America’s Got Lawsuits – Still

August 1, 2017 by  
Filed under Rachel's Thoughts

A few years ago I posted an article with the help of my friend, Allison K Williams, that articulated my feelings for the show that makes its obscene fortunes on the backs of skilled artists who hope to gain any morsel of exposure at all, America’s Got Talent. You can find that article here:

Every season when the show starts anew, I get many hits on that old article, presumably, from people who are asking google what their gut is telling them — is the game rigged?  The answer: of course it is.

Now, I feel exactly the same way about this show as I do all the other manipulative and humiliating reality shows. It’s right up there with Wife Swap. They ask human people to sign away their right to any dignity or truth for the hope of being the one who’s edited to look respectable.

In that first article Allison and I wanted to let the audience know how on these shows – although the talent is very real – the deck is entirely stacked.  It has to be. That’s the nature of these shows. Somebody has to write the story and the makers have to decide who’s the hero and who’s the fool.  If there is no obvious fool, they will create one by any means necessary, because that’s how they’ve structured their story to go.

This particular show, unlike all the other reality shows, is a little personal for me because I have a lot of circus friends who end up auditioning for it.

That said, I walk a tightrope between how I feel about the creators and producers of these shows that squeeze artists dry and use them up to line their pockets, and needing to support my friends who choose to use these shows as a venue.  I will absolutely back an artist who makes this choice, even though I can’t support the show, itself.  I will be proud of them if they win the game, but I would never encourage them to play.  A game that cheats is a tough game to win. If you can make it there (and have a good therapist lined up afterwards), you can make it anywhere.
I think it’s possible for me to support the individual while steering clear of supporting the franchise.

So, I watched some this year’s early episodes of AGT, because I recognized a new batch of familiar faces in the promo. I powered through my fear of their humiliation to try to support these individuals.

I noticed a big change in the way they make AGT.

The show is still intentionally giant, manipulative, and intimidating with it’s deafening buzzers, of course, but interestingly, there’s less humiliation (on air).  They’ve started to skip showing the bad acts entirely only showing us the medium-to-awesome acts who audition.

For a moment I was proud of that choice someone inside the belly of AGT made…  But only for a moment.
I don’t for a minute believe that it was made from any producer’s sudden burst of conscience or Simon Cowell’s sensitive side.  They have proven from decades of globally-wide contests from Talent to Idol to X-Factor that they do not care about how foolish they make any person look or that they could (and have) ruined people’s otherwise fairly decent careers with their untruthful edit job, behind-the-scenes manipulation, or judge’s comments.
They have a very long history of not caring about what they do to people.  They haven’t just grown a conscience now.  “The fish stinks from the head down” and the head still sits in that judge’s seat.

If you look around, you’ll notice AGT is simply following a larger trend in contest shows on TV.  Audiences don’t seem to like getting anxious over the parade of humiliation, because most of us have an emotion called “empathy”. When you treat people poorly, it makes us, the audience actually feel bad for them.  If this is hard to understand you may be on the spectrum of a disorder called “sociopathy”.
There’s a point where our fascination with the car crash turns to sadness for the injured.

In fact, if you do a little digging you’ll find that the booing that happens on AGT often doesn’t happen with any talent on the stage. When people do poorly on stage, the audience mostly feels sorry for them.  As the tales go, before contestants come out, the show will offer $50 to anyone who can boo the loudest.  Then when it goes to edit, they have something to splice in.  And since the  contestant has signed away their rights in their contract, there’s not much that can be done about this manipulation of the truth.

Along with changing television trends, I believe AGT was also having a hard time getting people come out and audition, if they knew they had a high chance of being ridiculed in front of the world after signing away all rights to human dignity (#7) for their terrible offense of trying.

The routine use of “bait and switch” is used lure less-than-qualified acts out to audition, making them believe they have a chance, then pulling out every stop to humiliate them on a national platform.  It’s literally a dystopian plot line from the show, Black Mirror.
I had even been on the receiving end of the bait-and-switch when the show’s main job was to openly mock anyone they could get their hands on.  The person emailing me made it sound like they thought I was wonderful and that I should let the world know it by coming out!  The thing is, I knew they didn’t think I was wonderful.  Because I wasn’t.  I didn’t have any video on my website, only a few photos, and I had only done my comedy fire-eating routine a small handful of times.  I actually didn’t immediately know what talent they were emailing me about, it had been so long since I had done my show.  Moreover, the reason I quit doing it was because it wasn’t great. If I didn’t even care about my act, there’s no way AGT did. They couldn’t have seen anything I had done and thought I was appropriate for a winning act. There was nothing to see.  Their attempts were manipulative from the start and, because of my backstage knowledge, I could see they’d have made me one of their many bumbling, emotional idiots.
The talk around the variety performance world was full of warnings about why one should never go on AGT.

