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On The Stage Set

Ever wonder how a television series such as ALICE is produced? Most would think it's a nine to five job, Monday to Friday. The actual work week, however, varies from show to show, depending on scene content and the length of the series in question. A typical work week on the set of ALICE was usually four days. Other shows, particularly one hour dramas, take as many as six days. The work week on ALICE began not on Monday, but on Thursday. The following is a sample of what a typical ALICE schedule looked like.

THURSDAY: Actors report to work at 10 am, having received their scripts the previous evening by special delivery. They sit down and have a table reading and the script is timed. Then they walk through the first act and "block" it. Block means to plot the movement of the actors from point to point within the set, determining the correct camera angles and what cameras will carry which part of the action so the actor knows which camera he or she is playing to. After a one hour lunch break, they return and block as much of the show as they can on that day. Props and real food are used.

FRIDAY: Actors report to work at 10 am. Any remaining blocking continues. Actors are given blue pages, that is, new script revisions. The original script starts off with white pages, then goes to blue, yellow, green, pink, purple, each representing a change in the dialogue. After blocking has finished, it's shown to the brass (producers, writers, etc.) on Friday night.

SATURDAY & SUNDAY: Actors don't report to work. Any changes in the script are delivered to them.

MONDAY: Actors report to work at 10 am. Another complete script is given to them and the show goes on camera with blocking strictly for the cameras. The show uses four cameras. It is decided what dialogue goes to which camera, scene by scene. Monday night it's again shown to the brass as it would look on camera. On Friday they saw it as it would look on stage, now they are seeing it as it would look on television. Revisions are made again.

TUESDAY: Actors report to work at 12 o'clock and get into makeup. Each scene is taped twice to ensure perfection without an audience. Then they break for dinner. At 6:30 they have a run-through for about a half-hour. At 7 o'clock makeup is re-done. At 7:15, the show is done live. By 9 o'clock, the show is over and if there are any mistakes, they already have it perfect on the tapes from earlier that day, and they edit in these scenes to finish the show.

WEDNESDAY: A day of rest!

A night on the town for Howland, McKeon, Holliday and Tayback

Video Editing by Jerry Davis (crew member)

In post-production, we built the shows in much the same manner that was pioneered on the Normal Lear sit-coms. The shows were edited on videotape, and built off the isolated camera feeds, one shot (or line) at a time. We went through both the audience and non-audience coverage, line by line, checking for the best reading, shot, and pacing. We approached things in a very objective way, commenting on which performance of a given line worked, which didn't, and why. During one of the episodes Linda directed, she came to editing, heard our comments, and described the process as being akin to "being present at your own autopsy".

An average episode had between three hundred and four hundred edits in it. We made every effort to save the natural laughs from the audience shoots, so that the sound mixers had to do as little 'laugh-box' work as possible. If we had to substitute a line from one of the earlier tapings, we'd still use the laugh from the audience show. The editing process went through several cuts, first doing an assembly of the show, then getting notes from the Director and building a Director's cut, then showing that cut to the Producers and getting their changes. Sit-coms are traditionally shot anywhere from two to 7 minutes long, and part of the editing process involved figuring out which lines to take out in order to get the show to time.

After all those various notes sessions and getting the show to time, we'd do a final assembly, send it to the sound guys for their work, then make the finished copies for the network. The schedule for most sit-coms involves three weeks of shooting, followed by a week off. Editing worked straight through, falling a bit behind during the shoot weeks, then catching up on the 'dark' weeks. The usual delay between the shoot and the air date was 4 to 6 weeks, but in a "mayday" situation, we could turn a show around in a week.

My favorite bit involved an episode where Mel is taking care of someone's parrot. The bird's quite vocal, and starts insulting Mel. Mel starts yelling at the bird and the bird has a Chloe moment, coughs twice, and dies. We had a stuffed bird, a live bird, and an actor doing the voice of the bird, and pieced it all together in post. When the bird dies, we used a shot of the stuffed bird falling off the perch. It looks truly hokey, and it's obvious it's a stuffed bird, yet it's hysterical. We worked a long time trying to get the timing right on the 'perch fall', moving the cut point around a 30th of a second at a time. Finally, on one viewing, we all fell over laughing, and knew we'd hit the exact timing that made it funny. Comedy's all about timing, and that one we nailed. I still laugh when I see the thing.

One of the 'fringes' my career offered was the wherewithal to buy a season box seat at Santa Anita. My box was located a couple of rows back from Vic's, and I watched him interact with his fans. He was a truly gracious guy, and loyal to his friends. Nice memories there.


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