8 Out of 10 Cats

June 29, 2006

Lately, I’ve been reading a few books by Danny Wallace.  His oeuvre consists mostly of what his ex-girlfriend calls “stupid boy-projects”: things like starting his own “cult” of 1,000 do-gooders, and spending several months indiscriminately saying “yes” to anything and everything asked of him.

It got me to thinking about things I’d like to accomplish while I’m here.  Having lunch with a famous architect or film composer would be high on the list.  Being a guest on a TV chat show would be another.  Well, I haven’t made it on TV as a chat show guest yet, but I have made it as an audience member.  And, on one of my favorite shows.

Today I attended a taping of the show 8 Out of 10 Cats.  It’s a simple idea for a show, but oddly hard to describe.  Basically, it’s a mock-game show (like Whose Line Is It Anyway? where Drew Carey (in the US version) was fond of saying, “Welcome to Whose Line Is It Anyway?, the show where everything’s made up and the points don’t matter.”).  Considering Whose Line originated in the UK as well, I’d say the British are fond of “game shows” where the points don’t matter.

8 Out of 10 Cats is a show about opinion polls and surveys.  A regular panel of comedians (pictured above) and celebrity guests makes jokes about “the top five talking points of the week” and fill-in-the-blank questions like “40% of British men say they wish they had more _____.”  In some ways, it reminds me a little of the old Match Game, and I’m sure if Charles Nelson Reilly were British, he’d be on this show (along with Phyllis Diller and Charo, who regrettably are also not British).

If you’ve never attended a TV taping, you’re not missing much.  Back in Los Angeles, I attended two, for the shows Anything But Love and Sibs.  I actually met TV tycoon James L. Brooks at the latter taping, but I didn’t realize it was him until a few days later.  TV tapings are notoriously slow.  It can take hours to record a 30-minute sitcom.  People flub lines, the sets and costumes have to be changed, the lighting and sound have to be adjusted.  And, the gaffers’ union has to have their coffee break.

8 Out of 10 Cats was simple by comparison.  One set, no costumes, probably only a handful of gaffers.  Nevertheless, it still took nearly three hours to shoot the 30-minute show.  Since it’s all improvised, only about one joke/comment in five makes it into the final episode.  There were a lot of pithy comments that fell flat and didn’t get a laugh.  There were personal anecdotes that went on way too long, and lots of tangents that had nothing to do with the show’s main topics.

I’d like to tell you who the d-list British celebrities were for my taping, but to be honest, I don’t remember.  There was a fat guy with glasses who was pretty funny, and older feminist author [Germaine Greer] who had some wild stories about being on Celebrity Big Brother in Australia and trying to call “999” (the British version of “911”) while being strangled by an obsessed stalker (not that there’s any other kind).  There was also a sexy brunette woman who unintentionally outed someone during the taping (which was naturally cut from the show).  I’d like to tell you who it was that she outed, but since I don’t even remember who she was… well, I really wish I was better with names.

More info: 8 Out of 10 Cats


Dragons’ Den

June 20, 2006

Dragons’ Den is more or less a combination of The Apprentice and American Idol.  Optimistic inventors and budding entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to a panel of five multi-millionaires (the “dragons” of the title), hoping to get them to invest.  More often than not, the ideas are laughable, and the millionaires delight in tearing them apart with the kind of devilish glee usually reserved for Simon Cowell.

The show’s setting is… well, it looks to me like something out of the final scene of Flashdance.  It’s a long, empty, brick-walled room with wood floors and large windows, and five suited “judges” sitting at one end, looking imperious.  All it’s missing is some Irene Cara music and Jennifer Beals in legwarmers.

But, instead of “What a Feeling!”, it’s more like “What were they thinking?” as a parade of wannabe “businessmen” peddle wares that even Ron Popeil would probably turn down.  For most of them, you only get to see highlights of the pitch sessions, and that’s a shame because the worse the idea, the more entertaining the dragons’ reactions…  “I think that is the single worst idea I’ve ever seen for a business in my life.”  “You haven’t got a plan, you haven’t got a product, and you haven’t got a distributor, so I’m out.”  “I’m just wondering where you thought the profit for this business would come from, because I’m not seeing it.”

Even better are the reactions from the entrepreneurs, which range from red-faced guilty admissions that they hadn’t really given things like “profit” much thought yet, all the way to red-faced defensive rage and name calling.

Rarest of all is the moment where someone actually gets one of the dragons to invest.  You’d think that sitting there all day, fondling their personal stacks of cash (see photo above), they’d want to share the wealth a bit.  But even the “good” ideas aren’t good enough for them…  “I think you have a winning product there, and I’m prepared to give you $100,000, but instead of 12% of the company, I’d like 47%.  How does that sound?”  Not surprisingly, it usually sounds like crap to the budding inventors.  To me, it just sounds like a way for the dragons to say “no” without having to say “no” all the time.

So much for “trickle-down“.

