If you go to sunny Southern California in the next few months, take the NBC Studios tour in Burbank while you still can.
As had been predicted for some time, ever since NBC and Universal Studios merged into a joint venture called NBC Universal, NBC announced this week that it will sell the Burbank studio as soon as possible, leasing it from the new owners for a few more years while moving all of its production to the Universal Studios complex, which is both a production facility and a theme park resort. Jay Leno will work out the rest of his tenure with "The Tonight Show" in Burbank, and then when Conan O'Brien takes over in 2009 he will premiere his show from a newly-renovated Stage One at Universal.
I got to tour NBC Burbank a few years ago while visiting my brother and sister-in-law, who live in California. It's a great tour. Although I am a die-hard David Letterman fan, and so I've always had a little bit of a grudge against Leno, I love the story of why Johnny Carson used one particular studio while Leno uses the studio next door. As our tour guide explained, Johnny -- who originally started in radio -- had his studio lit in such a way that he couldn't really see the audience , on the other side of the lights and cameras. He could hear them, of course, and he would go into the audience for bits like "Stump the Band," but he wasn't distracted by looking at them during his monologue or his interviews.
When Jay first took over "The Tonight Show," he used that same cavernous studio -- after all, NBC thought of it as the official home of the "Tonight Show." But Jay, who came up through the world of standup comedy, working at cramped comedy clubs and nightclubs, wasn't really comfortable there. When Jay did a week of shows in New York, he was forced to use a smaller studio -- and he loved the feeling of being right up next to the audience. Upon returning to Burbank, he asked the network for permission to move into one of the smaller studios there, and the set designers installed a retractable platform that puts him within arm's reach of the audience while he's doing his monologue. A more relaxed Jay soon won back the audience share he had lost to David Letterman, and he's been out in front ever since. (There's no accounting for taste.)
On the day that I took the studio tour, Maury Povich was taping the first few episodes of his version of the game show "Twenty-One." At one point in the tour, they took us out into the parking lot to see Jay Leno's parking place. While we were standing there gawking, someone cast a glance back at the loading dock from which we had emerged. Maury was standing there smoking. When he realized that the tour group had spotted him, he put out the cigarette and quickly ducked back inside.
The Burbank studios are also home to several NBC soap operas and "Access Hollywood." They were the home of "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In," and in fact it was "Laugh-In" announcer Gary Owens who announced each week that the show originated from "Beautiful Downtown Burbank."
Interestingly enough, now that the movie studios aren't the "vertically-integrated" production machines that they were in the 1930s and 1940s, the NBC studio -- which has to make costumes, props and what have you for its soap operas -- also supplies them for various movie productions.
Anyway, if you get the chance to take the NBC tour in Burbank, you should take it. I'm sure the new Universal facilities will be great, but see the home of Johnny, Doc and Ed while it's still available.