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Sitting pretty on late-night sets

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In theory, a TV talk-show set can be thrown together on a bare stage with a couple of folding chairs. In practice, a TV talk-show set is a delicately calibrated microcosm in which every seat cushion, wall hanging, and beverage mug is chosen for its ability to define and distinguish the mood of the chatter. (Even the absence of decorative frippery is a statement. Exhibit A: the high-minded, secretly expensive minimalism of PBS’ Charlie Rose.) Now that this season’s competing nighttime hosts have all settled into their seated positions and we in our living rooms have settled into ours, it’s a good time for a house tour of TV’s five most talked-about environments.

THE TONIGHT SHOW

The look: Life Goes On After Johnny—not too old, not too new, somewhat tired, with a curtain of blue that’s meant to be confidence-inducing.
How they got that look: The former overfussed-with purple curtain, overwoodworked desk and overpainted Pacific Ocean backdrop were pitched after Jay Leno’s fuss-obsessed ex-manager, Helen Kushnick, was ditched as executive producer. In their place: a self-effacing set with a middle manager’s desk and a couple of blue, bucketlike chairs. ”Before, they went out of their way to find something different because they were trying so hard not to be like Carson,” occasional guest Dr. Joyce Brothers says about the new and improved set. ”There’s a wonderful feeling now that Jay has really become king.” (He has?) But actress Madeline Kahn recently had some site-specific complaints. ”I can’t see you very well,” she told Leno. ”If I sit like this, I’m not comfy.” To which he replied: ”Since we’re paying you, you’ll sit (and be) uncomfortable.”

LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN

The look: Big theater, big stakes, big bucks (renovation of the Ed Sullivan reportedly cost $10 million), but Dave’s still a goofy guy from Indiana who likes his shattered-glass sound effects.
How they got that look: ”We have catwalks all over the stage that things can happen on, and cameras can be thrown all over the place,” says Late Show scenic designer Kathleen Ankers (who also plays Helen the Ill-Tempered Ticket Lady). The desk and chairs are grown-up but the cityscape background is cartoony, and Dave can still throw index cards out the window. ”Dave wanted a different look—but he wants it the exact same,” Ankers tries to explain. ”Plus, he doesn’t tell you anything. I asked him (for guidance) once doing a special, and he said, ‘I think it should look like we just breezed in from St. Louis this afternoon and did a show.’ That’s all he said.”

THE CHEVY CHASE SHOW

The look: A wiseass overgrown rich kid’s playroom filled with a lot of toys the wiseass never plays with, including a fancy Kurzweil electronic keyboard and an even fancier 600-gallon fish tank. How they got that look: Chevy wanted ”more of a den, more like a romper room, something where his props would look right,” says Tom McPhillips, Chase’s art director, who came up with the fish backdrop in place of a more traditional window-with-a-view. One logistical problem: the long walk for guests from entrance to chair. ”As time goes on, they will probably blame me for something, you know, like ‘The show didn’t work because it took too long for the guests to come on,”’ says McPhillips with a laugh. Another problem: Like The Chevy Chase Show itself, the fish—yellow tangs—are dying, regularly.

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