Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Meat Grinder

War Without Bullets

We've all been there, minus the lovely blond...

(Note: I'd planned to foist another pilot season re-run on you today, but that plan -- like so many in life -- was hijacked by the subsequent flow of events. If you're interested in those posts, click here, then scroll down to "The Making of a Pilot.")

If you haven't read this post over at Dollygrippery, you really should. In his detailed description of one typically brutal work week on a cable episodic, "D" turns over the rock to let the world see just how mercilessly demanding this kind of work really is. Although he's describing his job as a dolly grip, he may as well be speaking for the rest of the departments on that show. Grips, juicers, set dressing, props, craft service, hair and makeup, transpo -- they're all getting hammered.

Near the end of his post is a particularly poignant and revealing passage:

“I have unfortunately reached the point where I have a hard time showing interest and I'm starting to let little things go. I don't like working that way.”

There are very few truly easy gigs in this business -- working below-the-line is pretty much hard and harder -- but as far as I'm concerned, episodic television is the worst. There's a reason I refer to episodics as "war without bullets." Many (if not most) of those one-hour dramas chew their crews up and spit them out over the course of a few seasons. Given the money that can be earned working such horrendous hours, people hang on as long as they can, but a high rate of attrition and turnover among those who do the heavy lifting is not at all unusual.

When you sign on for an episodic, you're walking into a meat grinder.

Some are worse than others, of course. I'm told the crew of "Medium" worked very reasonable hours, which can be attributed to at least two factors -- it was a broadcast network show paying full union scale (meaning the producers had to pay double-time -- which they absolutely hate to do -- after 12 hours), and the show had a really good DP who knows how to light with a minimum of equipment and effort. Unlike too many DPs I've worked for, this guy doesn't grind his crew into the dirt trying to re-invent the wheel each and every day.*

But as you'll read in D's post, a hard episodic can be unbelievably tough. According to a piece the LA Times ran a couple of years ago, the crew on NCIS -- a full-scale, broadcast network show -- was working 17 to 18 hour days before a shakeup above-the-line restored some sanity to the production, bringing work days down to the normal zone of 12 to 14 hours/day.**

Heinous hours are much more common on cable shows, where the contract originally negotiated to give HBO a break back when that network was still young and struggling still allows cable shows to work their crews 14 hours before double-time kicks in. With lunch and drive time, that means 16 to 18 hour days are typical. Word through the grapevine has it that the HBO vampire drama "True Blood" pushes their crew extremely hard all season long.

Working such a relentless pace week in and week out is brutal. Yes, the crew can make good money working those long hours (except on cable shows, where the bad news starts with a 20% pay cut, then continues on through those fourteen hour days), but at what cost? Is the larger paycheck at the end of the week worth being turned into a work-bot zombie with glazed eyes and a thousand-yard stare?

Although I got my IA card too late in life to fully experience the grinding tedium of episodics as a member of the core crew, I've done my share of day-playing on one-hour dramas, and did several extremely demanding two-to-three week stints of pickups for "The L Word," during which multiple-location 16 hour days were the norm. Before finally getting my union card, I slaved on many low budget location features, enduring two to three months of six-day work weeks on each one -- weeks that often exceeded a hundred working hours.

That was rough, but still not as bad as crewing a truly tough episodic. There's always light at the end of the tunnel on a movie -- most are over and done in three or four months -- but a broadcast network episodic can run 22 episodes, which works out to nearly nine solid months of more-or-less ceaseless toil.

The worst of it comes when you hit the burnout phase ("Burnout" being the very apt title of D's recent post), so worn down by the merciless process of cranking out each day's coverage that you slowly lapse into doing only what's absolutely necessary to get the job done. When the grinding pace is such that a solid, experienced pro like "D" can no longer fully meet his own high standards -- and he starts letting the little things go -- then something is very wrong indeed. We've all been there to one degree or another, but in the suffocating fog of the moment it's hard to realize just how vulnerable and dangerous that zone of terminal mind/body fatigue can be.

So my heart goes out to "D" and the rest of his besieged crew running the long grueling gauntlet of episodic television. At this point of my life and career, I couldn't do that kind of work even if I wanted to -- a couple of weeks on that schedule would put me in the hospital.