So, now they get it.  Finally.  Good.  …Right? …Well, they get what the show needed an external makeover, anyway. That doesn’t mean they’ve learned how to treat people.
AGT has seen the rise of contest shows like The Voice, Penn and Teller’s Fool Us, and even Little Big Shots, where the acts are carefully vetted before anyone gets televised, and so what we’re left seeing is all good — the audience feels good for contestants. Everyone’s a star.  These shows understand the audience has gotten exhausted from being anxious for the underdog.  We want a safer place to be entertained. We want to believe that even if the contestant (who could be our daughter, our father, our cousin) doesn’t get far on the show, they still did pretty well and probably went away feeling pretty decent about themselves.

I’m glad this is the direction AGT wants to go, but I’m bothered that they’re so blatantly following the lead of other shows and that they were SO late to the game that we know for certain they didn’t do it out of any personal conviction.  It’s only about staying on the air.  They’re being forced to play nice (on the surface).

Once we get past the shiny, blinding, new veneer of “we only show you happy stuff now”, we need to still listen to contestant experiences of how they were treated, after all is said and done, because as the old adage goes, “a tiger doesn’t change its stripes”.  It’s obvious to me that the show still uses the same formula to get their weekly story told. We still see all the same over-the-top reactions, meltdowns, and nerves.  It’s the same show with the same exhaustive contract that warns contestants the show can do anything they want to them. …So something sinister has got to still be lurking under the surface.
(I have since received private emails from rejected contestants from this year who have confirmed that humiliation and contempt is still a mainstay of the show, whether we see it on-air or not – it still gets reactions from audience and contestants. Anything for their story.)

I’d like to think Mr. Cowell himself is probably a very sensitive and human person – at least when it suits him.  He loves animals and he seems moved by touching stories.  I believe he must choose to see the great things he does for the small handful of people who’ve done well on his shows and that way justifies the bucket loads over the planet, over the nearly two decades, and multiple reality shows whose lives he’s damaged.

What I think needs to be pointed out here is that people should be treated with dignity whether or not they’re talented.  In our moment of birth and death we are all equally talentless, powerless, and poor. Someone’s ability to advance your career or be fun to hang out with does not determine how precious and worthy of compassion they are as human beings. This is a wisdom and an understanding that I believe Mr. Cowell is missing from his life, because every show he creates reflects the same attitude.

But hey – kudos for this new direction on the show. At least we don’t ALL see the humiliation anymore.  This season the mistreatment of people is mostly kept inside the walls of the coliseum.

Take some time to read these articles I’ve been sent by a reader about what is still happening that we just don’t see from our living rooms:

Fame 10’s article, published last year:
#9 is cruel on its face.
#7 –  “…everyone must agree that producers can trick, exploit and embarrass them — and even depict their personal stories in a manner that ‘may be factual or fictional’ — and they can’t sue for any reason.”
#2 – Therapy for all: They are fully aware of how badly they’re damaging people. They take necessary steps to protect themselves.  Not you.

Daily Beast’s article, published a few months ago:
If these allegations against Tyra are true, as weak as Ms. Bank’s character may be, my guess is that she was probably doing what she was told to do. The personality of an organization trickles down from the top and seeps through the whole system.

So, if you have ever considered going on this show, please don’t be fooled by the new face lift.  It’s the same show.  It will never be a different show.
If you are determined to go on this show, I will support your choice to use this venue.  But be aware, keep your eyes open, and take advantage of the free therapy.

Personally, if I’m going to choose a contest show to watch and enjoy, I choose shows that treated people respectfully from the start and never required abusing people, whether talented or not, to get their ratings. Instead of relying on human abuse to make a show, why not just make a decent show?

Try the Gong Show! It’s “just for funsies” and no careers are made or broken by participating.  The prize is $2000 and a trophy, and at the end of the show everybody, gonged or not, comes out and dances as they celebrate the winner’s success. It’s a silly game and everyone knows it.
I’ve heard personal backstage stories from both winners and non-winners and they seem a respectable show.

