Is the Crew Laughing?

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This is Rob Long with Martini Shot on KCRW.

A few years ago, during a long, hot-tempered pilot production week, I was hanging out backstage, waiting the for fresh cookies to appear on the craft services table, when I overheard one of the set decorators ask one of the lighting guys if a certain set decoration looked right.

"Who cares?" the lighting guy shrugged. "This thing is never going to see the light of day."

At which point, they both suddenly realized that I wasn't back in my office, where I usually was, getting script notes from the network, which I usually did, but instead, just a few steps away.

It was awkward –- worse, I think, for me, because I sort of saw his point. The week had been rocky going, we'd made some mid-week casting changes, the script hadn't gelled yet -– in many ways, it was a typical pilot production week -– and we only had three days left to get it right.

Still, more than anything else, his comment stung because it revealed a vulnerability all of us who write or direct or produce or act – all of us, to use the blunt, direct term we use in Hollywood, above the line –- have about what the people who do the real work in Hollywood –- the lighting and the building and the sound and the electricity and the technical stuff that keeps the production moving along -– "below the line" -- think about what we're doing, about the script we're producing. For most of us, the production crew is about as close as we get to real people -– people, that is, who don't for the most part live in 310 or 323, who have longish commutes, who get there before we do, and who leave way after we've left -– and what they think of our script and our show matters a lot.

"Is the crew laughing?" is one of the questions we ask all the time on a comedy shoot. Because unlike the writers and producers and studio executives, they're not paid to laugh. Or, to put it more honestly: they're not paid enough to pretend to enjoy something they're not enjoying. The most expensive laughter in Hollywood is fake laughter – you get it from your agent and your manager and your lawyer and your tax guy; your wife or husband; but the crew is paid – not much in the scheme of things – to lay dolly track and pull focus and to lift stuff and plug stuff in, to build living rooms and hang exterior trans-lights and try not to get electrocuted, so fake laughter is way, way down on their list of services.

So when the camera operator laughs, it matters. When the guy moving cable waits a few moments to watch the end of a scene, believe me, it means the scene is worth watching. And when the lighting guy tells a set decorator that "this thing will never see the light of day," well, it's something you think about and carry with you all week. Who cares what the network thinks of it? They're always wrong. They live in a haze of self-delusion, a world of pointless meetings and pompous bosses and ludicrous market research. But the crew – the crew sees a lot of shows and a lot of productions in a nine month period. The crew usually knows.

And so at the end of this particular production week -– after, I have to say, we got the script in great shape, and the cast came together -– when the lighting guy came up to me and said, "Wow. Great show," part of him, I know, was saying "Please don't fire me if this thing goes just because I said that thing when you were waiting for your cookies," but a bigger part of him was saying, "Wow. Great show," which carried a lot of weight.

A month or so ago, I was visiting a writer friend of mine, one of the few guys who has a show on the air. And as I wandered over to the craft services table, as one does, I bumped into a guy who was a camera operator on a lot of the shows I've done. We reminisced a bit, then I said, "How is this show doing?' And he said, "This show is great. Really. Probably the best show I've ever worked on."

I laughed -– because I thought he was kidding – and said something like, "You mean it's one of the best shows you've worked on, right?"

And he said, in a cheerful, honest, perfectly friendly voice, "No, I think it's better than the shows you've done."

Which is something he could have kept to himself. But that's the problem with people who do honest work. They're honest.

That's it for this week. Next week -– wow, is it that time again? –- pledge drive! We're so lucky...

For KCRW, this is Rob Long with Martini Shot.



Rob Long