If I was King of the World, episodics would adopt the multi-camera tactic of shooting three weeks (roughly two episodes) before taking a week off to give the cast and crew a chance to recover, then I'd revoke the 14 hour provision of the cable contract so that producers would think twice before allowing undisciplined, self-indulgent young directors to push their crews past a 12 hour work day. Yes, the season would stretch out a little longer and cost the production companies a bit more -- and each crew member would bring home less money each month -- but by not flogging those crews to within an inch of their lives, working episodics would become less of a meat grinder and more a sustainable way to make a living.

Not that the corporate overlords who now run our Industry (and increasingly, our country) give a flying fuck about that, mind you -- but it's something to think about.

* Full disclosure: the DP of "Medium" and I worked together for more than fifteen years doing features, music videos and commercials before our working world was turned upside-down by the stampede of runaway production from LA to Canada in the late 90's. At that point, our paths diverged in the world of television, where he went into episodics and I chose sit-coms.

** I tried to find a link to that article, but it proved elusive...

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Pilot Season: A Blast from the Past

The bonfires of pilot season are burning hot and bright this year, but it looks like I'll miss the whole thing. By the time we've shot our final episodes and wrapped the stage on my current show, the only thing left will be ashes -- and soon enough, those too will be gone with the wind.

That's okay by me. When you've got nothing, landing a pilot is manna from heaven, but the non-stop work of making the damned thing is a bruising uphill slog all the way. At the moment, I don't need the aggravation or the inevitable beat-down of suffering through another pilot.

But that's just for now -- if my show doesn't get picked up for a second season (and there are no guarantees in this business), then I'll be more than happy to take whatever I can find, pilots included.

I wrote a short series of posts on the pilot process a couple of years ago, describing a show that was to have been called "Madison Lumber," starring a newly-svelte Valerie Bertinelli. It was a good pilot -- lots of people liked it -- but turning it into a series was apparently beyond the budgetary reach of the cable network that green-lit the project in the first place, and no other takers came along to save the day. Like so many pilots before and since, "Madison Lumber" sank beneath the waters without a ripple. All that work, all that effort, for nothing.

Well, not literally "for nothing" -- after all, I got three paychecks out of the deal -- but the series we all wanted (and the steady work it would bring) did not come to pass. So it goes in Hollywood.

Although I'm a big fan of recycling in real life, I've managed to avoid the practice here at Blood, Sweat, and Tedium -- but the past four work-weeks have been considerably longer and harder than usual. Thus short on time, energy, and inspiration, I've got nothing new ready to post... which is why I'm reaching back into the archives for this one. I have no way of knowing how many people actually bother to plow all the way through the list of "greatest hits" (cough...), and since the following reprint -- detailing the realities of working on a pilot -- lies near the very bottom of that list, it seems a timely choice.

If you are among the few who have read it, sorry about that. For something current, click on over to "Martini Shot" and listen to Rob Long's brief commentary on the creative insanity of pilot season. It's a good one.

I don't want to make a habit of recycling posts here, but this may not be the end of it. With the next couple of weeks scheduled to deliver yet more ass-kicking, I'll just have to go with the flow...

Gulliver's Travels: a Pilot Unfolds

Martian War Death Machine, or Sony Studios Watertower?

I've been posting a lot about television pilots lately, mostly concerning what happens before and after the pilot is made. In looking back over some of those posts, I realized that many of you have no way of knowing what it's actually like to work on such a pilot. With that in mind, the next two or three posts will take you through the messy, frustrating, and ultimately exhausting process of making a sit-com pilot -- the very pilot I wrote about in last week's post. I won't name the show (which didn't have a real name anyway -- just the "Untitled So-and-So Project") nor the star, for fear of jeopardizing my spot on the crew should it get picked up. Producers exercise tight control over any and all publicity for their shows, and most definitely do not appreciate anyone who talks out of school. To that end, we have to sign all sorts of non-disclosure agreements prior to starting work, which means I must be careful what I say.

Here in the house of the hangman, we do not speak of rope...

Day One: Wednesday

It's 6:45 on a Wednesday morning, and our sound stage at Sony Studios is a churning cauldron of chaos. Construction crews have been building and painting sets – working 12 hour shifts -- for several days now, and until today, had the stage to themselves. Not anymore. Today this pilot moves into the next phase as the grips and juicers arrive.

That the sets are nowhere near being finished doesn't seem to matter. Those who control the purse strings have decided it’s time to start lighting.

