Episode 7: Insider Report
APRIL 16, 1999 -- BY GUY GARDNER
Here is an account of my excursion to the 10th and final episode of the mid season replacement lineup of TNS. Initially it was supposed to be a quick and short summary. Well now it's evolved into this 5-page mess. Only the latter section contains plot spoilers and it is clearly marked. Despite the time invested in writing, I would recommend avoiding it! The most fun will be watching Norm doing his lines. All I can really hope to accomplish is to ruin all of the jokes. Feel free to come back after it airs and then count how many mistakes I made!
Note to self: When using MapQuest for driving directions in a strange city, type in the *EXACT* address. Olive Street not the same as Olive Avenue! Don't be surprised when you wind up among 'dirty foreigners', instead of the WB studios!
Well despite that, I arrived at Gate 7 of the WB around 6:15pm. Before shuttling us to the studio, the pages were already warning us that the taping might go past 10:30pm and that they would be serving food. Due to my travel delay I was one of the last to be seated and arrived just in time to catch the last 5 minutes of an unaired episode.
[For a brief summary, see the TNS report from March 19th in Noel's Archive!]
Upon entering the sound stage, we were walked through metal detectors. People╠s purses and backpacks were pretty thoroughly searched. Though if you had one of those small, plastic disposable cameras in your pocket, security wouldn╠t have a clue. Also when returning from your bathroom/smoking break outside you could come back in without being searched. Not that I╠m advising people to sneak cameras or recording devices in, but this would have been the appropriate time¸
I had never been to the taping of a TV episode before, so I'll try to describe it for those who are in the dark like myself.
The audience seats are lined up facing the stage, which is divided into 4 distinct areas: the counseling room, the office, a living room and a kitchen. Almost the entire episode was filmed in the office area. A few shots were made in the counseling room, and one scene was filmed in a custom built set for that episode. It did not face the audience, but while they were filming we could watch it on 4 TV sets and were expected to react as if it were in front of us.
There was a host/comedian amid the audience. With his trusty microphone he would entertain the audience (or try to) in order to keep everybody's spirits up during the lengthy process. After all, the only reason they tolerate our presence is because they need us for the laugh track. Also they can get some feedback on the effectiveness of a joke or a scene based on the audience's reaction. Makeup, costume change, switching sets, re-writes, etc take a decent amount of time and it's really easy to get bored when all you do is sit there and wait. He would tell jokes, have audience members tell their life stories, act out dating scenes, tell sob stories, and perform in talent contests in order to win autographed copies of TNS scripts. On top of that there is a raffle for a portable CD player and a portable TV. This is only held at the very end since it is an incentive for exhausted audience members not to leave before the end of the taping.
I thought that our host was doing a fair job. I wasn't cracking up laughing, but I was amused by a lot of it. Only a few times did he lose my interest to the point that I just zoned out. Occasionally Norm would sometimes glance with a mean stare towards the host. I could be wrong but it seemed that sometimes he disapproved of his jokes or just didn╠t like the guy. I could be reading too much into this, though the person sitting next to me made the same observation.
During the filming of the episode, they would shoot every scene at least twice. The audience was expected to laugh the same each time, even though the 2nd time around everybody would already know all the jokes and/or premise. At least that was the beauty of Norm's inability to act (or memorize his lines). Although sticking to the theme of the script, very rarely would he deliver his lines in the exact same manner. Also there were a few times that a joke did not get a good reaction from the audience. In those moments Norm, some of the writers and the director would huddle around for 5-15 minutes and rewrite that segment. We, the audience, wouldn╠t know what had changed until it happened (or didn╠t happen). Sometimes the audience would laugh because things happened differently than what they were expecting...
Don't worry, the following paragraph contains NO plot spoilers. For me one of the funniest parts of the taping was during a scene when Norm walks out of the office into the counseling room making a joke about a Mrs. Harkander. [It╠s not the actual name, I just can╠t remember it]. The scene is supposed to continue in the counseling room, but first the cameras are repositioned to focus on the inside of the counseling room. Then Norm has to repeat his motion of walking out of the office and into the counseling room. But since it doesn't matter what he says before he enters the room (and the cameras view) he would just adlib different lines. The first time he just made the same remark about Mrs. Harkander while grinning and staring directly at the audience. The 2nd time he said "Mrs. Henderson, yeah I blew her!" The 3rd time he explained that he obviously blew Mrs. Harkander and not Mrs. Henderson (his character╠s name is Norm Henderson, so go figure out the implications).
This all had a similar effect on me as when he walked on stage with ╬Buffy╠ (his 1st SNL appearance after his WU firing) turned to the audience and said: "I have to do this skit now!" Great comedic moment(s)!
Another funny moment is when Norm is in the middle of a scene with Jason (new character for that episode). The scene is going along perfectly, except that Norm refers to him as Jeremy. The audience didn╠t react to this, until both are silent for a few moments staring at each other intensely and then Norm blurts out "I know you are not Jeremy, Jason!"
Note:I╠m pretty sure that my description of those moments doesn't portray the comedic justice that it deserves, but I tried. I guess you just have to have been there. Trust me, it was great!
The taping lasted around 4 hours, from 7:15pm to 11:10pm. Around 10pm we were fed pizza and water. When they had wrapped up shooting, all of the cast members came out for roll call. I thought it was interesting that everybody was introduced separately except for Norm & Laurie who are introduced together.
If you ever get the chance, even if you won╠t get to meet Norm or any of the cast members I would recommend going to at least 1 taping. After watching TV for years it was nice to get a real look behind the scenes.
