Tales From The Industry XIX – Black Comedy

Wow, a lot of time has passed since I thought I’d get around to posting about this. You’ll recall that I went to take part in the taping of a segment for Comedy Central some time ago. Well, later on I went to the taping of the full show in which it will appear, and it was an amusing and interesting experience.

Lewis Black on set of Root of All Evil

The show? Comedy Central, and in particular, Daily Show fans will be pleased to learn that Lewis Black finally has a show of his own, and it is called “The Root of All Evil”. The format is that he presides as a judge over a case examining which of two popular culture phenomena are in fact “Evil”, where Evil here means that in his view it is contributing to the decay of our culture and society. The case is presented by two of his comedian colleagues (a different pair each show) and the humour comes in them presenting their cases, using speeches, snappy exchanges, and exhibits such as clips of things, and in the case in which I was involved – short sketches.

The new series starts on Comedy Central tomorrow (Wednesday). I won’t steal their thunder by telling you what the details of the sketch are. It is brief, but an amusing conceit nonetheless. I don’t know when the episode will air, but you can look out for it by noting that it is the one that has American Idol as one of the, er, defendants.

It has been interesting to see how various shows get made over the last couple of years, and so I was interested to be involved (in even this tiny way) in this one. The initial visit to the Hollywood Center Studios was to see them taping the segment (and be taped as part of it), trying things out and gathering material to make it work the way they wanted it for the main show. My own banter with the comedian was kind of fun (see earlier post), and we improvised a bit and hit on something unique that they decided to use. On the one hand, this was good for my own role, but on the other hand, perhaps not. I won’t say any more – You’ll see and it’ll all make sense!

So I went back again one Tuesday evening several weeks later to the taping of the show, to be part of the live studio audience. I was curious about how these are done on this side of the Atlantic (I’ve done it before, for a BBC radio show in the UK), and thought it would be fun to see how the final edit looked, and also I was very curious to see what the actual show that this would be part of would actually be.

It was rather a lot of fun. I arrived at the prescribed time, and since my name was on the list I was happily waived through without having to wait in the long line of hopefuls that had grown at the side entrance. There was still waiting involved, as they had us (the audience) all sit on benches outside in the order we came for a good while as they got ready. Then they called out that they’d be taping two episodes that night, and it would take two hours, and so people might want to go to the bathroom beforehand. This meant that there was a rush to the tiny bathrooms that they had nearby – of course somewhat scrambling the ordering that had gone before (although not too much – I more or less kept my place).

We were next marched through the (historic for tv – I Love Lucy and a bunch of other things were recorded here) studio grounds to the studio to be seated. It is always interesting to see how these sets are constructed from behind, and to note the various angles and vantage points that the cameras will use to fill the screen with all the things they want the viewing audience at home to see. There are places for people to duck down and disappear off stage (used at one point by our between-shots war-up comedian whose name I cannot recall – he was late in finishing up one of his warm up tricks and had to move off stage rather sharply), as well as to appear grandly during the show and so forth.

        root of all evil    root of all evil

I got to essentially pick the seat I wanted since I was early enough, but there were really no bad seats. They wanted to make sure that all seats were filled, of course, and they had (at least initially) more or less enough people to do so. It was interesting to listen to the chatter of the people around me as I did a bit of reading of my book while I waited. They did not know what the show was going to be, exactly, but they had high hopes since it was Lewis Black. There were snippets of exchanges sharing experiences involving seeing him perform live at various places. I was curious to know how they learned about the taping, and who they were. This was quickly answered since people were wondering the same things about each other, and I heard the answer that a lot of people had got their tickets through Craig’s List.

Well, the taping of the first show began, and we were encouraged (having ben drilled in it before) to try our best to outdo the audience on the other side of the room in yelling and cheering and so forth, as Lewis Black came on in all his full bore Lewis Black mode. It was fun, although I found myself agreeing with a few of the whispers I heard between takes (yes, the liveness is not always as live as all that: they sometimes retake various exchanges if they did not work very well, or if one of the comedians fluffed a line: This is 2008, so I don’t think I’m revealing any TV magic secrets here – there are post production edits done on live shows, even with spontaneous comedy from skilled professionals such as these) – it was not actually turning out to be super-funny. I found that the funniest parts were when the cameras were not running, and the comedians were sparring with each other between takes, or Lewis Black was being all pissed off about something in his faux-angry persona. This is partly because the format of the show is such that Lewis does not say as much as he’d say when he’s doing one of his monologues. The heavy lifting is split between the three comedians on stage: him, and the two “defense lawyers” making the cases.