Sony rigging grips have already prepared the stage for us, hanging an interlocking grid of two-inch diameter steel pipes from chains running up to the “perms” – a immensely sturdy framework of heavy wooden beams thirty-five feet above the stage floor. The pipe grid is laid out in four distinct sections following the rough contours of each set, three to four feet above the set walls. Most of the lighting equipment -- our lamps and the grip's flags (deployed to cut and shape the light) -- will be hung from this grid. Rigging juicers ran enough power on stage to energize six big dimmer packs, each the size of a refrigerator, then put in “the waterfall” -- a thick black river of heavy cables running from the dimmer packs all the way up the perms. There, some of our crew will run those cables out along a network of catwalks and drop power down to the pipe grid as needed. By the time we’re ready to film, close to 250 lamps of all sizes will be hung and adjusted to light the four sets currently under construction, each lamp powered by an individual circuit controlled by one man at the dimmer console.

All this will unfold over the days to come – the mountain ahead is high and steep – but today is mostly about receiving equipment. Lots of equipment. Everything from 200 watt “Inkies” to 10,000 watt “Teners” will be delivered from the lamp dock (the studio warehouse where lamps and cable are stored) to the stage. Every studio has their own way of handling this, in what essentially remains an equipment rental business. At CBS Radford (which used to be Republic Studios), a teamster-driven forklift delivers the lamps to each stage in huge metal baskets. Paramount just shrugs its shoulders, spits on the sidewalk, then lights another cigarette while each show’s lighting crew pulls, tests, and loads every lamp from Paramount storage onto stakebed trucks driven to the stage by teamsters. Disney – never missing a chance to squander a dollar if it means saving a dime -- washed their hands of this equipment rental business a few years ago by closing their lamp dock and selling off the lighting equipment. I’ve done commercials at Universal, but we always brought in our own trucks and equipment -- I have no idea how well Uni supports television shows in the shadow of that big Black Tower on Lankershim Boulevard. Here at Sony, the lamp dock juicers themselves bring the equipment to stage neatly stacked on rolling carts, using an electric tugger that also functions as a forklift.

Very self-contained, very civilized, very Japanese.

The equipment won’t show up for another hour, though, so we sit down to fill out our "start forms": deal memos, I-9 citizenship forms, time cards, and W-2 forms, along with the usual battery of sexual harassment and safety bulletins. It's all boilerplate stuff we've filled out a thousand tedious times before -- but in the dense, stilted prose of that last document is the following statement:

“Make sure you get the right help when lifting or moving heavy or awkward objects. Avoid lifting them whenever possible.”

This gets a belly laugh from the entire crew.

Earth to Safety Dude -- lifting and moving heavy, awkward objects, often without any help, pretty much defines the job of a juicer during these first frantic days on a pilot. Once the lamps are up, we can do the more delicate work of adjusting and fine-tuning them to properly light the set, but until then, lifting and moving heavy objects is what we do...

Shortly after we all finish scrawling our names, social security number, address, and signature a dozen times on half a dozen different forms, a train of big carts arrives from the lamp dock, each heavily laden with lamps. The first load contains a hundred and twenty "Studio Juniors” – 2000 watt incandescent lamps about the size of a five gallon water bottle. Subsequent loads will bring a a couple of "teners", a dozen “seniors” (5000 watt lamps), sixty “babies” (1000 watt lamps), forty “tweenies” (650 watt lamps), along with forty “inkies” and “midgets” (200 watt lamps). We'll also get a load of "skypans" and "pony pans", lamps shaped a like Chinese cooking pans, used to light scenic backings behind the sets.

All in all, it's enough equipment to keep us very busy for the next couple of weeks.

The real work of lighting won't start until tomorrow: today, our job is to hump all those lamps onto the stage and stack them in compact rows beneath the audience grandstand and out onto the stage floor. Carrying and stacking is mindless, sweaty toil, but at least this sort of work has a well-defined objective. The hard part will be hanging them over two biggest sets, one of which – at two stories -- is exceptionally tall for a sit-com set. The real work lies ahead. In all the ways that matter, this is the easiest day we’ll have for a long time.