I want you to enjoy your TV and I can’t tell you what not to watch based on my principles.  But when any TV show involves real human people beings’ lives, please don’t get lost in the manipulation.  Just be aware that some shows – whether they show you the damage or not – are intentionally hurting people to get drama and to claw their way to the top.
When a bull in an arena starts kicking and flailing, look for the small skewer stabbed in his haunches.

And now, enjoy the entertaining and respectful segment from Penn and Teller’s Fool Us, with Jonathan Burns.
Watch how, even though he absolutely didn’t fool them (and he knows it and they know he knows it), they treated him like a peer.  And take note that the prize on this show is a trophy and Penn and Teller’s respect.
He was paid to perform and he was treated well during his time backstage.


“America’s Got Lawsuits”

June 10, 2012 by  
Filed under Rachel's Thoughts

I nearly didn’t post this because it stresses me out so much.  But I believe the curtain needs to be pulled back some more on what we call “Reality”.

I do believe we are a very shrewd audience, over all.  Our grandparents were introduced to the invention of television and so our children are essentially bred to understand it.  It’s a language and it’s what I do for a living.  Story telling can be a beautiful art.

And so it surprises me that we’re still all so naive.  Maybe we’re not as much “naive” as we are “trusting”.  We know that reality television isn’t “real”.  We understand that the show will edit whatever story they need out of sound bites and glances, even if they have to edit sound bites over glances that never happened together.  It’s how the show makes a good story, and eventually good money.  They have to advertise their eventual product.
Actual reality would look like us, sitting at home, staring at the TV, eating dinner, farting and working really hard to pay our bills.  So of course we understand this.  In our brains, we understand it… Sort of.  A little.  But we still seem to want to trust that there’s truth in these stories and that the free fame and fortune they offer is still something worth pursuing – that ANYone can have it.

There was a time when I would get sucked into the massive, world-wide talent shows.  I wanted to believe it for a while, too.  The hype was just so great and the tension, so palatable.  It was a damn good story!

But the more I got involved with variety performance, the closer to home these shows got.  When my friends are up there,  not only subjecting themselves to being judged on something they’ve made a good living at (by a ridiculous, not-very-intelligent drunk who got famous for running in slow motion, no less), but also being blatantly manipulated while signing away their right to any fragment of truth… my chest clamps up, my ears get hot, and I have to leave the room.  I can no longer watch Simon Cowell shows.  As my my eyes glaze over with the cataracts of cynicism, I’ve long since stopped believing Mr. Cowell wants good and magical things for these people’s lives. It’s a glorified Gong Show that earns a LOT of money.  It does wonderful things for the few who are chosen, but can potentially ruin the otherwise-fine careers of anyone else who unsuspectingly gets in the line of fire, because they believed it was a fair game.

I have friends and acquaintances on every end of these shows.  The winners, the buzzed, the boo’d (the ones who had booing edited in where booing never happened), the ones who really shouldn’t have even bothered auditioning in the first place, and even the professionals who lie to make it look like, “Aw, gee-whiz, I’ve never really sung before getting on stage right now in front of millions and having a standing ovation after singing two notes”.

Now, the talents on those shows are real talents – don’t misunderstand my opinion on that.  They’re real people who’ve worked on real skills.  They may not be the best in the world, but they’re they’re good.  Good things deserve recognition and the ones who win – more power to them!  I’m very proud of my friends who have made it far (and even won) these shows!  But I think they’re taking an enormous gamble – a gamble that might not be worth taking, if, for reasons beyond their power or contractual rights, the show decides their face would make a better joke than a winner.
It’s not within your power to amaze them.  They choose when they’ll admit to being amazed.  It’s not even within the audience’s power to decide who they like best.  The production needs a good show and they will make a good show.

You know, I might consider the damage done to individuals by a silly show forgiveable if the creators who benefit from it tried to, say, bail the world out of debt or feed a country or two.  I could, perhaps see a glimmer of good in it all, then.  But right now it’s just something that tramples many for the benefit of few — Like a cartoon of the worst sides of capitalism.

But now my rant from the outside, looking in stops here.  I will now pass you on to play write, variety performer and business woman, Allison Williams for an inside peek, behind the curtains.
This is not a unique story.  This IS the show.  This is how it happens.  Please read on.


I said no the first six times.

