Awards Daily’s Megan McLachlan talks to Live in Front of a Studio Audience production designer Bernard Vyzga about recreating iconic sets, why he thinks these TV specials have been so successful, and what show—and actress—he’d like to work with next.
How do you recreate an iconic television set without a lot of archives to work with?
That was one of the challenges for production designer Bernard Vyzga, who worked on the sets of All in the Family and Good Times for the second installment of Live in Front of a Studio Audience on ABC. While archiving has gotten better in recent years, a lot of what Vyzga had to work with was from rewatching the old episodes and looking at screen grabs online. After all, the sets of these classic sitcoms are as influential and crucial to nail down as the characters and their catchphrases (“Dy-no-mite!”).
I had a chance to chat with Vyzga about the fun of bringing a classic sitcom set back to life, how television sets have changed since the 1970s, and what shows he’d like to resurrect next.
Awards Daily: You were Emmy-nominated last year for the All in the Family and The Jeffersons episodes. This year you added Good Times into the mix. Were you a fan of the show?
Bernard Vyzga: I think I was a fan of everything of Norman Lear in those days. There were some really great shows. And then rewatching episodes, I had forgotten how timely Good Times was and how significant it was. You go back and look at those episodes and the writing holds up more than 40 years later. A lot of the subject matter is being dealt with again. As a designer, I look back on those shows, and it was a time when it was okay to be working class on TV. We weren’t constantly trying to make sets aspirational. It was okay to be a public housing apartment, with cinder block walls and aging.
AD: I thought about that, too. The walls on both sets have aging. You don’t see that on many TV shows anymore.
What kind of challenges did this Live 2 episode bring? Was it fun to decorate for the holidays with the Bunkers? Did you have anything to do with that Santa prop?
BV: That Santa Clause was all the prop master. That was a challenge for him to get. So I give full credit to him, because it is a key prop in the episode. Doing these sets is almost like detective work, to find the information is a little tough sometimes. We have an archival system now. Now studios and production designers understand that the work may have value years ahead, and it’s always a challenge because we’re only working from screen grabs and old DVDs or video tapes of the shows. We’re also looking for publicity stills online, things to glue together, so we can try to recreate the sets as well as possible.
We were lucky with Good Times, in that the production designer Ed Stephenson had donated a body of his drawings to the UCLA Film & Television Archive. We went over there and went into their very, very secure room, and were able to look at [the archives] and they allowed us to photograph them in this secure area. We actually found the original stage plan from Metromedia Studios in Hollywood, where Good Times was done and the actual episodes. We didn’t find any construction drawings or anything, but we did find the stage plans with the audience, which were very helpful in reproducing the set.
AD: There was so much detail in the production design on these shows. I couldn’t help but notice the papers tacked up on the walls in the Evans’ kitchen. How detailed did you get with studying these sets?
BV: In the ’70s, television cameras and television weren’t not as technically advanced as it is now, with high definition. They did a funny cheat in the ’70s, where they would reproduce cinder block walls using walnut shells in the paint and tape it. It was very odd. I was looking it, and thought, “This is very strange.” I was trying to do some real research on public housing in Chicago, and as I was looking at the opening credits, I thought, “I think that’s Cabrini-Green,” which was an infamous public housing project in Chicago. I contacted Norman Lear, and said, “Did you base these sets on Cabrini-Green?” And he goes, “Oh, yeah.” I was able to find that, and that public housing was actually built in the 1940s, with very cold cinder block walls that had almost a prison feeling to them. It was an odd detail. In terms of the set dressing and pictures and furnishings, I had a really talented colleague, Ron Olsen, as set decorator who was working with me. He has a great eye for detail. With Live 2, as with Live 1, we wanted to give the essence of these sets for the 21st Century and not lavishly reproduce them down to every detail, so we took a little liberty with some things. We adjusted the colors a little bit to accommodate the modern HD cameras. We wanted to recreate it to that it felt authentic to the audience instead of matching every detail.
AD: How has TV production design changed since the 1970s?
BV: I think these shows when we do them, they really were presented as plays for a live audience. The style of shooting now is multi-cam sitcoms, and they try to emulate film a little more and try to be realistic. Whereas the ’70s shows were shot fairly flat, like watching a play. I think the audience essentially at the time accepted that they were watching a play. The camera work now includes more closeups and inserts and things in multi-cam, whereas then they would shoot two or three characters in a shot and there weren’t quite so many closeups, because they were shooting live and the cameras had to move and get a shot. But I think architecturally, I think the sets were a little shallower in terms of depth. So both in Good Times and All in the Family, we made the sets a little more deeper, added a little more room for characters, because of course we’re in a world where old television was more rectangular and now we have wide screen format. You have to adjust the set to account for the wider format.
AD: Did the show being live change anything with the design? In the Good Times episode, you went from their living room to a campaign office.
BV: This episode of All in the Family, we didn’t include the kitchen, so we were able to leave that section out and move the Good Times set more in front of our live studio audience. The campaign office was set further to the left. For the first live event, the live musical numbers were integrated into the set. This time, we had musical elements that had a little more scenery to it, and also there was a comedy element with Martin Short. So we were trying to do two live sitcoms and also two variety elements on the same stage. So it was really crowded and quite a challenge for our great grip and electric department lighting people, to put so many live elements into the sets, then reveal the sets, and then go right into the live sitcom portion of the show. [Director] Andy Fisher is really wonderful to work with. Live television is his forte. I learned a lot from him in terms of trying to stage the number with Patti LaBelle and Anthony Anderson. I actually used elements from the Good Times theme, where you go from wide shots of Chicago and then go closer and closer and closer to the Evans’ apartment. We recreated that with photographs of Cabrini-Green, with the Good Times theme on a drop, that revealed the gospel chorus behind Patti LaBelle. It was really quite fun. I was really amazed at the way Andy shot that. He created images for the viewers at home. It was great how he integrated the live studio element into the sitcom, so people really feel like they’re part of this fun live event.
AD: These specials have been so successful. What is it about them that you think resonates with audiences?
BV: I think the scripts and the stories are very timely, and I think the audience just enjoys seeing actors that they know step into these roles, almost like a repertory theater ensemble. It’s interesting that a lot of these people have come from multi-camera sitcoms, like Woody Harrelson on Cheers and Marisa Tomei on A Different World. So these actors have roots in multi-cam sitcoms. Jamie Foxx, too [from the first Live episode]. A lot of Oscar winners and Tony winners come from television.
AD: What shows would you like to do in the future? Is there one particular classic series that you’d love to tackle as a production designer?
BV: I think it would be fun to do Maude. Another one of my favorites was Sanford and Son, because it was working class and a classic comedy. It would be fun to recreate the Sanford and Son set.
AD: Who should play Maude?
BV: I’d love Allison Janney. But I’m sure she’s busy and expensive!
Rewatch the Live in Front of a Studio Audience episodes on ABC.com.