Max, who was disappointed that the pizza he was promised had been replaced with turkey sandwiches. We resigned to eat when we got back to the city and headed out for the bus.
Only to find that there was no bus. Desperately I dragged Max around the parking lot. “No– he said he’d be here. He said he’d be right here. Maybe around the corner? Let’s do a loop around the block, maybe he’s somewhere else. I just don’t want to miss the bus. HE’S GOT TO BE HERE.” Max was not so delusional. Prior to the bus driver telling us he’d pick us up at 2PM, we were under the impression that he would be picking us up closer to 3:30 or 4:00 — the times given in the e-mail. We went back in and checked with Real World. “Oh, no — the bus isn’t leaving until around…4:30? 5? After the next taping.” My heart sank. It was currently 1:30. Like an imprisoned man certain he’d be getting parole only to learn that not only was he not granted parole, but that he also had to sit in for another taping of The Steve Wilkos Show (I don’t know how prison works) it took a while to even accept what I had heard. “But– no. Maybe he doesn’t know when the bus is coming? There has to be some mistake. Maybe he– but, NO!” The others in the room who were also under the delusion that we’d be leaving called their loved ones. “It looks like I’m not going to be home until later — around 6,” they’d say with a sigh. I text Gabe and explain the situation. “Good,” he responds.
Stranded, we sit in the waiting room for a full hour listening to people hash out their ideas on the first two “stories” we’d seen, under the watchful eye of the greats.
While waiting, someone I ASSUMED was an employee of the show came around with a large birthday card for Steve, asking everyone to sign it. We signed it and later (much later) were herded into the studio. But: OH NO! While walking into the studio we got wind of a problem — too many people and not enough seats! Another very full bus (from Philadelphia) had come in while we were waiting and were seated ahead of the New York group. Will we have to wait in the waiting room for the next two hours? Would that be better or worse than actually seeing the taping? IS THERE A BAR NEARBY?! “Luckily” the staff made the decision to just add extra chairs, making for a very cramped second taping. So, just to clarify, it was like the first taping, but worse. We are seated in the very last row, in the corner. Max is seated next to Lauren and her t-shirt. “You owe me,” he says, as if I didn’t already know that.
They begin the taping with another dance contest. Again, Lauren is called by name to participate. “She comes to every taping, I’m not kidding,” said Real World. Trust me, guy, no one thought you were kidding. Unfortunately Lauren did not win this dance contest and returned with a mug, defeated. Cheer up, L. You’ll get ‘em all the next times.
This led to more Q&A with Steve. More compliments and questions about the show’s authenticity. A man stood up to ask a question and, oh weird, it is the man who had the birthday card! …? He is merely a fan. “I call myself Stephan WilKOS,” he said, referring to Steve Urkel’s alter ego. OK. “We all signed a birthday card for you,” he said, and brought it down. It’s hard to say how Steve Wilkos felt about it. He said thank you and the crowd sang “Happy Birthday.” Then: More actual show featuring children who have more than one child themselves screaming at each other, physically fighting, calling each other sluts. More choosing a villain, mostly at random, and booing. Are we done yet?!
It is 4:45. We shuffled out to the bus, drained of what little life had been within us in the first place. On the bus, an employee handed everyone a t-shirt. Poor Lauren, all that work and for what? The man who brought Steve the birthday card stood at the front of the bus and asked which currently-in-theaters movie everyone wanted to watch. We chose Django Unchained.
I hadn’t seen it yet, and watching it at that moment was honestly wonderful. Like eating something after a long fast — it barely even matters that you’re sharing your meal with a group of unlikely strangers and that what you’re eating is a bootleg copy of a hyper-violent movie that features excessive use of the n-word played on a tiny bus screen that cuts out every time you go over a bump. It was perfect. Later, on the train ride home after being dropped off by the shuttle, half of the people in the car were squeezed to one side because on the other side a man had pooped his pants.
This also felt pretty perfect.