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The Lure of the Crowd

How talk shows get their audiences

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Day after day, every talk show on television must fill its seats with people to applaud, groan, and, in Geraldo’s case, riot on cue. With a gaggle of recent arrivals — not only Suzanne Somers, Marilu Henner, and Susan Powter but also such hopefuls as Gordon Elliott, Jon Stewart, and the panel of Last Call — the chat circuit could be facing an audience shortage. The big guys have nothing to fear, however. Fans of Late Show With David Letterman must wait 6 months for tickets, and devotees of Live With Regis & Kathie Lee must twiddle their thumbs for 10 months.

But the newer shows often do a last-minute scramble to put bodies in their 150 to 200 studio seats. Among shows taped in New York City, The Jon Stewart Show plasters the walls of college campuses with fliers. The Gordon Elliott Show has to book 400 people to net 150 attendees. And Last Call is so desperate that staffers cold-call people to offer free tickets — and phone again if they don’t show up. (Faced with an empty studio, the Last Call crew has been known simply to remove empty chairs, sometimes getting down to an audience — albeit a full one — of 65.)

Pulling people off the street is another talk-show standby. Jon Stewart’s staff conducted a dragnet for passersby when a band failed to bring its 26 promised guests. At Late Night With Conan O’Brien, NBC pages pound New York’s pavement looking to give away tickets. ”It’s going to suck to be me if I have to go out this afternoon,” one page said recently, eyeing the rain and her ration of 70 Late Night tickets. Even Letterman’s Late Show had a slow day during a snowstorm last year. ”We had to go so far as to look for people,” says one staffer.

Life isn’t any easier in sunny Los Angeles, where the rare studio-lot pedestrian can choose to visit sitcoms and game shows. Suzanne, Marilu, and Leeza prey on studio tours. Other shows woo civic and college groups by providing buses and vans — and even The Tonight Show isn’t above dangling the possibility of a donation to a charity in order to muster a gaggle of guests.

When all else fails, there’s always family. Admits a Susan Powter Show staffer, ”I used to beg my mother to bring her mah-jongg group.” — Beth Pinsker, with reporting by Tracy Hopkins, Kirsten McCumber, and Erin Richter