How Hollywood Works From Home: Stay Tuned As TV Shows Get Creative

May 12, 2020
Originally published on May 12, 2020 3:03 pm
Cast members have recorded sketches remotely for Saturday Night Live at Home.
YouTube

During the pandemic lockdown, what's left of Hollywood production has gone virtual. Late-night TV hosts Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert and the Jimmys — Fallon and Kimmel — record monologues from their homes. Saturday Night Live at Home, which had its finale over the weekend, had its cast mates and guest stars tape themselves, too.

A special reunion episode of Parks and Recreation that aired recently was also written, shot, directed and edited remotely. Showrunner Mike Schur says he and the director, script supervisor and editors worked from their homes, watching on Zoom as the actors did their own camerawork.

"We didn't actually fully know what anything looked like until we got the footage back. It was always a little bit of a surprise," Schur says. "There were things that were recorded at the wrong frame rate, the little lights that were attached to the mini-rigs that we sent out kept malfunctioning in the middle of takes. It was a struggle."

In the end, Schur says the episode worked as a one-off since the series always had a "let's put on a show" sensibility. But Schur, who created The Good Place and Brooklyn Nine-Nine and the upcoming series Rutherford Falls, says the do-it-yourself method isn't a long-term solution because making a comedy is a team sport.

"It can't be everyone in his or her own house acting has his or her own hair, makeup, DP [director of photography], rigger, gaffer, grip," Schur says. "It was really fun to do, but it's not a blueprint for anything."

A special reunion episode of Parks and Recreation was written, shot, directed and edited remotely. "It was a struggle," showrunner Mike Schur admits.
NBC

Casting director Jennifer Euston can no longer safely audition actors in person at her small New York City office. And she can't scout for talent at the theater, like she did for Orange Is the New Black. But she's got a plan for casting the upcoming Netflix series Social Distance, a scripted show set during the pandemic.

"I have to hire actors that are quarantining together as families, as husband and wife, as brother and sister, any combination of people — and it's not just straight couples," she says, adding that her goal is to add as much diversity to the show as possible. Not just racial and ethnic diversity, but "all shapes, and sizes, and faces, and looks."

You lose a little bit of the fun and the magic of having everybody in the room together and seeing each other. But it's good to remember that we're all fortunate to be working. - "Bob's Burgers" writer Lizzie Molyneux

One Day at a Time executive producer Gloria Calderon Kellett found an alternative to taping her show on a crowded set in front of a live audience. After her rebooted sitcom had to shut down midseason, she had an idea: "My husband's a cartoonist, so animation is around me all the time. And I just thought maybe we can animate this particular episode."

Kellett says the storyline of this particular episode, set to air in June, has her TV family dealing with the upcoming presidential election. She says it's filled with fantasy sequences, making it easy to animate, but future episodes won't necessarily be cartoons.

Animation is one of the few forms of entertainment still in production. For the series Bob's Burgers, animators in South Korea continue to work. And from their homes in Los Angeles, writers and sisters Wendy and Lizzie Molyneux work in the show's virtual writers' room.

"You lose a little bit of the fun and the magic of having everybody in the room together and seeing each other," Lizzie Molyneux says. "But it's good to remember that we're all fortunate to be working."

The Molyneux sisters are also co-executive producers of an upcoming animated sitcom, The Great North. The cast, which features the voices of Megan Mullally and Will Forte, recently tested out lines during an online table read.

"Normally you get the big laughs from the room, but we had everyone other than our actors muted so there wouldn't be a lot of noise," Wendy Molyneux says. "But the actors were nice enough to laugh at the jokes themselves as it went along. So that helped it have the feeling of: We're not saying jokes into an absolute vacuum.''

TV writers are now wrestling with how future storylines can deal with the coronavirus pandemic and an unknown future. Schur says his showrunner wife, J.J. Philbin, is waiting to see if her sitcom, Single Parents, gets picked up for another season.

"Her daily question is: 'When we come back, are these people living in this world?' Do you ignore it, or do you run right at it?" he says. "It's hard to know what people will want from TV, whether they'll want pure escapism or whether they'll want a sort of reflection of their own reality."

Audiences may already be tired of watching actors in their living rooms or in mock Zoom meetings. Is it time to innovate new special effects or bring back canned laugh tracks? Stay tuned.

