Thursday, February 13, 2014

Attending a TV taping

Tonight I get an early birthday present (my birthday is tomorrow – Valentine’s Day birthdays suck, but that’s another post) – I’ll be going to Paramount Studios to watch the taping of a show written by that talented young team of Annie Levine & Jonathan Emerson. It’s an episode of INSTANT MOM, starring Tia Mowry (Sundays at 8:30 on Nick @ Nite). Actually, it’s a “special” episode with a Mother’s Day theme and  will include famous TV moms like Florence Henderson, Marion Ross, Meredith Baxter, and Jackee. (Annie's in the middle.  Jon is in the top row, light blue shirt.)  It’ll air in May. Don’t worry. I’ll let you know when.

But if you’ve never been to a taping of a TV sitcom, it’s something to add to your Bucket List. It’s free, first of all. And tickets are generally available. The only possible hard part is you’ve got to get to Los Angeles. Write the show, the network, or if you’re in LA there are places that distribute tickets (like the Grove).

And if you do go to a TV taping, here are some things to look for:

There will be monitors overhead. You have the option of either watching the monitors or the action down on the stage. The problem with watching it on the stage is that sometimes you’re blocked by moving cameras. Here’s what I suggest. They always shoot scenes at least twice. Watch the monitor the first take. That way you follow the story and can laugh at the jokes. On the second take, watch the action on the stage.

Some little things to observe: There are tiny strips of tape all over the floor. These are the actor’s marks. When an actor moves and then stops he has to stop right on his mark. Finding your mark without looking down at your feet or being self conscious about it is a real art. Watch how seamlessly most of the actors do this. Watch the boom mike swing from actor to actor. When actors move so do the camera. Check out how they are continuously in motion. It’s kind of a ballet.

After the first take you may see a huddle down on the stage. Chances are that’s the writing staff pitching alternate jokes for one that didn’t work. When you see that huddle you can almost bet a new line or two will introduced in the next take. Dazzle your friends.

Watch the director. Does he seem in control? Is he a little frazzled? How much interaction does he have with the cast and the crew between takes? You can get a sense – are the actors comfortable with him? You can tell by body language. Is the director easy going? Tense? Supportive? Distracted?  At times Jim Burrows would literally kick cameras during the scene to move them over. 

Between takes you’ll notice make up and hair people rushing onto the stage to do touch up work. I’m here to tell you, 90% of the time it’s not necessary.

The warm up man can greatly enhance the experience. He’s got a hard job. He’s got to keep you entertained for long stretches. I did warm up the first year of CHEERS. One time the air conditioning went out. It was the longest night of my life. But a lot of warm up guys will take questions from the audience. If there are things about the process you want to know, don’t hesitate to ask.

Go to the bathroom before the show.

Many shows provide snacks during the taping (candy bars, pretzels, nuts) but not all so you can’t count on it. Plan to eat either before or after.

Bring a sweater or light jacket because sound stages tend to be on the cold side. Once the show starts actually taping it will warm up slightly due to the hot lights on the stage.

Don’t expect autographs.

Sometimes certain scenes are pre-shot. They’ll be shown back to you on the monitors. At first you may think you’re being gyped, but as the evening unfolds you’ll find yourself glad for those pre-shot scenes. They move the night along. And trust me, you’ll see enough actual “show’ being taped, even with the pre-shoots.

Depending on the show, tapings can drag on. The studio generally doesn't want you to leave before the end of the show, but if you have to go then go. I feel it’s the obligation of the show to keep things moving for the audience’s benefit. Do pick ups after they leave. Preshoot difficult scenes. Ask actors to change wardrobe quickly between scenes. I even like to provide a small band to play between scenes to keep the folks involved. Many shows (certainly ones that I produced) take great effort in making the experience a pleasurable one for the audience. It’s a win/win. A happier audience will stay longer and laugh louder. But there are a few shows that practically ignore the audience. They take forever and don’t seem to care. Studios will probably hate that I’m saying this but if you’re bored, tired, hungry, have spent hours just to get the first two scenes, feel free to leave. Don't feel guilty.  You don’t owe them anything. Like I said, it’s the production’s obligation to make YOU feel comfortable.

You may not realize it but you, as an audience member, are making a major contribution to the show. Actors feed off your energy and laughter. A good audience will lead to better performances and ultimately a better show. You’re not just spectators, you’re an important part of the creative process.

