Even in a showoff town like Hollywood the stunt raised the bar for exhibitionism: Two pajama-clad Playboy playmates would spend 24 hours together in a small storefront at the Hollywood and Highland shopping mall; in a second showroom nearby, Kato Kaelin and professional blond Nikki Ziering would be similarly teamed up. The idea was to have the two couples visible to passersby and to keep them awake to absorb material from books, magazines and tapes, as though they were cramming for a college final. And, if they felt like it, they could sprawl across a large exercise ball that dominated each cubicle.

But that wasn't all, no — at the end of their day-and-night epic these “celebrity” roommates, who had been drawn together by cavalier fate (okay, by a TV producer) would be whisked from their ant farm existence to a studio taping of the Gameshow Network's program Cram. Here, in their sleep-deprived states, they would compete in games of cognizance and hand-eye coordination (archery, lassoing, dancing). One of the show's highlights is a human hamster wheel, which contestants are required to power while reciting aloud some of the facts they've learned.

“They're dinged for 'uhms' and 'ahhs,'” I was told.

Things went south early, however, when Ziering bowed out the Monday morning the odyssey was to begin. A Cram spokeswoman told me an unforeseen contractual obligation had required the model's body elsewhere, although it was tempting to think that the prospect of spending 24 hours — in a row — with Kato was too much for Ziering. (What would you say to the eternal houseguest? Worse, what was he likely to say? Uhm . . .) And after all, even in a town of wannabeens, faux celebrities and dead suns, Kaelin was pretty much space junk adrift in deep space.

“He came here at 7 a.m. and took the news like a trooper,” the show's publicist said of Kaelin. “He even had his own pajamas.”

Fortunately, two noncelebrities — called “civilians” by Cram's staff — had been drafted to fill in. Chip Godwin and Josh Michaels, two collegiate-looking chaps, manfully filled the breach Monday. Chip was teamed with brunette Pennelope Jimenez, who was Miss March, while Josh was ankled to Miss May, Laurie Fetter, a blond.

While not exactly as grueling an ordeal as the marathon dancing of They Shoot Horses, Don't They? or as spiritually enervating as spending damnation with people you despise, à la No Exit, playing house with a total stranger in a 56-square-foot “cramatorium” can have its pitfalls. None of the contestants had gotten much sleep the night before (the Playmates had been up since 5 a.m.) and all contestants agreed that the worst deprivations would be the absence of TV, cell phones and e-mail.

On the other hand, there was the danger that the participants wouldn't be as dopey for the taping as required.

“It doesn't make for a good game if they're alert,” a show staffer told me.

Today America's minor celebrities must endure the indignities of medieval penitents to remain in the public eye. The Hollywood and Highland rooms have only two chairs, some small snacks, lava lamps and that big exercise ball. The women got a Playboy CARE package with their brand's skimpy sleepwear.

There is always the possibility of voyeur backlash from people who don't believe the contestants have suffered enough, however — the show windows did not face directly onto Hollywood Boulevard, which deprived the couples of the attentions of the boulevard's special brand of looky-loos. And, in true Hollywood fashion, the couples' 24-hour stunt was actually an L.A. day — about 21 hours. As the sleepless ordeal got underway, a sense of fallen expectations hung in the air.

Pennelope told me her worst fear, besides falling asleep, was to have a panic attack.

“We're screwed,” said Chip, standing in a Hef-like robe.

“But we're not screwing,” Miss March said. “Let's get that clear right now.”

LA Weekly