Nina Gregory edited this story.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The many Americans working from home include the producers and cast of "Saturday Night Live." The show was topical, if not quite live, when Alec Baldwin took part in the finale last weekend.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

ALEC BALDWIN: Taped from my home one last time, it's Saturday Night.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: That's the way people make TV now, if they can do it at all. NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports on virtual Hollywood.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Like "SNL," a special reunion episode of "Parks And Recreation" was written, shot, directed and edited remotely. Five years after the sitcom ended, the characters were back in the present day pandemic checking in on each other online.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SPECIAL "A PARKS AND RECREATION SPECIAL")

CHRIS PRATT: (As Andy) Hey.

RETTA: (As Donna) Hey.

ROB LOWE: (As Chris) Hey, guys.

AMY POEHLER: (As Leslie) What?

(CROSSTALK)

DEL BARCO: Showrunner Mike Schur says he and the show's director, script supervisor and editors worked from their homes, watching on Zoom as the actors did their own camera work.

MIKE SCHUR: We didn't actually fully know what anything looked like until we got the footage back. (Laughter) It was sort of - it was always a little bit of a surprise. You know, there were things that were recorded at the wrong frame rate. The little lights that were attached to the mini-rigs that we sent out kept malfunctioning in the middle of takes. And it was a struggle.

DEL BARCO: Schur says, in the end, the episode worked as a one-off. Having created "The Good Place" and "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," he's now working on a new series he created, "Rutherford Falls." But the DIY method isn't a long-term solution, Schur says. Making comedy is a team sport.

SCHUR: It can't be everyone in his or her own house acting as his or her own hair, makeup, DP, rigger, (laughter) you know, gaffer, grip, electric - everything. It was really fun to do. But it's not a blueprint for anything.

DEL BARCO: Casting director Jennifer Euston can no longer safely audition actors in person at her small New York City office. But she's still casting the upcoming Netflix series "Social Distance," a new, scripted show set during the pandemic.

JENNIFER EUSTON: I have to hire actors that are quarantining together as families, as husband and wife, as brother and sister, you know, any combination of people. And it's not just straight couples. I mean, I want to get as much diversity in there. And our stories that are going to be in this new show, "Social Distance," are going to be diverse. It means all shapes and sizes and faces and looks.

DEL BARCO: Meanwhile, others are finding alternatives to crowded sets.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS IS IT")

GLORIA ESTEFAN: (Singing) This is it. One day at a time.

DEL BARCO: Gloria Calderon Kellett is executive producer of the rebooted sitcom "One Day At A Time," which had to shut down its live audience production midseason.

GLORIA CALDERON KELLETT: When we were thinking of ways to keep the lights on, as it were, we thought, oh, well, wait a minute. You know, my husband's a cartoonist. So animation is around me all the time. And I just thought, maybe we can animate this particular episode.

DEL BARCO: Kellett says a sound monitor parked outside each actor's home as they recorded their voices for the animated episode set to air in June.

KELLETT: It's very political. It's about the election and how to talk to your family on an opposing side about this particular election and about this particular president.

DEL BARCO: Kellett says future episodes won't necessarily be cartoons. But animation is one of the few forms of entertainment still in production.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOB'S BURGERS' "THE BOB'S BURGERS THEME SONG")

DEL BARCO: Animators in Korea continue to make the series "Bob's Burgers." And in LA, Lizzie Molyneux and her sister, Wendy, work in the show's virtual writers room.

LIZZIE MOLYNEUX: You know, you lose a little bit of the fun and, like, the magic of having everybody in the room together and seeing each other. But I do think it's good to remember that we're all fortunate to be working.

DEL BARCO: The Molyneux sisters are also co-executive producers of an upcoming animated sitcom "The Great North." Wendy says the cast, which includes Megan Mullally and Will Forte, recently tested out lines during an online table read.

WENDY MOLYNEUX: Normally, you get the big laughs from the room. But we had everyone muted other than our actors just so there wouldn't be a lot of noise. But the actors were nice enough to, like, laugh at the jokes themselves as it went along. So that, like, helped it have the feeling of, like, oh, we're not saying jokes into an absolute vacuum.

DEL BARCO: TV writers are now wrestling with how future storylines can deal with the coronavirus pandemic and an unknown future. For instance, Mike Schur says his showrunner wife J.J. Philbin is waiting to see if her sitcom, "Single Parents," gets picked up for another season.

SCHUR: Her sort of daily question to herself is, when we come back, are these people living in this world? Like, do you ignore it? Or do you run right at it? It's hard to know what people will want from TV, whether they'll want pure escapism or a sort of reflection of their own reality.

DEL BARCO: Audiences may already be tired of watching actors in their living rooms or in mock Zoom meetings.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, recorded in my bedroom closet in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.