Friday, March 9, 2012

"Little Things Mean A Lot"

This is little. But it did not seem little to me at the time. Though I am, as you by now no doubt know, no stranger to exaggeration, umbrage, and complaint.

Writing, as I recently have been, about TV production, specifically those excruciatingly long rewrite nights, I remembered another issue that affected my sanity and wellbeing while making shows, a small thing, which made a substantial difference. (Or no difference, if you had a good attitude, but we’re talking about me.)

Here’s what it was.

Half-hour comedies filmed before a live studio audience are shot in one night, taking, on average, about four hours to complete. This relatively short shooting period allowed for the inclusion of a live studio audience in the process. If they wanted to watch a show being made – and possibly hear their own personal laugh on television – it involved only a few hours of their time.

In contrast, shows like Modern Family or 30 Rock are filmed over a period of days. So no studio audience. Which is understandable. A studio audience could not stick around that long. They have lives. Most of them. Plus, they would eventually have to eat. And there was no eating in the gallery.

(I have pondered about movies like Lawrence o2f Arabia filming with audiences present. “We spent six days watching a camel appearing on the horizon. It wasn’t that interesting.”)

Okay so regaining the thread here, comedies involving an audience are filmed in one night. Now here’s the problem with that.

There are not, or at least were not in my day, nearly enough film crews, who were sufficiently trained in the sitcom-filming technique. As a result of this lack of available film crews, it was not possible for all of Hollywood’s half-hour comedies (and there were a ton of them back then) to be shot on the same night.

To accommodate this situation, an arrangement was made, whereby comedies would be filmed on two different nights, those nights being Tuesdays and Fridays, with the limited number of sitcom-trained film crews doubling up, and doing two shows a week.

The crews required two consecutive days to complete their work, a “pre-shooting” day (Monday or Thursday), serving as a “blocking” day – where they worked out the camera moves – and a second day (Tuesday or Friday) for the actual filming.

Wednesdays, I suppose, the crewmembers played golf with the doctors.

As a result of the two different shooting nights, there were two different “start dates” for the shows’ five-day production schedules: Mondays (for the Friday filmings), and Wednesdays (for the Tuesday shoots.) If you’re a congenital grumbler, you can easily see which schedule is better.

If you shoot your show on Friday, you have a two-day weekend, before going back to work. If you shoot your show on Tuesday, you are immediately back in the meat grinder the following day!

Are you getting the difference here – an intervening weekend of rest and rehabilitation versus wall-to-wall agony?

I always requested a Monday-to-Friday schedule, but I did not always get one000. Major Dad, for example, had a Wednesday-to-Tuesday schedule. Here’s specifically what that meant.

You would shoot one episode, often not finishing until well past midnight, and the next day, with barely time to catch your breath, you are back to Square One with a different episode. If you ever wondered where the phrase “It could make you head spin” came from, it came from the Wednesday-to-Tuesday production schedule.

Now, some union – I don’t think it was mine – required, what they called, a “Twelve-hour turnaround” – meaning, you were required to break for at least twelve hours before going back to work.

If the previous night’s filming ended at one A.M. Tuesday night, (technically, Wednesday morning), the next “Table Reading” would be called for one P.M.

The same frickin’ Wednesday!

Since their filming ended two days earlier, the Monday “Table Reading” would be called for ten A.M., or even earlier. What difference does that make? A later start for the “Table Reading” meant a later start for the rewrite after the “Table Reading”, which meant a longer “Table Reading” work day, on top of three already exhaustingly long work days – the two rewrite nights and show night.

You want more (entirely justified) complaining? Here it is.

In order to catch up with our scriptwriting chores, shows would schedule a break in production, or “hiatus week”, after filming blocks of three, or sometimes, four episodes. These hiatus weeks were essential, not only to move ahead with scripts, but to give people a much-needed break, after three or four grueling weeks of production.

Check this out: If you shot on Tuesdays, your hiatus week would start the next day and last till the “Table Reading” the following Wednesday. That gave you a seven-day hiatus break. If you shot on Fridays, you had until two Mondays later before the next “Table Reading” – a nine-day hiatus break.

No wonder I was always exhausted on Major Dad.

I wonder how many lives were shortened by the Wednesday-to-Tuesday schedule? Or how many careers?

Who knows? If I only had Monday-to-Friday schedules, I might still be working.



Zaraya said...

Dear Mr. Pomerantz; why wasn't the week changed such that Wednesday and Thursday were the weekend for Tuesday filming shows? Sheesh, what a dumb question.


Maj. Dundee said...

...and by now, Major Dad would be a retired Col. or General and you'd have a gazillion new story lines revolving around grandkids, golf, declining health and should we invade Iran? Where is Polly now? She get out of the biz? I always thought she was one of the natural beauties that graced our TV sets.

By Ken Levine said...


You make some good points, but I must say I prefer shooting Tuesday nights instead of Friday. Will explain why in my blog tomorrow (and link back to yours). This is a raging controversy that just will not go away!

Anonymous said...

It wasn't a lack of crew talent that that caused the doubling-up of crews leading to a Tuesday-Friday schedule. It was the wacky concept that the crews you did hire could make a living working four days a week, but not two days a week.

Carole said...

Nice blog. You may have seen this quote about the little things.. but just in case.

Lyle said...

Are you okay?

You were blogging every day and now I do not see you for about four or five days. Hope all is well.

If not, lemme know if there's anything I can do to help.

lyle e davis