Monday, June 02, 2014

Fifteen Minutes of Infamy, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Reality Television

January 31st, 10:00pm
It's late on a Saturday night in Salt Lake City, somewhere between the Bar Deluxe and the Sears parking lot just down State Street. I can't remember if it is before, after, or even during my band's gig at the Deluxe, because I'm on a contact high from rocking out The Black Keys' "Little Black Submarines" for seven people. In my weakened condition, Chidsey tries to recruit me for his latest viral video project, a percussion piece where one guy with hair will play the heads of three bald guys like bongos. It's a natural progression from his previous percussion video where three men in tuxedos slapped the belly of a massive, shirtless Polynesian. I accept his offer.

February 19th, 9:30pm
Twenty minutes earlier I was in a plush seat at The Gateway Megaplex, attending a press screening for "Three Days to Kill," but now I'm heading up the darkened back stairway of a nearby studio on my way to tape Bald Man Bongos for the YouTube channel. I've listened to the audio recording of our piece several times, but the sensation of performing while a man stands behind me and slaps the top of my head in time complicates the experience, and leaves me with a sore scalp for the next week. This is a stretch of my comfort zone, but as I pocket my performance check, I figure it was good for a laugh.

March 18th, 4:30pm
I'm sitting on the couch in my living room, trying to decide whether to sign the basic performer contract for "America's Got Talent," a reality television show I have never actually watched. The Bald Man Bongos video only had a modest response, but Chidsey was able to parlay some of his industry contacts into a slot on the coming season's opening round competition. I pause at a passage informing me that the show's interpretation of my performance may lead to public ridicule, and I wonder what William Hung is up to these days. I am torn. Half of me thinks the bongo act is debasing and insulting to my true talents. The other half of me thinks performing this debasing act on national television could be a subversive and satisfying mockery of the entire reality television genre. Finally, out of loyalty to my friend, I sign the contract, and vow to hold it over his head for the rest of his natural life.

April 20th, 1:00pm
I am on an airport shuttle between LAX and Hollywood. Twenty minutes earlier my comrades and I got off a flight we shared with Patrick Stewart and Nathan Fillion, who were returning home from Salt Lake City's FanX convention. Stewart is a newlywed, but not to another man, as the misinterpretation of his friendship with Ian McKellen has led some to believe. We are sharing our shuttle with three reasonably-baked teenagers who travel the country performing extreme pogo stick stunts. During my time as a Utah Jazz season ticket holder, I would often watch the halftime performers and wonder what led them to a life where they could make a living shooting arrows with their feet or using magic hula-hoops to change their clothing in a split-second. I realize that I have now entered this world.

April 20th, 2:00pm
I am seated at a table at the Hollywood Hard Rock Cafe with the rest of the Bald Man Bongos crew, listening to our waitress tell us about her efforts to make it as an actress. Because she is latino, she tells us, she often gets cast in gang-related roles, but for now she is OK with it. When she leaves, I wonder aloud whether it is better to be a small fish in a big pond like Hollywood or to work in a place like Salt Lake, where there might be more opportunity but less exposure. Sitting next to me is Ritchie T., a comedian who produces one of Salt Lake's most popular radio morning shows. Across from him is Clint, a professional percussionist who coaches drum lines for the Utah Jazz and for Utah Valley University. He's sitting next to Chidsey, who became one of the youngest NBA Directors of Video Operations ever right out of college. There are certainly pros and cons to working in Utah, but the beehive state has no shortage of talent.

April 20th, 10:00pm
Technically, I am literally neck-deep in a Hollywood pool party. Four white guys from Utah, milling about a hotel pool at 10pm on a Sunday night, throwing a pair of oversized silver plastic pool balls at each other while the extended coda from "Layla" glides over the outdoor PA system. Only one other guest of the Loews Hollywood Hotel shares the patio, sitting alone and reading a book far from the water's edge, privately hoping we wouldn't acknowledge his presence. Up in the distance, in the darkness, the famous Hollywood sign rests on the mountainside, overlooking the odd scene, and a little closer by, various curtains open as different hotel guests gaze down into the pool and its out-of-town occupants. We laugh and joke and pull stunts and eventually get into serious discussions about life and marriage and what on earth we were doing there in the first place. Tomorrow is our big day.

April 21st, 9:00am
The green room wraps around in a half-circle, filled with random bunches of people, and dotted with little interview stations and video cameras resting on tripods. Employees, dressed in all black, filter throughout the chaos, herding and coordinating the myriad of contortionists, musicians, and glorified circus freaks who are stretching, rehearsing, or just meditating nervously as they await their calls. One microscopic woman looks like your everyday gymnast, until she pulls off a wig and reveals the effects of the cancer she is fighting. Two Asian girls mill around in Kabuki makeup, and in another spot a married couple rehearses some sort of modern dance routine. An older woman wanders around dressed like Marie Antoinette, lugging a homemade ventriloquist doll that is supposed to be Britney Spears, and right as we walk past the orientation desk, a 60-year-old farmer drags a state fair-quality hog through the middle of the room in a wagon. All around the room, on everything from mirror stickers to broad red, white, and blue banners, the "America's Got Talent" logo marks the territory of our nation's most beloved talent show. The performers around me sense their big chance, the potential payoff for years if not decades of practice and preparation. Their hopes and dreams are on the line. I am with them, but I am not one of them.