I’m going to suspend disbelief a bit further. After wondering whether if it was all to do with the writers strike that was on at the time, preventing them from maybe polishing things up perfectly, I decided that something else was going on. I think that the show itself will be much funnier when viewed in its properly edited form and seen from home. I could see that a lot of momentum of the comedy might have been lost by the format one is seeing it in from the audience seats, and that the show was designed to be best seen on television. They can edit-in the facial expressions, hand gestures, etc, of the various comedians during their delivery, and cut in the exchanged glances and so forth in the right way to build the tension required to bring out the laughter. What I am saying is that this is television, not theatre, and so I should see the finished product as it is intended, and not in its component parts, as it is (perhaps counter-intuitively) when at the live audience taping stage.

Here’s an interesting thing. The studio handlers tried their best to control the audience members, but a lot of them were acting in that rude, entitled way that seems increasingly common these days (perhaps I’m getting old). So while it was explained to them that they had to stay put for the duration, and a reasonably good job was done explaining that it would take an hour or so to do each half hour show, some of the people inexplicably decided that they had to get on the highway and get home, or go to the bathroom, and so forth. Pleading with them did not help in most cases. The organizers managed to move people around to fill in some of the slots that opened up in this way, but after the first show’s taping was done about half the audience bailed. What happened next was interesting. It’s clear that they are used to this sort of thing and had a backup plan. After a longish wait, they ferried in a large supplement audience, which was rather different from the first audience. While some were, I think, people from around the studios where were working late, several of them were not. Basically, I think that they basically went out onto the local streets and rounded people up and gave them cash in hand to be part of the audience. It was quite a range of characters, including a number with their outdoor blankets to shield them from long times spent outside. Certainly interesting. I’m curious to know how obvious that will be when the show is viewed. (I confirmed my guess about the origins of the second audience as I left, since they were being called over to, I think, get their cash payment. I could be wrong, but that’s my guess). My guess is that this is actually quite common. I must remember this when I need some extra cash: Just go hang around near a studio…

Well, anyway, keep and eye out for the show, and maybe even look for the little segment featuring some science-types. All in good fun.


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4 Responses to Tales From The Industry XIX – Black Comedy

  1. For a few years I worked as an audience wrangler, so I feel the coordinators pain.

    However, between the work experience and also participated as an audience member before, I recognized that the difficult audiences are the ones that are deceived, or the ones that are drunk.

    Audience recruiters will routinely lie to potential audience members, claiming that tapings will only take an hour. Upon arrival, the actual audience coordinators will clarify this, only sometimes aware of what the crowd was told ahead of time.

    In my experience, I was told to arrive at 5:30pm, taping would begin at 6:30, and the show would be done by 7:30pm. This was ensured because I’d told the recruiter that me and my guests had plans later in the evening. He also promised us free tickets, I think to Universal, after the show wrapped. Anyway, we arrived on time, but the doors didn’t even open until 7:30pm, taping didn’t begin til 8:30pm, and when tried to leave at 9:30pm, we were told we couldn’t… still, we pushed our way out. When we asked for the Universal passes, we were ignored.

    So, thats my story. The show was 2 Guys, A Girl, and a Pizza Place… so it was ages ago.

  2. Clifford says:

    Hi David,

    These guys were reasonably on time (well, not out by more than say, 20 – 30 minutes). So, in your experience, was the business with the people off the street typical?



  3. Stacey says:

    I’ve been to a number of tapings since moving to LA, and I can tell you that tapings of popular, established shows draw a very good crowd of people who really want to be there. But shows that are not as popular will generally have paid audience members – of which I was one a few times. And this lot can run the gamut from out of work actors to participants in a rehab program. I think the disgruntled audience types are usually those that are grabbed off the street (often tourists) who don’t know what they’re getting in to.

  4. Clifford says:

    These people mostly had tickets they got off Craig’s List. Some came from as far as Orange County. Not tourists grabbed off the street.