We shot the last episode of the show I was working on in Canada on Friday night. I won’t lie; I had been smelling the barn for some time.
Four months is a long time to live in a glorified hotel suite far from your family, in a country as resentful of America as it is dependent upon it (in my rare interactions with people not on the staff or crew of the show, I found remarkably few people in Canada who have opinions about America. They simply know. I prefer criticism of my country from people who have actually experienced it first hand).
By the last week I was more than ready to hit the road. I packed my car Thursday night and checked out of my condo the next morning, planning to leave quietly after the curtain call and make the border by midnight. It should have been easy. We were often finished shooting before 9 p.m. and rarely later than 9:30. It is about ninety minutes to Buffalo, give or take. It turned out to be touch and go.
Whoever controls the weather could not have cared less about my needs. If Carol found out I was going to have to drive through even a light rain, she would have put on a full court press for me to stay another day. A tornado was spotted near Toronto. Thunderstorms ringed the city and struck during the shooting. Lightning caused a partial power outage on the set that delayed shooting for half an hour or so. Fortunately, Carol did not check The Weather Channel.
I also had to endure the “last show” factor. Remember how hard it was in elementary school to concentrate during the last week of the year? Multiply it a few times and you get an idea of the last week of a show’s season.
Working on a television show is a little like going into a biodome. You are trapped in a bubble for the length of the production, and for most of that time it seems like you are never going to get out. It’s like that scene in the war movie where the grizzled veteran tells the new replacements to stop thinking about the future, usually accompanied by some statement like, “The best way to survive is to consider yourself already dead.”
It occurs to you that you might survive the production sometime during the last week. The crew usually keep doing their jobs as if nothing were happening. The cameras still have to get shots. The costumes still have to be right in each take, as do the hair and makeup. The props have to be in the right place. It takes more than 100 people working very hard to make a half hour sitcom, even the last show of the season. If you ever get a chance to see a live television show, look behind the scenes whenever you can. You’ll see a beehive of activity.
Among the “creatives,” the relief and accompanying breakdown of discipline during the last week of production are palpable. The seemingly effortless facility of sitcom casts is the product of thousands of hours expended to get the words just right, then the performance just right. It is difficult and stressful. Acting and writing are way more fun than manual labor (I have had all three kinds of job), but they drain your mental strength the way digging ditches drains your physical strength.
I’ve seen the pattern play out a dozen or more times, and the similarity between final shoot nights is uncanny. By shoot night, people are giddy. The director, unsung hero of the show, has to use a whip and a chair to keep the cast in line. Typically, and our last episode was no exception, this feat of holding the pieces together virtually single-handedly goes even less appreciated than it does on the rest of the episodes. People tend to undervalue what they can’t understand.
Our director’s final show problems were multiplied exponentially by the network deciding to stunt cast. Our star, Dave Foley, is a member of the famous Canadian sketch group Kids In The Hall. They were the guest stars. Judging from the reception they received on their first entrance, KITH, as they are known to their fans, enjoy demigod status in Canada. There are also five of them, including Dave. That means the show had to juggle dates to accommodate the schedules of four very busy comic actors just to get them on the show. In this case, it meant shooting this episode last, thus relegating the core cast to secondary roles. The last episode is traditionally the one that showcases the actors who have built the show, so it was sad to see them have to perform in the shadow of the Kids.
The show was very funny, the Kids ad-libbed a lot, interacted with the studio audience a bit, and generally showed a complete indifference to my travel plans. Sure, I could forgive them for not knowing my plans, but that’s not my style. The curtain call finally did come, and I sneaked away at just past 10 to brave storms and lightning.
At 11:57, I crossed the halfway point of the bridge to Buffalo, where they have the marker with the Maple Leaf on one side and the Stars and Stripes on the other. I’m calling it a win.
Mike Langworthy, an attorney, former stand-up comic and longtime television writer, now lives in Scarborough and is fascinated by all things Maine. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: @mikelangworthy.