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How to Roast a Comedian and Other Trade Secrets From Hollywood’s Top Production Designers

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Girls5eva, on Netflix, went with a ’90s-themed party. Courtesy of Netflix

Teresa Mastropierro says that since Girls5eva began, she had a box of CDs under her desk “just waiting for their day in the sun.” So when she heard that the eponymous girl group would be performing at a mansion for a nostalgia-themed birthday party in season three’s “Orlando,” Mastropierro knew she had to put those artifacts to good use and build a curtain out of them for a stage of pure ’90s splendor.

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In the episode, birthday girl Taffy (Catherine Cohen), married to a rich sugar daddy, is throwing a bash where the posters from her teenage bedroom come to life, so Mastropierro thought “tacky teenager” for the decor. “We chose things that felt young and then tried to find the most over-the-top version of it that we could come up with,” the production designer explains. For ’90s touches, they had “a fair amount” of fake flokati rugs, a lot of confetti and scores of colored plastic. Mastropierro and her team wanted everything to feel “sparkly at all times,” which meant having twinkle lights in the background, a detail that proved more nerve-racking than one might think. “We were very nervous that we were going to order all these twinkle lights and find out from the gaffer that they were strobing on camera and we wouldn’t be able to use them,” she recalls.

Then there were the balloons that envelop the sides of the stage where Girsl5eva performs. They brought in a “balloon specialist” and did a 3D render of the space to make sure it would evoke the right party vibe. “We really wanted to have a big balloon statement,” Mastropierro says.

HBO/Max’s Hacks used a gold throne for the roast of Jean Smart’s Deborah Vance. Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/Max

Production designer Rob Tokarz grew up watching the Dean Martin celebrity roasts with his dad, but when it came time for the episode “The Roast of Deborah Vance” on Hacks, he looked to the more modern practitioners of that genre of comedy. One of the touchstones? The Comedy Central Roast of Roseanne. For Hacks, Tokarz wanted to evoke the style the show had already established for its star funnywoman, Deborah, played by Jean Smart. “The approach was to take the soft pinks and golds that we use throughout her world and just camp them out, just go a little bit bigger,” he says.

The sequence came together quickly in a theater in Hollywood, and Tokarz wanted to build on hallmarks of Deborah’s style that the series had established through other outlets, like her QVC programming, but take them to new, gaudy heights. The art deco of the roast backdrop was a callback to her tour bus from season two, and the gold curtains were a reference to the Vegas glam. “She loves her sequins, she loves her sparkle, and it’s just so much of her character,” Tokarz says.

And then there was the chair Deborah sits in as she hears jabs from her fellow comedians as well as her daughter (Kaitlin Olson). It’s a towering gold throne. Tokarz ended up pitching the director and showrunners four different chairs. At first, he had his heart set on a leopard print version, but as the set came together, the shiny option proved the winner. “All of us fell in love with it,” he says.

Given his background in theater, production designer Patrick Howe was excited when he learned that he would be building the set for a Broadway musical in the third season of Only Murders in the Building. But there was a catch: In this case, he would have to get to work before the project was even written. “I was explaining to [showrunner] John [Hoffman] that the normal creative process is the designer responding to book and score, and it was obvious that they didn’t exist, so I need to draw from your descriptions, then, [instead] of what I would get on my own if I were listening to music and reading the book of said musical,” Howe says.

What Howe did know was that the show, ridiculously called Death Rattle Dazzle!, would take place in Nova Scotia and that he would need a lighthouse. The one he crafted was 32 feet tall, rising to the heights of the United Palace theater in Manhattan’s Washington Heights, where the performance sequences were shot.

Howe didn’t want to fake anything for the purposes of television. “My challenge was sticking to making the scenery look realistic — the way it would from the fixed vantage point of a viewer in the orchestra level of the audience,” he says. “But then, knowing that when a camera was going to shoot from the wings or from the side stages or from the balcony or close up, there [needed to be] the right details and information everywhere.” Howe received word that people were impressed with the end result, and he was also happy that the starry cast was willing to engage with the lighthouse on a practical level. Steve Martin, Martin Short, Meryl Streep and Paul Rudd were all comfortable using the staircase he built.

This story first appeared in the June 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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