Sebastian Bach, pretty as ever.
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It’s 1:40am and I’m home, about to watch “Suckers” on my DVR. I’ve watched this piece, mind you, more than hundred times in the past two weeks. I’ve watched this piece so many more than one hundred times that I am ashamed to admit I’ll sit here again when I’ve finished typing and watch it again. Watching the DVR version, the one that went out over the air, truly is different than watching it at the office. It’s the context.
I’m proud of our show for making this. Talk shows do not often attempt to produce lush vampire musicals. That we did is a mark of how far we have evolved in less than two years.
The very first thing I shot for Fallon was on my 3rd day, which was Feb. 5th 2009. The entire conference room had been filled with suits for Jimmy to try on. The conference room table, which normally seats 12, was covered in shirts and ties like they were a spread from 2nd Avenue Deli. So I filmed Jimmy trying on suits, making light of the situation, and being adorably self conscious about all the resources being put at his disposal, manifest on this day as an entire conference room filled with clothes. It was a moment of transformation, and the “trying on” metaphor couldn’t have been more hamfisted or cornball, except for the fact that it was not a metaphor. It was simply what was happening.
I cut together a tiny documentary and Gavin Purcell watched it said it was too earnest. What I had to unlearn then, for my first year on Late Night, was my instinct to probe, to be “real”. I would have to be more silly. The period before Fallon was a difficult one for me on a personal level. I was struggling to make/finance a documentary about batteries, and my beloved Erin had major surgery on her boobs because she has the cancer gene.
Looking back, I think sillyness saved me, and knowing now what I know about Late Night, I know that sillyness set us apart.
18 months later Gavin and I are on a plane coming back to NY from the Emmys, back from the unabashed emotionalism of “Born To Run”. By this point we have established the serialized short form series which is now one of the pillars of our format. We’ve wrapped up “Late,” “7th Floor West”, and with the Emmy’s I think we’re now done with “6B”. No one knows what our next series would be, so I asked Gavin if we could ever do a dramatic series, like…could we get away with it? He said he thought we could.
Many things have changed since Feb. of 2009. Erin is super healthy and she has new boobs which are awesome. The battery documentary is on the back burner for now. As for Late Night we have learned that we do not want to make fun of the shows we parody, but when we tackle a genre we will try to do it well or better than the original. That is a brash thing to claim, that we have tried to outdo “Lost”, and “Glee” for example. It is not realistic either, but we do certainly try, and the effort itself seems to be the key to our formula. In short, we have become more earnest, but not by looking inward as I used to do, but by looking outward. By taking on the conventions of the tv shows, movies, and music that we love most. Our roll-ins are “aspirational” to borrow a term from some advertising executives I overheard once on a job.
Then October came and Mike Shoemaker wrote a very serious vampire script. Jimmy quickly came up with the name “Suckers.”
“This has no laughs” Shoemaker kept saying, like someone talking to a group going to Coachella for the first time and saying “It’s REALLY fucking hot.” It was like he was trying to inure us to the idea that we were going to do something strenuous, knowing that it would still have moments of sillyness, just as Coachella, I’m sure, has moments where you aren’t completely overwhelmed by the heat.
As we began pre-production I was totally a pig in shit. There was going to be romance, danger, special effects, and we had to cast a beautiful but dangerous female lead with a voice like an angel. Luckily we’re in New York where singing actresses tend to congregate. You will swoon for Kate Simses who was our unanimous choice to play Angelique. She has the most remarkable face and even in her audition I could not help myself from filming inappropriately, lingeringly extreme closeups.
Also there’s the new cameras. After 19 months of campaigning, I finally got Late Night to buy some much needed cinema gear, including two Canon XF305’s and a 5D. I also enlisted Ellen Waggett, our production designer, to build me a gorgeous, bespoke set of 6 x 6 muslin frames. The frames are a constant joy and they follow me to every single setup. They make all actors beautiful.
The original song “Never Die” that Amy Miles wrote for “Suckers” is sublime, and I hope I did not debase her creation by filming it like a Winger video.
But for all the actresses and the cameras, the real accomplishment of Suckers is the tone. We had one giant, in-depth conversation about tone which began the first day we all saw the script. We talked about tone when Eric Justian started his team designing the wardrobe. We talked more about tone when Ellen built custom sconces for the studio 6B hallway scenes. Visual FX artists Ed Hawkins and Joel Knutson, editor Chris Tartaro, and production coordinator Chad Wollett and I talked about tone for 3 nights straight standing on the roof of 30 Rock trying to design Jimmy’s big jump sequence. It was only one shot, but it could not be funny in a its-so-bad-that-it’s-actually-funny way. We had to succeed, and I had little more than magazine articles from Cinefex and the DVD extras from “District 9” to go on. Tartaro and I talked about tone with composer John MacDonald, using words like “warm,” “mystery” and “romantic but not romantic like Titanic”. Shoemaker, Gavin, Miles, Jimmy and I were talking about tone a few hours ago as we were finalizing the edit and delivering the finished piece to the control room.
I think you will agree that “Suckers” strikes a most unique tone for a talk show roll-in. It is a balance of tone which I am super pleased with.
