It’s a Friday afternoon and I’m standing outside staring at the red glow of Stage 20’s recording light on the Twentieth Century Fox lot. The gears let out a subtle moan as the light spins clockwise ever so slightly. A few minutes pass and a bell rings loudly from inside and the light flicks off. Walking through the double doors the floors creak with each step reminding you of its rich history. As I navigate through the enigma of false walls and production staff I find Gary Baum holding a light meter inside the Carmichael’s kitchen.
Baum has been working in the camera department for thirty plus years before becoming a full-time DP in 2005. He’s a fairly quiet man speaking in short precise sentences that exude a type of confidence. The DP clearly knows the work and the six Emmy noms (one win) exemplifies that people in the industry are noticing. Standing next to him is gaffer David McMillan, who’s worked with Baum on shows like Gary Unmarried, Mike & Molly and The Millers. The two are adjusting an overhead fixture to compensate for some newly introduced blocking.
Now in its second season, the multi-camera series stars comedian Jerrod Carmichael and his opinionated family as they push uncomfortable topics few sitcoms are smart enough or prepared to explore. Jerrord’s father is played by Detroit’s very own David Alan Grier aka Antoine Merriweather from In Living Color. His mother Cynthina (Loretta Devite) is as outspoken as they come and his live-in girlfriend Maxine (Amber Stevens) keeps Jerrod open and honest as the two discover their own growing relationship.
If you haven’t watched an episode you should – NBC, Sundays 9/8c. It’s one of those underrated series that’s unrepentant with its comedy. It has a type of moxie to it that sneaks up on you in an unfamiliar but familiar kind of way. Today, Gerry Cohen is directing episode ten, “Man’s Work,” (airing 5/8) which dives into gender roles in modern society. While not new, what’s interesting about The Carmichael Show is how they approach the work. They’ll have a Monday table read then rehearse and set up throughout the week like other multi-camera series, but on Friday, they’ll tape the episode twice running straight through, mistakes and all, in front of two different live audiences. “This is very old school type of show and it’s definitely a lot of fun shooting this way,” says Baum. “The creators wanted an All in the Family feel with an updated look. By shooting two shows it allows the writers to see what works and what doesn’t and we get to make any tweaks as well.”
Baum lights each set for four Sony F55 cameras that are mounted with Panavision Primo Zoom lenses. They shoot 4:4:4 onto SXS cards which are backed up on Sound Devices PIX 240s positioned to the top of each camera. Talking with the dimmer board operator and his crew via walkie, Baum tunes the kitchen set fixtures as the cast rehearses the opening of the show. It’s here we find out Maxine is at odds with Jerrod because his attitude towards gender roles is a little more traditional than she thought. As Maxine presses Jerrod about his opinions she challenges his masculinity by suggesting the men fix the roof while she and Cynthia will change a flat tire without their help.
The cast and crew move together like angel fish in the water as they glide a barrage of equipment from one end of the stage to another. Baum and his crew continue to tweak and adjust as they move to a large swing set – the Carmichael’s roof. Weathered and tattered to shreds, the art, prop and set-dec departments dressed the roof as if it went through a storm – it clearly needs help. “When we approach a new swing set we key certain areas like an entrance and a few other spots, but we try to stay pretty loose with them. After our first run through, we can fine tune things, but the script is always changing. Dialogue is always getting reworked. For us, we have to be on top of those changes all the time and tweak as we go.” During the rehearsal Baum shuffles back and forth from his DIT area to the set in order to move vegetation and trees while another grip adjusts a fan that blows against the scene. “It’s all in the details,” mentions Baum. “We really only get a few looks with the cast to get everything right before taping. It’s during this crunch time that it all comes together.”
Flipping 180° the crew finds itself inside the episode’s second large swing set – the garage where the Carmichael car is parked. As Cythina looks down on a struggling Maxine who’s trying to change the tire, Cohen notices a lighting reflection in the monitor. It’s an inaccuracy that the average person probably wouldn’t notice but both the director and DP are pressed to fix it before the first taping. Cohen, Baum and associate producer Tony Hicks meet to see how they could address the issue. When the realization of removing them through visual effects would be too costly, Baum suggests a lighting change that could get done in time before the live audience arrives. After a few more rehearsals the crew swarms the set to replace the fixtures with two 8 foot tubes. With a little adjustment, the new set up completely diminishes the unfitting reflections from the car before the audience even begins to sit down. “We really have a great crew on this show. We’ve been together for a long time so we have a kind of shorthand that allows us to do this type of quick turnaround,” Baum explains.
As the crew starts to tape the first of two shows just after 4pm the lights turn up and the cast is introduced before the camera starts rolling. They move with pace through the entire script in under forty-five minutes keeping the audience energized and laughing. The lines that were once stumbled upon during rehearsal disappear as the actors hit their marks under Baum’s lights and find their comedic timing. There’s no pause for rewrites or changes – it’s just the audience and the story. It brings you back to when television was treated more like a play rather than a fourth wall breaking episodic. It’s magnetic and wholesome just like when I was a kid.
Photos: Chris Haston/NBC