I walk over to Suzanne Sena, the star of satirical news program Onion News Network, which premieres tonight at 10 p.m. for its second season on IFC, and after only 15 seconds of conversation, something is immediately clear: I’m not sure whether I’m talking to Sena or her anchor alter ego, Brooke Alvarez.
This discussion occurred two weeks ago at Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, NY, where the sophomore season of ONN was filmed. ONN was being shot as if it were an actual, live news program, where the anchor has to move from one desk to another in the time it takes for a segment to air. Sena, wearing a loud pink dress, is sitting (you’d want to relax your feet, too, if you had to wear the heel she had on — she later put on slippers to decrease the tension on her toes) and drinking water from a bottle with an orange straw, in the middle of everything, while the crew prepares for the next scene. She’s getting a much-needed breather, or was until I’m invited over.
We exchange formalities, and I ask how things are going. Possibly because of the demanding nature of her character, an award-winning anchor who believes to be a good journalist, you must have both the beauty and bite of a Venus Flytrap, Sena, a former Fox News personality, remains half in-character the entire time, talking about herself and referring to the “gleefully single” Alvarez in the third-person in the same sentence. They’re one in the same, those two, and it’s only when she winks at you or flashes a genuine smile, revealing her so-white-that-it’s-no-wonder-she’s-an-anchor teeth, do you realize Alvarez’s personality might be huge, but Sena’s acting is subtle.
* * *
The one thing you have to remember when you’re visiting a TV set: don’t laugh. When the words “quiet on the set” are yelled out, it means that the tape’s rolling, the microphones are on, and any botched take means everyone has to stay there a little bit longer, and a little more money has to be spent. When doing an on-set visit for a drama, it’s easy enough to remain quiet, because all you have to worry about is an errant cough or sneeze, both of which are easily preventable. For a comedy, though, it’s much tougher; your instinct is to laugh at a funny joke, but you have to suppress your nature. YOUR NATURE.
Which is to say: I had a miserable time on the set of the Onion News Network, because I felt like I was choking on my laughter the whole time. Also, don’t break anything. That’s probably worse than the laughing thing.
* * *
The people in the control room have all the power, and it’s terrifying. Imagine Big Brother headquarters, where seemingly dozens of TVs are showing live-stream footage from different angles of unsuspecting humans. (If that’s too Orwellian of an analogy, think of the scene from That Thing You Do! where the Wonders are playing their hit song for the first time on TV.) That’s a bit what it feels like, right down to the directors calling, “Camera Three,” and we’re on a different shot of the same person. Watching the Teleprompter is particularly fascinating, especially when you can hear the cast reading the words as they’re scrolling down the screen, or when words are missing and they work around it.
* * *
The second season of ONN was shot in a span of about two weeks, with a typical shooting day of roughly ten hours. That means there’s a lot of, well, waiting: waiting for the next scene to begin, waiting for a light to not reflect off a screen, waiting for hair-and-makeup, waiting for the set to look just right, etc. During those waiting periods, I watch the actors, curious as to how they keep busy. (Most crew members just look at their phones.) There’s a lot of going over their lines for the 1,397th time, trying to find the perfect reading of a particular joke. With every take, the script is read slightly differently; the words remain the same, but under the guidance of director Will Graham (who also worked on Onion SportsDome), they’re sometimes slowed down and understated and other times sped up and pronounced. The line I heard the most often was read by Alvarez, who asked the audience at home to tweet their answer to the question, “Which ONN personality has received more awards than any other person on the planet?” Alvarez then said, “Talking about me, right?” One reading of the follow-up had her sounding desperate, another quizzical.
Later on, in the first full skit I saw filmed, Alvarez asked three supposed-experts their thoughts on a debate that had occurred the night before. None of the trio had seen it, but they don’t want to admit that they were watching Bridezillas instead, so they mock outrage at Alvarez and with one another to live up to their “expert” titles. It obviously won’t show in the aired version, but know that multiple attempts went into this one segment, and that the actors were allowed a bit of improvisation: glasses dusted off in one take, a louder-than-usual fake cough in another.
* * *
Tonight’s premiere, which was filmed off-site, involves the ONN team covering an asteroid that’s about to destroy Earth. Ice-T and Coco are there, proving once and for all that the End of Times will be their fault.
* * *
Tucker Hope is another ONN anchor, and because of that, he’s sort of Alvarez’s rival. Last year, Todd Alan Crain played Hope, but this season, it’s Ryan Blackwell. He’s actually the ninth Tucker overall (think of the secretaries on Murphy Brown, if you must), and in one episode, he wears a Magneto-like helmet that projects his mental images onto a TV screen. I won’t say any more, other than a crying baby and LIGHTNING is involved.
* * *
IFC is increasingly becoming a comedy powerhouse. From what I saw during my visit, Onion News Network is consistently funnier than it was in season one, where the show sometimes struggled from its evolution from web-based to TV series. There are more recurring skits and characters, and the writing seemed sharper. Elsewhere on the network, there’s The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret and Portlandia, both of which had strong freshmen seasons and will return in January 2012 with Jon Hamm (Todd Margaret) and an increased episode number (Portlandia). There’s also Commercial Kings and The Whitest Kids You Know, and reruns of Freaks and Geeks, Undeclared, and Arrested Development. That’s an impressive roster, and it’ll be interesting to see how the channel reacts to AMC announcing its first comedy series.
* * *
One joke that got cut in pre-production had to do with a “monkey with a melon for a head.” Shame.
Onion News Network premieres tonight on IFC, at 10 p.m. (EST)
Josh Kurp would have loved to visit the set of The Munsters