With all the obvious tourist haunts that Aunt Marge from Kenosha has scrawled on her SoCal vacation checklist – Disneyland and the beach, Hollywood’s Walk of Fame and Venice’s freaks – you just know she’s also going to want to be part of a studio audience for a TV show taping.
Be it “Ellen” or “Conan,” “Two and a Half Men” or “2 Broke Girls,” Marge will want you, the California relative who must know someone in the biz, to score some tickets. Should you choose to indulge Marge – or, heck, maybe you are the Marge of your clan – there are several things to know before your brush with celebrity:
• Getting free tickets, at least to shows shot at Warner Bros. Television Studios, is as easy as a mouse click, but it will be the last easy thing in the process.
• It’s a major time-suck, hours of queueing and waiting, waiting and queueing, even before the six-hour taping of a 22-minute sitcom, and you will never get back those precious grains of sand through the hourglass.
• A sturdy bladder is essential, for once you’ve gained entrance to the hallowed inner sanctum that is the stage set, potty breaks are all but verboten.
• You are forced to break up with your smartphone for the duration, cause of much separation-anxiety and weeping at the parting.
• You must be peppy-on-command – THIS PUMPED UP! – and laugh uproariously at a punch line, even if it’s the 12th time you’ve heard it.
All right, so if I haven’t dissuaded you yet, you must really want to see TV magic being made, or else Marge is being a major pain in the rear. Anyway, what follows is one man’s experience at a midweek taping of the CBS Monday night hit “2 Broke Girls” in the beige, hulking Quonset hut known as Stage 21.
Actually, it begins before you even reach the studio lot. The ease with which you can reserve tickets and print them at home lulls you into thinking you can just stroll right onto the set, no problem. Sure, it says to arrive “at least one hour” before the 5 p.m. taping, but they always say that, right? And there was something in the fine print about how the ticket doesn’t always guarantee a seat, yadda, yadda.
Still, knowing the Los Angeles freeway system (I grew up there; don’t hate me), I gave myself plenty of time to spare. But when I pulled into the parking garage at Gate 8 at 3:30 p.m., most of the first floor was filled with people, close to 300 in all, in shorts and flip-flops sitting on portable rows in front of a “2 Broke” sign.
My crack research had told me most stage sets seat an audience of about 150, 200 tops. Despite the odds, people seemed in good spirits and not at all concerned that two hours of waiting might end up being fruitless. There was no organized front of the line; people sat haphazard, holding their printed-out “ticket” in one hand, their picture ID in the other. So far, this was about as glamorous as waiting at the DMV. I sat in the front of the fifth (of six) rows, almost as far away as you could get from the gate where the audience would be led.
Several scurrying Warner Brothers “pages,” clad in black pants and white shirts and carrying clipboards and walkie-talkies, wielded enormous power, and they certainly seemed to be tripping on it. Same for the blue-uniformed rent-a-security, stamping your hand (“right hand on right thigh, sir, palm down”). After about 20 minutes, the pages pointed to a row of about 15 people, seemingly at random, and summon it forward. This, of course, was after the “VIPs,” none I recognized, were ushered in.
Passed over, I unsheathed my iPhone to kill time.
“Oh, you don’t want to do that,” a woman across the aisle said to me. “Can’t bring in phones. Better take it back to your car.”
Bernice Reddy, who lives in the San Fernando Valley and was taking her friend from Minnesota, Jeanette Murphy, to the taping, knows whereof she speaks. Reddy and Murphy graced the audience of the “Dr. Phil” show last year, and “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” the year before that. I took a chance and hustled back to the car to stash the phone and lucked out. I didn’t miss a cattle call.
A few minutes later, a particularly bossy page stopped at the row in front of me. “No one here needs to pee.” (It sounded like a statement, not a question.) “OK, come with me.”
Two more rows were selected, and I wasn’t liking my chances. Every time the bossy page clopped by in her heels, we audience-wannabes gazed up hopefully, like refugees waiting for the last helicopter out of a war-torn country.
Finally, the damnedest thing happened. The page stopped at the head of our row, pointed a Lee’s-Press-On nail at me and said, “I’ll take you five.” We hustled into line. Turns out, we were the last ones selected and, fortunately, we were ushered out before the bad news was broken to the rest of those losers.
