Andy Howell, an astronomer by trade, has been writing for Ain’t It Cool virtually since its inception under the pseudonym Copernicus.
“Big Bang Theory” is the most popular series on broadcast television, and he attended the taping of the episode airing tonight.
About a month ago I went with some friends to a taping of Big Bang Theory. The episode, "The Table Polarization" airs Feb. 27. While I've been in front of the camera taping shows myself, and I've been on movie sets, I've never watched the taping of a half-hour sitcom. It was pretty interesting, and quite different than other forms of filming I've seen. And this one was especially fun because it featured a cameo by my buddy and Known Universe cohost Mike Massimino!
The show. When people find out I'm an astronomer, one of the most common questions is, "What do you think of Big Bang Theory?" I generally like the show, but I have mixed feelings. I love the fact that they are presenting scientists in a mostly positive (at least lovable) light, and that science is treated seriously on the show. They have good advisors and do capture some of the insanity of academic life. Obviously it is exaggerated, but that's the nature of sitcoms. And it doesn't hurt that the show has either mentioned or featured cameos from some friends and colleagues of mine: Mike Massimino, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, George Smoot, and Saul Perlmutter. I do think the show is pretty funny, but my main problem is the problem I have with almost all half-hour sitcoms. The characters are written so broadly that they more or less are reduced to one-joke, one-dimensional people.
What, it isn't a laugh track? When I first heard Big Bang Theory was taped in front of an audience, I was shocked. I felt sure it had a laugh track. But indeed, it has about a hundred person audience, with microphones hung overhead to record their laughter. And the reaction matters -- they had to shoot some scenes again, and even rewrite some on the spot because our reaction wasn't quite right. They have to mix the laughter, of course, and who knows how that process works. But to my surprise, the whole audience was laughing in all the spots people generally laugh at on the show. Why? I still don't quite know. They basically ask you to laugh lots, and for some reason people do, even when things aren't funny. There is a comedian there -- you might call him a "warm-up" guy, although he was there for the whole taping. He tells jokes and generally tries to keep the audience's energy up. And there is a DJ too, who plays music between takes as well, usually to go along with some bit the comedian is trying to do, like get audience members to dance. I found this combination of insincerity, mob behavior, and generally manipulative aspect of whole thing to be very off-putting. However, the taping was so interesting that I'm still glad I went.
The taping. What I found most interesting is the filming itself. The sets from the show are directly in front of the audience, at least mostly. Ones that are specially built for that episode are off to the side -- you can't see them, but you can watch the filming on one of the many monitors. It takes about 3 1/2 hours to tape a show, and even then, some of the scenes have been pre-recorded the day before. Since you are seeing things several episodes ahead of what is currently airing, they show the audience the episode immediately preceding the one that is taping for context. When they go to tape the current episode, they do it in order so that the audience can follow along.
This is strange -- movies and documentaries generally shoot out of order, because you have to build and light each set or location. But in this case, each set is lit with flat lighting reflected off of tilted "bounce cards" overhead. The cameras are on wheels, so they can quickly move them from set to set. They might start in one set, switch to another for the second scene, then come back to the first set for the third scene. And they shoot with four cameras so that they can just let each conversation play out in real time, and they have all the closeups covered. They can also cut between wide shots and closeups. Amazingly enough, they do the editing in-camera. In other words, each scene is so planned out that what you see on the monitors is just the output from a single camera at a time, and the director is controlling which camera will be used in real-time. So the actors can't really ad-lib much -- every scene is tightly written and controlled. In some senses it is more like a play than a movie.
Another thing that amazed me is that they would generally shoot a whole scene from beginning to end, not just little bits at a time like in movies. They would usually (but not always) do it more than once, just to make sure it was perfect. And if somebody screwed up, they would film just a part of a scene over, of course. The long takes meant that the actors had to have long stretches of dialog memorized and had to have their lines down cold. I was very impressed that they almost never screwed up, and could just nail their characters and lines perfectly on almost every take. And they didn't have to try it a bunch of different ways or "explore" their characters. They could do every take with the same level of enthusiasm and sincerity too. That has certainly never been my experience shooting anything myself. I screw up things all the time!
This isn't to say that things always go perfectly. Sometimes a scene wouldn't quite work as intended. But the writers were there on set and would rewrite things on the spot. The actors would then take a few minutes to memorize the new lines, and they'd shoot it. During my taping this happened most often with Raj. I suspect he's the character that is tonally the hardest to get right, since often his scenes have to balance sincerity and humor, and they walk a fine line between good-natured joking and ethnic humor. At any rate, he had a scene involving the demonstration of a TV remote control shaped like a Harry Potter wand that they tried many different ways. They went sweet and edgy and all points in-between. But the scene was also difficult because Howard had to tell Raj that he had just received a phone call from NASA asking him to be an astronaut again. They had a hard time getting the balance between sincerity and humor right. In fact, on the first take the audience went, "Awwwww" when they were supposed to laugh. They rewrote the scene, and asked us to laugh the second time.
Some scenes had been pre-taped, and they just showed them to us at the appropriate time. This was the case with Mike's scene, where he was to appear on Skype, telling Harold that he didn't exactly have "The Right Stuff." In fact, I think his best line was, "Your stuff is wrong, man." That was one of the only lines I laughed out loud at (I'm a bad audience member). I presume Mike was still on-set in case they needed him to redo anything, despite the fact that he was due to fly out at the end of the night on the redeye. He had to get back to Columbia University, where he's teaching a class on Human Spaceflight this semester. But at least I got to catch up with him a bit between takes.
Between takes, some actors prefer stay in their own head going over the lines -- you can see them mumbling to themselves. Others chat with each other or wave to the audience. Towards the end of the taping, Johnny Galecki (Leonard), and Kaley Cuoco (Penny) came over and leaned over the railing to the audience and thanked everyone for coming and shared some of what seemed like genuinely heartfelt words about how much the show means to them.
One thing that I still am not all that impressed with is the writing. I swear I could write better than the writers on the show. I wish they would experiment a bit more, add a little more nuance, and take the characters out of their narrowly-defined boxes. They don't do a great job of getting "normal" astrophysicists right. And there is so much more to explore in the world of academia than they ever get into. Some things are even crazier than the outlandish things they portray on the show. They should show the *real* Neil DeGrasse Tyson. I was drinking with a group of friends and him one night and he pulled out of his briefcase a breathalyzer and a high powered illegal laser. As we drunkenly stumbled home, we lit up buildings miles away, giggling.
Three and a half hours is a long time to sit in once place while watching a taping, especially since it is during dinner time, and all they give you is a slice of cold pizza. And no cell phones are allowed. Still, it was very interesting thing to see, and I came away very impressed by the professionalism and skill of everyone involved. Thought that may seem like a long time to film a 22 minute show, I found it to be incredibly efficient. On Known Universe it would often take us a whole day of shooting (not to mention a day of travel to location and back), just to get about 2 minutes of what would show up on-air. Part of that difference is the nature of shooting such a different beast. But a huge part of it is the difference between astrophysicists and actors playing them -- real actors are actually pretty damn good at acting. Who knew?