Tuesday, March 10, 2009

In which the Show Goes On

It's showtime, folks.

Here comes Barb, Bob, Nathan n Steve piling out of the car shortly after 11PM on a lovely Saturday night, there's that Elmer smilin' at us n wavin' us in, Steve signs everybody in while Barb n Bob go off looking for a place to change and make up. The News is on air, the control room door is open -- seems it's rather stuffy in there, so that's how they vent the joint out -- and Keith and a couple of others we recognize are pushin' them buttons, slidin' them sliders, and otherwise producing The News At 11. Mike n Mindy are reciting the day's woes, national n local, and as they wrap up the newscast I hear over the control room monitor, "... stay tuned for Saturday Night Live, and right after that a new show -- Monsterpiece Theatre. Sounds like fun. Later tonight." Then the cold open for SNL comes on, headsets come off followed shortly by studio crew guys, followed shortly by Mike n Mindy their own selves. They're taller than I irrelevantly thought, and they're wearing jeans n sneaks! -- well, we never see them other than waist-up, they're behind the News Desk in the News Set, of course. Keith introduces me as one of the Monsterpiece guys, and Mike n Mindy allow as to how they're looking forward to the show, heard a lot of good things, gracious chitchat yadayada. I mumble something hopefully gracious in reply but probly not because I'm counting down to show and to this day it's nothing but adrenaline and tension until the first minute of show when it's well and truly Out of Our Hands and Owned by the Audience. They go down the hall to the News Department, and behind me I hear a hoot, that's so funny -- guess we know where Barb n Bob are set up ...

Keith wants to go over the script, but not now: everybody's on lunch break. Another Little Surprise. Later, counting their shift hours on fingers n toes, of course it makes sense, it's after the fourth hour of the shift -- but damn, guys, how many more of these Little Surprises are out there anyway? Nothing to do but pace in the studio, which seems to be my place for now. At least the set is stacked along the wall, behind the cameras -- and it's stacked in sequence, first piece by the door is on top; The Chair, The Teevee and the Loose Stuff bring up the rear of the train.

There's a downshooter camera on a table, with some script pages. Some are ours, with notes -- good to see. Some are for a commercial -- typed on a bulletin typewriter. There's the minicam, standing on a tripod; the minicam is good news, the tripod -- must resist WTF impulse. There's a flipchart in the corner, with a fairly dry marker on the easel ledge.

Keith's back. Not many notes -- there are some crawls, he wants to know if these should be against a black field or across the bottom of the screen, I have no opinion that's his call; the blue backing gag might not work tonight, the Head Engineer came in to test something, can we do it as a cut-in if we have to? rather not, but if we have to and only as a last resort; he's okay with lines that he has to read, but he doesn't want anybody else on the crew to have lines -- he wants them to focus on their jobs, not act ... little late for this Little Surprise, but we shall zip our lip and ask instead what if we put a headset on Nathan and give the lines to him? that'll work .... about this fake address for the fan mail -- do you really want to use this? is anybody really goint to write in? well, if they do they the mail guy sure won't mix it in with the bills ... want that as a title? can we have it as a title? sure, why not ... that's about it. Keith goes off to fix the crawl, Barb Bob n Nathan come in, the studio guys come in, and the countdown clocks start on the cameras.

Head Engineer Guy and Doug white-balance the floor cameras (quick) and the minicam (not so quick ... takes about five or ten minutes). Head Engineer Guy and Doug want The Talent over at the blue backing wall, they want to fuss with lights n electronics. Audio Guy attaches a power pack to the small of Barb's back, threads a lapel mic through the layers of costume -- Barb asks if he wants, he could just give her the stuff when she comes in and she'll put it on when she dresses -- Audio Guy has to think about this one, apparently nobody's offered to do this before -- Head Engineer Guy concludes nope, can't get good separation, no blue backing stuff tonight, too much damn blue in the costume and hair, The Great Oz Has Spoken. Bob's got some red spray hair dye, starts frosting the wig and shpritzing bits of costume where the blue is poking through, I ask if I brought some gel with a lot of red in it and they backlit or toplit her would that help? Head Engineer Guy does the bobblehead Nope nope nope, Doug says aside bring it in, can't hurt, countdown clock is down to 5 minutes, Keith wants The Talent out in the hall to set up the opening. I tell Nathan he's going to be a techie, hand him his side, ask the rest of the guys if they know what to do ... nope, nobody tells them nothin' Oh please so I break the No Speaking to Crew Rule, tell them what's coming, and tell them feel free to crack as many Talent cracks as they want, but they have to do it on the air, and the countdown clock is counting seconds down from 120.

