Posted by: David Stewart | August 24, 2011

What it’s like to see "The Big Bang Theory" live – no spoilers

We attended a taping of The Big Bang Theory last night, a US television situation comedy beginning its 5th season this fall.

Deb and I attended a charity auction this year for Orphans Overseas, and won our bid for attending the show. Besides four tickets to the taping, our package included two nights in a Beverly Hills hotel, tickets to a Long Beach Harbor cruise and the Aquarium in Long Beach, and gift cards for air fare. We decided it would be a nice opportunity to spend time with our two grown daughters this summer.

The show considers the life of some geeky Cal Tech employees and the "regular" girl who lives next door. Here are some of the details of the experience:

  • We checked in at a parking structure across the street from the Warner Brothers lot. Our names were on a list, and they ushered us in with a group across the street to Stage 25.
  • They run the tapings every Tuesday night like a performance.
  • All of the sets for the show are lined up next to each other across the stage.  Because of the number of interior scenes, the audience seating area is quite wide, and some of the sets are not visible from all seating positions.
  • From a production standpoint, scenes would need to be reshot if an actor flubbed their lines or to film alternative angles or close-ups. There were four cameras shooting each scene, and they had to be shuttled between sets for each scene change.
  • The main job of the audience is made clear to them – laugh, applaud, react audibly, so it can be recorded for broadcast.
  • A Master of Ceremonies drove this point home and worked tirelessly to fire up the crowd, through high energy music, silly jokes, magic tricks, audience participation games, candy bars thrown.  Both Anne and Laura participated in some of the audience participation games. These games were things like the Dating Game, dancing contests, singing contests, animal noise contests and testimonials of why people love the show.
  • Before each new scene of the show, the MC would read a recap of the show so far, which seemed pretty obvious if you were paying attention at all.
  • I can imagine how tough it was for the production crew to talk with each other between takes with the loud music and constant patter to keep the audience up.
  • Special guests in the audience included the crew of the last US space shuttle mission – real rocket scientists! The co-creator of the show introduced them as guests who had traveled the furthest to come to the show.
  • The audience had a mixture of college students, technical professionals, industry types, and family and friends of those on the show.
  • The rare number of exterior scenes and effects-heavy scenes are shot at separate times and played back to the audience to record their reaction.
  • The crowd was fed a single slice of cheese pizza and a small bottle of water at one point between takes.
  • It was very interesting to see interactions between actors and the production staff between takes as they worked on their performances.
  • We arrived at 5:15PM for a 6:00PM start of the show. They started with a playback of the first episode of the season (which had been shot last week), and then introduced the actors and show runners and started the shoot. They finished around 9:30PM, so it takes quite a long time to shoot a 30 minute show.

The effort to film a show like this with a live audience must be really expensive –

  • Since they shoot the show in sequence, it is quite inefficient in terms of moving between scenes. It would be more cost-effective to stay in a particular set for all of the scenes involved with that set, but the episode is shot in sequence to keep the audience fired up.
  • There is quite some expense to manage the herd of people, remove and return their cell phones and cameras, keep them from making unwanted noise, encouraging them to make desired noises.
  • Shooting almost the whole show in one evening means everything has to work perfectly. There was one piece of special effects equipment that failed to perform correctly, but was corrected before long.
  • With loud music to keep the audience pumped up, it must be incredibly hard for the production staff and actors to hear each other as they are making changes or working out details.
  • If there are some surprise story arc developments that you don’t want published on the internet, then it would be impossible to keep them quiet.

But I can imagine the advantage for doing it this way is that the actors can feed off of the audience energy and time their performance more like a play.


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