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Destroyer of Dreams

More on our visit to NewsRadio:
How Maura Tierney Crushed Philip Michaels' spirit
"Comedy," Steve Martin once said, "isn't pretty." And he wasn't just talking about open-mike night at Cap'n Billy's Chuckle Hut.

No, what Steve was trying to say is that the process of taking a lump of coal and mashing it into a diamond chock full of Funny can be an excruciating process. Oh sure, you may sit back in your La-Z-Boy recliner, watching your favorite sitcom on the TV while you shovel Hostess snack foods into your gaping maw and think about how easy and effortless the wacky antics of Kelsey Grammer or Matthew Perry or Drew Carey may seem. But you would never know about the backbreaking labor that goes into those laugh-out-loud sitcoms. The hours of preparation. The bucket loads of sweat.

Especially in Drew Carey's case.

Phil and Ben
Michaels and Boychuk craft comedy for you!
We've always been able to appreciate that kind of effort here at TeeVee, where every article goes through a rigorous series of tests for spelling, accuracy and entertainment value. Unless, of course, we're pressed for time. And though our efforts may at times seem half-assed, you can rest assured that we're putting our full asses into everything we do. Even this article is the product of several days worth of preparation, numerous re-writes and a couple of three gin and tonics.

Because we care, goddammit.

The point is, we know that churning out a first-rate sitcom ain't always pretty. And after our TeeVee field trip to the seedy underbelly of the Hollywood Dream Factory last week, we appreciate that fact even more.

Several of us Vidiots--Boychuk, Michaels, Snell and Wrenn-- braved the harsh, unforgiving L.A. freeways on a trip to watch a recent taping of NewsRadio. We were genuinely excited about the event because NewsRadio is one of the few truly innovative programs left on TV. Naturally, that means it's hanging onto a spot on the NBC schedule by its fingernails, its prospects for renewal dependent on whether Evil Programming Genius Warren Littlefield's bowel happens to be acting up that day.

The show features a terrific ensemble cast led by Dave Foley, of Kids in the Hall fame, who portrays Dave Nelson, radio station WNYX's young news director. Among his stable of reporters is Saturday Night Live alumnus Phil Hartman as self-absorbed on-air personality Bill McNeal and Andy Dick as the station's resident mental patient, Matthew.

In addition to its stellar cast, NewsRadio boasts some of the sharpest writing this side of Frasier, giving it a plethora of original stories, something sorely lacking in prime time.

Our "Goonies"-like adventure began ominously. Boychuk drives as if the Southern California freeway system is his own personal bumper car ride, while the prospect of merging reduces the normally docile Michaels into a quivering mass of profane epithets. And then, we were unable to locate the studio. Already running a few minutes late, panic slowly crept up on us, not unlike the gradual onset of migraine headaches one gets from watching Suddenly Susan. Desperate, we stumbled into the far corner of the lot and noticed a group of people that didn't look particularly threatening.

"Why don't we ask him?" one of the less cowardly of our group asked, pointing at a lanky young fellow awkwardly ambling toward a trailer. It was, upon closer examination, Andy Dick himself. We had arrived. Panic subsiding, we entered the studio with a spring in our step.

Among those witnessing their first TV taping, there is a universal reaction to seeing the actual set for the first time. We were no different.

The NewsRadio set: fits on the head of a pin
"This set is so small," one of us was heard to remark upon reaching our seats. Using tricky camera angles, shows like NewsRadio do a superb job of creating the illusion that the action is taking place in a full-fledged radio station. But an accomplished tobacco-chewer could lob some juice from Dave's office door to a spittoon in the break room with relative ease.

There are also dozens of people scurrying around the set at all times. Union rules in Hollywood dictate "one person, one job." Lighting guys can use ladders. Nobody else can. If a makeup artist even glances at a ladder, he is immediately slapped with a grievance.

