Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Yellowed Snowman: How I Became Part of a Live Studio Audience

Yellowed Snowman is a new feature here at TDS, in which I take older, previously published works, and post them here on this here web-log. These pieces, just like yellow snow, don't have the pristine, blinding cleanliness of a newly fallen backyard of snow before all those foot-tracks show up, but they're still good. You probably shouldn't eat either one, though. This is the only published work in my name which is remotely interesting, so this might be the last of the Yellowed Snowman. But I think it's relevant for TV Week, and also might serve as good preparation for tomorrow's post, the crown jewel of TV Week.


Note: This article appeared in a slightly different form in the YU Commentator.

How I Became Part of a Live Studio Audience

A friend of mine recently, using the Internet, logged on to The Martha Stewart Show’s website, clicked on the link titled “Click here to go to the Ticket Reservation Form,” and entered some of the standard information one normally is required to submit when starting an Amazon account. A few weeks later, she received a confirmation email inviting her to attend the February 6th taping of The Martha Stewart Show, which included instructional paragraphs labeled “What to wear,” “Check In” and “Getting Here.” On February 6th I met my friend at the “A” Train, and we traveled down to 27th Street to what looked like an abandoned warehouse. We exchanged the confirmation email for colorful entrance tickets and took seats amongst dozens of middle-aged women wearing violently bright colors, and more dozens of pre-pubescent boys wearing Yankees’ shirts. I think I was the youngest person in the room whose shirt made no mention of a New York baseball team. That is how I became part of a live studio audience.

I would have been startled by the cleanliness of the waiting area and the professionalism of the staff, if not for the fact that I completely expected it. In fact, I would have been surprised if the walls were not perfectly white and the metal detector operator was not the nicest I’ve ever met. The place oozed perkiness. We were soon introduced to Joey the Warm-Up Guy, who would have made the world’s greatest camp counselor. I’m not sure if he meant to warm-up our voices or our excitement level, but he accomplished both. He also gave me my first clue that participating as an audience member during the taping of a television show in no way mirrors the experience of watching TV at home. The couch-critic responds to the show based on his own judgments. He laughs only if he finds a line funny. We laughed when Joey the Warm-Up Guy told us to laugh. In addition, we were taught which hand signals represented the following appropriate responses: moderate applause; loud applause; standing ovation; “oooh”; “mmm.” Before moving on to the next waiting area Joey the WUG told us that it would be OK if we didn’t remember all the hand motions: he reassuringly instructed us to “Just play along and you won’t get hurt.” I couldn’t tell if he was joking.

In the days leading up to the taping I began to wonder about Martha’s public reputation. Has her image recovered from the insider trading allegations, the conviction on four counts, and the five-month prison term? My assumption, even before the show, was that she had recovered. I compared her situation to that of athletes who, for various reasons, had need for an image rehabilitation. In the embarrassingly incomprehensive list which I reeled off the top of my head without even one wikipedia consultation, I think I spotted a distinction between two classes of athletes. As opposed to athletes whose problems stemmed from some on-the-court behavior, those whose problems occurred away from their sport seem to have had an easier time of recuperation. Consider, as just one example, Ray Lewis. He, famously, was implicated in a murder charge in January 2000, and has been re-embraced by his home-town fans. Lying on the opposite side of the spectrum are those whose public sins somehow relate to the game they play, whether it be someone like Ron Artest, whose participation in, and escalation of, a fight occurred on the court of play, or people like Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa, who all, allegedly, cheated at their sport through steroid use. Most interesting, however, is a specimen best exemplified by Alex Rodriguez. His exquisite public image has done nothing to save him from the ire of New York fans. Rodriguez’s sin? A drop in on-the-field offensive production which rendered him merely one of the best active players at his position, thereby dropping him from his lofty status of one of the best of all time. This hastily constructed distinction, then, bodes well for Martha. She can commit as many felonies as she pleases and her reputation will suffer less damage than if, heaven forefend, she loses even a modicum of adroitness in her chosen fields of cooking and craft-making.

Of course, there could be any number of reasons why Rodriguez is reviled and Martha is forgiven. Another one I came up with is this: Rodriguez’s public stage is Yankee Stadium, home of the unreasonable expectation and the $8 beer. Even before learning firsthand the makeup and viewing situation of Martha’s audience, I knew that, at the very least, they would have a hard time getting their hands on beer.

You can imagine my response, in light of the previous two paragraphs, when I heard that Alex Rodriguez would, in fact, be the guest star on Martha’s show on the day of my visit. Actually, my first thought was something along the lines of: I wish someone funny was coming. But my very next thought was: Maybe this will serve as a good opportunity to contrast the two. My conclusion: In the highly controlled environment of The Martha Stewart Show, even Rodriguez is treated as the king of New York. When Joey the WUG tells you to greet a guest with a combination loud applause/standing ovation, you can be sure that’s what the guest will receive.
And now, a mostly unfounded and completely irresponsible feminist analysis of Martha Stewart. Simone de Beauvoir, the famous twentieth century feminist thinker, authored a groundbreaking work entitled The Second Sex. Influenced by Jean-Paul Sartre’s conceptions of existentialism, Beauvoir noticed that women, in most cases, are caged in immanent lives, unable to reach transcendence:
For a great many women the roads to transcendence are blocked: because they do nothing, they fail to make themselves anything. They wonder indefinitely what they could have become, which sets them to asking about what they are. It is a vain question. If man fails to discover that secret essence of femininity, it is simply because it does not exist. Kept on the fringe of the world, woman cannot be objectively defined through this world, and her mystery conceals nothing but emptiness.

In short, Beauvoir argues that a woman who is restrained to household labors is precluded from reaching the desirable state of transcendence, in which a person is able to, well, transcend the sticky muck of life. This is true for two reasons: First, the products of home-based chores are, for the most part, fleeting and repetitive. A cooked meal lasts, even after the invention of leftovers, a week, maybe two. Laundry has to be done repeatedly to be effective. Sweeping and vacuuming are useful activities, but only until the dust and dirt return to the house. Second, housework, is, by its nature, private. The work normally assigned to women, then, falls short of reaching transcendence, because it fails to make a difference in the world.

What, then, to make of Martha, the champion of household chores? It would be easy to label her as a traitor to feminism. After all, she seems to celebrate immanence, precluding the thousands of women who read, buy and watch her magazines, products and show from ever affecting the world.

After visiting her show, I propose a different understanding of what Martha has wrought. To describe Martha as the world’s greatest chef/craft-maker is roughly akin to thinking of Howard Schultz, chairman of Starbucks, as a really terrific barista. It might be true, but it hardly tells the full story. Martha, more than anything else, is a tremendous businesswoman. I first realized this point when, during a commercial break, Joey the WUG reminded the audience to purchase Martha products at K-Mart, Lowe’s and Macy’s. Sure, her show featured a segment instructing the audience in the art of rose-arrangment, but that was merely a three-minute fragment of a business employing hundreds of people whose stock is traded on the NYSE. More striking, however, was a throwaway comment Martha offered during her chat with Rodriguez. Martha mentioned that she gets great seats at Yankee Stadium because they belong to her banker, Jane Hiller. Then, turning to Rodriguez, she said: “Your banker too, from Bank of America.” The symbolism here is easily apparent: Martha Stewart shares the same banker with the highest-paid player in baseball. Apparently, cooking can lead to the same material rewards as supreme athletic ability. Even Beauvoir would be proud.

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