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Getting Schooled

Aug 4, 2003  •  Post A Comment

I’m one of those people who keep in touch-with everybody.
Yet I had let my friendship with my college friend Ben drift away many years ago and was never really sure why or how. Then a friend told me about the new show “Classmates,” and launched me on a roller-coaster ride that allowed me to reconnect with my friend from the University of Michigan, which is documented in an eight-minute slice of my life that premieres on the syndicated show Aug. 8.
My “Classmates” experience was packed with emotional twists and turns. There was the high of hearing they had found Ben; the low of being told he was “baffled” by who was looking for him; and the on-again, off-again travel plans. Those things were just the kiddie rides.
I figured the process would be a breeze. I’d be in control, because it’s “real.” Only things I said or I did could make me look foolish. I knew they would edit a minutes-long story out of hours of footage, which is shot with two cameras, a beta cam and a DV cam. As sly as I thought I was and as closely as I watch the players, the business and the shows that make up the television business, I knew less than I thought I did about a lot of things going into this project.
`Fastest Friends’
To get the process started, I e-mailed the show’s creator, Matthew Papish, who exec produces “Classmates” along with David Armour and Glen Freyer. “Ben walked into my life through my dorm room door the day I moved into the basement level of East Quad,” I wrote to “Classmates.” “I heard a knock and looked up at the door where I spotted a lanky, sandy-blond guy standing with his arm on the frame. `Hey neighbor,’ he said. I was in room 007. He was right next door. From there, we became the fastest friends on our co-ed hall.”
In producing every segment of “Classmates,” the staff thinks both about what’s good TV and about what’s best for the participants, Mr. Armour told me last month at the show’s production space in Culver City. He and I, his dog Princess and my friend Ivey Van Allen, head of media relations for Twentieth TV and the Fox Television Stations, sat in his office, where we saw a rough cut of my upcoming appearance. Ten stories like mine are cut every week at “Classmates,” which uses 10 editing bays as well as a features bay, an online bay and an audio bay. Pets are allowed in the office, because the staff works such long hours and it helps them feel more at home, said Mr. Armour, who has an overall deal at Twentieth. His credits include talk shows “Ricki Lake,” “Queen Latifah” and “Ananda.”
“What’s good for the guest is generally good TV,” Mr. Armour said. “Reconnecting with someone has been eating at them enough to call us. We want to reconnect them. The very best stories are when the people involved are most unguarded, the most honest.”
That’s one thing that separates “Classmates” from all other shows in the so-called reality genre. Mr. Armour said the show is “booked, not cast.” “Classmates” features people who have a story, a reason to reconnect with someone, not people looking for 15 minutes of fame.
Generally, “Classmates” can shoot a segment within three days of finding a story. The producers are trained on various strategies to find people online, with the help of Classmates.com or other resources such as alumni groups and services such as U.S. Search. They’ll talk with potential guests four or five times in advance of the shoot, to make sure everyone knows what he’s getting into and to ensure that the person who is being sought by the show would want to see the person who tracked him or her down.
Long Time, No See
However, mainly due to differences in Ben’s and my schedules, nearly two months passed between the time I initiated the project and the shooting day. During that time, things in my personal life changed. I began seeing a former boyfriend again, and I started feeling a little weird about seeking out an old male friend-even though my relationship with Ben was always platonic. That shift, apparently, was not lost on the producers.
Part of what they’re doing during those four or five phone conversations with potential guests is mapping out the story and determining the “mission” of the person who came to “Classmates” looking for someone. With the help of the pre-interviews, the producers have a pretty good idea of the story’s beginning, but they don’t know most of the middle or any of the end, Mr. Armour said. Making sure the guest who initiates the reunion has a clear mission is crucial. It’s what the story is built on.
“Our goal is to help with unresolved issues,” Mr. Armour said. “It’s the reason people are doing it and what the audiences are watching for.”
It was during a pre-interview conference call the day before the shoot that I sensed some drama brewing. The producer I had spoken to most often, Mark Koberg, the producer who would be on site, Ron Brody, and I were going over questions. One of the producers asked, “So how long have you had a crush on Ben?”
Uh, a “crush”? Did I say “crush”? Oh my, what had I said to lead them to think that?
Mr. Koberg said not to worry, that the show does all kinds of reunions. There doesn’t have to be romance to do the shoot. We just need to make sure we’re all on the same page.
Still, I couldn’t help wondering whether I had given mixed messages, and if I had, why? Instantly, the reunion became a much deeper personal journey than I had anticipated.
Almost immediately, I found myself on the phone with Mr. Armour, who assured me that “Classmates” is not a show that puts words in a person’s mouth. But then I began second-guessing myself. Mr. Koberg was a really insightful guy. Did he sense something I didn’t recognize myself? I don’t want to screw things up with my boyfriend!