The seventh year, the seventh season, after an hour-long phone call with William the freelance producer, I think, well, it’s in my mom’s city, and there’s money in it, and this project we’re working on, the one that can’t get booked because nobody’s ever heard of it? It could use some exposure. And I say, “Yes.”

And, with William, I start mapping out the act.

“What the producers really like is the fire trick,” he says. “But bigger. Can you add some aerialists?”

William thinks it’s important it be big. America’s Got Lawsuits (If You Reveal The Outcome Before The Episode Airs) is focusing on group acts this year. I know one fire-dancer, two jugglers, six acrobats and a pole dance team that have done this show. I know fifty more entertainers who will never do this show, who have said no seven times.

I know we’re not going to win.

I know the contract says “Producers of America’s Got Lawsuits reserve the right to determine the winner by any means they choose.” I’ve heard about the holding rooms, about showing up at 7AM in full hair and makeup and waiting in a convention center ballroom full of chairs for twelve hours, for three days, and then being told, “Everyone else, sorry, you won’t be doing your acts in this round, you’ll be flying home tomorrow.”

William has gone through the act with me. We have storyboarded every four seconds and provided a recommended shot list to the director. Everyone in the act has been issued a plane ticket, a room at the Hyatt, and a list of instructions from Aubrey, our perky brunette Production Assistant.

“Remember guys!” chirps Aubrey, “Never look directly into the camera! It ruins the shot!”

I have met the rigger and the pyrotechnician; we have run the full act once and the fire section three times, for the stage manger, the director, and the fire marshal.

And here we are.

The glossy black stage gleams.

The new judge on the left, a shock jock brought in to expand the demographic, wears his sunglasses all the time. The lady in the middle, married to someone famous, smiles supportively. The man on the right twirls the straw in his water bottle. (“Fist bumps only!” said Aubrey, “No handshakes, no hugs!”) He will not drink from anything not handed to him wrapped in a towel, his assistant hovers out of frame with a bottle of hand sanitizer.

Up to this point, we have been guessing what role we will be cast in, how the editors will choose to show us to America. The pre-interview questions—

“Could you say that again, but touch on your street performer background?”

“Could you phrase it something like, ‘This is our big chance?’”

“Just say, ‘We’re here to win’, and make it really big, OK?”

“Can we do that again? One of you glanced at the camera.”

Our guess on the edit is Small Time Big Dreams or Scruffy But Driven.

Before we start the act, the sunglassed judge tells us he thinks street performing is sad and pathetic. We talk about theatricality, about performing for people regardless of their ability to pay, about shows for war orphans in Kosovo. I don’t know if any of that will fit our eventual edit. The lady judge smiles supportively. The straw twirler twirls, and we hold briefly for a new water bottle and a squirt of sanitizer. He’s given a new straw and unwraps it himself, the assistant taking the end of the paper wrapper without touching him.

With a burst of nothing—the sound cue is late—our act begins. The sound kicks in. The singer sings. The aerialists spin in a whirl of colored fabric. The fire-eaters await their cue. And at second number thirty-nine of the act that William has scripted with my complicity, my brain begins evaluating.

What’s that sound? Has something gone wrong?

Fast check. Aerialist Number One, still in the air, her split is beautiful. Aerialist Number Two, his split amazing. Aerialist Number Three is in a flaming aerial hoop. Is she on fire? No. Good.

What’s that sound?

And as I step into position to pass a flame from my tongue to my partner’s tongue and down the line of eight people (second number fifty-nine, midstage close shot) I realize,

That’s booing.

“Hup!” to cue the group and I set my tongue on fire, pass the flame to the right.

Have we ever been…booed before? By a sober person? With a home to go to?

Have we ever been booed by an entire audience?

No, I don’t think we have.

Not in the early years of dirt shows at two-bit medieval faires. Not at new festivals in new countries, navigating foreign social cues. Even the teenage Gypsy boys wanted attention more than to tear us down, and when I learned to say Tumen boot! I love you! in Roma, it stopped them like a switch. Not in the slums of Mumbai, stepping around eddies of trash to crack the whip. Not in Mexico, the freshly-ironed children shyly pressing single pesos and cookies into our hands.

At the eighty-seven second mark (exactly on time, exactly as William and I scripted, wide shot then cut to judges), I am already disconnected, awaiting the verdict I already know. I smile and thank the judges for their feedback. Maybe if we aren’t funny or angry, they will leave us on the cutting room floor. Even when the shock jock judge turns to the crowd, exhorting them first to cheer him and then boo us again, louder, I think only,

Those jeering young men ages 18-25 are certainly his demographic.

