The familiar sounds that usually filled Stage 23 of Paramount Pictures, the headquarters of UPN's "Girlfriends," all but vanished after Sept. 11.
The cast and crew were sticking to the routine of rehearsing and filming the relationship comedy. But the mood on the Hollywood set after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon had darkened.
But by Sept. 28, more than two weeks after the attacks, the sounds began to return, as full and as lively as ever, almost as if they had never left: uncontrollable giggles. Whispered jokes. Music.
As executives, writers, producers and network and studio executives filed inside the stage that day to watch a run-through of the latest episode, Tracee Ellis Ross and Golden Brooks, half of the "Girlfriends" comedic quartet, relaxed on an office set and launched into an impromptu version of an Alicia Keys song. As they sang, Reggie Hayes, the sole male of the regular cast, smiled.
The upbeat vibe continued through the rehearsal of a particularly raucous living room scene in which the girlfriends get drunk while playing a game about secrets. As the crew and onlookers moved on to another set, the "Girlfriends"--Ross, Brooks, Persia White and Jill Marie Jones--lingered behind, laughing, still overcome by the high spirit of the scene.
"That was so, so funny," Brooks declared. "I hope we can do that on tape."
Mara Brock Akil, creator of "Girlfriends" and one of its executive producers, said later, "There was definitely a giddiness there that hasn't been here for a while."
In the aftermath of the attacks, Hollywood faded into the background. It was nearly a week before David Letterman chose to return to his CBS late-night desk. NBC's Jay Leno followed the next night, almost apologizing for continuing with the business of comedy.
But "Girlfriends," along with several other television comedies and dramas, did not have that luxury. There were pressing production deadlines, budgets and network schedules, and so, on that Wednesday, on Stage 23, the show went on.
On Sept. 12, the roughly 70 members of the "Girlfriends" company gathered on the set, stunned and still incredulous at the events of the previous day. But they had to find a way to break through. There was a job to do, an episode to tape that day. Although the usual studio audience had been canceled, that was little comfort to cast members, who had to put aside their personal concerns about family and friends, as well as their own sorrow over the tragedy. There were jokes to tell. And the jokes could not wait.
"Without a doubt, that was one of the hardest days I've ever had to go through," recalled White, who plays the hippie-like Lynn. "My hands were shaking."
Ross, who plays Joan, a strait-laced attorney successful in her profession but not in love added, "It was a difficult day for everyone. Everybody's heart was heavy."
Those associated with "Girlfriends" say those first days were extremely rough going. But the cloud has largely lifted. The studio audiences and their laughs are back. Brooks regards the set as a safe oasis from the troubles of the world. Akil says the mood of the writing room, which had been filled with anxiety and anger after the attacks, has lightened.
"It took us a bit to get our funny bone back," she said.
Still, there are distinct differences between the world of "Girlfriends" before Sept. 11, and the current world of "Girlfriends."
The cast and others associated with the show are taking more time to talk and connect with each other, moving beyond the usual small talk. Said Akil, "No one is taking anyone for granted anymore."
Henry Chan, one of the show's directors, says he is more aware of his role as a cheerleader for the cast and is much more patient with the performers. He says the female cast has more nervous energy than before. "I have to let them get a lot of stuff out of their system," he says. "Sometimes they'll all start giggling for no reason. And I'll just let them go, where before I might have tried to control it. I want to create an environment where they can feel safe and silly if they want to."
Story lines are being reexamined. One that has been scrapped involves an interoffice competition between Joan and her colleague William (Hayes) that is so frenzied that it continues during the funeral of a mutual friend.
"It was going to be our 'Chuckles Bites the Dust' episode," said Akil, referring to the classic "Mary Tyler Moore" episode where attendees break out in uncontrollable laughter during a funeral for a beloved clown. "It's just not the right thing to do now."
Everyone involved with "Girlfriends" is also reminded whenever entering the Paramount Pictures lot that a "return to normalcy" is a long way off. They must endure long lines and waits of about 30 minutes as security guards check under cars and in trunks for weapons or bombs. The FBI has informed all studios that they are targets for terrorists.