Big Brother: An up-close and kinda creepy look at CBS's "human zoo"

This is where host Julie Chen greets weekly evictees. Photos: Ed Bark

LOS ANGELES -- Wearing dark clothing and speaking only in whispers, a small group of TV critics is feeling pretty damned cool about winding through Stage 18's dimly lit eerie canal.

It's also kinda bizarre being close enough to reach out and touch tattooed, pierced Big Brother 8 houseguest Dick Donato. He's completely unaware that we're watching him fold his clothes and then wheel a suitcase out of one of the CBS show's messy bedrooms. It's the eve of this season's second vote-off, and Donato is on the block with Joe Barber II, who eventually got bounced on a 9-1 vote Thursday night.

Big Brother's congenial executive producer, Allison Grodner, is leading this very Twilight Zone-ian tour of the show's inner sanctum.

"This is where the one-way mirrors are," she says. "It's really what I call the human zoo."

The Big Brother denizens can't see or hear us as we walk the entire perimeter of their "house" early Wednesday evening. In the surprisingly vast, Astro-turfed backyard, Barber and Donato's heretofore estranged daughter, Daniele, are playing Nerf golf.

The week's "Head of Household, Jen Johnson, has taken a brief time out from being full of herself. For now at least, she's sound asleep in her separate upstairs bedroom.

Meanwhile, "America's player," mole Eric Stein, is taking another of his seemingly frequent showers. And muscled Zach Swerdzewski is being taped in the "Confessional" room, where he's saying goodbye to both Donato and Barber. Only one will be of any immediate use.

"We do not stop taping these people ever," Grodner says. "So it's quite a feat to keep this beast going."

Executive producer Allison Grodner has a glop of "Big Brother slop."

A crew of 250 works night and day on Big Brother, which began its eighth season on July 5th and airs in one-hour gulps on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. is trained on the house 24/7 while the Showtime 2 pay cable channel offers unedited coverage in the wee hours. Forty-two monitors in the show's master control room offer a wide variety of live feeds. Subtitles sometimes are needed to interpret the contestants' conspiratorial whispering campaigns. At the other extreme, clattering kitchen implements can be a problem.

"Next year, Nerf pots and pans," says an editor.

The grand prize is still $500,000 for the last man or woman standing. It's a nice chunk of change, but the winner must withstand 80 days of conniving and kvetching while being isolated from the outside world.

There's also the imposition of "Big Brother Slop," a very bland gruel served for days on end to losers of various competitions. Had some. Wouldn't want any more.

Big Brother host Julie Chen and husband, CBS prexy Leslie Moonves.

Beer and wine also are served, but no longer in abundance, Grodner says. "It's not as if it was ever free-flowing."

Contestants aren't allowed to sing anything other than their own original songs because CBS doesn't want to pay any additional rights fees. Product advertisements also are forbidden on apparel, which regularly leaves little to the imagination. The self-absorbed Jen reportedly brought no fewer than 100 bikinis with her.

Host Julie Chen presides over Big Brother's live Thursday eviction shows. Her husband, CBS big boss Leslie Moonves, says he's learned to become a fan.

"My wife just came home (before Thursday night's CBS "All-Star Party") and told me what happened," he tells "Like anybody else, I talk to my wife about her job. And one of her jobs is Big Brother. So the more I know about it, the better husband I am. I have a little bit of a vested interest, but I do enjoy it."

Chen, who has hosted the show since its inception, randomly watches live Big Brother feeds and gets a daily "Hot Sheet" that keeps her informed on the latest intrigues.

"It's a part of my life for most of the summer," she says. "And my husband really does get into it. He's not just doing it to keep me happy. It's a pure soap opera."

Twelve contestants remain after Thursday's eviction. Not one of them knew they had a small batch of voyeuristic visitors the night before.

Dick Donato had the closest encounter. Some of us were near enough to pluck one of his silver earrings. Cuh-reepy.