If the Dave Letterman Show is indicative of all televised programs, then what you see on your screen at night is nothing like the actual production. This past weekend I had the opportunity to see the live taping of Dave, something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. It’s not easy to get tickets and Dave is notorious for keeping a tight rein on his studio. He’s a television icon, a famous gap-toothed celebrity who jokes and cajoles with the audience and guests while most Americans are prepping for bed. To see him record his show was a treat, albeit one that reminded me of the powers of scripting and the magic of the camera.
Just to pick up tickets is a production. Large groups of people wait outside the Ed Sullivan theater in a line that snakes around the corner; everyone is excited to get inside, to see Dave and the band, to discover who will be in the hot seat with Dave for the show. Pages wearing yellow leather bomber jackets, the words The Dave Letterman Show stitched across the back shoulders, keep people in line and entertain with pithy comments and cheerleader-like shouts that the audience must, I repeat must, bring all their energy and enthusiasm to the taping. If not, Dave may not be happy and the shoot will not go well. Eager to oblige, we all clap our hands, stomp our numbing feet and promise to be the best audience Dave has ever seen. We wait. Finally we are ushered in a get a golden ticket and are then told to come back in an hour to claim our seats. More time to kill, waiting for the event, so hoards of expectant folks meander around the theater in search of more NY kitsch and a bathroom.
At 2:30 we are back in another line, holding steady til the doors to the famous theater swing open and we take our seats, the young and overly perky pages still continue to shout and cheer and remind us to be overly animated and to laugh at all jokes, no matter how funny (or not). Inside the theater is amazing. It looks like the televised version only shinier, more expansive and the amounts of cables, wired, monitors and cameras is mind-boggling. The instruments for the band take up the entire left-hand side of the stage and booms and mics dangle from the ceiling; teleprompters loom largely on the freshly-waxed floor. The energy is palpable as the band enters to warm up the crowd; the musicians all decked out and jamming with their guitars or the drums or the sax. The crowd is pumped and ready for the big intro….and then those that famous voice introduces our host and Dave dashes in, wearing his signature suit and tie. Everyone claps wildly, and my arms begin to burn from the effort. He’s funny, of course, telling jokes about the Oscars and the meltdown of actor Charlie Sheen. It is a thrill to be so close, to witness this moment in history be recorded…
But it was also strange because there were so many others on stage. Near Dave, but off camera, were a dozen or more men and women, carrying clipboards and talking into headsets, all busy in the production of the show. Dave is but a tiny part of this nightly feat. So so many others work behind the scenes and on that famous stage to make sure Dave looks good, tells the right jokes and the program is synced perfectly with commercials. It is indeed a large production, something we rarely think about as we watch Dave deliver his monologue or read the top 10 list. Now when I watch his show, or any other “live” broadcast, I will envision the cue card guy, the stage manager counting down the minutes to being on air, the sound persons wielding mics and booms, the bustling drones who touch up make-up, deliver fresh water to the desk, swarm around Dave after every segment, checking items off their clipboard lists. It is a well-choreographed ballet of people, instruments and lights…
Amazing that this happens every day and airs almost every night. And what we see on the TV’s screen is so unlike the version we see inside the studio.
It was a treat to witness, to learn about the intricacies of a televised broadcast. The program was fun, the laughs genuine, the rock and roll produced by the late night band perhaps the best part of the whole hour-long taping. As an audience, we rocked…We took to heart the stage manager’s advice and gave our attention and energy to Dave to play our essential part in this show’s creation.
That night we watched the first part of the show air. Of course, we hoped to catch a glimpse of ourselves on TV, but no such luck. Not this time. We did, however, get to see the edited and “ready for TV’ version of the program we had watched being made. It was amazing: Dave looked like himself, only larger than in the studio, and not a single piece of equipment or a single stage-hand was visible on the TV screen. He was funny and quirky, using his body and expressions to interact with the audience further, asking sometimes tough, sometimes silly questions to main guest Brain Williams. He is legend, a pro at making this stuff look easy. It really is a crazy ride to see something like this put together and then to see the final version. The camera and then the editors have the last word, choosing what gets seen and what will forever remain beyond the scope of the lens.