Thanks to everybody who ever attended one of my tapings.  

And if you come to the taping of INSTANT MOM tonight, say hello. I’ll be the one looking really proud.

NOTE:  Tomorrow for blog readers, a Valentine's gift for you.  Check back in the morning.  


Josh said...

The taping of FRIENDS that I saw took forever. Every scene had to be done over and over. One reason may have been that not one of the show's stars seemed to know their lines. It wasn't a fun experience. It was late in the show's run, so maybe they'd stopped trying by then.

RockGolf said...

Ken: On the night you were the warm-up guy and the A/C broke down, did they call in the cool down guy?

VincentS said...

I attended a taping of COSBY once and it was a great experience. Yes, warm-up guys might have the toughest job in performing. One thing I noticed about Bill Cosby was that he never said the same lines twice from take to take. He actually threw one of the other actors (who it was later revealed was actually a member of the staff) by not saying the line she expected. I - a devout STAR TREK fan - also got an added bonus. The Special Guest Star of the episode was William Shatner!

Wendy M. Grossman said...

You can also get tickets to shows from


Scooter Schectman said...

Waiting for the Sid Caesar eulogy...

Igor said...

Ken wrote: "NOTE: Tomorrow for blog readers, a Valentine's gift for you. Check back in the morning."

But, Ken, I don't read your blog. Does that mean I'm not eligible for the gift?

Pamela Jaye said...

I've gone twice. Once was a rainy day and all that was left was King of Queens; the other was Good Morning Miami - because I could.

Light sweater? It was 80 outside and felt like 50 inside. Later, elsewhere, someone said it was cold cause the lights were hot.

Wish I'd had this guide. I'd have missed less. Of course one ep was almost totally on the swing set. Like one scene was on the regular sets - and I'd never seen the show. And it was frustrating, while writers huddled, to be distracted by the warm up guy. But at least we learned to pronounced Feuerstein. And take stock of every show he'd been in (Ally, Once and Again).

Best thing audience wrangler can do? Make sure you get to the rest room. We were lined up forever *outside* before the taping... And we were early.

Laughter - really felt responsible for reproducing that laugh... the fourth time...

At least it wasn't Friends. Heard they went 10 hours once...

Chris said...

When did it become common to use monitors? My parents, along with an aunt and uncle, saw a taping of ALL IN THE FAMILY back in the '70s, and none of them remembers monitors. What they could see was what they could see.

I've wondered if that's why "filmed before a live audience" shows from the '70s and earlier tend to be filmed on relatively few sets. All of the classic Norman Lear sitcoms -- ALL IN THE FAMILY, MAUDE, SANFORD AND SON -- use very few sets. Often just one or two. Older sitcoms are the same way. How many episodes of THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW use only the writers' room and the Petries' living room? Compare that to today, when multi-cam sitcoms regularly use several sets, some of them quite large.

Murray said...

I'm always bemused at the tone of articles and anecdotes about being in the studio audience. Specifically, the marathon endurance test aspect. The not being able to leave, not eating, not going to the washroom, hang on to the bitter end.

Why would anyone sit for hours while the gang on stage sort out a flaccid script? Fire regulations, if nothing else, would mean they couldn't lock the doors. How do they keep people in their seats? I could see giving them about three, maybe four, hours, or the length of an epic movie. If there was no end in sight, these boots might need to be walking.

Nat Gerter (sitcom room veteran) said...

I always warn our e friends that I take to tapings that what they're going to see is a actually a well-honed 22 minute play... over the course of three and a half hours.

Other suggestions of things to do: stare directly at the set, realize how much it really looks like a house or apartment or office or whatever... then let your eyes drift away, and see how that reality disappears into a mess of hung lights, catwalks, mikes and cameras.
Keep an eye on the people who aren't on stage at a given moment - this includes the support people who spend most of the day doing nothing until the moment they are needed, but bang are they on it (this is even more pronounced on movie sets), but also actors waiting to come on. One of the most fun things I've watched was back in the days of Dave's World, watching the kid actors bouncing around with full kid energy until the moment that they had to cross the threshold and instantly transitioned into composed professionals.

I haven't been to one in years, but if I had visitors in town, I'd be glad to.

VP81955 said...

Saw a filming of "Frasier" in March 2000 at Paramount (it was the ep with a "Palm"-style restaurant, with Robert Loggia as guest star). A splendid experience.

