Have you ever wondered what it's like to be in the audience of a television show? I sure have. So, out of sheer curiosity I volunteered to participate in the audience of Le Grand Journal, one of my favorite French prime-time talk shows. I was given a random choice of dates and picked the time slot when I was available. As required, I called back to confirm the day before.
Arriving at noon at the studio on rue Cevennes in the 15e arrondissement, I joined a large buzzing crowd mingling under umbrellas outside the entrance. I was evidently the only American in the group. They were an animated bunch -- perhaps about 90 in all. A calm teacher from Toulouse corralling 23 students. Three couples from Switzerland. Lyon, Montpelier, Rennes. Wow. It seemed that people from all over France had come just for the show, and I had simply stumbled in on a whim from the arrondissement next door. The doors opened and slowly we filed down the corridor. After taking our names and stashing our pieces of identity in a lock-box, they had us sign release forms. "I promise to abide by the rules, to remain in my seat and not make any unnecessary movements or noises during the recording, etc. etc."
At the vestiaire and we had to leave all personal belongings -- including, of course, cell phones and cameras. Damn - no photo ops to be had! Then a security guard scanned us one by one with a metal detector before we were allowed down the stairs to the set.
Since I'd never participated in a television audience before, I have no idea whether the procedure here is standard for all live shows. There was a bevy of young program assistants orchestrating the crowd, assigning seating. "You, over there, the couple wearing black? Top of the third row." I was seated initially on the second row next to a rotund man in cherry-red sweater and a face to match. I think he, uh, had forgotten to flick the Parmesan off his shoulders. Recoiling from that sight, I couldn't bear the thought of making pleasant chit-chat with him for four hours. Thankfully, I got moved down the row, to the center. A slender young woman in front of me in line, wearing black shorts, stockings, high-heeled boots, and a Pucci-style top, plunked down in the much-coveted front row. "Je suis au premier rang! Je suis au premier rang!" she crowed, giggling, nudging her girlfriend seated next to her. "I knew they'd pick me for the front row, in this outfit!" she preened as she bounced proudly.
I tried to make some sense of the logic they used for placement of individuals in the mosaic of the audience. I really had hoped to be in the back row for maximum observation perspective, but second row was fine. The assistants were bustling around. "Too much mauve in the back of row three -- can you move down and over two places, s'il vous plait?" they were shouting.
Finally they had us wedged into our risers, and the guy who warms up the crowd came on stage to greet us. He was pretty entertaining, lots of wacky interactions, and then he gave all the expected instructions. "Don't applaud slowly and methodically -- this isn't 'Lettres et Chiffres!' he joked. "Clap fast and enthusiastically, show the guests that Le Grand Journal has the BEST audience of all. Because you are the best! And much better looking than yesterday's audience..."
I wondered if he ever got tired of repeating the same daily pep talk to every audience. Charming and engaging, he could have had his own talk show -- and maybe he will some day. We practiced cheering, then cheering wildly, then applauding, then stopping applauding, on cue.
Next he explained the guests and the format of today's show. We were actually taping two parts of shows. Though much of Le Grand Journal is broadcast live, they pre-record guests who are unavailable in the evening. "How many of you are here to see Seelverstar Stelun?" he shouted. The crowd went cah-raaazy bonkers. They needed no practice on enthusiasm. "Ouaaaaiiis!!!" Girls jumping up and down and screaming, greasy-haired boys shaking both fists up high in triumph. "Qui?" I naively asked the boy next to me. He looked askance at me as if I were Bride of Frankenstein. "Seel-vess-tair Stal-lun."
Oh, great. I was in the middle of a Sylvester Stallone Fan Club meet-up, and no-one had warned me.
Let me be perfectly honest. I liked Rocky -- the very first one -- okay, but never would have spent my time or money to go see numbers 3 - 8, or however many there were.
And Rambo? I'm not much of a blood-and-guts shoot-em-up movie fan. You know, I'm just a simple poetic type at heart -- I prefer the Other, literary One: Rimbaud.