There’s just one big fat fly buzzing in the ointment: the construction crew and painters. Carpenters are everywhere, turning raw lumber into sets, building and installing stairways, cabinets, and bookshelves.. Power saws, sanders, drills, impact drivers, and poorly-functioning vacuum rigs run full blast all day long, filling the air with the screams of tortured wood. Finely powdered sawdust drifts everywhere, thanks to those crappy vacuum rigs. Three boom boxes blare at maximum volume, each tuned to a different station, blending with the intermittent shrieks of power tools to create a deafening cacophony.

Meanwhile, the painters are busily painting everything in sight – brushing, rolling, and spraying -- filling the air with toxic fumes. Many wear respirators to protect their lungs and sinuses, and at least half have their ears plugged in to Ipods. Thus insulated from the noisy, stinking environment, they live and work in their own little music-video world.

In a way, I envy them.

The capper, though – and Exhibit A in The Sheer Idiocy of Sit-Com Pilots – is that some fool high up the food chain decided to have the floors installed today. That means a crew clad in industrial-strength kneepads is busy measuring, cutting, and installing hardwood veneer, carpet, and some kind of ersatz linoleum flooring on the various sets. These poor guys are trying to do their job in an extremely user-unfriendly environment – not only are the carpenters and painters all over the place, but now grips and juicers have been added to the mix. With so many different crews working at odds and in each other's way, life has been made infinitely harder for everyone. It's really a bitch for us juicers, who need to use 2500 pound manlifts and scissor lifts to hang most of our lamps. Turning the wheels of a manlift on this freshly installed faux flooring can carve big holes in it, which means we have to put down 4-by-8foot sheets of layout board (thick cardboard) to protect the flooring. Not only is this a time-consuming pain in the ass, but it doesn’t really work. The scissor lifts do okay on layout board, but the small manlifts -- essential for working in smaller sets and maneuvering in tight quarters -- are designed to operate on smooth warehouse floors, not over an uneven surface. When the layout board bends and folds – as it always does – the manlift suddenly refuses to go up at all. This built-in (and utterly infuriating) "safety feature" ends up making our work much more difficult, and occasionally more dangerous. We'll do our best to use the layout board whenever possible, but in the days to come, the flooring of each set will be damaged to one degree or another. Some of those floors will require extensive repairs before the filming can begin.

This is nothing new -- it happens every time. After paying for such do-it-again floor repairs in pilot after pilot, you’d think Somebody Important might understand that it makes dollars-and-sense to wait until the grips and juicers have finished the heavy lighting chores before having those floors installed. You’d be wrong. That kind of logic doesn't seem to apply in Hollywood, where they do what they do for reasons all their own -- and if you let it, the sheer stupidity of all this can drive you crazy. The difficulty of making a pilot isn't so much doing your job – although that’s hard enough, it’s only half the battle – but in all the additional maddeningly stupid little tasks one must perform simply to reach point where you can actually do your job.

It’s all part of the unique madness that is a pilot.

Truth be told, it’s a fucking zoo on that stage. Merely contemplating all that must be done – and how hard it will be to do -- is daunting. Trying to work in such a chaotic atmosphere is an exercise in terminal frustration. In a way, I feel a bit like the hapless Gulliver, tied down by a thousand tiny threads until he is finally rendered immobile. On Day One of this pilot, it seems impossible that any real order can ever emerge from all this.

Great reserves of patient persistence will be required from every member of the crew if any such order is to emerge -- but emerge it must.

And emerge it will.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Anti-Queeg

This model of an ancient Roman warship serves as a useful metaphor of the power/class structure in Hollywood, with the deck of the ship representing "the line." Above that line -- where the sunshine, fresh air, and big money are abundant -- sit the producers, directors, writers, and actors. Below the line -- doing the dirty grunt work essential to propel the ship -- are the grips, juicers, set decorators, prop people, wardrobe, hair and makeup, sound, and camera departments, along with the stand-ins, production, locations, and transpo, all of them them pulling hard on those heavy, splinter-riddled oars.

Hollywood is just a microcosm of society, where somebody has to call the shots while someone else takes out the trash, and for all its faults, the system works pretty well until you get a Captain Queeg at the helm, above or below decks. I've worked for several such insecure head-cases over the years -- directors, cameramen, and gaffers -- and learned first-hand just how long and miserable a day can be when the wrong person is in charge.

The only really good thing about such a negative experience is the renewed appreciation it brings for working with people who manage to do their jobs without turning into abusive ego-fueled monsters.