Along with the ladder and non-ladder personnel, there are three guys running the cameras: one actually touching it, one that loads the film and one that carts the entire rig around. Most of these guys look like they've been in organized labor their entire life: surly men who dress like plumbers and are lobbying for a union contract that states "at all times, no less than 40% of the donuts on a craft services table must have sprinkles."

There are also approximately 125 directors and writers on the set. For people who dictate comedy trends to the American public, you would think that they might dress better.

The actual process of taping a show -- and here's where those bucketloads of sweat come in -- is a laborious one. Each scene must be filmed at least twice so that proper tweaking can take place. For instance, in one take the character of Lisa, played by the wondrously luminous Maura Tierney, leaves a Wonderbra on Dave's desk. The next take, she throws it on the floor. From trivial details such as these comes the stuff of TV comedy.

Two takes, though, usually aren't enough. You see, actors aren't always perfect. Some of them might actually be accepting kickbacks from Dick Clark's Censored TV Bloopers. And it's not like they're screwing up half-page monologues either. Dave Foley needed a couple of takes before he could say "Yes, Bill, can I help you?" as McNeal comes walking into his office.

That may be because Foley's Canadian, though.

While essential to the creation of a whiz-bang show, these repeat takes are hell on us simps in the studio audience. Even the most uproarious joke becomes stale the third time you hear it. Microphones placed above us recorded the audience reactions, so we all felt the pressure of performance as well.

During the fourth take, when the actors recited a line that had barely elicited a chuckle the first time around, forced gales of laughter erupted. It sounded like the laugh you make trying to suck up to the new boss when he tells a dirty joke you don't understand.

It wasn't just the amplitude of laughter, we had to worry about timing as well. Nervous about laughing at the right time, the entire studio audience guffawed and chortled at every single line. If Andy Dick had inadvertently broken his neck during a pratfall and was alternately screaming obscenities and praying to his God for a quick death, we would have felt compelled to bust a gut, just in case it was supposed to be part of the show.

After all, we didn't want to go down in history as the worst NewsRadio studio audience ever. What a pity it would be if the producers had to replace our laugh track with that of a previous audience. Oh, the shame! Oh, the feeling of quiet discontent!

Adding to the pressure was the length of this whole evening. The show got started around 7 p.m. and didn't end until after 10:30. That's a long time to be sitting in a cramped studio, no matter how many times the in-house band tries to jam out the world's most funkalicious version of "Legs."

The down-time between takes is sometimes avoidable. While counting down to shoot a scene in the breakroom, the actors and directors suddenly realized they were missing a key ingredient. The character of Matthew was supposed to be in the shot, yet Andy Dick was nowhere to be seen. In a bizarre case of life imitating art, the cast and crew began shouting out his nickname, "Freak."

This of course left us wondering if the rest of the actors' nicknames coincided with their characters. Phil Hartman would be "Insecure Megalomaniac," Dave Foley would be "Midwestern Rube" and Joe Rogan would be "Paranoid Musclehead." Then we realized that could never be the case. How stupid of us. Dave Foley is Canadian. He would have to be "Canadian Rube."

And keep in mind, we enjoy NewsRadio. Imagine the pain of sitting around while the cast of something horrific like Caroline in the City or Hiller & Diller strut and fret for hours upon the stage, trying to get blood out of a turnip.

Tragically, about half the audience had left by the time the final few scenes rolled around. The remaining few of us were frantic. How the hell were we going to make up for the missing people?

But we didn't give up. With the heroic effort of mothers trying to save children trapped under a car, we summoned our strength and poured our hearts and souls into each and every belly-laugh. We guffawed and chortled and snickered and giggled until our guts ached and our vocal cords snapped.

I'm proud to say the result sounded like a room full of people whose appendixes all burst at the same time. We laughed like no audience has ever laughed before. The cast and crew was pouring its heart out to entertain us and we were going to show them some respect, internal bleeding be damned.