Hope to move to Los Angeles later this year (July at the latest) and plan to take in some tapings, including my current fave, "Mom" (the non-instant variety). Will have to find out where it's shot, though, and you can't necessarily be sure it's done at the studio which owns the series. (For example, most eps of "Seinfeld" and "That '70s Show" came out of CBS Studio City, although they aired on NBC and Fox, respectively.)

T.J. said...

VP81955: Think MOM is at Warner.

ItsJustMe said...

Looks like you have your Friday questions/Vday surprise post all set for tomorrow. However I'm curious if you saw this article

Personally I am turned off by productions where everyone looks like a catalog model. Ditto shows where the characters look so much alike that obviously there is only one narrow standard for casting. Give me unique, real and interesting actors. (Bless David Simon shows and most cable dramas.)

Reading some of the quotes in the linked article it seems that one biased decision maker in the casting chain is all it takes to steer the bus towards generic-hottie syndrome. There is plenty of finger pointing and the common denominator appears to be a silent majority that will not buck the status quo.

Your insights?

Gary said...

I saw a taping of Three's Company in 1980. If memory serves, it wasn't a marathon at all; the actors only muffed their lines once or twice. I think the whole thing took less than an hour. What struck me was the lack of depth to the sets -- the actors seemed like they were right on top of the audience. The best part was I got to see Don Knotts (Barney Fife himself) in person! Then it was fun to see the episode on TV several weeks later, knowing I was there at the time.

Cap'n Bob said...

I attended a taping of a game show back in the dark ages of TV. They did, I think, two shows. It may have been more. Between shows the audience members switched seats so the opening shots didn't look like Andy's Gang. They got us to stay with bribery. Some folks got $20.

Anonymous said...

How does Marion Ross at 85 manage to look younger than the other 'moms' in that picture?

At 85, she looks younger than her on-screen daughter Erin Moran.

Mike Barer said...

Once you have been to a TV taping you will never look at TV the same again. Now, everytime I hear spontanious applause on a talk show, I know that the audience is conditioned to respond to the big red applause light.
When I went to the "Price Is Right" taping last year, the audiences enthusiasm is self generated. I think it's because we know that they will never call our name if we are sitting like a bump on a log.

Mike Barer said...

By the way, I did see some of the taping of Fraser when they did the on location Seattle show and David Hyde Pierce was kind enough to give me his autograph. At first, he was a little annoyed, but said that he would do it after the scene was shot (it was when Fraser hailed the cab at Westlake Center) when the scene was over, he motioned for me to come over and he signed the autograph. He was very pleasant. A cool guy.

Judy said...

Now, everytime I hear spontanious applause on a talk show, I know that the audience is conditioned to respond to the big red applause light

There's a segment of THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW where Carol and her guest are taking bows and the audience is applauding. There's one shot where if you watch the far left side of the screen, you'll catch a brief glimpse of the applause sign flashing.

VP81955 said...

Happy birthday, Ken. Look at it this way -- you share a birthday with Jack Benny...and was there ever a comedic performer who appreciated writers more than he?

Carson said...

Back in 2007 I decided to go to LA from Alabama to attend a taping. It was for the Kelsey Grammar/Patricia Heaton show "Back to To You." I got to the 20th Century Fox lot that night where they had us line up in a parking garage. Just before we were to go in someone came out and said that too many cast tickets had been given out and there was no room for us. They offered us rain checks for another taping but that only works if you live in the LA area. I felt really cheated. So I took a bit of satisfaction in the fact it ended up getting canceled.

Johnny Walker said...

Makes me want to watch another sitcom being taped -- and see if I can spot the director, and what he's doing.

Matt - Classic TV Fan said...

I was fortunate enough to attend multiple tapings of CHEERS, FRASIER, and MURPHY BROWN, all first class productions. The norm was about 3 hours to film, and yes, most scenes done twice. Attending multiple tapings of FRIENDS as well, the reason for the marathon lengths was so many short scenes and rewrites on the spot. Great show, but I prefer the aforementioned first class ones, write it, rehearse it, re-write and be ready to shoot.

Ken wrote in a blog about a crossover with CYBILL with ALMOST PERFECT. I laughed so hard because having attended a taping of CYBILL, he was so right. Worst audience experience as it was so tailored to an arrogant self-serving actress. Would love to expand on the hilarity of the experience but only so much room to type!

Thanks Ken for all the truly classic high quality scripts you've contributed!