In a comment on last Wednesday’s post about “Reality Television,” a reader who goes by the e-moniker of “John the Scientist” recommended Ken Levine’s recent scalding review of one of the same new shows. JTS was right – Levine peeled the hide off “Pregnant in Heels” and nailed it to the outhouse wall, once again demonstrating the beauty of his long-running blog.* Unlike the vast majority of those who offer opinions on television programming (including professional TV critics), Levine had a long and very successful career on the creative side of the industry. While most critics stand outside throwing rocks at the network’s windows, Ken Levine's tenure as an insider taught him exactly what it takes to nurture an idea all the way through the writing process into the white-water rapids of pilot season and beyond -- occasionally, far beyond.

That’s not an easy thing to do.

Levine’s career includes working on some of the biggest hits in television history -- "Mash," "Cheers," "Frasier," and "Everybody Loves Raymond," among many others, and he co-created “Almost Perfect,” starring the luminously beautiful Nancy Travis.**

If this space was a name-dropping douchebag blog rather than (ahem...) The Truth As I See It, I would now write something breezily smarmy like: “When Ken and I worked together with Nathan Lane and Joan Plowright on the sit-com “Encore! Encore!” for NBC back in the late 90’s, blah blah self-serving-aren’t-I-swell blah...”

Although technically true, a peek under the covers reveals the actual facts: yes, we “worked together” in the sense of having our names on the same crew list, but there is no creative collaboration between the director and a juicer. He had his job and I had mine -- and as one of many toiling in the service of his directorial vision, my position was so far down the food chain that Ken Levine wasn’t even aware of my existence. In the terms of this post's Hollywood metaphor, he walked the deck of the Roman warship wearing his captain’s hat while while I remained below decks chained to my station, pulling on that oar.

Still, he was a good director on set, unfailingly pleasant to one and all while running a tight ship. I wish I could say that about every sit-com director I've worked for, but I can't. He knows the business and where many of the bodies are buried, and loves to peel back back the curtain for all to see in his blog.

I used to read that blog every day, but fell out of the habit over the last couple of years. That was my mistake, for which I have no valid excuse. So thanks to John the Scientist for reminding me what I’d been missing.

Check it out...

* After you’ve read that post, read this one too -- not so much for Ken's random observations, but for the short commercial from French television he posted at the end. It's brilliant, and well worth your 80-or-so seconds...

** You’ll have to trust me on this one, since mere pictures do no justice to Nancy Travis. I did stints on two seasons of “The Bill Engvall” show, where she co-starred, and had the chance to talk with her many times. Not only is Nancy Travis one of the nicest people I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet, she’s stunningly beautiful in person -- an angel come to earth...

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Down the Stretch

Working, and then some...

On the long walk back to my apartment after another late Friday shoot-night, I came across this ancient Cathode Ray Gun -- apparently still in good working order -- left on the curb for the first willing taker. The image sums up my current situation rather nicely.

We're heading down the stretch on my little cable sit-com now, shooting the final episodes of Season One while keeping our collective fingers crossed that this is just the first of many. Four or five more seasons would work just fine for me, but right now I'd settle for Season Two.

One step at a time.

For reasons I don't understand (not that the "why" really matters at this point), our producers juggled the usual three-weeks-on/one-week-off cycle in favor of shooting the final five episodes straight through, with no hiatus weeks off. Once accustomed to working the normal sit-com schedule, anything else feels like a violation of the Geneva Conventions, which means nobody on the crew is happy about this -- but the reality is we're mere playthings of the Gods above-the-line who control our weekly destiny. When they say "jump," the only acceptable response is to ask "how high?"*

One of our core cast members probably had a conflict of one sort or another, so we took two hiatus weeks sandwiched around one week of work last month, and are now slogging through the Death March towards Episode 30. It hasn't been much fun getting our asses so thoroughly kicked the past few weeks. The scripts are more ambitious lately, with more and bigger swing sets, all of which must be treated to the usual level of lighting, tweaking, re-lighting, and yet more tweaking before being shot-out and torn down. My work days have been starting earlier and ending considerably later than normal, leaving me dragging my ass like a three-legged donkey by the weekend.

And that's my excuse for such a short and relatively content-free post this week. It's all I have the time/energy for, and with the next show's script calling for a similarly bruising load of swing sets, we're in for another long week.