Even if I could win a verbal fencing match the edit would make me a Loser. A Bad Loser or a Bitter Loser or an Arrogant Loser Who Had It Coming.

The first exit interview, immediately offstage with a rapper-turned-TV-host, is called the “kiss-n-cry” by most producers. We neither kiss nor cry. I grin directly into the camera and say, “Hey, we’re already professional entertainers and this was just another gig!” and high-five the host.

Edit that like a Loser, motherf***ers.

We bail on the second exit interview, telling Aubrey we’re sorry, but we’re finished. And Aubrey, who is a local, listens shocked when we tell her about the booing and escorts us past five security checkpoints and out of the building. I hope that this lack of footage will help us be no-one, not even a two-second clip in a montage. That the mother called to the stage to be reprimanded for her six-year-old twins’ salacious choreography or the water-skiing squirrel or the girl whose father cuts her hair while blindfolded will be far more fascinating. There is nothing compelling about polite, upbeat professionals.

Later, my mother reclaims her cellphone from the audience security point and tells me that the audience was coached, their cue to boo was the crewman with the white sign in front of stage right. We learn that the audience was seeded with plants, paid to be there, knowing who wins, the locals who lined up for tickets instructed, “If someone next to you jumps up or makes an X, you do it, too!” Knowing that the contest and the voting and the judging is rigged, I don’t know why it surprises me so much that the audience is rigged, too.

America sure does have talent, but that’s not what this show is about. Talent’s not in the 90-second bites boiled into montage clips, not going with the breakdancers “Goin’ to Vegas!”, not listening to the singer stopped at two bad opening notes (this is round three—we were recruited, but that singer waited in line and has twice been told “You’re good enough!”). Talent is back in the driveway where the breakers popped and locked on flattened cardboard boxes. Talent is lip-syncing in its bedroom. Talent is hanging with the adult beginner aerialists back in the gym in Memphis, working out on borrowed equipment, their bodies aging out on borrowed time. Talent is singing with its friends in the car with the stereo up and the windows down.

And that’s the shield that keeps me gracious on mic while the 18-to-25-year-olds jump up and down, howling for our third X. Back at the hotel, showering out hairspray and removing the last of the glitter from my eyes, I wonder just how dumb this mistake will turn out to be, how many Americans this summer will see me and see a Loser. But as I hang up costumes and plan the route to the next gig, and the next gig, and the one after that, I thank the universe that I am up there taking scorn, instead of watching and dishing it out. Even standing up to boos and jeers and the caustic acid of three judges in the twilight of their celebrity—their downward trajectory still a place higher than I will likely ever reach—even that is better than waiting for opportunity to knock, for lightning to strike. Waiting for a life to begin. Waiting for a dream—any dream—to arrive.

See Allison’s original article here.
To other bloggers who are interested in this topic, please get this article out and around the internet.  Part of me feels as though I’m preaching something as obvious as WWF wrestling being fake, but we really need to smarten up to who we trust with our well being, when volunteering for free fame and fortune.
The contestants are real.  The environment they’re locked into, however, is as manufactured as a fine tuned machine, making the game an unfair one.


Added at a later time:

I’d like to add some clarification to this post:

Everyone likes to edit themselves to look good and there are definitely some motives of pride and redemption in Allison’s story. We ALL want to write a good story. But when a mass franchise like Simon Cowell and Company does it, with its level of power and influence using real lives as pawns (talented or not), the consequences are SO much further reaching.

“With great power comes great responsibility.”

We’ll never have a perfectly and entirely unbiased truth – not even in the news, let alone an entertainment show – but I wanted to do my part, as an outsider who hasn’t been personally hurt by these shows, to try my best since I can’t be accused of being a sore loser.
I see a wrong and a mistruth hurting people.

I wonder if this is the legacy Mr. Cowell hoped to leave behind after all is said and done. So much potential for great business and revenue. For what benefit to the world… Is the benefit of bringing another pop singer to an over saturated market really the best he can do for a struggling planet?
If there’s no bigger picture here – no greater plan – then I see it as no deeper than any other ‘famous for being famous’ reality star. It’s empty. It’s vanity.
He’s not the only rich man in the world benefiting from the desperate… but he’s the one I’m picking on today.