More info: Dragons’ Den

Homes Under the Hammer

April 12, 2006

There’s a clever double-entendre in the title of this show.  On the one hand, it’s a show about homes sold at auction, so the “hammer” is the auctioneer’s gavel.  On the other hand, homes sold at auction almost always need “renovation” (to put it lightly), and a hammer is at the light end of the tool spectrum required for most of these jobs.

These are some of the scariest homes in Britain.  And watching bottle-blonde host Lucy Alexander open the front door to discover something that looks like Oliver Twist meets The Day After… well that’s great TV.  Yesterday’s property, for example, was missing the living room floor.

Who buys these?  Property developers.  They buy these bomb craters for cheap, fix them up, and sell them off for a huge profit.  It’s not a bad racket, provided you a) have deep pockets and b) know what you’re doing.  The first point isn’t usually an issue.  But, the second… we’ll that’s also what makes this great TV. 

Every so often, you get someone who’s never even seen inside the home their buying.  Personally, I can’t imagine thins myself.  Until recently, I owned my own place, and the amount of negotiating and inspecting that preceded the sale was quite spectacular.  To chuck all of that for the raising of a paddle at auction seems, well, wrong… and stupid.  But, hey, without these brave (read foolhardy) individuals, where would the TV drama be?  I have to admit that watching the look on their faces when they finally see exactly what sort of hell-hole they’ve bought is priceless.

But the show doesn’t stop there.  After three months, the cameras come back to check up on the new owners and see if/how they’re getting along.  Suprisingly, most of them are able to transform their auction-bought pig-styes into relatively nice homes in that amount of time.  The trick always seems to be getting “planning permission”.

Unlike in the States, here everything you do you your house has to be approved by the local city council.  It’s a bit like living in one of those planned communities like Celebration or Seaside where the mailboxes all have to be a certain distance from the driveway.  Everything here gets nit-picked. 

The other day, a lady bought a basement flat in London.  Back in the old days, this was a three-storey townhome, but since them each floor has been converted into it’s own apartment.  Unfortunately for her, this meant that her second bedroom contained a brick wine-cellar.  And planning permission to turn the wine-cellar into a bedroom… denied.  Never mind the fact that since the townhome-to-flat conversion there’s no more call for a wine cellar as the basement is no longer joined to the units above.  But hey, you roll the dice (or lift the paddle) and you take your chances.

More info: Homes Under The Hammer

Jerry Hall’s Kept

March 29, 2006

The poster you see above achieved a certain infamy after it was banned from the London Underground for being too racy.  The official explanation was that the Underground has a policy of not allowing adverts which feature people as sex objects.  I guess 12 semi-naked men, down on all fours, held on dog leashes by Jerry Hall qualifies.

The plot of the “reality” show is that 12 “unrefined” young American boys get sent to England to compete to be Jerry Hall’s “kept man”… the prize being $100K and other swanky stuff like a sportscar, a penthouse overlooking the Thames, designer suits, and so on.  Oddly enough, the men on the poster are not the men from the show (unless there was a second season I don’t know about), but they are similar, so you get the gist.

With each episode of the show, Jerry Hall (the Ex-Mrs. Mick Jagger, if you didn’t know) puts the boys through a new “challenge” designed to test their skills on gentlemanly pursuits ranging from cooking to polo to painting.  Oh yes, and runway modelling in underwear and swimming across the Thames in underwear.  It seemed to me the show had less to do with learning how to be refined, and more to do with satisfying the erotic whims of a middle-aged b-list celebrity.   Not that I’m complaining, mind you. ;)

It was interesting to look at the spectrum of guys chosen for the show.  Occupations ranged from model/waiter/actor to firefighter to unemployed.  Hair ranged from scraggly to shaved.  And personalities… Well, on the one hand you had Ricardo, a man so in love with his body that you wonder why he’s on the show.  He already has everything he needs: namely himself.  Ricardo was the archetypal example of that incredibly hunky guy you love to look at… so long as you never have to hear him speak.  I know it’s a bit of a cliche, but my personal experience backs it up… there is an inversely proportional relationship between brain and muscle.  Ricardo (and his “bro” Slavco, the other professional model on the show) were walking examples of the “standing around looking beautiful is all I know how to do” crowd.  They never said so on camera, but I’m sure when they were axed from the competition, they must’ve said, “I bet Jerry is a lesbian!  How else could she have turned down this”! (lifts up his shirt to reveal washboard abs).

At the other end of the spectrum, John was a squat, short pudgy guy with unkempt hair and terrible street style… who stayed on the show basically because he was so incredibly earnest.  You got the feeling he’d probably never even seen a horse, let alone played polo on one.  In many ways he was the “soul” of the show.  The guy who’s there to prove that it’s not al about looks, and if you try hard enough, you can overcome the odds.  Of course, he got axed too.

Ultimately, it came down to lanky, bookish, blond-haired Austen and class-clown Boston boy Seth.  I have to be honest and say that I was rooting for seth from the very start.  Of all the guys there, he was the one who really seemed not to give a rat’s ass about winning, and was just there to have a good time.  Maybe it was all an act, but it gave him an air of “reality” missing from the others.  Even though he screwed up at every turn, his sharp wit kept him in the game, and eventually won him the competition.  If Austen hadn’t been such a snooze around Jerry (apparently he’s as wild and crazy as Seth in real life), maybe things would’ve turned out differently.

