FACTION's better than fiction. That's TV's new axiom; reality in a tech-tronic marinade, the commonplace stun-gunned into starland. Even Rosslyn. Even GEICO. Even the georgetown Safeway.
Fisheyed, wraparound whiz-bang gimcracks bring out the umph in the ordinary and the hordes to the television screen. And NBC's "Real People," forerunner of reality programming, remains a top-rated show because it knows that.
"Real People" field producer Bob Raser, in Washington to tape segments on The New Celibacy, Japanese workaholics, talking tombstones and the Old Guard, had his reality cut out for him during one recent week. it was the georgetown stodgies.
"Everything has to be subtle in Georgetown," lamented Raser. "At the Safeway, I asked them to put up a sign. Signs are against the law. In L.A., there'd have been a neon sign, dancing cashiers, roller skating stock boys."
What's a lotus lander to do?
Herein a fraction of the faction scene stealing with Raser and his La-La Land Band: SCENE I Besting the Sound Barrier
Saturday morning, 90 degrees: A lean limo eases up to the curb outside. Second Story Books on P Street. Mark Russell, "Real People's" political putdown artist, wan under his Day-Glo pancake, eases out.
Raser predicts the limousine will draw a crowd. A Japanese tourist arrives, decides this is no photo opportunity. Two punks ask Russell for his autograph. A local merchant who rents bridal gowns offers to do an on-the-spot interview.
"We're really at the mercy of the people when a crowd forms," says Raser. "You'll see. No, maybe not. This is Georgetown. They don't watch TV, only PBS. It's part of their act."
The real producer, with a fat black stopwatch around his neck and a walkie-talkie jammed in his pocket, sits down on P Street with a Sony color monitor between his legs. "Cue the helicopters. Cue the ambulances. Cue the jets," he shuots. He throws up his hands. "every car in Washington that needs a tune-up follows us."
Soundman Bill Yates unbuckles Russell's belt and stuffs a mike cord into his pants. Russell will begin a satirical segment on a book called "the New Celibacy," saying four lines here, four in Rosslyn later in the afternoon, and the last four Sunday night at a disco.
"Do you need motivation for this, Senator?" jokes Raser off camera.
"He can get me to do things I'd ordinarily never do," says Russell, whom Raser has just told that a reporter from the National Enquirer is on the scene to do a story on Russell's sex life.
The cameraman adjusts for a close-up. "Tape is rolling," yells Raser. Sounds of motor idling vociferously. "Wait for the Audi."
A cement truck on Wisconsin Avenue freezes take four. All pause.
"Roll tape," commands Raser.
"Jet," calls Yates.
"Hold for the jet," yells Raser.
Russell flips through a copy of "The New Celibacy." "No pictures," he shrugs, and leaves quietly for Rosslyn. SCENE II Stone Cold
Ghosts. Not a great audience . . . unless you're in a cemetery with a laugh track. It's Sunday afternoon tomb side. The crew zooms in on Mark Russell, whoi ridicules talking tomb stones.
"They began in California," explains Raser. "They're starting to get big out there . . . videotapes in tombstones Kind of tacky."
That night, highbrow time. The crew repairs to Numbers, a disco. Docudrama for sure. The hostess refuses to pose for the crew. She wants to be an actress and her agent wouldn't like it. SCENE III Tissues And Answers
It's a monoxide-laden Monday morning. The topic is Japanese workaholics, and Mark Russell is sitting on his favorite bench in Lafayette Park. A four-hour shoot is planned. Sweat and pigeons pose minimal peril.
Raser orders a wide shot, with the White House in the background. Production manager Bob Craft, mother hen to Raser and the three-man crew, vanishes in search of a snack truck and a water cooler.
Raser's walkie-talkie gurgles, "Mr. Russell is ready."
Russell shakes out the morning's Wall Street Journal. Raser checks the back page that faces the camera. "Once we had a CitiBank Ad," he says. "Not good. But Rockwell, that's all right. They were real helpful to us once. Besides, it's not that obvious."
The smog is rolling in. Russell perspires under his orange pancake. Raser to his walkie-talkie; "We'll need some Kleenix for Mr. Russell today."
Walkie-Talkie; "Man-size or pocketsize? Man-size for the Big Sneeze?"
Raser to Russell: "Man-size or pocketsize?"
