Los Angeles, IV: Behind the Cameras

– III –

When November 12th dawned, I rose early.  Way too early.  I spent more than two hours watching the morning’s videos on my phone and eating breakfast in my hotel room while waiting for the morning clouds to burn away.  The day was to be far more uneventful than the rest of the trip had been, and so I had no qualms about dawdling.

The OfficeAfter finally checking out, I headed north up to the San Fernando Valley.  The first stop on my adventures, after again doing my best to avoid LA traffic, was a studio building in nearby Van Nuys, the exterior location of The Office.  No, it’s not actually in Scranton.  It’s on an industrial zoned cul-de-sac, which I slowly drove around, attempting to blend in with the work trucks in the area.  There’s really not much to see there, however the gate, hedges, parking lot, and facade of the building are unmistakeable to any fan of the show.  It was pretty cool to see with my own eyes.

Warner Brothers StudiosI grabbed an early lunch at a Subway in North Hollywood.  I ate in my car, parked on the side of a road just outside Warner Brothers’ Studios in Burbank.  The parking garage for Conan opened to the public at 11am, and being 10:30, I just sat around and waited.  One of the longest half-hours of my life, easily.  When the clock finally struck 11, I drove the mile around the corner to the familiar Gate 8 of Warner Brothers’ Studios, checked in quickly, passed through security, and took a seat in the audience queue right there in the garage.  There was nobody else there yet.  In a few short minutes, Conan staff came around to the fans waiting there.  I received my number in line (a card labeled “3”) and a wristband allowing me entrance from the Conan staff.  Those who were already checked in were free to leave and come back at 3pm, spot in line saved, though I had nowhere else to go.  In that sectioned off area of the parking garage were rows of uncomfortable benches and there I stayed for hours as people trickled in.  Among them were some LA Kings fans (whose team would be playing Buffalo that night) as well as a guy who’d shaved “COCO” into his beard.  There was incredibly spotty cell-phone reception in that garage, so I spent my time listening to downloaded podcasts rather than unsuccessfully fumbling around on the internet.

Occasionally, the Conan staff would announce that they were giving out free tickets to tapings of The Pete Holmes Show before and after Conan.  I’d known almost nothing about Pete Holmes; the only thing I’d recognized him from recently was this one video, so I wasn’t really too interested.  That is, until they mentioned that the guest on the second taping was Bill Burr.  Bill Burr!  I was all in once I knew that.  After all, I no longer had a reason to get back home by early Wednesday morning anymore.  (Aside: Plus, now that I’m home, suddenly I see Pete Holmes everywhere. I’m not sure how that happened.)

While sitting around in that garage, I got a voice-mail from a professional contact, following up on a potential employment situation from September.  Things started moving once I returned home, but more on that at a later date… hopefully.

With show time fast approaching (and really, it went by way faster than it should have, all things considered), we were lined up in the parking garage by card number and led in bunches across the street to Warner Brothers’ Studios.  We marched across the LA River, through a brief security checkpoint, took a sharp left turn and headed up past makeup trailer after wardrobe trailer to another staging area.  We waited there for the groups behind to arrive for what must have been a good forty minutes or so.  So much waiting!  Finally, with permission to continue, we were lead among the massive stage buildings.  We passed by the places where they currently film such shows as The Big Bang Theory and Two Broke Girls, in addition to about a million classic films and television series.  Each building has their production history written on a plaque outside.  The walk through the canyons between them was quite long but I don’t think I saw any celebrities out and about.  And then we arrived at Stage 15 for Conan.  And again, we waited, this time for the group from the first Pete Holmes Show taping.  Once all finally collected (a short five minute wait), we were allowed in the massive back door of the studio.  All of this, by the way, was long after we were all instructed to turn off our phones.  Security sure is tight at Warner Brothers’.  How I wish I could have captured any of this experience on film.

conan_studioThe studio for Conan isn’t entirely what I imagined it to be.  As you walk in the darkly lit entrance, you’re directed up winding bleacher-like stairs between draped red curtains.  You then emerge at the top of the seating area, as seen on television.  For some reason, I had it in my head that the studio was below ground and the audience entrances were ground level.  I was so naïve to the workings of show business.  The usher seated me down in the fourth row from the front, all the way to the right side.  Since I was first in line back in the audience queue, I had expected to sit in the very front, however those seats seem either to be reserved or they prefer to put couples/groups there instead.  Single seats are evidently rare.  We were seated about an hour before showtime.  Those seats are really comfortable, by the way.

