It has been said that self-immolation is less painful than watching the taping of a television show, particularly a bad television show. Flubbed lines, forgotten lines, rewritten lines--it all means one thing: retakes. And multiple retakes, particularly if you're outside the inner circle that's filming or directing or acting, really, well, bite.
That said, "The Joan Cusack Show" (that's its title--for now), taped weekly right here in Sweet Home Chicago (that's its theme song--for now) and starring one of our town's favorite Academy Award nominees, does not bite at all. In fact, even in raw form, it's quite entertaining.
Why? Two words: minimal retakes. Of course, there's also the decisive directing, the skillful acting, the pithy writing and the dedicated crew. These kids are pros. But we'll get to them later.
First, let us examine closely, much more closely than is actually necessary, this beast called Live Studio Audience. You were probably exposed to it early on in your TV-watching life. This, for example: " `Happy Days' is filmed before a live studio audience." You can hear Tom Bosley's voice now.
There is much love in the grandstands at tapings of the "Cusack Show," whose audiences are peopled with parents and spouses and friends and siblings, and also scores of fans, many of them native Chicagoans, who come to cheer their hometown girl.
Most of these folks, ticket holders all, are corralled into a large tent outside the front entrance of Chicago Studio City, a cavernous, otherwise unremarkable structure located on a stark industrial plot near the Eisenhower Expy. on the Far West Side. For those lucky enough to make "the list" (i.e. family, friends, and, yes, press-- indoors, but we use the same lovely Port-a-Johns), the waiting--there's much waiting in TV Land--takes place in a long, dimly lit corridor behind the stage area.
We're all loading up on caffeine and gabbing about whatever while pricking our ears for an official word from the sassy woman with the official-looking headset, through which she receives frequent commands, status reports and possibly Steve Dahl's radio show. She's the Pied Piper, and when she says, "Move," we move, following her dutifully to our seats in an elevated area facing the set.
On the way, nearly every one of us snags a bottle of water (natural spring) and a white-butcher-paper-wrapped 6-inch hoagie stuffed with turkey, ham or cheese and all the fixin's, only one per person, please, purchased in bulk by Columbia Tri-Star, which owns the show. Not surprisingly, most of us devour our grub within minutes. For one, free food always tastes better. Also, we know there will be no other sustenance for hours, save, perhaps, for surreptitious noshing of trail mix and tic-tacs.
Though it's probably imprudent to nosh during taping, especially if the noshing involves crumpling and crinkling and crunching, as the mikes suspended above our chairs pick up every sound, or so we're told. In other words, and this is merely hypothetical, if you attend one of these events--and they are events--and you happen to think the gaffer is the most hideous dude you've ever seen and you say so to the person next to you, the sound man, who hears all, will tell the gaffer and the gaffer will be deeply hurt and sulk for days. That, or he'll burn down your tool shed. Only kidding. (You're fully insured, though, right?)
When the audience has settled, the usually zany comedian who's been hired to entertain and, often, playfully humiliate us before takes and between takes and after takes starts in with his shtick. Sometimes it is witty shtick, sometimes it is lame shtick. But no matter what kind of shtick it is, he--it's a male-dominated profession--will invariably remind the flock to "laugh hard, they like that."
And most of us do laugh hard, some a bit too hard, especially if there is an autographed script or a T-shirt in the kitty for "the one who laughs the hardest." Still, even without free merchandise, the vast majority of chuckles are genuine and loud.
And it's a good thing, too, because if this puppy weren't funny, it would be agonizing. Three hours, the average time it takes to get enough editable footage for a 22-minute sitcom, is a long spell to sit like a human veal in the tightly packed peanut gallery. But at the "Cusack Show," time generally flies, so much so that you're hardly aware of any deep-vein thrombosis that might be worming its way toward your heart.
In general, tapings unfold much like a play, each scene shot in chronological succession. Most often, it's two takes followed by the declaration: "Moving on!" Ecstasy. The ensemble has worked together for mere months, and already they're grooving in fine synchronization like Magic's Lakers, like Sinatra's Pack, like Puffy's Posse.
Cusack, around whom much of the action revolves, is the queen of comic angst, and she is capable of conveying it merely by cocking an eyebrow or biting a thumb. Quite often, though, her emotional innards spill out more animatedly, as they do in the third episode when she, wrecked on martinis, Riverdances on her friend's coffee table.
Her character, Joan Gallagher, is a high school teacher with a new boyfriend (played by "Early Edition's" Kyle Chandler) and oceans of angst. Fortunately for her, she has some swell gal pals on whom to lean. And they, in turn, lean right back. This wacky symbiosis, in tandem with Cusack's trademark manic energy, drives the plot lines and inspires many laughs.
When he's on the set, as he was for the first two tapings, some of the most pronounced laughs belong to the show's best-known executive producer, Jim Brooks, a k a James L. Brooks of "The Simpsons" and "Taxi" and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" fame, whose tenor honk will occasionally rise above all other sounds in the room. It is an infectious honk (though he insists otherwise), and when you hear it, whether or not your funny bone has actually been tickled, you've no choice but to follow suit.
During the pilot show in early October--the network bought 13 episodes flat out, so "pilot" is merely a technical term in this case--Cusack's parents sat front and center. A couple of times, her obviously proud father, actor and director Dick Cusack, got her attention by pumping his fist in the air as if to proclaim, "That's my girl!" Soon thereafter, the warmup comic got the elder Cusack's attention by invading his personal space and meowing, "Do I make you horny, baby?" Much chortling ensued.
Midway through the evening, the very same comic, who'd positioned himself mere inches away from front-row spectators, balanced an 8-foot ladder on his chin while juggling plastic bowling pins. Even the cast and crew paused to watch. It was, after all, very neat.
Slated to premiere in March as a mid-season replacement on ABC, the "Cusack Show," given the right time slot and some high-profile buzz, could sprout wings, soar like Icarus. Then again, shortly after takeoff Icarus plummeted to earth and died.
The point is, as always in television (excepting shows by Aaron Spelling), success is largely unpredictable and failure often unavoidable. Though if, when the the program finally debuts, viewers in living rooms across America are even half as thrilled as the ones at the tapings, Cusack and Company will surely do Chicago proud. Not that they haven't already.