Attending a Live Taping of “The Tonight Show”

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Note: this article was also published on Project Quinn (website no longer active).

I’ve been on a set of a television show before.

True, it was in Kansas City (where I’m from) and it was for a local news program, but it made me think that the experience of going to The Tonight Show would be – while an experience – not something I’d be too thrown by.

This ended up being both true and false in the end.

The “Reporting on Entertainment and Pop Culture” class with Jay Leno on the set of "The Tonight Show"
The “Reporting on Entertainment and Pop Culture” class with Jay Leno on the set of “The Tonight Show”

I’ve never been a huge fan of late night talk shows. I remember being introduced to the David Letterman show in middle school, thinking he was oh-so-college in his attitude and humor, and I remember the hubbub when Johnny Carson retired (and his last week was probably the only time I really watched the show to watch it outside of celebrity interests). But I only watch late night occasionally, and mostly when I do it’s Craig Ferguson (and if you count The Daily Show) – and never is it actually the night the episode is taped.

So, when I heard we were going to a taping of The Tonight Show, the main reason I was excited to do it was for the experience of it: a Midwesterner seeing the taping of a television show.

Not only have I been on the set of a television show before, I have experience being on stage (albeit in a community and academic theatre setting), as well as working with green screen. So, my first thought as we were led into the studio audience was that the set of The Tonight Show was actually much bigger than I was expecting.

President Barack Obama talks with co-producer Michele Tasoff during a break in taping “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” at NBC Studios. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.
President Barack Obama talks with co-producer Michele Tasoff during a break in taping “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” at NBC Studios. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

Despite being only four or so rows from the stage, the couch and desk that Jay will be sitting at looks like dollhouse furniture, a sense of unreality about it. The lighting grid was exact, not an inch of the space misused. Finally, I couldn’t help but note the preciseness of the psychology of the pre-show amping: everything from the music groups being shown on screen prior all being ‘pump up’ type music to the warm up where we’re guilted into laughing at the monologue to the bribery of applauding for Tonight Show trinkets. It took everything in my power to not fight these obvious ploys, and I wondered how little the reactions of the audience was actually used, knowing full well that we were told to laugh and applaud as needed.

As the taping progressed, I could not help but notice how well-oiled of a machine the whole thing was. Not that I was expecting Sports Night hijinks where things would go wrong, but it was fascinating to watch how smoothly everything and everybody was, from the guy with the one-question cue cards during the interview with zoologist Dave Salmoni that kept Jay in the interview to the breakdown of the sound equipment by the roadies at the end. It was like watching a well-choreographed dance.

John Edwards on 'The Tonight Show', and courtesy John Edwards' Flicker, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike
John Edwards on ‘The Tonight Show’, and courtesy John Edwards’ Flicker, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike

I also noticed that Jay was always on: even in the breaks, I could see that he was being his character, always working toward the show. When he met up with us afterwards, I couldn’t help but notice that he never really looked at any of us directly in the eye: the curse of being a celebrity, no doubt.

In the end, watching a taping of The Tonight Show was an experience I will never forget. It was fascinating, from a theatre and TV point of view as well as from a psychological point of view. I was both impressed and thrown at how much fun I had, as well as how smooth everything went. While I wasn’t expecting anything less, at the same time it was still something to sit back and admire.