Based in Toronto and New York City

, Nancy Matsumoto is a writer and editor who covers sustainable agriculture, food, sake, arts and culture.

Amazing Discoveries by Infomercial Audiences!

            Wanted: Superhumanly patient person willing to sit for eight to 12 hours at a stretch, stay awake, look interested, laugh and applaud on cue. Business attire required. Snoozers will be fired. Enthusiasm essential. Delicious breakfast and lunch provided; restroom breaks allowed. Five dollars an hour, time and a half over 8 hours, double time over 10 hours.

            It might not be everybody’s cup of tea, but early on a recent Sunday, 90 people eagerly assemble at a Burbank studio to fill this job description. They’re to be audience members at the taping of an infomercial.

            The show is a segment of “Ask Mike!”—a spinoff of the pioneering infomercial show “Amazing Discoveries” and hosted, like the original, by infomogul Mike Levey.

            Would-be actors, retirees, a few assistant directors and simply the uncommonly curious, many of the audience members are not just here for the money.

            “If you’re interested [in show business] like me,” says Anthony Foucher, an aspiring actor and vocalist, “it teaches you a lot about concentration, blocking. My patience is out of interest.”

            The long-form commercial has borrowed freely from the talk show, the variety show and the sitcom, yet the high production values, genial hosts and rapt audience are not quite what they appear to be. All is in the service of selling—everything from “powerful” juicers to “IQ-enhancing” self-help tapes to “astonishing” stain removers.

            Since the birth of the infomercial in 1984, when government deregulation opened the door to TV ads longer than 12 minutes, the industry has grown to a $1-billion-a-year moneymaking machine. Steve Dworman, publisher of the West Los Angeles-based Infomercial Marketing Report, notes that Cher’s hair-care infomercial with Lori Davis grossed approximately $57 million the first year, while Victoria Principal’s infomercial has earned about $20 million over the last two years. Then there’s cosmetic mogul Victoria Jackson who since 1989 has grossed between $175 million and $200 million.

            When the audience is insomniac, bored and frustrated America, circa 2 a.m., the essential elements of TV entertainment apply more than ever: the welcome glow of familiar faces, the cheery patter of rehearsed conversation, the bright lights and the laughs.

            “People like our shows because they have a lot of energy,” says Lisa Levey, Mike’s wife and producer of “Ask Mike!” “Most of the time people are watching in the middle of the night. They take your mind off your problems. It’s like a total break from reality.”

            Everyone at “Ask Mike!” refers to the half-hour infomercials as “shows” and assumes that viewers think of them the same way. And many apparently do. Among the 500 fan letters Levey receives a week are many from parents telling him how their baby woke them up in the small hours and led them to discover him. Restaurant workers are another core viewer group.

            The audience for today’s show, having arrived at the studio at 9 a.m., is offered a plentiful buffet of coffee, bagels, croissants and doughnuts and then is coached on the signals for light laughter, chuckling and light clapping. They are here to watch a Phoenix computer-instruction entrepreneur named Kim Komando hawking computer instruction videotapes.

            Having a live audience for the taping, says Mike Levey, “adds a very happy, upbeat feel to the show.” It also serves as “a sort of on-site focus group”—people he can turn to for reaction as to whether something is working.

            Before the taping begins, however, Komando’s slick appearance stirs consternation among some members of the staff, who feel she might alienate viewers. Like “Amazing Discoveries,” “Ask Mike!” relies on the just-plain-folks appeal of the show to win customers. “She’s too glamorous,” one crew members complains.

            Komando is asked to shed a bracelet to tone down the glitz.

            Hovering about on the sidelines are the men who have assembled the audience—Jeffrey Olan and Terry Zarchi, two of the three owners of Rainbow Casting.

            Of the 25 or 30 agencies that cast extras, audience members and bit players in films and TV shows, Olan estimates, only about 10, including Rainbow, can keep people working constantly. The 12,000 names they have on file, Zarchi says, include doctors, lawyers and directors. Extras have been known to drive up to shoots in Rolls Royces equipped with cellular phones, or to travel to Los Angeles from Las Vegas or San Diego for a peek inside show business.