Of course, there were diversions to keep the audience perky and affable throughout the evening. A makeshift talent contest was held amongst the studio audience. There was a woman who could bleat like a sheep and a kid who could do the splits. Each one received a stylish NewsRadio t-shirt.

And dammit, us Vidiots wanted t-shirts, too. Sadly, however, the ability to wittily mock bad TV shows is not considered a talent--at least, not a marketable one. So if we wanted to get our mitts on a t-shirt, we would have to come up with a devious plan.

Anyone familiar with Michaels knows that he is an exact double of Dave Foley. Not only physically, but in his unruffled, sarcastic demeanor as well. There was a point at which the audience obediently applauded the end of a scene, despite the fact there was a small mistake. Foley, obviously displeased with the result, strolled by the front row of seats and quipped, "Somewhere there are comedians who deserve your applause--don't squander it here."

It was a scary moment. All of us turned toward Michaels, expecting his seat to be empty. But it was, in fact, Dave Foley in front of the cameras. It is said that everyone in the world has an unrelated twin. Michaels' doppelganger just happens to be on network television.

The three of us who aren't Michaels agreed that should any of us be selected for the talent competition, we would immediately turn and point to out our celebrity look-alike comrade while enjoying free t-shirts up the wazoo. The one downside of the plan being that Michaels -- who hates embarrassment as much as he hates freeway merging -- would have strangled us all and left our bodies to decompose in a dimly-lit corner of the set.

But at least we would be nattily attired.

The other source of entertainment in between takes was the warm-up comic -- a fellow by the name of Alan Murray. The warm-up comedian is almost like a stand-up test proctor. He is supposed to get the audience laughing while at the same time explaining what is going on in front of them. TV shows are taped well in advance of their air dates, so even devoted viewers have no idea what kind of back-story applies to that episode. And people who have wandered in off the mean streets of Hollywood looking for a comfortable chair and some free candy are really in the dark.

Being a warm-up comic is a thankless job. No matter how funny someone is, no matter how snappy their patter, the act gets pretty stale after three hours. And it's safe to say that after three hours of the comedy stylings of Alan Murray, we grew to hate the man as one would hate Hell and the devil.

It's not that Alan's jokes began to fall flat (They did...) or that he was pulling out every stand-up comedy cliche in the book ("Who here's from out of town...?" "Who are the ad wizards who thought up that one...?" "Tip your waiters and waitresses!"). It's that he crushed our meager hopes and dreams.

We're not just telling tales out of school when we mention that one of us is a passing acquaintance of a crew member on NewsRadio. He was the one that provided our entree to the studio that evening. But we were hoping for so much more.

Perhaps, if we were on our best behavior, he would squire us around the set while telling ribald tales of Hollywood hijinks. And maybe, if we played our cards right, we would be one of the few mortals to get a glimpse inside Dave Foley's desk.

Well, try as we might, we just couldn't find our passing acquaintance. But we did spy Alan Murray. And since he seemed like a decent enough chap, we thought we might ask him to point out where our almost-friend might be hiding. Because like all warm-up comics, he was our friend, right?

Oh, how wrong. How painfully, agonizingly wrong.

"Hey Allan," we called to him.

"Sorry, dude. I'm off," he grumbled as he turned his back and walked away, presumably to make his showcase set at Zany Bob's House O' Laffs.

He's "off?" How could he be "off?" What kind of cruel bastard turns friendship and crappy humor on and off like some kind of personality faucet? Warm-up comedians are never supposed to be "off." What's next? Doctors or cops or fire-fighters that are "off?"

Our dreams crumbled before our eyes. The one vestige of Hollywood that we thought was real, the art of making people happy, was a sham. Warm-up comedians are frauds, just like everybody else. Everybody, that is, except for the teamsters.

Damn you, Allan Murray. damn you to hell.

And we still didn't get our t-shirts.

Additional contributions to this article by: Gregg Wrenn, Philip Michaels.


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