Out in the corridor, the shot is set up; Barb wants to know when to come in -- the floor manager is out on the landing with her, she'll cue her when they're live. Elmer wants Doug to get his good side, Barb walks down the corridor with Doug so that he knows where she's going, Keith wants everybody in place because it's ten seconds to air. Mad scrambling, Barb just gets back outside (no floor manager with; she jumps into the film room counting three ... two ... one ... and) ...

BAM! The door flies open, it's not Barb but Millie, in full rant and everybody who's left in the corridor gets out of the way in a hurry. Millie rants down the corridor, someone ducks down in front of her to get the door, she kicks the studio door open and rips into the floor guys. They're surprised, somebody remembers to say "huzzabuzza huzzabuzza Talent", Nathan reads His Line for posterity, the movie gets introduced, the floor manager makes the universal signal for Hold It and announces "We're clear."

Lots of exhaling, a couple of "yeah!"s n "OK"s, tension clear, and we've got seven minutes to set up the next shot. Barb apologizes to the crew for yelling at them, oh that's all right, ma'am, Keith reminds us that the clock is running and we've got to set the next scene up. He calls for the Designer -- guess that's me, folks.

I ask for the entry piece, half of the bookcase, want to see the other half creep in behind her during the shot; we set the chair in the light, throw some dressing around -- Barb wants an extra copy of the script just in case, we leave it on the teevee, floor manager announces we're live in thirty seconds, everybody jumps back behind cameras except for me who will do the flat move, we come back up and do the first in-show bit, which is to be punctuated by the flat falling down. It does not fall with a satisfactory thud: it's vacuformed, dummy -- it's got no weight or mass, it just kind of ... wafts down. Millicent explodes that she can't even get a decent noise out of her set -- where'd that come from? oh well, better than the close we had -- and we're out. Exhaling again here, boss except that the floor manager annouces that we need to set up the bump.

Is this another one of tonight's Little Surprises? Sure is, we need a bumper -- five to ten second shot of Something that the show title gets superimposed over. Doesn't matter what, but we're live in thirty seconds. We grab Barb n some stuff, do something, say "Do this!" just as the floor manager counts us back on the air ... and the Monsterpiece Theatre bumpers are born. Every bumper during the run of the show will be made up on the fly, and whoever's got the best idea sets up the bump.

We're counting down to the next bit, which will be the aborted blue backing insert -- just going to be a quickie, then on to whatever is next -- when I hear from the on-air monitor the cue for the cut-in. That ain't right -- it's supposed to be at least three minutes from now. Turns out there was an internal edit to the film -- guess somebody thought something was a Naughty Bit -- well, too bad, we missed it and we're moving to the next setup.

Barb asks me if I can cue her; I grab the flip chart, start writing her dialog bullets, and position myself with flip chartsnext to the center camera. That's where I will live for the run of the show: I'm now Cue Card Guy.

And so it goes. Millie reads her Fan Mail, gives out the first bogus address, Camera Guy next to me snickers at the address. Millie does Ketchup Theatre. Millie does Other Stuff. Bumps get improvised. Everybody's much looser than we were at 12:30. Some stuff is working, some stuff isn't; but for the most part most of the show will do. We aren't anywhere near where we want to be with this show, but the progress from last Thursday is clear, the breakneck studio pace doesn't let us worry about what just happened, and if we aren't amusing anybody else in teevee land we're amusing our collective selves.

