CBS Television City is not a city. It's a televison studio in an inner city LA suburb that nuzzles up to West Hollywood.
It's also not a landmark like NBC's Rockefeller Centre HQ is in New York. CBS looks like the studio lots you see when watching old Hollywood films on TCM. You half expect to see Robert Mitchum get waved through the boomgate in a Ford Coupe.
But those of us here for a taping of The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson aren't about to get waved through any gate. Instead we are made to line up single file against a fence, on a busy LA street. A motley ice cream vendor wheels his trolley by in hope. But the odd assortment of Ferguson fans and TV taping groupies are too busy excitedly chattering to bother with Eskimo Pies.
It seems Australia isn't the only foreign land represented amongst the gathering audience, there's a smattering of folk from Spain, Brazil and even Canada. But it would seem that not everyone here knows who Ferguson is. The ticketing agency hand out passes for TV tapings to tourists along Hollywood Boulevard on a regular basis – gotta get a non-canned laughter crowd any way you can (also up for grabs on the Boulevard this day were seats to Russell Brand and Jimmy Kimmel's shows).
Finally we were allowed to enter Television City – through two security checks and a metal detector. Immediately outside the famed Studio 56, those who hadn't heeded the warning not to bring phones and cameras had them taken away. And in a very primary school manner, we were assigned a seating order where we were split into six rows that we HAD to remain in until inside the studio.
Held captive here, we were directed to use the toilet (last chance before applause chores), buy merchandise (from the CBS factory seconds stall with shelves creaking under the weight of dusty How I Met Your Mother mugs) and practice your best fake laugh.
Hustled toward the studio – single file – it was a maze of corridors, stairwells and missed photo opportunties. While the walls outside were adorned with posters for current CBS fodder, inside was a tribute to the classic Television City talent: Carol Burnett, Art Linklater, All In The Family, The Jeffersons and so on (no sign of Rove McManus despite Rove LA filming here).
Entering the studio, assigned new seating order, folks vied for the infamous 'lesbian row' prime position. Not pegged as lesbian enough, I am ushered to the middle section. The main camera would block my view of Ferguson's monologue. But distraction arose in the form of warm-up guy Chunky B. Yes, really, a grown man called Chunky B who wasn't a '90s rapper. B supplied us with a Reece's Peanut Butter Cup each and then flailed us with lame jokes to see if we could keep up our fake laughs for any old gag. The laugh was all important – not too showy but never just a chuckle (“America can't hear you smiling.”). The applause must be enthusiastic and continual. Applaud and laugh, we were instructed, even if we didn't understand the joke. Then, of course, we had to practice the Secretariat dance. That's a part of the show that involves a pantomime horse entering the stage accompanied by a dance that involves much waving of arms in the air. Diehard fans know that this has been phased out since the horse took up permanent residence in a stable side of stage – but who doesn't want to stand up with a room full of strangers and wave your arms like you just don't care? The dance was not required during the taping.
We then view a best-of tape just in case some of the Hollywood Boulevard stragglers still have no idea who Ferguson is. The showreel seems out-of-date by a year or more. Do none of the staff watch the show?
Craig Ferguson discusses Lesbian Row
Getting to this point seemed to have taken up an entire afternoon (the show is not broadcast live but instead is usually filmed 'live' – there is no reshooting or multiple takes – and shown a few hours later). But a curtained enclosure was suddenly whisked away to reveal the show's gay robot skeleton. We began applauding and cheering like our lives depended on it. And we kept doing so as Ferguson bounced into view and began gesturing for us to quieten down. We'd been warned that the gesture was to be ignored – just applaud and cheer through it.
We were applause monkeys.
Ferguson, a Scottish comedian who trades off his alcoholic/drug-abusing past, settled in the US and found fame playing a posh Pom in The Drew Carey Show. He was an out-of-leftfield choice to take the post-Letterman late night spot (he's the third host since the show began in 1995) and he takes pleasure in not following the tonight show format. His monologue can sometimes take the form of a humourous history lesson or a puppet show, he has no band or human sidekicks and his guests make small talk, rarely getting promotional plugs in and often encouraged to endure 'awkward pauses'.
Craig Ferguson discusses rehab
At the taping, Ferguson is 'as seen on TV'. He slays the monologue right off – swapping erection and papal cracks with his cybersidekick Geoff Peterson (his blue-eyed death stare is even more piercing in 'real life') – breaks for a second and then tackles the cold open (the introduction that airs before the opening credits). Often Ferguson pulls random audience members on camera at this point – but not today. My 15 minutes of chat show fame was not to be.
Another break. These inbetween segment pauses are far shorter than the commercial breaks they accommodate during the telecast. Ferguson quickly takes his place behind his desk and starts to read viewer emails and tweets. Earlier we were advised that no matter how often we had seen Ferguson flash the pieces of paper containing the emails at the camera – we had to laugh like it was the freshest and funniest gag we'd ever seen. We'd practiced for this moment… But alas, no flashing.
Break. Back with first guest. George Hamilton. Hollywood royalty. Tanning royalty. Many consider Hamilton an irrelevant throwback to studio contract days and an actor who ended up in the wrong Godfather film (Part lll). But Ferguson elicits endearing conversation from the star – he's been on the show before and seems at ease with the tangental topics. Hamilton discusses past drug taking (“in the '60s… just to be sociable”) and being single again.
Another quick break. At last, the chance to witness what goes on between host and guest during the ad break. Expecting to eavesdrop on Larry Sanders-level uncomfortable conversation… instead, nothing. Not only do they kill the sound at the desk but they jump straight back into the second-half of the interview.
Break. Next guest. As is common with Ferguson, his guests include a lot of second-rung stars from network TV. Jessica Lucas is in Cult – an already-axed horror series on the CBS-owned CW network. Luckily she is also in Evil Dead. Ferguson is at his best with these starlets, who are usually painted as vacuous props by other chat show hosts, as he lures them into sitting-beside-you-on-a-flight conversation that allows for little mention of film or series. Then they throw Frisbees at 'the horse'. This is why Kristen Bell and Mila Kunis became regular visitors to the show.
Craig Ferguson meets Mila Kunis
Break. And back to close with 'What Did We Learn On The Show Tonight, Craig?'. Credits roll. Ferguson races to the front of the audience and proceeds to shatter the illusion by introducing the voice actor behind the gay skeleton robot (Family Guy's Josh Robert Thompson) and the actors in the horse costume.
But we, the applause monkeys, have one last job. We are screened a Laurel & Hardy-esque silent black & white sketch starring Ferguson. It will be used as contingency plan filler in the future (it screened three weeks after the taping) and requires a real live audience laugh track. We laugh and applaud loudly, by this stage fearing that if we don't we may be forced to stay for a Price Is Right taping.
Craig Ferguson's silent movie skit
Home time. It's still daylight as we leave Television City. Later, under the cover of darkness, The Late Late Show is broadcast. America may not be able to hear me smiling but for a brief millisecond – pause and zoom - America could see me laughing and applauding.
Where's Wally? Can you spot The TV Set author in the audience? Pause and zoom - full episode here.
This week's new sets include the return of UK's Foals plus local acts Last Dinosaurs, The Snowdroppers and The Paper Kites.