In that time, I took everything in to the best of my memory’s ability.  I’ve seen just about every episode of Conan since it began in late 2010, so I had a pretty good idea of what the studio would be like in person.  Let me say this: wide-angle lenses make anything seem bigger.  My first impression was that the studio, in person, seemed way smaller than on television.  There looked to be fewer rows of seats, the band area and the center stage were much closer together than I thought, and even the couches and desk looked small.  It seemed rather compact.  Above the audience hung numerous flat-screen TV monitors in addition to a bunch of microphones for ambient sound (read: laugh track).  The wooden-beamed ceiling (seen in numerous bits throughout the series’ run) is pretty low too.  Out on the stage, I was shocked to see that the platform on which the couches and desk sit can move forward and backward.  For the monologue it’s pushed back toward the ocean backdrop and brought forward for the later segments.  I had no idea!  The giant hanging moon behind the stage is also really far forward.  I was under the impression it was a lot closer to the backdrop (like, basically touching it), but it has to be at least ten feet in front.  I also didn’t know that the backdrop was actually lit with tiny lights where the ocean-side shines.  On camera, it’s always out of focus so I was surprised by how sharp each of the little points of light on the backdrop were.

Before the show began, comedian Jimmy Pardo came out and gave us a little warm-up humor, picking on some audience members and detailing the rules of the studio (don’t ruin jokes, don’t shout during the show, follow the applause signs, etc.).  He’s a funny dude, exactly as quirky as he seems whenever he does a guest spot on the show.  As he wrapped up, the Basic Cable Band emerged and started jamming.  I never knew how much singing Jimmy Vivino actually did, since all of the music heard during the broadcast is instrumental.  Answer: it’s a lot.  Just about every song they perform has lyrics only heard when the final cut is in commercial.  While the band played to continue warming up the crowd, some members wandered into the audience.  I don’t know their names, but the trumpet player was hilarious, blasting his instrument in people’s faces while others ran around the seats.  I high-fived one of them as he busted through my row.  When that commotion was starting to wane, Andy Richter walked out from backstage, to great applause, and took up his spot at the podium (right in front of me!).  Very soon it was absolutely silent.  The producer counted down from ten.  The show began as it always does on television.  Drum break!

That's me!
That’s me!

I’ll spare the details of the broadcast (Dax Shepard, Regina Hall, & Comedian Sean Patton, 11-12-13), since it’s all recorded anyway.  They don’t seem to keep old episodes on the TeamCoco website, so if you want to watch you may need to find it using other means. So, here are some brief impressions of the stuff you don’t get from TV.

  • Conan O’Brien is a tall guy.  Yes, he’s taller looking in person.  I was a few rows up, but he still looked like he towered over the front of the audience.  Andy’s right there, too.
  • Everything is funnier live.  Always.  I don’t normally laugh out loud watching Conan on TV; I couldn’t help myself in person.  Despite being prompted often by the applause signs, the audience was quite enthusiastic on their own.
  • When Conan does pre-taped bits, they’re shown on the monitors.  That’s obvious.  However, when those are playing, the entire studio goes dark with the lights dimmed way down low.  I don’t think you ever see them change on TV.
  • The band plays between commercial breaks, except they cut out the singing, as I mentioned before.
  • Tons of people come out at that time, to move cameras, to direct to the cast and crew, refresh makeup etc.  I mostly watched what Conan himself does during the breaks.  He seemed to chat with the producers, mostly.
  • The show airs at 11pm EST, but this taping was at 4:30pm PST, so obviously not live.  The commercial breaks, however, seemed to actually be commercial length and everything was done as if on a live schedule.  I thought for sure they would be outtakes, cut bits, or general extras added into the taping, but I was incorrect.  And this show went on without a hitch.  What you see on TV is pretty much all that happened.  No re-shooting, pick-ups or anything.  I was actually impressed at how professionally it was all done.
  • For the interview segment, the cameras all encroached the stage, partially blocking the audience view, at least in the lower rows.  I had to watch the Regina Hall interview mostly through the monitors, or lean awkwardly toward my neighbor.  There are also way more cameras than I thought there were.  Like, seven, at least.  It was very crowded up there.
  • For the last bit with Sean Patton, I actually spent more time looking at Conan’s reaction to his humor than at Sean’s act.  He sits at his desk off in the dark, nodding along and remaining generally stoic.  Sometimes he broke into a smile, most of the time he seemed to just listen.  Andy and Dax were a bit more emotive during the bit.

Then the show ended, exactly an hour after it began.  As the crowd applauded, the band broke into the standard “End of the Show Song” and Conan did his sing-a-long as he’s done for years.  You know, the part that’s never on TV (except for the few times that it was).  Once again, I was hoping for some more extras after he finished, but there was nothing more than a “thank you” to the audience and a “good night”.  After Conan walked off through the curtains behind the stage, we were prompted to leave by the staff.  I made my way back up the steps where I ran into a traffic jam of people trying to get down the stairs.  As I waited, I took in the studio below for the last time.  People around me started taking cell phone pics, clearly in security’s line of sight, to no consequence.  Perhaps we were allowed to use them again, I don’t know, but I didn’t dare pull mine out and shoot.  Once back downstairs, we were ushered out into the cool dark night.  My time at Warner Brothers’ wasn’t done though and, upon flashing my special second wristband, I was directed toward Stage 10 where The Pete Holmes Show was taping.  Once again, a group of us were escorted through the lot to an identical looking building and brought in through the backdoor.