We're setting up the outro, and Doug annouces that it's a full moon tonight. Keith wants to get a shot of the full moon for the close; well, good on you, Keith, that will most certainly work. Doug dashes down the corridor to set up the minicam in the parking lot, Millie introduces the next week's classic (whatever it is), the credits roll, and the floor manager tells us we're clear. It's something like 3:15AM, and there's applause from the guys. "We did good," Doug announces.

I have my Little Surprise for the night: a Domino's guy shows up with pizzas n pop. If we tanked, at least we leave on a full stomach; if we win, victory smells like pepperoni. Before we dig in, Keith reminds us that we have to do the Promo, and he promises that's the last of tonight's Little Surprises. We got nothing at this point, so we just reprise whatever Millie said in the outro over the clip. Now it's Domino's time. But before you go, pizza guy ... is this your shift? Do you do this every week? Ever deliver over here? Got a problem with ... oh ... delivering pizza on the air?

Keith's all smiles coming out of the control room. On the whole, it went pretty well. He hands me a cassette: it's next week's movie. Bill wants to do notes late Tuesday afternoon, they're all coming in a little early; did he talk to us about it. My turn: nobody tells us nothin'. Keith laughs: that is this place, all right.

We leave about 4. Some of the studio guys have to be back to do the Sunday AM public interest shows. Nathan left his car at our place, we drop Bob off at his place: Just think, Bob -- we get to do this again next week!

Bob say "Oh boy!"


  1. Yippee - first show under your belt ... everything's downhill from here!

  2. This is suspiciously detailed for a twenty-plus year old memory... almost as if he has a video tape of that show that he's referencing while posting this...

    /arches brow, strokes goatee in an evil manner

  3. Nope; we taped over our copy of the first show.

    There are some events that Barb and I vividly remember, for various reasons -- usually because it was a signal event with a huge adrenaline rush. So it was for Show 1 of MT. And there was one other peculiarity of working in Lexington: everything of any significance operationally at Ruckus Arenus at the time was reported and communicated orally; Our Daddy Merrill distrusted written documentation. We had to memorize everything that we did, and fire it back on demand. So professionally my shop had to be in human record mode all the time; and this carried on to everything else we did of a worklike nature. MT was great fun to do, and while we approached it loosely we also considered it work.

    This has been a marginally useful tool working in Our Nation's Capital; but some things are best unremembered, if you want to remain employed.

    All that said, if I want to remember specifics about Show 3, say, I hope I can find the tape ...

  4. That's too bad, I'd love to have seen it. Maybe next time I'm in I can ask Lee Cruse (does morning news on-location stuff for them now) if he can let me "borrow" some of them for a weekend, as unlikely as that scenario is.

    I do know somebody there kept something, as they were playing bits during their recent anniversery celebration.

  5. WLEX admits that MT is part of their Fabled History?

    That is just about as flooring a concept as the show living on on YouTube.

    Don't get me wrong: we grew quite fond of the place and our band of merry pranksters, and we had some unusual champions in some unusual places there. And I do not want it to seem like we've been nursing a grudge over the decades -- I want to tell what I think is a reasonably interesting story, and part of that story is the miscommunication and misunderstanding. Which led to the guerilla productions, which is what people remember, so if the misunderstanding hadn't been there at the start the show would have been something else.

    Even so, the production schedule was such that we seldom saw anybody who wan't part of our unit; and on the few times we did, the response was "Well, I don't understand what you're doing but whatever it is it works." So I always thought that once we left, they never gave us a second thought.


  6. Sorry, my response got edited... yeah, my one sibling who still lives in Kentucky says they showed clips during the anniversary bits. He didn't say how much, and it didn't sound like anything more than part of a montage, but it was there.

    Anyway my old radio partner Lee now does their 'human interest' or whatever in the morning for them. I'd consider asking him to poke around whatever archives they apparently keep there, but he's a bit of a wise-acre sometimes and I never do remember to contact him when I'm in.