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Behind The Scenes : Want to see Roseanne's tattoo? Or cheer for the Screaming Eagles? Get in line.

October 16, 1992|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They bring flowers for Burt Reynolds. They want to see the tattoo above Roseanne Arnold's left breast.

With the television season in full swing, thou sands of fans are lining up outside studios across the San Fernando Valley. Each afternoon they wait for hours, hoping to be part of a "live studio audience." Admission is free, but at the popular shows there are rarely enough seats for everyone.

Michael Webb and his wife, Trisha, were turned away from "Home Improvement" on their first try. On a recent Friday night, the couple had again driven from their home in Palmdale to the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, hoping for better luck. "We've never seen anything filmed before," Michael Webb explained.

People like the Webbs don't come to see the show. A 22-minute sitcom can take hours to complete, with scenes repeated over and over. The studio bleachers don't afford a view of every set, so the audience ends up watching television monitors part of the time.

What these fans really want is an up-close glimpse of their favorite actor or actress.

"We've never seen any stars except at the airport," Webb said.

The celebrities don't disappoint. Tim Allen grunts like a gorilla for his "Home Improvement" audience. At a recent filming of "Coach," Craig T. Nelson walked onto the set in a robe and, at the behest of a fan, flashed the crowd. He was wearing blue shorts, which drew thunderous applause. And Burt Reynolds, during a recent filming of "Evening Shade," leaned over the bleacher railing to kiss a young woman who'd brought him flowers.

"I learned a long time ago, from a man named Gleason who was a kind of surrogate father to me, that you don't run away from a crowd; you run toward them," Reynolds said. "That way, they won't chase you and kill you."

Producers also know that a happy crowd is vital to their survival. They hire warm-up comics and, in some cases, a band to entertain between takes.

"The audience is absolutely essential to this kind of show. That was proven back in the days of 'I Love Lucy,' " said Peter Bonerz, director of "Murphy Brown," who also played Jerry the dentist on "The Bob Newhart Show." "The people are participants in our show. And they're not just an organic laugh track."

"The actors feed off the audience," explained Jim Hampton, who has directed episodes of "Evening Shade." "When they hear the laughter, they think, 'Oh, we're doing something right.' "

Each show treats its audience in a slightly different manner. Following is a guide to what you can expect to see and hear at some of the top-rated sitcoms produced in the Valley:

"SEINFELD": For Jerry Seinfeld, it was an obvious choice to mingle with the crowd before each filming.

"As a comedian, it's very weird for me to stand in front of an audience and not talk to them," he said. "I couldn't do that. It goes against 16 years of experience."

So he climbs into the bleachers to tell a few jokes. He answers personal questions, too. On a recent Tuesday evening, an audience member asked why he was moving from his West Hollywood home.

After a brief pause, Seinfeld responded: "I make way too much money. I'm not going to lie. I needed something to soak up the excess cash. You know, they pay you a lot to do these television shows. I can't control that."

Once the filming begins, though, this informal atmosphere turns businesslike. Seinfeld and the rest of the cast rarely turn their attention away from their work. Each scene is repeated at least two times. If a scene was filmed on location, as is often the case, cast members will recreate it for the audience.

Recently, this resulted in a hilarious bit with Seinfeld and co-star Jason Alexander pretending to drive separate cars. Seinfeld sat on a kitchen chair. Alexander drove the couch.

The stand-up portions of the show--where Seinfeld goes all the way back to his comic roots--are filmed separately. Getting into them is a bit trickier. You have to go see a filming, then ask one of the pages if there is a stand-up session scheduled soon.

"MURPHY BROWN": Burbank can remain sweltering well into October, and the people waiting outside Warner Bros. Studios on a recent Friday afternoon were growing testy.

"You would think with all the money this show makes, they could put up an awning," one woman complained.

For most sitcoms, audience members are told to arrive an hour or two early. "Murphy Brown" requires a greater sacrifice. Caroline Oester and Sandra Lutz had been standing at the front of the line all afternoon.

"As long as we get in, I don't mind waiting in the sun," Oester said. "This show is worth it."

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