Here’s what happened. Deetch was softly playing ukulele at his desk and Bashir intoned “Ukulele music is annoying when you’re trying to get work done.” I told everyone to stay where they were and I got some gear, then we recreated the moment. It was like watching an instant replay in Midnight Club, LA only instead of a virtual racing environment it was my office.
I wrote this with my pal Amy Ozols a couple days ago. A natural successor to our show’s other Fake Arms pieces, we wrote this as a pre-tape. Thankfully Shoemaker/Gavin/Miles/Jimmy all wanted to do it live. This was definitely one of THOSE bits. You know? Like…a bit that you find to be so utterly hysterical, a bit that is such complete nonsense that it makes you cry from laughing and even though you were part of its creation you don’t really understand what the joke is exactly, and deep down you are convinced that no one else could possibly be as tickled by it as you. We’ve all had bits like that and very often our fears come true because usually those bits make absolutely no sense. This bit makes no sense.
From a comedy standpoint, my favorite thing to do is take a small action within in a larger scene and build it out to ridiculous proportions. I was an editor on the VH1 reality show The Surreal Life and I was cutting the last episode of the season that had Vanilla Ice, Traci Bingham, Dr. Ruth, Ron Jeremy, and Erik Estrada. As part of the episode I had to cut a scene where Traci Bingham makes a phone call.
The premise of the “The Surreal Life” was that a handful of B-List celebrities would live in a mansion for a couple weeks, get drunk, and argue. It was a big hit. The producers had taken away all cell phones from the cast members, so if they wanted to contact the outside world, they would have to use the phone on set. The phone was being surveilled in countless ways. There were at least 3 static cameras trained on the telephone at all times, as well as an in-line recording of the phone call and of course any phone number being dialed.
So Traci Bingham had to make a phone call one day. Traci Bingham is a super hot actress from Baywatch, and her character on The Surreal Life was kind of a ditz. I differentiate her character from the actual Traci Bingham because every cast member was treated like a character on a sitcom, and if they demonstrated any trait that could be mined for comedy, then that trait was maximized at every turn through an elaborate system of manipulation, behind the scenes trickery, editing, and special effects. Yes, special effects have been used on a reality show. One story I was told involves a scene from Big Brother where a woman being kicked off the show did not cry. Instead she said “yay” and ran out of the room. When the episode was assembled, one of the producers watched the “yay” scene and asked “Why did she do that?” The story editor who was telling me this said that he had no answer. The producer went on to say “She would never do that.”
You may be thinking, “but she did do that.” But the “she” that this reality producer was referring to was not the woman herself, but rather the character they had created for her after the fact. As a solution to “yay,” footage of this woman crying was found from an earlier episode. The shot of her crying face was then composited into the scene where she gets kicked off of Big Brother.
So if you can make a happy person cry, then it stands to reason that making a super hot actress from Baywatch look ditzy is several orders of magnitude easier. Which brings me to Traci Bingham’s phone call. What I noticed in the raw footage is that she was holding a piece of paper when she dialed her boyfriend, and she dialed about 10 numbers from the piece of paper before she dialed the boyfriend’s phone number, which was another 10 numbers. I assume that the numbers on the piece of paper were a calling card number. I have never been able to confirm this. All in all the raw footage showed a 20 second interval where Tracy Bingham was patiently keying numbers into a touch tone phone. Nothing remarkable.
Here’s what I spent the better part of a morning doing.
I built out this sequence so that she dialed a little over 70 digits to make her call. And something about the patient intense way she concentrated on every single number made this sequence very funny to me. It also made her look really stupid. I don’t know why dialing many numbers makes a person look so dumb, but it does. Maybe it’s the fact that she was so unperturbed, because I think a normal, sane, smart person would start to get very frustrated. I used every camera angle many times, and even cut to an exterior of the house with the sound of a touch tone phone still being dialed inside. At about the 40 second mark I started playing with the rhythm of her dialing. I would cut to a closeup of her face and insert a 5 second pause where no numbers were being dialed, then I would cut together a sequence of 7 or 8 numbers being hit all at once, as if she was just mashing her hand down onto the keypad.
I was fired a few days later.
Here’s why I wasn’t angry at them for firing me. The delivery deadline for The Surreal Life was ambitious, and the episode I was cutting was due in 3 days. There really was not time for editors to waste half a day on phone dialing sequences which took time away from the story that had been mapped out by the story editors already.
But I never forgot that scene, because it was there that I discovered the joy of taking small, insignificant moments and stretching them to the point of absurdity. Case in point is the clip below. As scripted by the hilarious Amy Ozols, the scene where Questlove uses a bunch of nickels to buy a soda was already an absurd scene. And since Jimmy Fallon, Questlove, and Ozols are all virtuostic in the art stretching stupid things out for comedy value, the bunch of us spent an enormous amount of time on set making it much longer.
There was one take that lasted 15 minutes.
This is a short behind the scenes piece I shot last Wednesday. It shows a little bit of the process a comedy bit goes through, and some of the staff involved in the mechanics of getting it ready for air.
Since Hulu has broken this into 2 parts, I will mention that we filmed the second part of the episode (the music part) on a Saturday, and seeing how Amy Poehler was super pregnant, we tried to make it a short day. In the end we did 41 setups and a 103 takes in 4 hours.