Mining for comedy like a forty-niner in gold rush territory, our Director dug deeper into the cavern of our brilliantly scripted dialogue always searching for that extra nugget of humor. “Do you think there’s any merit to having the person standing behind you sigh heavily in the middle of this speech?” she asked my gorgeous Actress, who paused momentarily before smiling and nodding sagaciously. “Let’s just try that” they agreed, as I stepped quietly into place for rehearsal.
Having been “uninvited” back to my last series, I wasn’t feeling particularly self-confident. I’d been booted for my apparent abhorrent inability to deliver the jokes as hoped for by the previous execs, had arrogantly turned down three other offers for sit-coms under the assumption that I had a gig to return to, and since all the ADs I knew had already booked most of their stand-ins for the new season, my future in television was looking depressingly bleak.
So upon hearing my cue in the dialogue to emit a verbal exhale of exasperation, I sighed heavily from a mental state of pure honesty.
“That’s great!” our Director beamed as the crew laughed out loud. “Would you be willing to do that for the show?” she asked excitedly, my lovely Actress nodding once again with a smile in approval over her shoulder.
And with the tacit understanding that I was nothing more than a glorified Background Performer, I still agreed happily, knowing that at the very least my on-camera appearance might be a fun surprise down the road for my family and friends.
Having stayed up until 1AM ironing ‘grown-up’ shirts to present to the Wardrobe Department (what can I say, I live in jeans and t-shirts for the purposes of work), I presented four thoughtful choices to our Head of Costumes whom I’ve known for years and who (with perhaps some subtle coercion) agreed that the coral colored blouse I really wanted to wear would be a lovely stand-out choice, elegantly contrasted with the chunky blue and green necklace I brought as an accompaniment (a magnificent piece I ordered on-line during a hiatus week after a few cocktails!)
And as any Background Performer might do after approval from Wardrobe, I donned my clothing in the ladies restroom, clasped on my jewelry, and humbly refreshed my make-up under the brutal fluorescent lighting with a couple of my female crew members who also wanted to look pretty for our audience.
“Let’s have a good show!” we hugged each other, heading off to our designated starting marks on stage.
With a very special surprise guest star hidden from view until his big reveal, I stood in line with the rest of my BG people, and was delighted to hear our audience erupt into show-stopping cheers and applause at the sight of my Actress’ co-star who had shared the spotlight with her years ago on her most famous sit-com. And as the first two scenes were virtually continuous (my sigh occurring in the second scene) we had nothing more than a brief “camera reset” before heading into my little bit.
So upon hearing my cue, I rolled my eyes and let out an audible exhale, as my Actress reacted and the audience roared with laughter. (YAY!)
On the second “take”, I sighed again, accidentally made eye contact with her, and as I cowered in the moment the audience roared yet again. (DOUBLE YAY!)
So not surprisingly, by our third “take” the audience knew exactly what to expect and were already laughing in anticipation as we finished the scene. And moving the cameras once more for different close-up coverage in a “pick-up” shot, I sighed for the last time as the audience continued their heartening laughter.
“Moving on!” our First AD shouted, as my tiny contribution to television history came to its humble yet joyful end.
“I have to check before I can release you” our Second Second AD (never understood why they aren’t called a Third AD) told me gratuitously, as she wrangled the rest of the BG people back to their holding area. “Where can I find you?” she asked sweetly, allowing me the freedom as a crew member to roam about on my own.
“I’m just gonna have a ciggy outside the door of Craft Services” I told her as we walked along together.
To the best of my recollection, I was halfway through my American Spirit menthol light when she reappeared talking into her ear piece. “Copy that. Stand by” she added as she strode up purposefully towards me. “The First AD just asked if you wouldn’t mind doing him a small favor.”
(Really?) “Sure, how can I help?”
“He was wondering if you would be willing to tear up your stand-in voucher and agree to sign a Day Player (guest star) Contract.”
And as an entertainment professional person in Hollywood, I responded the only way that seemed appropriate in the moment and immediately burst into tears.
“I think she’ll sign the contract!” my Second Second whispered into her mike as I clutched her in a lung-crushing cheerful weepy bear hug.
Collecting myself emotionally (as well as my physical belongings), I was prepared to leave the stage mid-show when our Director caught my eye. And racing together for a quick embrace I thanked her for how her brilliant impromptu bit had landed me the contract.
“You can’t leave!” she squealed happily, eyeing my backpack and extra wardrobe in hand. “You have to stay for your curtain call!”
“Let’s hear it for the ‘Disgruntled Customer’…!” our Warm-up guy ad libbed my untitled character as he announced my name.
And waving to the spectators, I ran on stage to the spot where my AD was indicating a stopping point with his foot, whilst simultaneously clapping for the rest of the cast.
(May I say it again?)
Invited to stay for celebratory wine and beer after the show, I gathered my wits again and politely declined any alcohol (many of you know why); and lugging my baggage, I headed toward the parking structure along with our studio audience when I saw the paper lying on the ground.
I’d never seen the programs that are printed out and given to our visitors, but as someone had dropped theirs I scooped it up to have a look at later. And rooting for my car keys, I ponied up to the elevators.
The night had been so surreal: fun, exciting, (not to mention profitable), etc., but if I thought for one single second that the bizarreness had come to an end, I was horribly mistaken…
“YOU were in the show!” a blonde lady suddenly shrieked and pointed at me. “SHE was IN the SHOW!” the lady continued excitedly to everyone around us as all manner of frenzied weirdness ensued. “You were SO FUNNY! I could TOTALLY relate to your character!” she cheered, Reverse-Ethel-Mertzing me, whilst sharing a story about being stuck in line behind someone at the drug store.
“You were HILARIOUS!” another Ethel Mertz piped up, adding her own personal opposite tale of having been “sighed at” when she took too long at the grocery checkout stand.
“Did you all know that Penny stands in for the lead actress?” Ethel #3 chimed in out of the blue, staring at me with stalker-like, saucer-wide eyes.
And finally wending our way to fill up an open elevator carriage, two teenaged Ethel girls who were waiting for the next ride up, gaped open-mouthed and full-on Mertzed me from a distance whilst waving and screaming “Hi!” frenetically as I stupidly waved back.
Unable to make sense of the world as I am always trying to do, I climbed into my car and drove home to my sanctuary.
And pulling out the discarded program from our show as I lolled in my pajamas, I couldn’t help but smile giddily at the back page. Under the list of staff and crew, my name appeared as a stand-in – and it was even spelled correctly!!!
Living in gratitude (and hopefully residual checks for the rest of my life!),
~Big Sigh P