It was probably four or five hours in when I started wondering if what I was doing was worth it. I sat waiting in a small room in Chicago’s NBC studios building thinking maybe I was stuck in some sort of reality show hell as punishment for trying to scam a daytime television show. We know you lied to us William, now just sit in this small room surrounded by a bunch of freaks and eat sliced up Subway sandwiches for the rest of your life, my perdition producers would tell me.
My producers in real life were much friendlier. They would come in the room and smile real big and ask me to repeat my story. Eventually they asked me to mimic how I’d behave once the cameras were on, but by this point I was spent. I was very much inside the seedy underbelly of reality t.v. and I wanted out. But I also wanted a bunch of free money.
About six months ago, my friend Alice and I became determined to get on a television show called Judge Mathis. I’d never watched Judge Mathis but I’m pretty familiar with court shows from my days of skipping school. A best friend of Alice and mine had recently gone on the show and we found out the whole draw of being a participant is that the show pays out the entire settlement from the court case, plus a meager appearance fee of two or three hundred bucks.
OK, so easy enough—we’d come up with a fake case that was somewhat juicy but also one-sided enough to guarantee that one of us would win. And we’d sue for $3,000. I think the maximum is five grand but we didn’t want to push it. We mulled over a bunch of storylines and eventually decided on some dumb case where Alice and I were dating and then we split up. And she broke into my house and gave some things of mine away and yadda yadda yadda, some things happened. We submitted our case and then waited for a phone call.
Months went by without hearing from them, so we just assumed the producers saw right through our phony story. Oh well, we thought. It was worth a try. Then one morning I got a call from a random number. “Hi, William? I’m a producer on the Judge Mathis show. We’re about to start filming a new season and I’m looking over the case you submitted. It looks great and we’d love to have you on the show!” Holy shit, I thought: there’s actually a whole part to this where we have to go tell this lie on television to get the money. They don’t just mail us a check for coming up with a decent fake court case. This phone call started a string of way too many calls every day throughout the next week, where the producers wanted to get our story straight. I didn’t fully realize it at the time but they were basically just trying to take our story and write a new one that was better suited for television.
“Now when Alice did this to you, she must have been on drugs, right?”
“Oh yes, of course,” I said to just about every one of their questions.
I wanted so badly just to tell the producers they could write whatever they wanted and we’d willingly act it out. It would have probably made things easier, and it certainly would have spared me from having to put all my shit out onto the curb and explain to my neighbors that I wasn’t moving, just taking some pictures as fake evidence for a fake trial I’d be a part of on a reality t.v. show.
Once the producers were happy with our story, they booked our flights to Chicago. We’d managed to get on the show and there seemed to be no chance of me losing the case. Now we would just have to go through the motions and the money would be ours.
The first day in Chicago was pleasant. The “case” was scheduled for the next morning, so I didn’t have to do anything for the show besides have my driver (provided by the show) stop in the loading dock of the studio building to have a production assistant take a picture of me with their phone. “It’s for hair and makeup,” she told me.
I still hadn’t seen Alice all day because we were flown up separately. They had us staying in separate hotels too, but as soon as we were free for the night I walked to her hotel. We had a fun night, and barely talked about what the next day would be like. We both just wanted to get it over with, but neither of us knew what to expect. The next morning I walked back to my hotel with enough time to shower and change before a new driver arrived in front of my hotel, waiting to take me to the studio. That’s when I started getting paranoid.
I noticed the way everyone was looking at me. Are they all in on this? Do they know I was hanging out with Alice last night? Am I being filmed right now? I tried to brush off these thoughts immediately and figured I was just a little hungover from drinking a bottle of Trader Joe’s champagne the night before. It’s just a t.v. show, none of this matters I told myself over and over. When we got to the studio, some PAs met me at the front door and guided me through the building. We cut through dozens, maybe hundreds of people who were all waiting in line for something. “What are they doing here?” I asked.
“That’s the studio audience,” a PA told me. “They start lining up early in the morning for the chance to see the show.” What? These people waste their whole day for the chance to sit in a room and watch a bunch of court cases? They must be idiots. Wait, everyone who watches this at home must be an idiot too. I felt like an idiot for even participating. But three-thousand-dollars. Three grand.
We walked through a bunch of hallways until we got to the small green room where I would spend the longest six hours of my life. In this waiting room, there were perpetually four or five other plaintiffs, or contestants or actors or whatever we were supposed to be. Most were excited to be on television, others were nervous. One person cried for ten minutes when she was told the camera adds ten pounds. Everyone was meeting with their producers and getting their story straight for the last time. I kind of just sat there. My producers came in every now and then but they didn’t seem to care about me that much. By this point I was so unenthused that they probably regretted bringing me on the show.
