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I Tried It: Being a paid audience member

A writer in need of extra cash finds everything she thought she knew about live TV audiences turned on its head.

By Alison Stevenson

If anyone ever orders me to clap my hands again, I will scream.

That’s my main takeaway from an experience that sounded perfect on paper: getting paid to be in the audience of a TV show.

When I first learned that people get paid to be audience members, I was stunned: I had assumed that most audiences were there because they wanted to be. That’s how it is, in fact, for the most popular late-night shows, talk shows, and game shows. But new, less popular shows need to create the illusion of fandom. Be the hype you want to see in the world.

Once I learned this vocation existed, I wanted in. I’m always searching for quick and easy ways to make a few extra bucks so I can make rent. So I researched online and found a company that boasted of being the Emmy-winning “premier” audience casting company in Los Angeles. Registration was easy: I wrote a few basic things about myself, answered a few questions to prove I’m human, and uploaded some photos of my face.

The day I applied, the only two types of shows that needed audiences were courtroom shows and game shows, none of which were named. The site offered short descriptions of the type of show, the times I’d need to be there, and the hourly rate of $14.25 — the minimum wage in Los Angeles. I applied to as many as I could. A few hours later, a text message and an email confirmed me for a science-themed game show and gave me a number for more information.

The recorded message declared a strict policy of no phones allowed on the set, as well as a highly detailed dress code: business casual, and absolutely no sandals, T-shirts, jeans, short skirts, large purses, or backpacks. No bright colors, but also no all-black outfits and no patterns. Looking at my closet, I felt pretty screwed. My aesthetic is made up almost entirely of jeans, patterns, and bright colors. But somewhere in there, I found black pants I’d bought at a flea market for $10, a black-collared shirt with very small white polka dots that were barely noticeable from a distance, and a dull, dark-purple cardigan with not an ounce of brightness to it.

I arrived at the television studio in Studio City at my call time, 8 a.m. An employee of the audience casting company directed me to the standby line — because my shirt was patterned. He wasn’t having my argument that the polka dots were very small and subtle. Standby line it was.

Luckily, they needed everyone in the standby line. The second stage of this job involved waiting in another line to get into the studio. Without my phone, I had no way to tell how much time went by. It was probably 20 minutes, but without the ability to kill time checking Instagram, it felt like three hours. Finally, we were herded to seats near the stage to do exactly what we had done before: Nothing. At least there was air conditioning this time.

“I was clapping so much that my hands were in pain, numb, and aching. At some point, I forgot how to clap.”

After what could have been another 20 minutes or possibly six hours, the show’s host came out: someone pretty well-known in the world of comedy. I can’t say who, or name the show, because paid audience members sign a non-disclosure agreement. An announcer type told the audience what to do and how to react. The famous host dropped a science fact on us, and we were instructed to act amazed.

Aside from these 15 seconds of acting, the bulk of our duty was to clap. A lot. Pretty much anything that happened onstage required applause. The host redid takes, which called for more clapping. An imaginary cut to a commercial break needed clapping. A special guest brought on stage needed clapping.

I was clapping so much that my hands were in pain, numb, and aching. At some point, I forgot how to clap. I’d slap my hands together and not register what was happening. I asked myself, “Is this right? Is this how clapping works?”

The more I heard the sound of all this clapping, the more I was willing to do anything to just make it end. I kept thinking what a brilliant form of torture this is. If we forced government officials to be paid audience members, all government secrets would become public knowledge. We’d finally know how many aliens are being kept at Area 51 and which of our favorite actors are in the Illuminati.

Our comedian host kept repeating takes of the same scene, which involved viewing a video clip and bringing a special guest on stage. Hours went by, but according to veteran paid audience members around me, this was a short shooting day compared to most other gigs. Hearing that, I vowed to never do this ever again. I never would have thought that getting paid minimum wage to sit would be so miserable, but it was.

Once we were free to leave, I was so desperate to be out of that building that I almost skipped the most important part: getting paid. There was a huge line for that, which was really just adding insult to injury at that point. I waited for about 30 minutes, I think, and then finally got back to my car at about 2 p.m, six hours after my call time.

The first thing I did was grab my phone, expecting 300 text messages and an influx of important work emails. In reality, I just had one missed call, from my mom. Still, I was happy to be reunited with my phone and the outside world.

Being a paid audience member is a special kind of hell. It’s subtle torture, clever in how misleading it is. My advice after experiencing it: if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. It might even give you carpal tunnel.

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Alison Stevenson is a comedian and writer based in Los Angeles.


Illustration by Dom McKenzie

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