Walkie-Talkie: "Roger that." SCENE IV World According to Warp
Tuesday was a good day for casing locations. Restful. Work's over and BOB Raser sits in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency Hotel, wearing a green LaCoste shirt and drinking a pina colada, "the closest thing to a milk shake since I don't drink." Today he has subsided into a flaccid frenzy. "I've crashed," he explains. "It's an art I learned on Mike Douglas."
Raser, "just a Howdy Doody kinda guy," started with "Real People" in 1978. No job dissatisfaction here. He's still wowed by executive producer George Schaltter, slathering every conversation with references to the "George Lucas of television." He revels in Schaltter's extensive editing facilities, which now include one of two $500,000 squeeze zoom lenses on the West Coast.
"Ernie Kovacs would be turning over in his grave to get one of those. It'll give the show a 'Star Wars' look this season" -- squeezing, zooming, flopping and squashing real people, remaking the world according to warp.
"Somebody was crediting Menachem Begin with geniius," Raser bubbles. "Why? Because he changed history. Schlatter has changed history, too. News shows do a lot of 'Real People' stories now."
Vicious circle. Frequently real people come from talk-show tapes, collected by "Real People" researchers, along with newspaper clippings, word of mouth and letters from viewers. All fan mail is placed in Schlatter's computers by 30 or so out-of-work actors, creating a handy story storage file and an instant antidote for criticism: Schlatter can contact a thousand fans at the push of a button. SCENE V En Garde
Wednesday, 8:30 a.m. at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a place for hero-worshippers. The weather's great and the "Real People" crew is working in the cramped quarters of the Old Guard Room.
Juan gallardo, a security guard who guards the Guard, is elated. "I want to get a picture of those guys," he says. "Every week for a year, I taped the 'Real People' show for my sister who's gone home to Chile. She made me promise to send the tapes to her before she left."
Bob Craft, delighted with that kind of devotion, decides to send Gallardo a "Real People" T-shirt with the photo. And Raser (today's LaCoste is yellow) decides to tape Gallardo saying "Welcome to 'Real People'" so his sister can see him when her CARE package arrives.
In the background, cannons fire a 19-gun salute. Cameraman Jim Norling snarls. Norling is taping Sgt. 1st Class Henry Massie, who is straight out of Central Casting, says Raser, rich baritone and all. He is perfect.
It's deja vu, according to Courtenay Welton, a public information officer for the U.S. Army Military District of Washington. Massie has done this routine for "You Asked For It," a revived reality show, and "PM Magazine." "We get a lot of this magazine stuff," says Welton.
Hard, healthy youngsters, black and white Wally Cleavers, dress each other in the best army blues, brushing off the lint with masking tape. "They can't do it by themselves," says Welton.
Sgt. Charles Moore, already an Old Guard, is waiting in his greens to reenact an interview with Massie. Yates unhooks Moore's corset-like cummerbund and runs the microphone cord down his pants leg.
"I know how the Army could make some extra money," says Raser to a tall, lean guard. "Put out the Arlington Guard Diet Book."
But seriously now, Raser reverently begins the interview. "Here's the toughest question I'm going to ask you: 'Do you feel love of country is important?'"
Door squeak here.
"Again," says Yates.
Sgt. Massie's eyes shine as he speaks of freedom. He takes direction well. He is one of America's most photographed reel people. SCENE VI The chill of It All
Thursday, 5:20 a.m. at Arlington Cemetery. The ghosts of war watch as the "Real People" crew arrives for a sunrise shot from the monument. They are stunned by the beauty of it. "Goosebump City," says Raser.
Later that same day at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, he films a teacher from Pitchin, Pa., who is wearing an M.I.A. bracelet she has had since childhood. She's never taken it off, not even to have her tonsils out, she says, weeping. Her soldier is still missing, and now she is teaching children who have never even heard of Vietnam. She is glad to see others sharing her red-eyed vigil.
"Great stuff,? says Raser, thankful for his good karma. Everything's in the can. Tomorrow they'll shoot the drill team. Fancy dress frosting. SCENE VII Coming Clean
Raser is crashed in his tub, telephone in hand, at the end of Thursday's 12-hour shooting. Earlier in the week he said of Washingtonians, "They think of nothing west of the Potomac. 'You do it our way,' they say. It's a certain snobby attitude that I have come to find charming."