So bear with me, people. No doubt I'll be back to my usual long-winded bleating eventually, but not until we finally crawl across the finish line marking the end of Season One. At that point I'll commence the burning of incense, chanting, and ritual sacrifice of small helpless animals in an effort to entice the Gods of Hollywood to grant us a Season Two.

Whatever works...

* Anybody toiling in the Killing Fields of episodics or features will snort derisively at this, and with good reason. But I've said it before and I'll say it again -- life in Hollywood is graded on the curve of one's own experience and expectations. Having done my time in the long-hour/late-night trenches over the past 34 years, I've got nothing left to prove.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

More Un-Reality

This nicely sums up our culture's obsession with "Reality TV"...

I've never hidden my dislike for so-called “Reality Television” -- from top to bottom (assuming such distinctions even apply to a genre dedicated to exploiting the lowest common denominator), I think it’s crap. When I want a dose of reality on TV, I’ll tune in PBS, Discovery, or a documentary of one sort or another -- actual reality delivered in a thoughtful, intelligent manner -- which I find a lot more interesting than the usual screaming, weepy histrionics typical of those highly-orchestrated "Reality" shows.*

But that's just me -- your mileage, as they say, may vary. To each his own.

Still, "Reality Television" has brought us at least one undeniably good thing: the reviews. When a good TV critic sinks his-or-her sharp canines into a new reality show, the resulting carnage makes for a very entertaining read. Two of Southern California's better TV critics (writing for the LA Times) leveled their guns this week at the latest offerings from the utterly unreal world of “Reality TV.” In this piece, Mary McNamara takes on two new shows from the She-God of Television Herself’s latest venture, the Ophrah Winfrey Network, or “OWN.” One show deals with people addicted to food (addiction itself becoming something of a media addiction), while the other plumbs the depths of the infamous Judd family. Again... While the Judds are doubtless interesting people leading full, rich lives, I've never understood America's apparently endless fascination with all the Naomis and Wynonas and whoevers. Then again, I’ve become accustomed to a state of eternal bafflement when contemplating the spectacle of “Reality TV.”

It is what it is.

Robert Lloyd opens his nuanced review of another new show like this:

“With “Pregnant in Heels,” premiering Tuesday, Bravo adds to its Theater of Schadenfreude yet another series about the helpless rich and their high-priced factotums.”**

That's classic Lloyd -- smooth as silk while packing a punch.

Both of these reviews are pithy and fun to read, offering a clinic in the fine art of good writing. They make it look easy -- and it's not.

Check 'em out. You'll be glad you did...

* The good news is we're living in a golden age for documentaries these days.

** Yeah, I had to look it up too...

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Post-Shoot Blues

And the long drive home...

The rain eased up by the time we opened the big elephant door and began wrapping three swing sets late Friday night. As far as I’m concerned, freedom from the elements is reason enough to work on a soundstage, where neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night (to bastardize the unofficial credo of the post office) can stop the cameras from rolling. After so many years of working location shoots in pouring rain, long nights, howling winds, freezing snow, and extreme heat of the dry and humid variety, I'm happy to leave such character-building toil to the younger generation.

The deluge didn't stay on pause for long. Well before we finished the wrap, those fat, heavy clouds hanging low overhead opened up again, making for a long, wet walk to the parking structure -- and by the time I pulled out onto the street and headed for home, that rain was coming down hard.

This shoot night marked the culmination of another three week work cycle, and the beginning of our one week hiatus. Multi-camera sit-coms follow this three-weeks-on/one-week-off schedule to give the actors and writers a break from the daily grind of production, and allow them to catch their creative breath -- but the rest of the crew is more than ready for some time off after three straight weeks of endless lighting, re-lighting, rehearsing, and filming.

Shoot nights are very different from the rest of the week. After a final round of rehearsals, blocking, and pre-shoots, the crew breaks for dinner while a live audience is seated for the evening show. The crowd comes in quiet, but after watching a twenty-two minute (and blissfully commercial-free) episode from a previous week, they're soon whipped into a hooting, screaming frenzy by the warm-up comedian and DJ -- and from that moment on, our quiet sound stage becomes one very noisy place, making communication of any kind difficult. Even with the Secret Service-style earphones we all wear, it's hard to monitor and respond to the walkie-talkie chatter from our ever-voluble DP over the cacophony of that crowd.

