Live comedy shows, for me, are the apple of background work. I was booked on a number of live comedies. So let’s start with my Wings experience. The stage for Wings was at Paramount Studios. Most weekly live shows follow a generic pattern; scripts are distributed to the principals a few weeks in advance. Wings was taped on Friday. The work week begins in earnest on Monday for the cast. Usually on these type of shows, the cast will sit around a table on Monday and run lines. (read from the script). Changes are made where deemed necessary. Tuesday and Wednesday blocking and some rehearsals will be done on the stage. Some cast members will work with a dialogue coach.
In the case of Wings, we the background are bought in on Thursday. The day will be short for us. When I say stage, I am of course talking about a sound stage, that big building you see in pictures with huge floor to ceiling doors that roll open. Now picture the stage setup for a live show: running the length of the stage on one side are the spectator’s seating. They are raised about 5 feet above the stage floor and run up an incline of 5 or more rows. Hard wooden seats in most cases. 🙂 They will take up about 1/4 of the stage space. So the spectators look down much as the Egyptians watched the Gladiators. They will see spread out below them all the sets that will be used for the taping. For Wings, taking up the center of the stage and using the most room is the waiting room and coffee shop. Off to it’s sides are different sets customized for each week’s requirements.
After we background arrive, the AD (assistant director) takes us up in the audience seats. We are given blank papers, pencils and a map of the waiting room. On this schematic are all the furnishings of the waiting room drawn to scale. Each item is numbered. The AD then starts reading the script. At each point in the script he calls one of our names and tells us where we should be at that moment. So for example when you see me coming in at the beginning, he instructed me to enter from stage right and go to chair number 5. He gives me the exact dialogue being spoken by a principal for when I am to make this entrance. Along with a wardrobe person, we are instructed about any wardrobe changes we are to make. I am told to change from the overcoat to a workman’s jacket for the second half. This instruction phase takes about 2 hours. We break for lunch. After lunch we have a rehearsal with the cast. We take another break. Then we have a dress rehearsal with the cast. We are finished for the day.
We get our call for Friday – we are to be on the stage at 3PM. After arriving we have a final dress rehearsal. The stage is freezing. The AC is running full steam as the stage has to be frigid to maintain a comfortable temperature for the 300 to 400 audience. Remember once taping begins no AC or other device can be running.
After the dress rehearsal, we go to an adjoining stage. A long table has been set for our dinner. And what a sumptuous feast. It is buffet style. The caterers serve us from another long table of hot and cold selections. We eat as much as we want. The cast is in a jovial mood and during the entire meal the jokes fly around the table. It is a very noisy meal. After dinner we are told to report back on the stage by 7:30 giving us some time to walk around the studio or relax. At about 7PM, the audience is allowed to enter. A comedian begins his routine joshing the audience and they get into the mood for the show. At 7:50 the cast is introduced to the audience one member at a time. At 8PM the taping begins.
As expected there are glitches. A live show runs much as a theatre performance. It goes from start to finish. There are breaks and rarely a portion is done over….. until after the show is finished and the audience leaves, then we retape as necessary those scenes that were botched. We finish at about 1AM.
There is a very different feeling during a live show. We are all exhilarated. It’s hard to describe the feeling you get when you do something supposed to be funny and you hear a roar of laughter from 300 people. When we do the retakes after the audience has gone, there is a very definite letdown and it’s difficult to maintain the same energy we had during the live taping. During our two days on the show, we are all treated the same as the principals. We are made to feel completely a part of the ensemble cast.
So here’s the clip from Wings with my scenes although I left in a whole scene at the coffee table for you to enjoy. You can’t really see me at that point I’m all the way in the back with a workman’s jacket talking to the clerk. For the beginning I’m wearing a light tan overcoat.