Gone are the days when the worlds of such characters as Lucy Ricardo, Mary Richards and Jerry Seinfeld were largely limited to living rooms, workplaces and a handful of fixed locales. Since shifting toward single-camera storytelling, world-building in television comedy has radically expanded, providing rich universes — environments frequently shot off soundstages on location — for mining laughs and building stories.
For “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” creators Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino set a high bar after finally breaking away from studio lots.
“Seeing the cars, re-creating Greenwich Village, re-creating midtown, re-creating the Upper West Side as it was just added another dimension of storytelling,” says Sherman-Palladino. “We insisted very early that the show be shot in New York because it’s the story of a woman whose world is very small, and as she expands, her world has to expand and we must see that world. We had to be out on the streets of New York to be able to sell that premise.”
Adding to the degree of difficulty is the series’ late ’50s/early ’60s setting, demanding locations relatively untouched by time and digital effects wizardry to eliminate anachronisms.
“A big part of it is finding the locations that still reflect New York from 60 years ago, and those are very much disappearing,” Palladino says.
Take the largely defunct mid-century-style Catskills resorts for example: After the production found a 100-year-old family-owned Catskills-adjacent lakeside retreat, the writing team crafted scenes around its attractions. “It’s really fun for us to know what we have and then adapt our writing to it.”
In the second season of the Amazon comedy, “Maisel” also traveled overseas to Paris for some earlseason scenes that expanded upon Rose’s (Marin Hinkle) backstory and relationship with Abe (Tony Shalhoub). And, in order to sell “the other side” of Midge (Rachel Brosnahan) and Joel’s (Michael Zegen) relationship, they needed to see the bustling New York Garment District in that time period, Sherman-Palladino says.
“We knew a little bit about Midge and her Upper West Side, but we wanted to see Joel’s world,” she says. “Story-wise it went a long way to explaining who the Maisels are and what their backstory is.”
For the final season of “Veep,” executive producer David Mandel says taking Selina Meyers’ presidential campaign on the road opened up the show.
“We built an Iowa State Fair out at the Underwood Family Farms in the Valley, because that’s the kind of thing a candidate does and we needed that to be as real as possible,” he says.
|“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” filmed at the Raging Waters theme park for a pivotal final-season episode.
Courtesy of CW
Mandel is particularly proud of the way the production transformed USC’s Galen Center sports arena into a major political convention for the series finale. The show utilized 500 extras, crowd-enlarging special effects and spliced-in footage of the real-life 2016 convention.
“You can’t tell what’s what, and it really just feels big and majestic the way a convention should,” he says. “When you’re believing in the place you’re supposed to be in, that belief extends into the story: ‘I’m believing the story more because I believe we’re really there.’”
“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” co-creator and showrunner Aline Brosh McKenna says “the audience, whether they’re processing it consciously or not, has a bit of a relief when you go to new environments.” However, because television “lives in the familiarity,” a show can’t go somewhere new “just to go there, because the home sets are often something which is very comforting and familiar.” There has to be value added to the story, as well as to the economics of the show, in order to make it worth doing.
McKenna says her team always carefully weighed the expenses of shooting in places including the show’s West Covina setting or in a party hall redressed as a Las Vegas casino. But after name-checking the San Dimas water park Raging Waters — lead character Rebecca Bunch’s Holy Grail of fun — throughout the series’ run, a visit during the final season was a must.
“We had sort of promised it; it was like a check we had to cash,” McKenna says.
Co-creator and star Rachel Bloom was so determined to make it happen, she made a Twitter plea and the park extended an invitation.
“It was quite complicated because the park was not open, so we had to bring background people to make it seem populated,” McKenna says. “And the water was freezing: When you see Rachel going down the slide with Skylar [Astin], they’re so f—ing cold! Raging Waters was very gracious to open up the location and let us shoot there. You’re often prevailing on the kindness of people to give you locations in a favorable way.”
Similar to “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” “The Good Place” shoots a lot of its scenes on stages and a backlot (Universal), but because it balances the comical supernatural elements with earthbound sequences set all over the globe, writer and producer Josh Siegal says it is important for the show to “always try to do our best to create a pretty sprawling universe.”
“When you’re believing in the place you’re supposed to be in, that belief extends into the story.”
“We’re trying to depict a Good Place, a Bad Place, a Medium Place, and if all of it looks like a one-room set or an alley in Burbank, that would be kind of a bummer, so we try not to do that,” he says.
A third-season triumph was discovering an expansive Simi Valley telemarketing call center filled with cubicle upon cubicle to serve as the oppressive office for the otherworldly accounting department that monitors all human activity.
“Because it’s something that’s taking place not on this earth, there’s all sorts of crazy alien symbols and ’80s dot-matrix printers that are printing out things that don’t belong on Earth,” says Siegal. “That was the first time I’d had the experience of walking into a place thinking, ‘Oh, this feels a little bit magical.’ Truly, I felt like I was not on my home planet anymore.”
Meanwhile, “Black Monday” needs to evoke the over-the-top excesses of 1980s Wall Street. This is embodied by the show’s signature Lamborghini-limousine hybrid. Executive producers Jordan Cahan and David Caspe admit they’ve turned to more virtual problem-solving to build the show’s universe.
“We just wanted the world to look real, because we never wanted the setting to be the joke,” says Caspe.
One solution for the duo was to use stock footage of the real 1980s New York, relying on VFX artists to insert a digital model of the car into the vintage footage.
“You’re seeing a piece of our show kind of cruising through Times Square in 1987,” he says. “It looks authentic and real. It expanded the world in a way that, unless we were a giant movie, we could never do week to week. Just having one or two shots like that in an episode helps convince and keep the viewer in a very real version of New York.”