Mr. Armour asked that I just think a little bit about the reunion, that I know what I want to get out of it by the time the crew showed up at 9 the next morning.
Preparation is so important to the show in part because people have been known to change on a dime. For example, one woman who had sought a man she thought she had a romantic interest in “took one look at him and suddenly she had a boyfriend,” Mr. Armour said.
“A lot of other reality shows pull people apart,” he said. “This show is about closure. It’s about whether there’s a future for people.”
To get to resolution of guests’ “missions,” “Classmates” sets some rules for the shoot, like limiting conversation at the initial reunion to things that happened in the past. That was challenging for me, because I was so excited to see Ben I couldn’t think of anything to ask. Mr. Brody suggested I bring up something I had mentioned in a pre-interview: the one very awkward kiss Ben and I shared in college. That would not exactly be the natural first thing I would have said had I run into Ben on the street after not seeing him for a decade.
“We accelerate the emotional process sometimes,” Mr. Armour explained.
If the big questions were left until later, after, for instance, someone who is seeking romance finds the other person is not available, they might lose their gumption.
Shooting day was long, but efficient. By the time the crew showed up, I felt I had successfully determined my mission, which was to figure out whether my friend and I still had the kind of bond we once did and whether we had interests similar enough to resume the friendship.
The crew arrived at my apartment right on time, at 9 a.m. Mr. Brody interviewed me about Ben and why I wanted to see him again. We chatted in a few different settings around my place, such as while I painted my nails as I sat on my patio and as I picked out clothes in my bedroom and put on makeup in the bathroom. By the time they had someone standing in my bathtub with a camera, I was exhausted and ready for it to be Ben’s turn to be interviewed.
The crew left me for a few hours while they filmed Ben at a nearby hotel.
I was well warned that I would spend a lot of time sitting around. Though I had planned plenty of alternatives to thumb-twiddling, I spent most of the
wait worrying about Ben.
Deja Vu
A couple of crew members drove with me to the reunion site, a Santa Monica, Calif., record store, and recorded me talking on the way over, then taped my getting out of my car-a few times. I also walked into the store a few times for the camera. I wasn’t surprised they asked me to do that, but now when I watch reality shows, I wonder about things like entrances and whether those required multiple takes.
With the exception of some of the awkward questions I wound up asking Ben, the reunion itself was a relief. As it turned out, he knew perfectly well it had to be me who had looked him up.
We drove back to my apartment separately, then got a chance-still on camera-to walk around the grounds and talk with no restrictions on our conversation. We set up a table outside and grilled hot dogs and hamburgers, which we never ate, while we continued to catch up and I got a chance to tell him why I went to such dramatic lengths to reconnect.
We “graduated” from “Classmates” around 9 p.m., and Ben and I got a chance to go out to dinner and compare notes about our past, the present and the things we missed in each other’s lives in between-like our significant others. As we had on so many college nights, we stayed up late, shared a few drinks and talked and laughed. I asked him whether he remembered the night before we left East Quad, when we sat under the big tree in the courtyard there and talked about the coming summer.
“That sycamore, right?” he said.
I had my friend back.
As content as I had been after the shoot in June, I was nervous a month later, sitting in Mr. Armour’s office, watching the producer put the rough cut in the VCR. He had just finished telling me all that stuff about how the best stories are generally those in which the people have the most at stake and are the most unguarded.
“It turned out well,” Mr. Armour said. “It’s a sexy, fun story.” Yikes! Sexy? Am I still going to have a boyfriend after this?
“Oh, yes,” he said. “It’s just something anyone can relate to,” a male-female friendship that by all accounts shoulda, woulda, coulda but never goes beyond platonic.
Mr. Armour, who has a cool and logical answer for every question I have about the finished piece, should have a degree in psychology at this point in his career. He has seen hundreds of personal relationships play out on television over the years-and you can tell. I got the impression that while he said he doesn’t talk to very many guests personally on this show, he has seen my situation a thousand times over.
Name Game
I marveled aloud at the fact that Ben called me “Melissa” in the piece during his pre-interview. It struck me as strange because he is the person who coined my nickname, Mel. He always called me Mel.
That was his way of distancing himself during the ordeal, “Doctor” Armour said.
As I put the finishing touches on this story, an e-mail popped up on my computer screen. It was from Ben, one of many messages he and I have exchanged since the reunion. Several of our recent e-mails had to do with the show. I told him he looked like a stud.
While it’s certainly fair-I said and did everything that’s in the piece-I am bracing myself a little bit for reactions from the people in my life. My boyfriend’s not mentioned, there’s a funny reaction to Ben’s having a girlfriend, a few partial quotes, the fact that I come across a bit like a puppy dog begging Ben to be my friend.
Still, all’s well that ends well. I’ve got “My Ben” back. I think I’ve successfully convinced my lovely boyfriend not to dump me (although he has yet to see the piece), and I certainly learned a thing or two about “reality.”