The actors love this, of course -- they feed off all that energy -- but after a long week of hard work getting the show ready, weathering this sustained aural assault wears the crew down. By the time the show is finally over three or four hours later, we're all drained from the stress of working amid all that noise. Once the actors take their curtain call, the set goes dark, the house lights come up, and the audience quickly files out. In a matter of minutes everyone’s gone but a few set dressers rolling out the furnishings from the swing sets, the craft service guy cleaning up, and a handful of production people doing paperwork as the grips and juicers wrap their equipment. Set Dressing finishes first, with Craft Service and the grips the next to go. Since Grip and Electric work in an alternating mode -- we hang, power, and adjust the lamps, then they cut and shape the light -- their equipment (meat axes, flags, and teasers) has to come down before we can even get to our lamps on the pipe grid. As a result, the grips are long gone while we work on into the night. As the clock ticks deeper into the night, it’s just us four juicers working on a deserted stage while the Second AD and a couple of PAs huddle in their cramped office filling out production reports.

In most ways, this is a good thing -- absent all those other people, we can work unfettered, driving the man-lifts wherever necessary without worrying about crushing some innocent/oblivious bystander in the process. But if the work goes much faster on the empty stage, it always feels a bit strange. After a week on a stage full of actors and crew working together, then a shoot night energized by a high-octane crowd of 250 laughing, clapping, screaming people, the sudden quiet feels eerily hollow, as if the party suddenly left to carry on somewhere else without us.

Wrapping the swing sets before a hiatus week is all of that and more, compounded by the knowledge that we won't be gathering again the following Monday to begin anew the week-long process of pushing the big rock up the steep hill towards another show night.  Finally we finish, then pack our work bags and say our goodbyes. There's no reason to stay and every reason to go, but in an odd way, I hate to leave.

The drive home is tense.  Between the pounding rain and glare of oncoming traffic, the painted divider lines on the road melt into the dark wet pavement, which is when I realize just how tired and bleary-eyed I really am. Dodging the late Friday night drunks in such weather is another challenge, followed by the inevitable hunt for a parking space on the streets around my apartment; fifteen minutes of slow cruising (and soft cursing) before a spot finally opens up five long blocks from home.

At least the rain has stopped for the moment. I lock the car, then pause to take a good look around so I'll be able to find it tomorrow morning. I’ve awakened on more than one groggy Saturday with a head full of fumes and no earthly clue where I’d left the car the night before. Inhaling a deep breath of sweet rain-washed air, I walk the dark, deserted sidewalks listening to hundreds of tiny waterfalls trickling down gutters and drip from rooftops. Streetlights shine in the puddles at my feet. Two blocks up, I cut down an alley and pass beneath a window jutting from a damp stucco wall. An amber glow from inside filters through the thin curtain. Three blocks from my own cold, dark apartment, a sense of urban alienation seeps into my bones.

It feels like the end of the world.

Armageddon will not come on this night -- the angst I'm feeling is just the post-shoot blues, a malady brought on by the accumulated weight of fatigue from a hard stretch of work. Those blues hit me at the end of every week, and all the harder when heading into a hiatus. The relief at having some time off is palpable, but even that small pleasure is undercut by a disquieting sense of being suddenly cut loose from the “family” we’ve created on stage for this show. After spending so much time together – and there’s nothing like shared suffering to unify an otherwise disparate group of people – we’ve formed bonds that are very real but at the same time exceedingly tenuous. Those bonds exist while we're at work on set, but that’s all – beyond the boundaries of the soundstage and this show, most of us remain strangers.

Unlocking the door to my apartment, I pick up a pile of junk mail and bills left by the mailman, then trudge upstairs. Off come the boots and on goes the heater, and soon I'm standing with my backside to the heat while sipping a healthy slug of 100 proof Kentucky Bourbon blended with a little water. The liquid warmth thaws out my inside while the flames of the heater roast the outside. Slowly warming in the quiet of my apartment, I stare through the rain-streaked window at the cold, wet night outside. Soon will come sleep, with no alarm clock to ruin the following morning. After three weeks of marching to the show's schedule, I'm on my own time now. Already -- and with every sip -- the post-shoot blues start to fade away. Come the dawn, after a decent night's sleep, they'll be gone.

And the world will be a better place.