So of course now I will anxiously be awaiting the airing of that episode (May 5th, according to ABC's website) and imagine that I will be able to make out my laugh among all the others in the laughtrack¸
* SPOILER ALERTS from this segment forward *
Personally I think you are doing yourself a disservice by reading from this point forward. (Unless it╠s after May 5th 1999 in which case raises the question: "Am I still alive?") Please be aware that the humor in this episode does depend on the viewer following the plot development and it's little twists. But this is America and you can do whatever you have to, even if you want to cheat yourself out of pure joy and entertainment 2 weeks from now...
Disclaimer: I'm pretty sure that the scenes described below are not 100% in the same order as they were filmed, but it's very close.
Note: In TNS #6 the actor playing the boss will be substituted for Max Wright. You might remember him as the actor that played the head of the household on ALF.
The boss walks in and introduces his teenage son, Jason, to the regular office staff, intentionally ignoring Norm. Though Norm is quick to cut in and provide his own introduction. It turns out the son is on spring break and his father is going to have him spend time doing small tasks around the office. This provides Norm an opportunity to share his high school experiences...
As Jason is started on his office tasks Norm has to answer to his boss on his office phone bill. There were some great adlibs here on every take. It will be interesting to see which make it through the editing room.
Laurie has Jason placing deceased stickers on case folders. Tells him to focus on the bright yellow stickers, and not on the gory pictures inside them. Norm shows him alternate uses for the sticker, like placing one on the back of a senior citizen. Then Norm ╬apologizes╠ to his boss for disrespecting him in front of Jason. Jason professes his admiration for Norm being able to stand up to his father.
Note: On one of the retakes the boss has one of the 'DECEASED' stickers on his forehead. I can't remember how it got there so I'm not sure if it is part of the plot or just them goofing around the set.
Meanwhile Amy is getting depressed with work. She thinks that all she does is deal with freaks. Laurie tries to convince her that most of the people are just hard on their luck and need some support to get through the tough times. Laurie introduces Amy to one of her cases: an old widow that owns too many cats and the health department claims they pose a health hazard. Laurie is helping her to slowly give them up. Amy is really happy to meet the nice lady until she gives Laurie a handcrafted appreciation gift. It's a cover for a Tissue box (which I will refer to as the object for the rest of this summary). It appears to be made out of cat fur. When questioned about the materials she smiles and says that it is her little secret. Meanwhile a blind guy walks by and his dog barks at the object.
The boss criticizes Jason for using paperclips instead of staples: "Paperclips are for indecisive people, staples are for winners". As he leaves, son starts banging on the stapler and runs into the counseling room. Norm follows him. Jason reveals that he wants to be a chef and that his father wants to send him to military school. Norm tells him to follow his dream even if it goes against his father's wishes.
Later the boss and Jason storm feuding into the office. Jason tells him of his aspirations. The boss inquires who put him up to this, since he has never been rebellious. Norm is implicated. The boss summons him into the counseling room. He tells Norm he has no business interfering in his affairs and to tell his son to give up on that idea or else he will use all his powers to make Norm's caseload intolerable. Norm resists, but pleads not to have to deal with all the freaks.
Norm meets with his next client who has a gigantic growth on his rear end and insists upon Norm touching it. Afterwards his smug boss wants to know if Norm has changed his mind yet. When Norm still resists. His boss leaves, telling him that he is going to call Norm╠s parole officer with the intention of filing a bad report.
Jason apologizes to Norm for his father being so hard on him. Norm says it╠s all right, but wants assurances that he is truly a good cook. With that affirmation he suggests that Jason use his culinary skills to prepare a feast for his father in the lunchroom. At that point a man walks in dressed only with a diaper. Norm sighs, and tells Jason: "I have to go, my 3 o'clock is here!"
Note: In the first take, diaper-man is dressed in an overcoat and when he bends forward one can see that he is only wearing a diaper/underwear underneath. The audience took a while to grasp this and laughed incrementally as more and more realized it. Some time was spent on the rewrite and in the next take he just walks in without the overcoat, followed by a great, roaring response from the audience!
Laurie & Amy are arguing whether the old women╠s object was made of cats that the old lady had killed. Amy is real cynical and figures that she skins the cats to practice her arts & crafts. Danny walks by and sneezes. He comments that he is only allergic to cats and that there must be one around. He sneezes again and grabs a tissue from the object. As he puts it to his face he starts sneezing in rapid successions...
Jason has prepared a bunch of dishes in the lunchroom. Danny lures the boss in with the promise of Norm lying crushed under the soda machine. Everybody loves the food, but he still won't budge on the issue of sending Jason to military school. Norm wonders how the food could taste so good and Jason tells him that everything is laced with marijuana. At which point he runs out of the room to get the dessert, which he knows everybody will be craving. Norm realizes he has made a big mistake, but can't stop his boss from eating the food. Norm is now completely stoned and totally paranoid now that he has to meet with his parole officer. After a brief conversation with a babbling Norm, his PO decides to have him submit to a drug test.
After attempting to get a clean urine sample from Amy, Norm explains everything to his boss who is also stoned. Eventually the boss has the P.O. give up on the drug test. Norm thanks his boss and promises to be the best social worker he can possibly be, or at least for as long as the effects of the pot last. At this point they exchange banter. Personally I think both of them kept missing their lines and cues, but it all worked out great since they were supposed to be stoned.
Note: Personally I'm always under the impression that Norm is either drunk or stoned, but I guess that is just Norm being Norm¸
With Amy present, Laurie awkwardly asks whether the old lady uses the skin of dead cats in her arts & crafts. The lady denies it, and everybody is relieved and embarrassed, but she finally adds that it is the hair of her dead husband. The scene ends with her looking at a spot on the object and making some remark about a characteristic of her husband╠s hair¸
Note: That final bit will probably be cut since the audience did not laugh. On the second shoot that remark was completely dropped.