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COVER STORY : SHOW TIME : At television studios in the Valley, audiences get a behind-the-scenes glimpse at how shows and their actors get the job done--gaffes, guffaws and all.

October 14, 1994|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A lady in the back row wants to know Brett Butler's reaction to making People magazine's worst-dressed list.

"Oh," Butler snaps, "they can bite me."

The offhand exchange comes minutes before a taping of the comedienne's ABC sitcom "Grace Under Fire." She has climbed into the bleachers to chat with her studio audience. The conversation ranges from earthquakes to ex-husbands to the benefits of starring in a hit TV show.

"I got these," she says, gesturing toward her recent and much-publicized breast implants. "They're four-wheel drive."

The audience applauds.

Over the next three hours, these people will watch the taping of an episode. They will see the machinations of lights and cameras, directors and actors. They will laugh at the scripted punch lines. But their response will be loudest when Butler slips out of character: when she talks with them or tosses an ad-lib their way. It is the same on the set of "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" as Will Smith raps before taping. At the Walt Disney Studios, the crowd roars when Ellen DeGeneres dissolves into laughter during a serious scene.

"This is my second time to this show," a man in the "Ellen" audience says. "I love it when she makes mistakes."

Sitting in a studio audience is a uniquely Hollywood experience. It offers a side of television that most of America never sees--the quips and gaffes made for recounting to co-workers around the water cooler or the family back in Iowa. And it is free.

So the waiting list to see the top-rated "Home Improvement" stretches into December, 1995. Other programs have shorter waits but, on the day of the show, people stand in line for hours to get the best seats.

With the new TV season in full swing, and production sets located from Burbank to Agoura, the San Fernando Valley offers dozens of sitcoms and talk shows. A sampling of these programs suggests that each one provides a slightly different brand of entertainment.

"THE FRESH PRINCE OF BEL-AIR"

Will Smith's grinning face flickers on television monitors suspended above the audience.

"Welcome to Willy's playhouse," he says. "Here we have actors who very rarely say their lines right and I'm going to lead the pack."

Errors from previous tapings are replayed. They set the mood for this loose and friendly set. Smith arrives in person a few minutes later, climbing over the railing to get to the people.

"Are you ready to party?" he shouts. "Where's my party section?"

The audience numbers 285, which is average for a sitcom. Some are tourists hungry for a taste of celebrity. Some are locals wanting a behind-the-scenes look at their favorite program. Once the taping begins, they wait through a fair amount of inaction--camera adjustments, set and wardrobe changes. Some scenes are repeated. And some of the sets are out of view, forcing the crowd to watch on monitors.

But Smith and his co-stars keep the evening interesting by turning their attention to the people. Alfonso Ribeiro, who plays Carlton, offers a Michael Jackson impersonation. James Avery, the father on the NBC show, dances ballroom-style. Even the production executives tap their feet to music that thrums over loudspeakers.

And when someone in the audience breaks out in a song between takes, Smith dances along on the set.

"I'm backing you up," he tells the singer. "I'm here for you."

"ELLEN"

Television producers insist that it is vital to keep the audience enthusiastic and happy. That is why they employ stand-up comedians to work between takes. The actors want a lively crowd, too. They say it energizes them.

"How are you guys holding up out there?" Ellen DeGeneres asks, squinting to see past the bright lights.

The filming of her ABC show, "Ellen," has stretched past three hours and the sound stage feels only slightly warmer than a Minnesota winter day. The people cheer all the same.

DeGeneres does not pay as much attention to the crowd as do Smith and his cohorts. But she ad-libs from one take to the next. Each repeated scene brings the possibility of a surprise laugh.

The studio audience inspires such modifications, says Tom Cherones, the show's director. During the first take, he says, both cast and crew listen for a response.

"It gives the actors the correct timing if the joke is working," Cherones says. "And if it's not working, Ellen will try something else or the writers will quickly come up with a new line for the second take."

Says Mike Hernandez, who has brought his girlfriend, Ilene Vasquez, to see the show: "I like the little funny stuff she does. I like the modifications."

"HANGIN' WITH MR. COOPER"

Some producers go to great lengths to keep the audience buzzing. "Hangin' with Mr. Cooper" is one of several shows, including Fox's "Martin" and "Living Single," that offer a comedian and a disc jockey.

Danno Metoyer spins records from a booth in the corner of the bleachers. The fans, young and boisterous, have come to see stars Mark Curry and Holly Robinson but Metoyer knows how to grab their attention.

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