The 'Check, Please!' effect

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Take a look behind the scenes of "Check, Please!" with Chicago Tribune reporter Christopher Borrelli. (Posted on: Sept. 6, 2012.)

The show — a co-production between Manilow and WTTW (though Manilow owns the rights to the show and its franchises) — started at the dawn of foodie mania, the Food Network and the explosion of interest in chefs. It was also, to use a word heard often during auditions, relatable — Yelp.com without snark or anonymity. Said Bridget Rose, a commercial producer at Leo Burnett who was a guest last season, "I was shocked people told me they saw me on the show. I knew people watched it, but it had felt like I was the only one."

The tryouts

A couple of weeks later, Manilow and Wedewer were huddled in the conference room of the "Check, Please!" offices, standing before a table and wall strewn with index cards, each bearing the smiling face of a potential guest and scribbled comments — "Japanese … librarian … high voice … doesn't eat seafood … talks a mile a minute … " The scene looked like the sunniest episode of "CSI" ever. It was early June, the new season was scheduled to start taping soon, and Manilow and Wedewer had to pair guests for the next 12 episodes.

"This woman likes Volare," Wedewer said, studying a card.

"This woman thinks Volare is the greatest place on planet Earth," Manilow agreed.

Manilow and Wedewer are the "Check, Please!" staff. Their offices are on the top floor of a brick warehouse in Lincoln Park. On one wall, there are lists of restaurants — restaurants that agreed to be on the show, restaurants "being difficult" and restaurants that refuse to do the show (most are bustling, high-end hot spots without reservation systems, therefore unprepared to withstand the "Check Please" effect). On another wall, hundreds of possible guests. These come to them in several ways: Since January, more than 3,000 people have applied to be on the show through its website. Manilow's wife, Mary Kenney, executive director of the Illinois Housing Development Authority, has been known to suggest people she runs into. As has Manilow. And of the 450 who turned out to audition? "Maybe 50 would do OK," Wedewer said. "But only 15 or so would become serious pigeons" — meaning only 15 could carry a show if the other two guests got quiet.

Manilow and Wedewer were hunting pigeons.

They weigh rudeness against spunk, ethnicity against ethnicity, favorite restaurant against favorite restaurant. They consider class differences, job differences, age differences, visual differences. They are up to their ears in white female attorneys and real estate agents who live in Lincoln Park, they said. They flip so quickly through the stacks and stacks of aspiring guests, they shuffle so relentlessly through the blur of faces, mixing and matching, the exercise quickly gathers an unintentionally brusque shorthand, sounding like a near-parody of inclusiveness. Arranging rows of cards, Wedewer, going for the broadest combination possible, stared at what they had: "We got two whiteys and a black guy here. Or, we could do Asian, Asian, whitey. Or maybe, Mexican, whitey, Asian?"

Manilow looked at me taking notes and said, "When we get to the point where it's three nice people who wouldn't seem to be normally sitting together at a table and talking about food, then I think we have a good show."

Of course, pairings don't always work. "We have come to realize that, no matter what people tell us, only about 20 percent are actually opinionated," Manilow said. Early on, Manilow booked a lot of friends and friends of friends. One such friend of a friend was then-Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama. It was the fifth episode, and Obama spoke at length about Dixie Kitchen in Hyde Park. The other two guests rarely spoke at all. "I remember trying to get them to talk," Puck said, "and David's voice in my ear, 'You realize this isn't going so well, don't you?'" The episode was shelved (only debuting in 2009, after the presidential election).

Wedewer excitedly queued up for me the only other episode of "Check, Please!" that's been shelved. It was shot last year. A guest got very drunk during the taping, slurred his words, turned to the camera and yelled:

"THIS CAMERA IS LOOKING AT ME!!!"

It would be great television, a tawdry, surprisingly quasi reality-TV moment on WTTW — a vaguely unhinged, odd-behaving man imploding on a local public-television food show is something, we can all probably agree, everyone would like to see. But that's exactly why you'll never see it on "Check, Please!"

Where's Alpana?

The first episode of the 12th season of "Check, Please!" taped in early July. WTTW's Albany Park studios were chilly, the concrete production hallways largely empty. This is where Singh comes in. She eats at each of the restaurants featured on the show; and being a longtime Chicago wine and drinks expert who grew up in the restaurant business, she is here to offer industry experience, Manilow explained. Otherwise, she's not involved much in the production: "Half the time, I think I forget I even do the show," she told me.

At the taping, she took her seat and explained to the first trio of guests that "a perfect day is when I don't have to say anything, when you guys have a conversation." Off camera, Singh is startlingly funny, lively, very chatty, talking about her appearance on "The Today Show" ("Hoda is so beautiful in person") and disarming guests' nerves so completely that when the taping began, casual table conversation slid seamlessly into the actual show. On camera, though, she's notoriously awkward, admittedly wooden. Manilow pushed her to improve.

She has — about the moment her time on the show is winding down, she said. She's 36 and has been hosting for a decade, she explained to me later. The show has been a platform and occasionally a headache: She became director of wine and spirits for the Lettuce Entertain You restaurant group in 2005 partly because her local celebrity had become a distraction in the Everest dining room, where she was the head sommelier.

This month, nine months after leaving Lettuce, she's about to open the Boarding House, a restaurant on Wells. In a month, she and Manilow will discuss whether she'll return next year, whether she has the time.

For fans, it's a potential crack in the routine.

At the taping, though, for the time being, it was still the old team. Wedewer hovered at the side of the stage scribbling — "dessert," "summary" — on cue cards. Manilow, standing in the control room, looked satisfied. He had an actual argument going. A female guest explained the food at her favorite restaurant, Andies, an Andersonville staple, was fresh, varied. A man across from her said the atmosphere was fine, the location pretty, but his lamb shank — "it actually sucked salt out of my mouth."

Manilow barked a laugh.

The woman gasped.

"I find that so hard to believe," she said, flustered, adding that the restaurant's vegetables "come straight from their garden … " Seemed like it came from the garden, the man answered, "the bad part of the garden."

Manilow clapped his hands once.

At the end of taping, Singh stood and sighed. Manilow left the control room, walked into the studio and shook hands. Wedewer sidled up to him: Guests are here for the next episode, she said. Manilow nodded, straightened his sports coat and left. "Good show," he said over his shoulder. I'd definitely watch it twice.

cborrelli@tribune.com

Twitter @borrelli
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