April 21st, 5:45pm
After an awkward exchange with a man in a yellow suit named Nick Cannon, I walk out onto the stage of the Dolby Theater to perform the Bald Man Bongos routine in front of 10,000 screaming teenage girls. A month earlier, Ellen DeGeneres hosted the Oscars on this same stage. Out in front of the stage is a massive, brightly lit table with four seats. I recognize Howard Stern, Heidi Klum, one of the Spice Girls, and the bald version of Howie Mandel. I have a modest touch of the butterflies, but in all honesty, I felt more nervous playing at the Bar Deluxe.

April 21st, 5:47pm
The performance does not go well. Ten seconds into the act, Howard hits his buzzer, and it feels like the entire stage is going to crumble to the earth. But we know we can still keep going until all four judges have buzzed us out, so we press on while Heidi and then Mel B. drop their hammers. Finally we stagger to the finish line, saved only by the empathetic Howie Mandel, who is coaxed into joining us on stage for an encore performance. As Clint dives in for a bonus round of head-slapping, I glance out of the corner of my eye to see my friend attacking Howie as if he were guilty of war crimes. You would have thought Howie ran over Clint's dog with an H2. When he can finally take no more, Howie flees the stage and dives towards his buzzer like he's trying to avert a nuclear holocaust. 0-for-4. Bald Man Bongos will not be advancing to the second round.

April 21st, 5:49pm
The crowd still hasn't calmed down from Howie's beating, but now we're standing in front of the judges listening to the creator of Fartman explain that our performance gave him a headache. I nod in agreement, because that was kind of the point. Heidi Klum chimes in, declaring that we "are not a million dollar act." I ask her if she thinks we might be a $20 act, but she doesn't respond. Mel B. says something, but I wasn't really listening to her. I was just thinking that The Spice Girls fell into that same two-year pop culture vortex that claimed The Macarena, Hanson, and George Clooney's bat nipples while I was on my LDS mission. Howie also says something, but I'm distracted by the strange looks on Heidi and Howard's faces. They don't seem to understand that our act was supposed to be a joke. I've struck out with plenty of girls over the years, but my failure with supermodel Heidi Klum has brought me into a brand new level of futility.

April 21st, 5:52pm
We shuffle off the stage and have an awkward exit interview with Nick Cannon. Now that he's seen us for what we are, his cool skepticism has been replaced with an awkward sense of obligation to finish our bit without telling us to our faces that he thinks we're idiots. I'd be hurt, but I don't care, and as some of the stage and production crew express their sympathies, I still get the sense that no one got the joke.

April 21st, 7:00pm
We're still waiting around in the green room. Supposedly the producers still need to get some additional interview footage for our segment, but after the results of the performance, we aren't feeling super motivated. None of us are disappointed that we are out of contention for the grand prize, but we all wish we could have executed our act more smoothly, silly or not. We are also very tired; a little Hollywood goes a long way. Chidsey and I are camped out by the entrance while the others hunch over their smart phones.

"I really appreciate you coming down to do this," he says.

"It's OK, man," I reply. "You've done a lot of stuff for me over the years."

Chidsey smiles and gazes out into the chaotic green room once again.

"We're even, by the way."

April 21st, 10:00pm
We have relocated to an Italian place called Miceli's to cap off our Hollywood experience with some vestige of class. The dimly lit restaurant, just off Hollywood Boulevard, has a gorgeous, romantic interior, and the walls and ceilings are covered with used wine bottles left by previous customers. As we shuffle into our table, we notice the old man playing a piano nearby while a tall black man named Boise sings old standards. A few seconds after we gaze into our menus, Boise hops down off the riser and asks us if we would like to start with some drinks. Boise is our waiter, and he is also an actor. He is not from Idaho. Ritchie T. pays the piano player five bucks to play "As Time Goes By." Time goes by.

May 27th, 1:30pm
A month later, back in Salt Lake, we are in another studio. We are now being interviewed for a KSL news segment to promote our performance. We've gotten word from Hollywood that our bit will air on the season premiere, only six hours away. The KSL reporter, Mike, dutifully asks us questions about the act and where it came from and where we see it going. We smile and make jokes and I accuse Clint of being the Mormon George Clooney. Mike asks us if we could see our act converted into a full Las Vegas-style theater show. I don't think he's ever actually seen the YouTube clip.

May 27th, 7:30pm
I am sitting in the living room of a modest Provo apartment, surrounded by a few dozen people I have never met before, as well as Chidsey and Clint and Chidsey's friend Stacey. Clint has decided to throw a viewing party in our honor, and so I am watching "America's Got Talent" for the first time. I feel confident that we will not become William Hung 2.0, but I still wonder how the show's producers will choose to portray us. At the very least, I feel assured that if we do look bad, we will only look bad in the midst of people I will likely never face again. Early in the broadcast, there are lots of clips of performers chatting backstage with excitement about how the judges "are looking for something they've never seen before." None of our candid footage is used, probably because instead of chatting excitedly about the visual extravaganza that is "America's Got Talent," we were discussing the timeless influence of Captain Geech and the Shrimp Shack Shooters and making jokes about getting Heidi Klum's phone number. A smug nine-year-old plays a brilliant piece on a keyboard, and a middle-aged man with a per mullet sings a slow-jam off-key while Howard mockingly slow dances with Heidi. Suddenly I see my face on TV, and a minute later, a rapid-cut montage of our entire on-stage sequence has come and gone. Bits and pieces of our full performance, the follow-up with Howie, and our stage exit are all whittled down to a surprisingly charitable blip on the season premiere radar. I am relieved. When it ends, everyone in the apartment applauds, Chidsey, Stacey and I stand up to stretch, and then we leave for home.