You know things have taken a turn for the worse when Oprah is funnier than Ellen DeGeneres. I learned this tragic truth over spring break in L.A., when I had the distinct pseudo-honor of being an audience member for both daytime talk show queens. I say pseudo-honor because being in a talk show audience is essentially a humbling experience. After clapping on cue, practicing laughing, dancing frenetically between commercials and being moved in and out of seats according to attractiveness, one feels less like a human and more like a circus monkey. But I performed accordingly, hoping to at least produce an interesting story.
Monday was Oprah’s after-Oscar special at the Kodak Theatre. My mom and I were VIPs, which we later learned meant nothing. Oprah was slated to interview the Oscar winners post-post-party, before many even had a chance to sleep. Scandal and intrigue felt imminent. Yet none of this seemed worth it at the ungodly arrival time of 5:30 a.m. We came, we saw, we parked, we waited. While waiting, I learned a few things. One: Even regulars on CBS detective shows have to wait in line for Oprah. Two: If a VIP falls in the forest, but everyone else is also a VIP, no one really gives a shit.
Five hours after my brutal wake-up call, I stumbled, half-dead, into the Kodak.
First up: Hugh Jackman, large and clean-shaven. Always combating those gay rumors, Jackman waxed poetic about glancing at his wife from the Kodak stage. His schmoozy Australian charm won me over and eventually I forgot to feel annoyed by him. Next was Kate Winslet. There’s nothing bad to say about the woman, except to wonder about her questionable hair choices. Penelope Cruz and the “Slumdog Millionare” kids were just as pleasant (read: boring) as Winslet. Dev Patel and Freida Pinto stuck around to watch a performance of “Jai Ho.” Sean Penn ambled onto the stage next, slurring mildly. He half-heartedly explained that he hadn’t yet gone to bed. When he walked off-stage, Oprah raised her eyebrows at the audience: “One too many tequila shots.” This was the edgiest moment of the show. It was otherwise eerily serene. Don’t these people spend Oscar night snorting coke off mirrors at Prince’s house?
I left the Kodak slightly disappointed. Penn’s hangover hadn’t been enough for me. All I had left was Ellen on Tuesday. She was my last hope.
We arrived at noon and were forced to watch old episodes of Ellen at the bottom of a parking garage. Once in our seats (four hours later) a Ross the Intern wannabe tried vehemently to pump up the crowd. He even put a Mardi-Gras spin on his routine: “OK, people, you’re on Bourbon Street. You’ve got a shot in your hand. Take it! We’re having fun, right?” I took three more imaginary shots and sat down, thinking things couldn’t get much worse. But five minutes later, my mother ended up dancing onstage alone for three minutes in hopes of winning a T-shirt. I learned a third lesson here: In the real world, T-shirts aren’t so heavily commoditized. But in the world of the talk show audience, they are luxuries worthy of self-exploitation.
Finally, Ellen entered the studio, a ray of golden sunshine. Relief descended over the audience as we were finally allowed to sit down and stop awkwardly shaking our imaginary Mardi Gras beads. Until we were told she’d be refraining from her usual parade through the aisles, and had to push Fabio from “Top Chef” to tomorrow’s show. Hopelessness ensued.
Ellen’s first guest was a woman who had stopped a burglar by giving him a wedgie. I waited for the witty repartee, for Ellen’s biting commentary — but there was none. Between takes, she sat forlornly in her chair while a team of makeup artists dusted away at her forehead. A phone call to Sean Penn began a lengthy, mutual pat on the back between the two in which they congratulated one another for being proponents of the gay rights movement. Denise Richards moaned about her hard-knock life while simultaneously whoring out her reality series and children. And stunningly, Ellen didn’t make fun of her. Rather, she commiserated.
At the end of the show, Ellen stood and thanked the audience, almost apologetically. We sat in shared, horrified silence. Had that really just happened? Had Ellen and Denise Richards just bonded? My mother and I quickly invented stories for her. “Her back hurts.” “She’s probably sick.” “Maybe she’s fighting with Portia!”
As we trudged forlornly out of the studio, I decided that the entire experience had been sort of surreal. When Oprah can crack jokes about her financial status between commercials — “When you’re rich, people adjust your shirt for you” — but Ellen can barely crack a smile. When celebrities are chipper at 10 a.m. after the Oscars and a still-drunk Sean Penn doesn’t even make an off-color remark, the universe feels out of whack. Perhaps I had somehow entered the “Twilight Zone” without realizing it. Shit got weird that week in L.A., and I wanted a refund. I couldn’t catch a break, though — our tickets had been free.