My experience at TPHS was much more laid back in contrast to Conan, since it’s still very new in production while Conan and his team are twenty-year veterans of the business.  I was led into the studio, up a set of shorter stairs, to find an audience already in house.  Since I was there on my own, I was seated relatively close to the front on an open end.  Off to my left I could see behind the stage, at various cast and crew members looking on, including Sean Patton fresh from Conan and comedian Matt McCarthy, who I’d met back at RPI in 2010 along with Jake & Amir.  The set for TPHS is very nice.  It’s much smaller than Conan, making it feel a bit more intimate, and the fact that the walls to the left have very wide openings where other performers were watching made it seem more interactive.

Before TPHS, comedian Joe DeRosa warmed up the crowd with some audience chop-busting in addition to awesome impressions of Bill Burr and Louis CK.  Pete himself also made an appearance before the taping began to welcome the audience and prepare us for the show.  Keenly aware of his status as a television rookie, he asked us to be as enthusiastic and receptive as possible.  I don’t think he really needed our help though.  From the opening pre-produced short through to the interview with Bill Burr, he was on fire.  This episode is available online, so I’ll avoid talking about what’s been recorded and released.  From what you don’t see, just a few brief thoughts:

Unlike Conan, TPHS is only a half-hour show. The taping took a bit longer, though, as there were numerous short bits cut from the show, a ton of extra jokes before and after the breaks, as well as a brief pick-up shoot during the second commercial.  After Pete and his cast had left the stage, the producer brought them back to redo a scene.  We, the audience, were instructed to act as though they had never left and produce the same “genuine” laughter as before.  It was interesting to watch (much like how I observed 5-Second Films shoot multiple non-linear takes for their films that Sunday), and seeing the final show, which finally aired on November 27th, I didn’t notice any trace of interruption or discontinuity.  Well done, editors.

Also, Pete Holmes is really tall.  Must be a thing.

Hey, it's me again!
Hey, it’s me again!

As for the interview, it was a ton of fun watching Bill Burr and Pete Holmes talk.  Bill likes to speak his mind and he’s very direct and brash about everything, but the best part was seeing Pete not even try to keep his composure, often succumbing to laughing fits while Bill prattled on.  I don’t even remember what they were talking about.  Before I knew it, it was over.  It was a funny little show.  Pete Holmes seems like a genuinely nice guy and I hope he does well.  I know I’ll be keeping an eye on his career from now on.

Finally, we were led outside one last time.  Under the clouds and stars of night time Burbank, a guide took us through the maze of stage buildings, back along the long way from which we entered, out across the river and the street to the parking garage where I’d began my Warner Brothers’ experience.  I got in my car, grabbed a quick dinner, and began the five-hour drive home.  It had been such a long day trip and I was so tired that I decided, about halfway back up I-5, to stay the night at a rest area.  I had hoped after Saturday that I wouldn’t have to sleep in my car again, but this time I really had no choice.  The boredom of the flat San Joaquin Valley at night had my eyelids growing heavy.  The night went quickly, and I rose before the sun.

I finished the rest of the drive early on November 13th, unfortunately hitting rush hour traffic through Altamont Pass.  I passed a big chunk of the drive talking to my dad on the phone; he had texted me the huge Sabres news of the morning and I called him to get the full story.  What a massive bombshell that was.  I spent the rest of my time on the freeway contemplating what it all meant for the team’s future, excited for what was to come.  The narrative ends around 10am when I finally pulled my broken, dying vehicle into the parking lot in front of my apartment.  I staggered up the stairs with all of my belongings in hand, quickly washed up, ate breakfast, and, with much relief, took my bucket of bolts over to the conveniently located repair shop just down the street.  It’s fine now, in case you were wondering.

Looking back on the entire experience, I don’t have a lot to say that hasn’t already been written.  The last day was good.  The first days were also good.  The weekend was the best.  Monday was tough.  With everything said and done, this trip was probably the best vacation I’ve ever had.  It was unquestionably the most fulfilling time I’ve had on a solo endeavor.  As I’ve said a thousand times before, I’ll never forget it.  While my trip through Cascadia was about the places and the sights, my trip to Los Angeles was about the people and the memories.  I could not be happier that the cards of my life were dealt in such a way that I would get this kind of opportunity.  I know the chance will probably never come again.  Here’s hoping the future brings as many awesome adventures and as much happiness as I’ve found in the last month.

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