            There is only one major requirement for being an audience member at an infomercial. “When I send them in, I tell them, ‘Don’t get caught sleeping, because you will be replaced,’ “Olan says.

            Rehearsals for the tapings begin on Monday. Levey usually starts with a basic outline about two or three pages long, then works out material during the week. By Friday, the polished dialogue is typed into a computer and printed out for the entrepreneur and his guest to take home and study. And although Lisa Levey says, “Nothing is scripted,” nevertheless, on Sunday, cue cards with key phrases and words are used.

            Although it may take longer to make an infomercial with a non-actor, the enthusiasm and conviction of an inventor can’t be matched, Mike Levey says: “It can never come out of an actor the same way it can come out of someone who’s given birth to the product.”

            The downside of this method means that rehearsals and tapings can be painfully slow and trying. “A lot have had a hard time,” says Lisa Levey, a former actress. “We try to get them out of themselves and to concentrate on Mike, to use basic acting techniques, and we rehearse a lot.”

            Since a 1990 Federal Trade Commission crackdown on the infomercial industry, stricter standards, warranties and money-back guarantees have become more the norm rather than the exception. On Levey infomercial shoots, attorney Harvey Saferstein is a ubiquitous presence, monitoring every claim uttered on the program for possible legal problems.

            After a lunch of assorted pasta and Caesar salad, audience members mill about, munching on brownies and cookies and waiting to re-enter the studio.

            Tamara Campbell, a city planner from Laguna Niguel, says she signed up because of the extra money and to pick up pointers for the five-minute segments she hosts on a local cable channel.

            She is amazed at the number of people involved in the production (25 plus), and says: “I’m in awe. I’m pretty alert, although it gets a little tedious because you’re sitting so long. You have to cooperate.”

            Joseph Gallo, an actor and director for television shows and commercials, says this is the fourth infomercial he has seen taped.

            “No, I don’t get bored,” he says. “I always find something to look at, to interact with.” He praises the infomercial for its “combination of energy and information,” noting that “the information has to be clear, easily graspable and has to be very, very energetic.” Of the acting challenge the genre presents, Gallo says intensely, “It’s about really being on the edge of your chest, leaning into it.” And he knows this firsthand; in an infomercial for a food dehydrator, Gallo was selected to play a starring role: Joe the Italian Grocer.

            Some audience members are more jaded. Tamara Castillo, 22, an actress, acknowledges that she would like to be plucked out of the audience and discovered, but she harbors no illusions. “Most actors look at [audience jobs] as pay,” she says. “Whatever pays the bills.”

            With audience members back in their seats after lunch, Olan watches and warns: “This is the time people tend to nod off. They’re back from lunch, under the hot lights.” If the cameras aren’t on them, he says, they’ll doze.

            Foucher, the aspiring vocalist-actor, who now works in guest security at the Century Plaza Hotel, says he makes it through the repetitious taping process by “thinking about what the average person does: bills, family; I pray silently, think about my next project—and women.” Since he recently became eligible to join the Screen Actors Guild, the moonlighting will help him pay his $974.50 initiation fee, not to mention alimony, Foucher notes.

            The taping continues. Komando has hit her stride and is nearly out-enthusing Levey. But soon it is the audience members’ turn to shine. About 3:30 p.m., with another two hours to go, the cameras are turned on them for reaction shots. Their enthusiastic smiling faces will be cut into the infomercial.

            “OK, folks, sitting up straight, good energy, hiding the books!” a crew members shouts.

            In an odd ritual designed to raise the energy level in the room, the entire crew has gathered on the set, facing the audience.

            The tape begins rolling, and audience members, who have been patient for so long, clap, smile and bask in the knowledge that, for a brief moment, they are the stars.

Old Friends

Sayonara to the Single Life