On the Spun Out set with director Brian Roberts

“Twenty bucks to the first person who can name the original bass player with Steely Dan.”
The challenge was thrown out by Brian K. Roberts, executive producer and director of the new CTV sitcom Spun Out.
Roberts was crossing in front of the bleachers between camera set ups when he grabbed the mike from warm up guy Ali Hassan and offered the instant pay out.
An older gentleman sitting directly in front of me immediately shouted out the surprise answer (revealed here).
Roberts reached for his wallet and awarded the prize. “I’ve been asking that one for 15 years and you’re the first person who knew the answer,” he said.
It all took place at the mammoth Pinewood Studios at the foot of Cherry St. in Toronto on Friday. Spun Out premieres next season on CTV. This was episode five of 13 currently in production.
Dave Foley stars as Dave Lyons, PR legend. His firm is staffed by wacky underlings all trained to spin any PR disaster into gold for their celebrity clients. Among the nimble comedy ensemble are Paul Campbell, Rebecca Dalton, Al Mukadam, Darcy Michael and J.P. Manoux (Community). The sitcom is executive produced by Andrew Barnsley (Life With Derek), Brent Piaskoski (Radio Free Roscoe), Roberts and Jeff Biederman (Life with Derek) and produced by Colin Brunton.
Colin I’ve bumped into on several Toronto-based shows over the years, most recently on How to Be Indie. He pointed to the large bleachers and explained how the big, comfy, over-stuffed chairs were flown up from L.A.

Guest star Craig Arnold made a great Bieber clone

That’s actually more important than you might think. Sitcom tapings can last anywhere from three to five hours and you want your guests happy.
To that end, a studio audience gets the VIP treatment these days. Pizza breaks, cookies and other goodies are offered (as they were in January when I was in Vancouver on the set of Package Deal, another, rare, four-camera comedy shooting in Canada).
Hassan did a good job keeping the crowd happy. He doesn’t tell jokes but engages the audience, which must number around 200 visitors. Prizes are awarded, mainly T-shirts, although there was also a $50 gift certificate.
A couple of scenes called for longer set ups and two musicians were standing by to entertain: Shuffle Demons’ Robert Scott and Great Bob Scott. You haven’t heard the themes from The Flintstones or Gilligan’s Island until you’ve heard it from this free-wheelin’ sax/drum duo.
It was good to finally meet Roberts, a Hollywood veteran who has written for The Simpsons and produced and directed everything from Everyone Loves Raymond and The Drew Carey Show to CBC`s short-lived comedy series The Debaters. He and I exchanged a few emails over the later. Those conversations, alas, must stay in the vault.
Roberts did share a story Friday after the taping about writing the second-seasons Simpsons episode featuring Ringo Starr. Beatles fan Roberts naturally went to the recording session and even got the Fab Four drummer to autograph it.

Ringo on The Simpsons

Big no-no. Roberts got his ass hauled onto Matt Groening`s carpet the next Monday. “Didn’t you see the memo?” barked Groening; seems all on the 20th lot were warned in advance not to bug the ex-Beatle.
As a consequence, Roberts was the only one to get Ringo’s John Henry.
When it came time to do the DVD commentary on the early Simpsons episode, Roberts found himself sitting next to Groening and showrunner Al Jean. As they’re yakking about the episode, Groening remembers Roberts and the signed script and gives him hell again!
Roberts’ one regret from that taping was that they wouldn’t let him bank any extra chatter from Ringo. His plan was to have him say hello to George Harrison and Paul McCartney on the chance that the other Beatles might somebody voice themselves on the series. Nobody thought the Simpsons would last 25 years and outlive another Beatle, so unfortunately, the Beatles reunion on The Simpsons never happened.

Journalist with prop. Photos: Barbara Kelly

Roberts told me the four Spun Out cameramen sitting high up on the mobile platforms were all seasoned L.A. shooters. Four camera shows are so rare in Canada few have the expertise needed for this job.
Foley is clearly the star of this show. He’s just so watchable in person, very at home on the sound stage. He’s a natural, but those five seasons on NewsRadio just elevated his game.  Even the screw ups, ad libs and asides are fun for the live studio audience. After he tripped up on a long speech, he said, “well, I knew I made a mistake–that’s sorta like knowing your lines, right?”
The taping had a nice improv feel to it. Every scene was shot at least twice, and second takes featured new lines, with writers on hand to tweak and polish. The episode, “Thrill of the Chaste” (about a virginal, Justin Bieber-like rock star), was written by Piaskoski’s wife Barbara Haynes. Others, like my old buddy (and former Kids in the Hall head writer) Dan Redican, were giving notes from the wings.
The final scene, in fact, was written the day of the taping. An earlier bar scene was thrown out. The new ending, set on the large central PR agency office stage, provided an opportunity for a strong visual gag using a prop introduced earlier.
By the end of the night, I was glad I had turned down an earlier invitation from the producers to be a background extra as a reporter–too much of a a stretch. Sitting and watching the show was just right.
Anyone interested in attending a taping can send an email to [email protected]. Tapings run Fridays through July 19th. Be at the studio by 5:30 and be prepared to stay until 10 p.m. Sounds like a long night but it flies by and you’ll enjoy the experience. Plus, hey–it’s free!

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