Another page had us line up, single-file, like kindergartners on a field trip, and marched us out of the lot, past Forest Lawn Drive, through not one but two TSA-like security checkpoints and onto the lot. As we passed trailers and sets for “Hart of Dixie” and “Two and a Half Men,” people gawked and tittered. At last, we reached Stage 21 and found the only open seats left were in the last row, with limited sight of the set below (because of the overhanging lights).
We were told they were filming Episode 319, titled, “2 Broke Girls and the Kilt Trip,” to run on St. Patrick’s Day night. It was then my Irish luck kicked in. A page asked, “Is there anyone here by themselves?” I was the only one (yeah, I know, such as loser) , and I was ushered to the front row seat, reserved for a no-show VIP.
I barely had time to gloat, because a large bald man named Roger at the foot of the seats bellowed into a microphone, “PUT YOUR HANDS TOGETHER. WE WANT YOU FIRED UP.”
Roger is what the TV biz calls the “warmup,” a comedian employed to prime the audience to laugh. Roger would be our guide and sidekick for the next 41/2 hours, telling jokes, between takes and scene changes, that ranged from how bad the traffic is in L.A. to how cold it is in Chicago. Roger promised us candy and T-shirts. He promised us cupcakes, sandwiches and water. He even promised cold hard cash if we’d make a lot of noise.
“ You are the most important part of the show,” he told us.
(Quick aside about the plot: There are these two girls in Brooklyn, see. And they’re broke, right. They work at a diner and try to get a cupcake side business going when not firing off sexual entendres and innocuous ethnic slurs at other cast members. The show gets boffo ratings.)
Then Roger introduced the cast, and the audience did Beatles-on-Sullivan-decibel screams for the two stars, Kate Dennings (as sassy Max Black) and Beth Behrs (as erstwhile rich-girl Caroline Channing). Poor Garrett Morris (who plays Earl, the cashier at the diner where the show is set). Once, he was revered on “Saturday Night Live”; now, he gets just polite applause.
“You guys were great,” Roger enthused. “Of all the audiences we’ve had, you are without a doubt the most recent.”
Then, the taping began, and the audience was instructed to either stay deathly quiet or laugh wildly. No in between.
It was easy to do, at first. But by Take 7 of the first scene, in which the girls sell cupcakes to a red-headed Irish mom with a flock of red-headed kids, we knew what was coming but still had to laugh “spontaneously.” Max’s scene-ending bon mot, “Or in your case, ‘Erin Go Training Bragh?’ just wasn’t as funny after the seventh time. That scene, all of maybe three minutes, took 45 minutes to tape. Not only did they take it from the top several times, but did many “pickups,” which Roger told us meant do-overs of individual lines.
That was one of the many nuggets of TV lingo Jolly Roger shared long into the night. All told, the cast taped five scenes and the audience was shown two “playbacks” (scenes shot previously, such as in a cab on a street, and played on the monitors to get audience reaction.)
Had it not been for those playbacks – essentially cutting out two scenes – we might have been holed up until ’round midnight, forced to laugh on command. But every time the audience’s energy started to flag, Roger served as a human amphetamine drip, cajoling us to emote. He made good on those promises of goodies, too. We got bottled water at 7:07 p.m., cupcakes at 7:23; T-shirts given away at 7:51, sandwiches at 8:09, candy at 8:25 and more candy at 9:27 as the final scene wrapped. People left looking wearied, as if they’d just sat through Wagner’s “Ring Cycle.”
I wondered why it took so many takes to shoot a handful of scenes, when it all could be spliced together in post-production (another term Roger threw at us.) I mean, this was “2 Broke Girls,” not the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “Two Gentlemen of Verona.” That’s because show creator Michael Patrick King, bedecked in blue blazer and tennis shoes, apparently is a perfectionist. His production team, at least 20 strong, followed him, flocklike. Not once, the whole night, did King laugh. He barely broke a smile. Mostly, he stood with arms crossed and brow furrowed, staring into the quad-screen showing the camera angles and halting takes to give stage direction.
I left sure of at least one thing: There’s nothing funny about the making of a comedy.