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Strangers in the Night

Host Roger Lodge took auditions on the road, trying to find good chemistry in Houston.
Universal Television Networks Group

"Baby Got Back" blared from the speakers at the Hard Rock Café last Thursday night. A line of people who spent way too much time on their hair stretched from the gift shop (where they surprisingly still sell outdated '80s Hard Rock Café t-shirts) around the entire bar, as Houston's "sexiest" singles auditioned to humiliate themselves on the national TV show Blind Date. Almost everyone was smashed as they mashed up against each other and talked about how they love this evil dating show that sets a couple up, sends the duo on a date with a camera crew and then totally slams and shreds them.

Participants don't have to be attractive to get on the program, the publicist says, just interesting and outgoing. There was a big sigh of relief from many people there. Actually, there were a lot of pretty people. Mainly, there were a lot of drunk people -- you need to be drunk to audition for Blind Date.

What differentiates it from the billion other dating game shows is that instead of the couples winning a date or sitting around talking about the date they went on, Blind Date actually takes viewers along on the date. They spend eight to ten hours together (which is a long date -- hell, that's a long day) to get the six minutes that is eventually aired. To fill in for the first date I-just-met-you-and-we-really-have-nothing-to-say-to-each-other awkwardness, Blind Date's writers add thought bubbles and nasty Pop-up Video-like icons. For instance, if the guy is repeatedly trying to hug a woman who keeps pulling away, the cartoon figure of Therapist Joe will pop up and say, "James has trouble respecting people's boundaries."

Rarely do the dates work out. Happiness is boring. Couples who end up arguing, hating or humiliating each other -- like the time that the woman starts choking on her cookie because the guy asked her on national TV, "When is the last time you got laid?" -- are more fun. If they have a decent first outing, laugh, make unfunny jokes, thumb-wrestle and hug goodnight, Blind Date's writers usually slam them both.

After all, there's something intriguing about watching other people suffer. (Hence the popularity of Survivor and The Real World.) On the recent "Dates from Hell" episode, one woman had the flu, went horseback riding and threw up; her date kissed her and she threw up again. On the second coupling of that episode, another woman acted like she was having an okay, if not too exciting time. Then she ducked into the bathroom, called a friend on her cell phone and totally trashed the pimped-out Richard Simmons look-alike. Blind Date's camera crew captured that magic moment.

Blind Date is criss-crossing the country recruiting participants. All the parties are packed because the show says that love, true love, can be just a blind date away. Contestants are people who want to find a happy ever-after (or really want to be on television. Casual viewing of some segments reveals a lot of "actors" or "musicians" or people who say they're comedians who seemed to just want the television exposure. Case in point: the guy who wants to be a rock star -- he can't play any musical instruments -- who keeps singing for no apparent reason.)

Who the hell would want to be on this show? Half of Houston, it seems. On this audition night, the line moves slowly. Very slowly. It takes an hour for people to move only ten feet. By another hour or so, they actually make it to the kiosk that forms their gateway to Hollywood. There, hopefuls start a machine that videotapes them uttering tales of their best and worst blind dates.

The show's publicist says casting agents will use the tapes to select one Houston man and woman to be flown to L.A. for a televised date.

Nervous people stand around the Hard Rock, racking their brains for dating horror stories.

"Should I tell the dog story?" asks Erin Mulvey, a 26-year-old corporate trainer.

"Definitely," her friend says. (It was something about how a guy offered to let her sleep in his bed but his dog took up the whole mattress.)

Keith Marrero, a 28-year-old video production guy, comes with his ex-girlfriend, Shannon Doyal. They both know they're way past Change of Heart so they're trying out together.

"He's hard up," says a guy friend behind him.

Keith's hoping Shannon gets set up with a "whacked-out surfer dude" and has a totally boring date. Watching this show is a big part of their friendship -- they either view it together or with other friends, or they all talk about it later. It's a small cult.

"It's hilarious," Keith says. "It's the funniest thing ever -- they'll either compliment you or dog you."

Shannon nods, "You never know what they're gonna do."

Standing behind them with his arms around a girl he just met (there was an excessive amount of people touching strangers) is Patrick "Oz" Osborne, a 30-year-old medical student. He's addicted to Blind Date -- not only does he watch it every night but he tapes it so he can watch it during the day. It's his soap opera of choice, he says. "It's like watching Bo and Hope, Luke and Laura," he says.

"Everybody watches it," adds Kellie O'Dell, the 25-year-old nanny and student he just met. "Everybody."

Oz analyzes each segment and comes up with ways that he'd be a better date. It makes him feel good that he's not as big a disaster as the onscreen loser who ends the evening with nothing more than a hearty handshake.

Erin, the brunette with the dog story, watches with the same critical I-could-do-better-than-that eye. She's sure she's far more datable than the show's females. The same goes for Jandell Varkonyi, a 27-year-old hairstylist. They haven't been on blind dates, and they think it would be a new, exciting experience -- they're both pretty sure the nasty little thought bubbles won't be aimed at them.

"It's hard to be mean to me," Jandell says. "Unless they're evil."

Blind Date is evil. Does she not pay attention when she watches the show? It was hard to know whether to laud their naiveté or be jealous of their confidence, their ego, their self esteem.

"Jeezus Christ," Lindzey Gunderson says, walking up to her friends after battling for a drink at the bar. She's not standing in this line to audition. "Hell no." She's just one of the many people who tagged along to lend moral support. She says she almost had to kill someone to get her Long Island ice tea.

The highlight of the evening: Host Roger Lodge appears -- you might remember him from his days hosting Talk Soup. He basically handles this show in the same manner, he shows a clip of the date, smiles and makes a mean little comment. Women group together to talk about how he's so much cuter than he looks on TV.

He takes a reporter by the hand and leads her through the bar and out the back stairway into the night.

"Do you mind if we walk?" he asks.

He likes being outside and away from the crowd of women trying to touch him or talk to him or tell him they want to win a date with him. He leads the way to the backseat of his stretch limo, sitting in the dark, pouring water down his scratchy throat. Roger talks about how "the heart and soul of the show is that people really do want to meet someone special." (Read: The world is full of desperate lonely people.)

He talks about how it's a hip, cutting- edge, cool show.

Yeah, but he's evil (not that we don't like evil). He totally slams people.

"I can't help myself," he says. "When Bambi got into the hot tub and was sucking on some guy's toes on a first date, I had say that was totally inappropriate."

Love, he says, can and does happen on Blind Date. Of the 575 dates shot for the show, only 184 couples ever had any inclination of seeing each other again. We don't know if they actually did see each other; the Web site just says "made some sort of connection" -- whatever that means. Roger says he's heard of a few engagements and a couple that's living together.

Right now, he's seeing "someone special." Regardless, Roger says he'd never go on the show.

"I don't have the guts," he admits.


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