The Art of Television Production

Los Angeles is a funny place. Most towns, big and small, have local celebrities that people look up to because they “made it.” In Columbus, depending on your tastes, we have Dwight Yoakam, Bow Wow, and Maggie Grace. They’re the people that have accomplished the unthinkable and achieved some sort of national recognition. Here in Los Angeles, it seems like you’re constantly running into people working toward that level of fame, with widely varies levels of success.

Our first week in Venice, we were having some issues with our DirecTV service and the landlord’s husband was on our roof trying to get the satellite dish adjusted properly. We were discussing TV shows with her and ABC’s new series “Castle” came up when said said, very nonchalantly, “Oh, Jon’s on that show. He plays Esposito.” We weren’t quite sure how to respond, especially since we only saw the first half or so of the first season. But that evening we downloaded the most recent episode and, sure enough, there he was, our landlord Jon Huertas, starring opposite Nathan Fillion and guest star Alyssa Milano on a major prime time TV show.

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So bizarre.

A couple of weeks ago, we kicked off work a little early and drove into Studio City to watch a taping of CBS’ new series Accidentally on Purpose. While we were there, we obviously saw TV stars like Jenna Elfman, but it seemed like everyone we talked to was involved in TV or film in one way or another, including a gentleman named Will who is one of the writers of Adult Swim’s Children’s Hospital series and a musician/actor who goes by the name “CHiLL” who has an upcoming role as twin jugglers in NBC’s Heroes. Even our host at the taping was talking about a role he was filming for Disney’s upcoming TV movie Starstruck. It seems like everyone out here is at some point in the process of working toward their dream of stardom.

As far as the taping itself goes, it was a really interesting process. We were told up front that this wasn’t going to be a typical taping, which is generally done in sequence so you can see the entire show being filmed from start to finish. Instead, we were seeing a series of scenes from the season finale being filmed somewhat out of order. I’m not sure how often that is done, but I’m sure the reason had to have something to do with the fact that Jenna Elfman, the star of the show, is just weeks away from giving birth in real life.

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I’ll be honest: Watching the filming was tedious. There were lots of breaks in the filming, often taking 15-20 minutes just to set things up for a 2 minute shoot. To fill the gaps, we had an announcer giving us background on the story, juggling, doing contests, and providing just about any distraction he could think of. It was certainly informative, though, to see exactly how much work goes into a single episode, but I wouldn’t recommend going to one of these non-sequential filmings unless you were really, really into the show and have a lot of patience.

This past week’s taping of The Big Bang Theory is another story entirely. If you haven’t seen the show yet and are a fan of sitcoms, do yourself a favor and rent the first season now. Along with How I Met Your Mother, it’s one of the few sitcoms worth watching today, and we were lucky enough to get tickets to a taping. We actually had tickets to a filming several weeks ago, but after arriving we were told that space was a little tight. They had to turn away everyone except for the first 128 people in line, and we were numbers 138 and 139. As an apology, we were given VIP passes to a taping yesterday.

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We arrived at Warner Brothers’ studios about an hour and a half before taping began at 6:30pm and slowly worked our way through the security process. I don’t know whether it was the fact that it was a more popular show, or just tighter security at Warner Brothers, but their screening process was much more intense. Whereas at the taping of Accidentally on Purpose, “security” consisted of a single guard asking us if we had cell phones or cameras and getting our hand stamped, at Warner Brothers we had to go through multiple metal detectors, get our identification scrutinized, and have a security escort at all times. When they say to leave your cell phones and cameras in your car, they aren’t joking around.

Once we were seated in the studio, they went to a lot of trouble to make sure we were entertained and in good spirits. A gentleman by the name of Mark guided us through what we were going to see that day and introduced a never-before-seen episode of the show that had only very recently finished going through the editing process, “The Excelsior Acquisition,” which is scheduled to air March 1. I won’t spoil anything, but it featured Sheldon spending time in jail, a whole lot of comic book jokes, and an appearance by comic book legend Stan Lee. It didn’t disappoint.

Shortly after this, we were introduced to the cast of the show and filming of the upcoming episode “The Precious Fragmentation” began. The studio space was set up as you might expect, with the stairway / elevator area at the center and the apartments off to either side. Off to either side of that were various other lesser-used scenes like the Caltech cafeteria, The Cheesecake Factory, and Leonard’s bedroom. As you might expect, they worked their way through the episode scene-by-scene, shooting each one at least twice to make sure they got the coverage they needed. Each take was a little different so they had options when they went into the editing room, and also to see which variation got the best response from the audience. We were reminded over and over that we were a “part of the show” and that our reaction and laughter was the actual laughter that we’ll hear when the episode airs.

If you’re interested in the actual plot of the show, I’ll give you a little detail here. If not, feel free to move on to the next paragraph. The episode starts off with Leonard, Sheldon, Wolowitz, and Koothrappali carrying a large box up to the apartment. They explain to Penny that instead of picking up dinner, they bought a large box of miscellaneous memorabilia at a garage sale. Among other things, they find a production prop from the Lord of the Rings trilogy — the actual One Ring. As they all chipped in for the box, they all feel that they had a claim on the ring, and the ring is entrusted to Penny until they can figure out how to share the ring equally. After various attempts to steal the ring, including Sheldon trying to take it from her neck in her sleep and Koothrappali enlisting the legal help of his brother-in-law from India, the boys decide to hold on to the ring — literally — and that the last person holding the ring will be the rightful owner. To be honest, I’m not exactly sure how the episode will end, as they filmed several different options and dream sequences that could be used.

It was really interesting to see how the actors interacted with each other in between scenes. I’ve heard that Jim Parsons, who plays uber-nerd Sheldon Cooper, gets nervous before tapings. In between scenes, he mostly paced around practicing lines to himself. It was only at the end of the last scene that he allowed himself to relax a bit and goof around with the rest of the cast. Simon Helberg and Kunal Nayyar, who play Howard Wolowitz and Rajesh Koothrappali, mostly jumped around and fidgeted to work off nervous energy in between scenes and Johnny Galecki, who portrays Sheldon’s roommate Leonard Hofstadter joked around with most of the cast and crew between takes. And before all of her scenes, Kaley Cuoco had to give a little laugh to get herself into the comedic mindset. Above all, though, everyone was taking every scene very seriously to make sure they got it right. They were really careful to make sure they used the right hand with certain props in order to maintain continuity as best as they could, and there’s even a dedicated person on the crew who takes polaroids of each scene so they can reference exactly what item was where and in relation to each of the cast members so that the final edit looks right.

All told, we were at the studio from about 5:00 in the afternoon until 10:00pm — a pretty big time investment, but definitely worth it, especially if you’re able to get tickets to a show you really enjoy. It was so much fun to watch, and I’m really exited to see the final product air sometime in March. Pay attention to the bedroom scene with Penny — you might hear January’s lone chuckle when nobody else is laughing.

[UPDATE: Some people may be interested in knowing how to go about getting tickets to a live taping. I’m sure there are several similar sites, but we got our tickets through Audiences Unlimited. The tickets were free, but you may have to check the site constantly over a period of weeks to get the show you want instead of Dr. Phil.]

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