What I Learned in the Studio Audience of the Ellen DeGeneres Show
It’s midday and I’m standing in a parking lot across the road from Warner Bros. Studio. Around me I can see families, couples, groups of middle-aged women, and the occasional man. I overhear that a family has flown in from Seattle “just to be here”, another have travelled from East Coast, a couple have been on waiting list for weeks, and a pair have been lining up since 8am.
We’re in Burbank, California, in the waiting room, or more accurately, the WB parking lot queuing to be a part of the live studio audience of The Ellen DeGeneres Show – one of the most watched daytime TV shows of all time.
I’m not the world’s biggest Ellen fan. It’s something I turn on when I wake up in the afternoon, a background show. Yet on a whim, I’m somehow here amongst all the middle-aged mums and their reluctant partners. I signed myself up for studio tickets online months in advance when I was booking my flights to America. After confirming my attendance, I kill five hours with a walk and a long lunch. The earlier you confirm your attendance on the day, the closer to the front your seats are – which is why so many people have been waiting here since the morning. Yet as I join my place in the 400-long queue again, I suspect that some of these women haven’t moved from this one location all day.
Each Ellen episode feels like a ‘very special episode’, which has always fascinated me. Watch any episode and Ellen is always celebrating something, and as a result giving away extravagant prizes to her fans.
Before heading into the studio, we sign a waiver and answer a questionnaire – questions like “Do you know someone who is trying to continue their education but does not have the money to do so? Tell us about it below”, and “Would a new car change your life? Or do you know someone who needs a new car? Tell us why!”
I’m getting flashbacks to Oprah’s iconic ‘You Get A Car’ moment. I laugh to myself and update my Facebook status to: “Brb about to go on The Ellen DeGeneres Show! – EVERYBODY GETS A CAR!!!”
At 5:45pm, after an entire day of waiting, we’re led into yet another line to get in to the studio. But to get to our seats, we first have to make it through Ellen’s official gift shop. We are now entering Ellen’s world, the bits you don’t see on TV. I wasn’t aware that this was even a thing. Ellen has her own branded underwear ($20), Ellen branded water – sparkling or still ($5), Ellen branded shirts, hoodies, jumpers, mugs, you name it – it’s got Ellen’s name written on it.
The studio lights dim for the moment we’ve all been waiting for. We’re given a final warning that having phones out is a big “No”. I look around to see audience minders wearing blue Ellen polo shirts flanking the outer rows, like FBI agents escorting JFK’s motorcade.
A generic looking hype man takes to the floor, “What’s the one thing we love to do on Ellen?”
“DANCE!” the audience shouts back in unison – and a mix of Billboard Hot 100 songs plays. People are dancing like crazy; this is the pay off for hours of waiting in line. Then the stage doors open, a voiceover booms over the PA, and Ellen calmly walks out.
First thing she says to the audience is “Who want’s to play a game? It’s a pretty easy game to play – who want’s $500”, she pulls out a ward of cold hard cash. Instantly, the mums start waving their hands in the air.
I am in a total other reality; my brain has left my body and has entered Ellen’s TV land.
A minute of screaming later, Ellen picks a lady in the middle row. She hands her the wad of $500 cash straight up and the lady over the moon. Ellen says, “Ok, that felt great didn’t it? Now pick someone else and give it away – it’s all about giving.” I can see the horror running from the lady’s face as she’s forced to pick someone else to be $500 richer. This goes on for another four times, when it eventually lands on a young woman who explains that she’s getting married next month – a big TV ‘aww’ moment.
But wait there’s more. Ellen is staring directly down the barrel of camera, she’s doing a big Hollywood monologue about generosity. “As this season of my show has been sponsored by TCL…” Ellen proudly says while looking at the lady who gave up the money first, “…we’re gonna give YOU a TV!” The lady jumps into the air squealing and a big TV box is run up to her. Ellen points out another person that handled the cash, “…and we’re going to give YOU a TV!”
The whole audience is clapping, and I’m thinking back to that Oprah moment as Ellen palms off another TV.
There’s a pause, “…and I want to give EVERYONE here a TV!”
The room erupts with cheers. People are throwing their arms up and flying out of their seats. I’m hugging and high-fiving strangers next to me.
It’s only been 10 minutes of the show.
“We’ll be right back after this break” Ellen says, exiting stage right.
I have absolutely no good reason to need a brand new TCL 55-inch flat screen smart Ultra HD 4K TV with Roku streaming support. I’ve never even heard of the brand of television before. I’m two weeks into a three-month backpacking trip around America and I’m taking a Greyhound bus to San Francisco tomorrow night.
But I’m not thinking about that right now.
After the break, I’m watching special guests Chris Evans and Elizabeth Olsen promote the new Captain America movie, and cheering on Ellen as she gives out a oversized cheques to a young mum struggling to get back into collage; just a casual $25,000 right there.
Then, before I know it, the show’s over. After six hours of waiting, the show is wrapped up in a tight 50-minute taping.
Upon our exit, we’re given a piece of paper and told to hand it in back at the parking lot. Pallets of blue and white boxes greet us, along with many Ellen attendants. I watch a family stuff five TVs into the back of a four-wheel drive.
Is this why tickets for the studio audience are so hard to get? Are people are deliberately coming on to the show just to win free shit? Will I see hundreds of newly listed TCL 55-inch TVs on Craigslist tomorrow?
As for my situation, my hostel is on the other side of the city, far too expensive for me to take a taxi there. I pause to get a quick dinner and think it over. The TV pick up line is still pretty huge when I get back. I hand my paper to a producer who looks unfazed by the whole situation, I thank him and he replies, “Don’t thank me man, we do this four times a year…”
I decide to taxi to the nearest train station, but TV is too big to fit in the boot and too wide for backseat. The TV box is around 20 kilograms, 1.3 metres long, and extremely bulky to carry. I order a fairly pricey UberXL instead, and then drag my newfound prize from the 4WD, down to the platform, and on to the train. Shit, I’m stuck with a 21kg dead weight.
It’s around 10pm when I make it on to the train and it’s going to be even later with another hour to my stop. According to all the shows and movies I used to watch as a kid, the LA subway line is one of the most dangerous places in the world. Will someone pull a gun on me?
But the only one who comments on my TV is a homeless man, who after explaining I had “won” it on Ellen, he replies, “Oh, so you’re a gay woman lover?”
Wednesday night on the LA subway, I wonder if seeing people carrying home giant TVs from Hollywood is the norm here. Ellen’s doing this Monday to Thursday, every week, 42 weeks per season – this is all completely normal for her.
I carry, hold, drag, and push my TV as much as I can until my arms turn to jelly. There are some parts of the 1.5 kilometre walk from Union Station back to my hostel where I want to give up and just dump the hulking mass, but I push on and I’m on the home stretch. I start to carry the long rectangular box on my head like a Tanzanian woman in a National Geographic documentary; my head is the only part of my body that hasn’t lost all feeling yet. And I collapse on the bed in my 10-person dorm.
The next day, I decide to FedEx the TV to my friend living in Chicago. My forearms are covered in bruises from carrying the TV for an hour in all sorts of weird positions, but I take that as a mark of determination.
It’s about 9am when I send my prize off. Meanwhile over in Burbank, a whole new group of mums have already started lining up for another day of Ellen.
Photos by the author