"Wear, you know, what you'd wear to a book party," the ABC publicist had told us in preparation for our appearance as an extra on All My Children, and so — veterans of many years of slouching through book parties — we did. When the wardrobe guy arrived in our dressing room, he looked up and down at our rumpled dress shirt, crappy khakis, and brown shoes, and asked, "Where is your costume?"
"You're looking at it," we replied.
He nodded. "Maybe I'll just get you a sports jacket," he said. "What size do you wear?"
"What size jacket?" we said. "Um, large?" To his credit, he appeared impassive, betraying little of the scorn and hatred for us he surely felt.
While he went off in search of something, anything, to make us look less awful, we roamed the halls of ABC's West 66th Street studios, surreptitiously stealing trinkets and taking photographs. We shot a photo of Susan Lucci's dressing-room door, beside which is framed the cover of People magazine from the year she finally won a Daytime Emmy. We filled out a tax form, while explaining to the show's publicist that we actually couldn't accept money for our appearance on the show. Maybe he could give it to some striking writers? "Oh, we'll make some arrangements," he lied, as two weeks later a check for $108 arrived in our mailbox. (We returned it.)
And we swiped a script we found lying around — and found it interesting that no names appeared on the teleplay. After all, soap operas in general, and AMC in particular, have become something of a battleground in the writers' strike. Just days before our mid-January visit, the show's head writers, James Harmon Brown and Barbara Esensten, had invoked a clause in the Writers Guild contract called "financial core," in which they gave up their voting rights in the union in order to go back to work. As a result, Brown and Esensten were widely viewed as scabs, the rest of their writing staff still on strike while they were earning handsome salaries. "Their sole intent now seems to be piling up more money for themselves," a former AMC writer would tell the Times a week later. And here we were, crossing picket lines to appear on the show! Sadly, only metaphorically: Despite our best hopes, the only people assembled outside the ABC studios that morning had been tourists hoping for tickets to The View. (We later heard that writers had started picketing the studios about half an hour after our arrival, much to our disappointment.)
Called back in to the wardrobe room, we were given a shiny, faux-suede jacket of the sort that we would never wear but fashionable people in a soap opera would. Then a friendly makeup artist, presumably concerned that our shiny skull might blind the camera operators, powdered our scalp. Nearby, the many lovely actresses of All My Children also had their makeup done; on the television overhead, former AMC actress Kelly Ripa chatted with Regis, an aspirational vision for the cast.
Upstairs, we assembled on the set of the ConFusion Bar, the chic nightclub in Pine Valley, Pennsylvania, founded by Kendall Hart, "author" of Charm, the book we had gathered to fête. (Once played by a teenage Sarah Michelle Gellar, Kendall is now played by actress Alicia Minshew, a dead ringer for Susan Lucci, who plays her mother.) Charm is a real book, a TV tie-in novel ostensibly written by Kendall Hart based on her own life experiences, a sort of roman à clef à clef. Its actual editor, Gretchen Young of Hyperion, was here, looking somewhat embarrassed by the whole thing. We asked her who actually wrote Charm, the book, and she was vague. "Oh, we have a writer who is good at things like this," she said.
"Where are my real reporters?" the director asked, and five of us raised our hands — us, a 33-year-old father of two, and four girls a decade younger than us, one from Star, one from OK!, and two from AM New York. It wasn't hard to tell the "real" reporters from the extras playing reporters; the fake reporters wore badges around their necks that read PRESS — STATE OF PENNSYLVANIA, as if the media is licensed by the government. ABC invited us real reporters not, presumably, to add to the scene's verisimilitude — verisimilitude has no place on a soap opera, as our jacket demonstrated — but to better the otherwise thin odds that All My Children, and Charm, the booklike product, would appear in our publications.
"Okay everyone," the director called out. "Now when Kendall appears on the balcony, I want you all to clap and scream like she's the Beatles, because that's the way reporters behave at book parties in our little world. Just like she can write a book in a week and a month later it's getting published. Okay, action!" (People on soap operas are reflexively self-deprecating, as if they're eager to make the jokes before anyone else can. "Beautiful," the director said when one shot was over. "Surely a more artistically perfect television scene has never been shot before.") So we clapped and cheered as Kendall waved from the balcony like Evita. We laughed at Kendall's jokes and marveled when her editor spoke kindly of her. (Gretchen did fine with her line.) When no one was looking, we pocketed a ConFusion coaster to give to our mother-in-law. After all, it was to impress her that we were here in the first place.
At one point we were told, along with several actual extras, to chat up Amanda Dillon, the manager of ConFusion — a difficult task to accomplish with dignity, as the actress playing Amanda, Chrishell Stause, was wearing an outlandishly low-cut hot-pink dress. Strause is known by soap fans for posting on her Website last October, when she broke off her engagement with actor Matthew Morrison, "It's not Matthew's fault that he thought MONOGAMY was a type of tree!" Later, she explained her character's history for our benefit: "My parents were Trevor and Janet? I found my dad in the freezer? My mom killed him? Sometimes that's hard to play."
A stagehand explained the writers' strike to an attractive extra. "They're way behind," he said. "It's Tuesday, and they're still editing Friday's episode. The head writers of this show are back on staff, but they don't write the scripts. They just lay out the stories."
"So who is writing the scripts?" we asked.
He shrugged. "No one knows."
Has All My Children been hurt by the writers' strike? Tight deadlines aside, it certainly seems not. The episode in which we appear was no more clumsily written than any episode we'd ever watched, pre-strike, and our particular scene was in many ways a masterpiece of daytime advertainment. Certainly it was at least as artfully written as — and no more morally corrupt than — this blog post, which we shame-facedly guess falls into the heretofore unknown category of advertainalism.
Behind us, Kendall Hart pretended to autograph a book she had pretended to write, in an episode of a soap opera ABC pretended nobody wrote. During breaks in filming, she paged through the book, reading passages with seemingly great interest. It was possible, we realized, that she'd never seen it before.
Our episode of All My Children airs tomorrow.
Update: The episode has been pushed back in New York City due to the Giants' victory parade. It will be seen in all other markets Tuesday, and in New York City on Wednesday.
Update: Awesome, we got the title of the book wrong throughout the post. Fixed.