Tonight Show production a well-oiled machine

By Chad Garland

Whatever you do, don’t take photos inside Studio 11 on NBC Universal’s Burbank Lot. A small army of NBC pages and contracted security guards keep a watchful eye for anyone snapping a shot on their camera, phone or tablet.

Aided in their lookout by an unseen surveillance team, these hawk-like stewards won’t just frown on surreptitious snapshots, they’ll give shutterbugs a stern talking-to, and they don’t like repeating themselves.

This obsession with control of the hundreds of tourists who fill the audience daily is all part of a systematic routine that keeps The Tonight Show with Jay Leno running smoothly day after day.

The show is taped live and blasted up to a satellite passing overhead at just the right time (about 4 p.m. to 5 p.m.) and sent to the East Coast for broadcast later that evening.

“We tape for an hour, we take a one-minute break for one-minute commercials, a 30-second break for 30-second commercials,” Leno told the audience. “All the flubs and mistakes stay in.”

Aside from a few of Jay’s lines — called “pick-ups” — that are rerecorded later and dubbed in to cover bad sound in the original recording, the show airs with little post-production editing.

This means that the show needs to come off without a hitch, and that means tight audience control.

When I arrived with a group of students from the Cronkite School to watch a taping on March 14, we were all greeted by an energetic page who led us to a security checkpoint where we passed through a metal detector and bag check that would make the TSA proud.

After giving my bag a thorough screening in which she checked every pouch and asked me to identify certain contents, the security guard warned me to put my camera in the camera bag before entering the studio.

Benjamin Kuerschner came through the West Coast Page program pipeline after graduating film school at New York University. The page programs — there’s one on each coast — are year-long and serve as NBC Universal’s “primary pipeline to entry level positions,” according to the company’s website. Of approximately 9,000 applicants to the West Coast program, only 50 made it into the 2012 program, according to one Tonight Show page.

Kuershner landed a position as the show’s audience coordinator after completing the program in 2011. He herds audience members into sections of the studio’s parking lot according to their status — walk-ins, groups, guests of employees who work on the show and a few other categories.

A cadre of pages work with Kuerschner to prepare the audience for the show, lining them up, issuing tickets, instructing them to throw out food and drinks before entering, warning them not to take photos and, of course, counting them.

It’s a thankless job, but an important one for a show that fills 386 seats five days a week, but usually overbooks its seats. Everyone wants in, but not everyone gets in. Kuerschner’s team decides who makes it and who doesn’t.

At the appointed time, the pages lead groups into the audience seating area, escorting each to various sections in what must be a systematic fashion, although the method seems random to a casual observer.

Guests of the show’s employees apparently get priority for floor seats, where they have the opportunity to high-five Leno at the top of the show, just before his monologue.

One security guard who had recently started working at the show got tickets for two of his buddies from his weekend job at the Anheuser-Busch brewery in nearby Van Nuys. He asked Kuerschner to get them on the floor, and sure enough they were seated just off stage right.

It’s at this point, during the seating, that the rigorous no-photo policy is enforced. A colleague of mine was cautioned about taking a cell phone photo. A guard wearing an earpiece checked the last photo on another colleague’s iPad to ensure he hadn’t snapped a shot of the empty set.

“They told you about your camera, right?” the same guard asked me before returning to his post in front of the dimly lit set.

I nodded and said they had, surprised that he even knew about the camera in a messenger bag shrouded in shadows under my seat. I soon realized that a larger security apparatus was at work and communicating with the guards via radio.

With the audience seated, a denim-clad Jay Leno walked out on stage to give some pre-show guidance, tell a few jokes, shake some hands and pose for a few photos with guests. He reminded the audience that the “most important thing” was their applause and laughter during his monologue. Not for himself, mind you, but for his guests—James Franco and Jay Mohr that night.

“If they just hear silence during the monologue, they’ll start to think there’s something wrong with them, personally,” Leno quipped.

As with much of the process, there seemed to be an underlying system to selecting the guests for photos, but the method was still unclear, leaving it to seem somehow random again. There is a consistent and constant effort to maintain an illusion of spontaneity to mask the rigid structure and mechanics of the production.

Leno’s casual pre-show rapport-building was as much a part of the production as the taped elements that would begin 15 minutes later. As Leno retreated to his dressing room, comedian Don Reed appeared to warm the audience with a mix of instruction — “People seated on the floor and on the floor only come up, give Jay five, then quickly sit back down” — and comedy, such as his slow-motion impression of a man thinking he’s cool, getting drunk on tequila, and getting kicked in the jewels.

Once Reed had worked the audience into a fervor of clapping, whooping and whooping and clapping, it was as if audience members’ identities drained away and we fell under the control of the show’s producers. We applauded when applause signs flashed, stood and clapped to the music when the band played, sat in rapt attention when Leno interviewed his guests and laughed on cue.

When the show was over, the promos taped and pick-ups dubbed, we were released from our spell and returned to the Burbank parking lot outside. We weren’t victims of a production cycle, we weren’t spectators, either. We were participants, part of a promotion machine greased to drive viewers from across the country to movie theaters to watch a Disney movie, a Warner Brothers picture, a DreamWorks animated film.

For that hour of taping in Studio 11, we weren’t tourists anymore, and so we didn’t get a souvenir photo. But, on the way out, returned to our natural state, we could snap a shot with a laminated, life-size Jay Leno standee or purchase an NBC peacock pillow for $19.99.