Over and over I had to recite my story to them, nailing down every detail of my not-even-that-elaborate lie. “You’re doing great, but we’re not sure we’re getting enough emotion out of you.” I talked louder. I flailed my arms around gently. “Okay, that’s better, but I know you’ve got more in you.” I didn’t know what to do to please these people and I didn’t really care. Eventually they told me they were done, but I’d still need to see one more producer: Justin.
Justin was going to come in the room and I was going to have to sell my story to him. If he wasn’t happy, he could pull me off the show. It was a scare tactic. When he walked in the room, he was exactly like every young hotshot producer asshole you see in movies. He talked fast, called me son, and cursed a lot. How was I supposed to satisfy this guy? He probably hated me already. But I yelled and put on a show and I guess he liked it because he gave me the final OK.
Before we parted ways he grabbed my shoulder and looked into my eyes. “Listen, I know you’re here for a court case, but you have to remember: this is reality fucking television. I need some content. The second that gavel hits I want you to go wild. Yell and curse. Tell that bitch how you really feel about her. Go get ‘em.”
I wanted to puke. I wanted to tell Justin his whole existence is bullshit but I nodded and said, “OK.” I could only imagine the hell Alice was going through somewhere down the hall. I wanted to text her but I was too scared someone would catch us. An hour hour later it was time to film.
They guided me down another long hallway before a lady started putting makeup on my face. A couple of the PAs talked about how happy they were that their rate jumped from 9 bucks an hour to ten. I got mic’d up and given my cue for when to walk in. “Go ahead,” a lady wearing a headset told me. I walked onto the set straight for my podium. Alice had already walked in. Now normally, Alice is very beautiful, but in this instance she looked nothing like herself. All the makeup they caked on her made her look like the type of freak that would be on Judge Mathis. I guess that’s what they wanted. I looked over at her and could feel how bummed she was too. The bailiff gave me some instructions but I wasn’t really listening. He was obviously an actor—not like a t.v. actor but like an adult who somehow still does high school theatre.
People in the studio audience were already laughing at us and trying to ridicule us. I phased them out but it still pissed me off. Fuck them. These people were total morons who thought there was something glamorous about sitting in the same room as some daytime t.v. judge. One of the camera guys asked me to stare at the empty judge desk for a bit. They needed some reaction B-roll I guess. The bailiff got everyone to stand and it was time for the judge to come out. The main event. The man all these people were here to see. He sat down and asked me to state my case. He probably let me talk for about 15 seconds before he cut me off. For the whole seven to ten minutes that we filmed, he did most of the talking. After all, the show is named after him. He looked over my obviously fake evidence and was baffled that Alice could be such a crazy woman. Such a nut. So dumb. He offered to help her find help for her obvious mental disorder. The audience fed off his bullying and cackled away. Even the bailiff was keeling over from laughing so hard. What the fuck was going on? Inside I was yelling at all these people. That’s my friend. Y’all are insane. Don’t laugh at her.
The judge hit the gavel and ruled in my favor. It was done. I thought about what the young hotshot producer told me in the green room. Now’s my time to give them the content they really want. Some real emotion. I packed up the paperwork I had and silently walked out of the room. Once backstage, they pulled us off to the side and wanted some more closing remarks from the two of us. They wanted us to yell at each other and give them a nice clip they could play when cutting to commercial. But it was over. The money was ours. We managed to mutter some words and walk away. We had given them next to nothing for their show. If the producers were watching, I’m sure they realized they blew it when they picked us. But oh well. We were a tiny blip on the giant radar of bullshit television content.
I got my bag and an envelope with my appearance fee in it and signed a piece of paper saying something about receiving my settlement check within 45 days. I ran out of the building as fast as I could. I caught up with Alice down the street and the two of us spent the the rest of the night unwinding. After spending so many hours trapped inside a world that was so full of shit, we needed to be reassured it wouldn’t be like this forever. Alice washed the makeup off her face but we couldn’t get rid of the grime that television had left on us.
We must have made a mistake. It’s a lot of money but how could I justify being a part of something so awful? I thought about all those people waiting in line to watch the show. I thought about all the people who will sit on their couch and watch our case and get a big kick out of it. I was taking their money, and I didn’t feel so bad about it. My check should be in the mailbox any day now.