In any event, it’s all over now. :(  What will I do with my Wednesday nights?

More info: Jerry Hall’s Kept

More info: Seth’s Blog

Bargain Hunt

March 14, 2006

This is my “other” favorite game show on British TV.  Two teams (consisting of two people each) are given £300 to spend at an antiques fair (read “flea-market”).  Each team has an expert to help choose their three items.  Each team has the ability to swap one of their bought items for something chosen by the expert.  Finally, all the items are then sold at auction, and the team with the highest profit wins.  Simple enough.

But it’s Tim Wonnacott (pictured above), the irrepressibly crusty (and undeniably flaming) host of this show that keeps me watching.  He is the Emiril Lagasse of antiquing.  This man can find amusement in just about anything.  Especially Victorian match-strikers and paperweights.  But more than that, he’s a caricature of what you’d think a British antiques expert would be like.  He’s like Truman Capote.  So over-the-top, you’re sure it must be an act, until you realize it isn’t, which just makes it all the more fascinating.

I have to say, that’s one of the great liberating things I’ve noticed about Britain… with so many people from so many places and so many regional subcultures within Britain itself, there really is no one “accepted behavior” we all have to follow.  In some ways, the more eccentric you are, the better.  And Tim Wonnacott is the poster boy for the National British Eccentrics Union.  He wears flashy bow-ties that would make Tucker Carlson envious.  He fusses and preens over junk antiques like they’re all on loan from Buckingham Palace.  And best of all, he grits his horribly British teeth in disgust when he sees the players choosing a sure-loser.

Since this is the kind of game show you can’t really “win” (ie: there’s no big cash prize; you’re competing just to compete), the players have a lot of fun, mucking about with the experts, and consequently making some of the worst choices you could possibly make at an antiques fair.  If it’s hideously ugly and falling apart, it’s bound to catch someone’s eye on this show.  And they’ll proclaim it “lovely!”  Cut to Tim, grimacing.  Usually, it’s not a matter of making a profit, but of somehow (usually luck) managing to lose less that your opponent.

Every so often, one of the pieces actually sells at auction for a lot of money, and you have to wonder what idiots are buying this crap.  And then you remember you just saw two idiots buying it 20 minutes earlier in the show (albeit for less money).

More info: Bargain Hunt

Deal or No Deal

March 14, 2006

… or as I prefer to call it, “The Box Show.”  I understand there’s an American version of this show now, with a bald-headed Howie Mandel as a host.  Howie Mandel?  He’s still alive?

Anyway, the Box Show is hands-down my favorite game show on British TV.  Here’s how it works:  A contestant randomly opens 22 numbered boxes, each containing amounts ranging from 1p to £250,000.  As more boxes are opened, their chances of winning the big money go up or down via process of elimination.  The last box they open is the amount they walk away with.  Meanwhile, intermittently throughout the “game” a telephone on stage rings and the mysterious unseen “banker” will offer a sum to the player to stop playing and quit early.  This is there the show gets its name.  “Deal or no deal?” is this show’s equivalent to “Is that your final answer?”  So the challenge for the player is, do pay it safe and potentially miss out on a big win, or do you risk it all and potentially walk away with nothing.

It sounds fairly boring on paper, but it’s actually quite addictive for three reasons.  First, no two games are alike.  With 22 boxes to open in random order, that means 22!(factorial) combinations, or over a Million Million Billion combinations (for those of you not familiar with factorials).  That’s a lot!  So, every show is very different.  Second, there’s Noel Edmonds the host (pictured above) who has an amazing ability to be caring and snide at the same time.  You have to be to say things like “Either you made a prudent choice… or you just threw away a life-changing sum of money.  How do you feel about that?  Nervous?”

However it’s the third reason that really makes this show a winner: the contestants.  Or more accurately, the Britishness of the contestants.  They bring with them their sob stories, their life histories, their collections of good-luck charms.  They’re widows, IT geeks, unemployed pensioners, you name it.  And they all seem to believe there’s some pattern to the randomness.  I have yet to see the game where someone just opens the boxes in numeric order or from left to right.  Even though statistically you’d be no better or worse off.  They all go with their kids birthdays or what have you.  There is a slight advantage (in theory) to this.  They all assume that the “banker” can be swayed by sentiment.  I’m not sure that’s the case.  Although he canbe swayed by your perceived willingness to stay in the game to the end.  So, there is a bit of Poker-bluff psychology there (which not enough people on the show exploit, if you ask me).

Even though the “banker” is never seen, he in notorious for making pithy comments about the contestants.  So much so that I wonder if, like Homer, he’s actually a committee of pithy Brits rather than a single person.  No matter though.  Like I said, it’s the contestants that make it worthwhile.  And what you have on screen is like a crash course in the psycho-dynamics of greed.  With each “deal” offer from the “banker”, you can see the little wheels grinding away in their heads.  “Nervous?”  And that’s great entertainment.

More info: Deal or No Deal