Double-damn! Why couldn't I have been in the audience the day before, when apparently the guests were oh-so-handsome Frenchmen François Cluzet, Guillaume Canet, and -- yup -- Dominique de Villepin? Coulda woulda shoulda.
In any case, Stallone wasn't going to be arriving until the second half of the recording session, which was being taped in advance for Monday night's show.
Before long the regular cast began filtering onto the set -- Michel Denisot, Ariane Massenet, Jean-Michel Aphatie. My initial impression was: wow, they seem so much smaller than on the TV screen. Not shorter necessarily, but overall, slighter in stature. I realized how TV screens distort images. Then the announcement: "Deux minutes!" Make-up artists hovered around the hosts with finishing touches of face powder and hairspray. "Dix secondes! Cinq secondes. Quatre, trois, deux..."
The first segment for Friday's show began. First were French TV news casters Michel Field, Ruth Elkrief, and Thomas Hugues and a healthy debate about the role of competition in news journalism. I was reassured to find that my French was good enough to follow about 98% of the conversation. Some of the cultural references I missed, but I did get some of the inside jokes. "Hey, I must be almost French," I thought to myself. I would have patted myself on the back if it had been allowed.
Next was the ethereal Arielle Dombasle, a frequent talk-show guest and wife of Bernard-Henri Levy. She looked impossibly thin and iridescent. In person, she seemed almost non-existent physically -- ghostlike, a vanishing Cheshire Cat with plumped lips. Her co-guests were Edouard Baer and the cast of Looking for Mr. Castang, who were boisterous and funny, funny, funny! Theirs is a show I'll definitely want to see.
I was eating it all up, absorbing the French-ness of the experience. But after a few hours on the flat, hard seating risers my tired fesses began to ache. I squirmed a bit. Then I tried sitting on my hands to cushion my poor derrière, but of course that's not so practical when you've agreed to applaud enthusiastically on cue. Finally it was time for a break.
The juice and cookies they offered in the upstairs lounge were scarfed down in minutes. We had to loll around for another hour or so (and trust me, no one wanted to sit again at that point). The group was getting restless -- they were clamoring to see Stallone.
Eventually we were herded back to our risers on the set, and the assistants were shouting "Everyone sit where you were placed before, s'il vous plait," which was routinely ignored by virtually everyone but me. The teenage fan club from the other side of the set squeezed onto my riser so they could get the best view of their hero.
Denisot and the rest of the crew returned, wearing new outfits, as this segment was to be aired on a different day. Same drill with make up and last-minute touches. A middle-aged woman in row one was almost crying in joyful anticipation. She was wearing a Stallone watch, a Stallone pendant, and said that she had gone to see Sly every time he had appeared in public in France. "Maybe he'll recognize me," she said wistfully as she showed her jewelry to Ariane Massenet. ("What am I doing here?" I was asking myself.)
Then the moment that everyone else had been waiting for arrived. Stallone ambled onto the set; and as anticipated, the crowd went berserk. I applauded politely -- they wouldn't miss it if I didn't scream. A man shouted "We looove you!" Finally we sat back down. The girl who had squished next to me, with an unpruned hairdo bigger than a houseplant, kept craning her head to the right so I got frequent mouthfuls of hair. Lord oh lord, why me? I, who could have cared less, was sitting with the perfect front view of Stallone, and she, who craved seeing him, couldn't. The terrible irony of it all. I would have gladly swapped seats with her. But we weren't allowed to move once the taping began, remember?
All things considered, I was glad to have seen the Stallone interview. I have a newfound appreciation of the guy. Although his new film, which opens in Paris on Wednesday, is "probably the most violent movie ever made," Stallone the macho man is quite personable, and a sweet puppy-dog at home, at least so he claims. He darned a pair of tights on camera to prove that he indeed can sew, when challenged by Ariane Massenet. He showed the enormous tattoo of his wife's face on his bulging bicep, then patted the image adoringly. What's more, he said, "I just love France. I can't describe it, there's just something about France that makes me feel like I'm at home. Who knows, maybe in another life I lived here 100 years ago." The crowd went wild.
Well, who knows -- maybe 100 years ago, Rambo really was Rimbaud?
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