Forget laugh tracks - the sofa's the thing

It's quite possible that every TV sitcom that rises to the top of the ratings needs three things for success: snappy dialogue, memorable characters, and a big, old, lumpy sofa.

"The focal point of most sitcoms is the couch," says Anne Ahrens, Emmy-nominated set decorator for ABC's hit show "Dharma & Greg."

"I always feel the couch is sort of the fireplace or the hearth of the set. That's where most conversations happen," she says, "and the viewer wants to feel like he or she is sitting in the [show's] living room."

In the cultural interplay between TV's pseudoworld and the viewer's real living room, does anybody really notice sitcom sets beyond the couch and laugh track?

Yes, say set designers. During the life of a hit sitcom, thousands of viewers clamor to know where to buy items from dinner plates to sofas to Italian pottery seen on the shows. And while critics say TV's fake homes and stereotypes may distort and reflect American culture at the same time, the popularity of the genre is based on entertainment. If viewers fall in love with the furniture, that's a plus.

Each set decorator or designer crafts a "look" for a show. "Dharma & Greg's" main set conveys a hippie/Deco/New Age blend. "The Drew Carey Show," with a battered pool table just outside a side door, echoes "Roseanne" with working-class dcor spilling out of a jumbled kitchen. Cool contemporary wood and a five-star sofa reign on the "Frasier" set. "Felicity" - not a sitcom - features moody grays to match the college setting where everybody is confused, in love or out.

"I know teenagers notice the set of 'Dharma & Greg,' " says Ms. Ahrens, who also designed sets for "The Tracey Ullman Show." "Readers of Seventeen magazine voted it the coolest or most popular show a year or so ago. Dharma is a flamboyant and charming woman. Her surroundings reflect this and enhance her character."

As proof that TV furniture or props can become iconic, set designers point to Archie Bunker's famous battered living-room chair from "All in the Family," now on permanent display at the Smithsonian Institution. And to Peter Falk's rumpled raincoat from "Columbo."

"Five or six years ago the set of 'Friends' was very heavily copied by the public and influenced others," says Greg Grande, set decorator of "Friends" and "Spin City."

"I think in 10 or 20 years, 'Friends' might be like some of the other sitcom classics like "The Mary Tyler Moore Show' or 'Get Smart.' "

"Friends" has three permanent sets, a coffeehouse (known as Central Perk) and two apartments. "I refer to the sets, as 'casual eclectic,' " says Mr. Grande. "If you walked on to these sets, you would see that every piece of furniture and item has its own character."

The highly visible and well-used orange couch in the coffeehouse was picked out of a basement in the Warner Brothers prop department. "It was probably used in an old movie," says Grande. "We refurbished it and gave it new life. Over the years we've had a lot of calls from people wanting to know where to buy the couch."

Ahrens, who has also worked on films such as "Thelma and Louise," and "The Fabulous Baker Boys," says she is not attempting to create a set for "Dharma & Greg" that has the lofty aim of defining or reflecting American culture.

"I am doing what is right for the character," she says of the set, "but it also has to be comfortable to the audience, too, with little bits of home around - like magazines and little notes here and there. We always have fresh flowers on the set. The crew actually hangs out on the set between rehearsals, like a living room."

She says that a Mona Lisa beaded curtain used on the set has been popular. "We get fan mail [about it], and the manufacturer has told me that sales have picked up considerably." A dining-room table with a mosaic top also caught viewers' attention, and the manufacturer has now sold a number of them.

For Archie D'Amico, who designed the set for the original "Ellen" show (and a new "Ellen" show not yet scheduled), the look was "fun, flip, and trendy." Much of "Ellen" took place in a funky bookstore in Los Angeles. "We used old TV sets on the set to display books," Mr. D'Amico says. "To me it reflected American culture, so media-saturated that even old TVs were used as furniture." And that old standby, the couch, was there. "The actors have to sit down sometime and face the camera," he says, "and the couch is always there."

Grande says: "The good actors play off the environment, and that's the most important thing our sets do for them."

Fans want to know about accessories, too. For one set on "Friends," Grande found a photo of an old French carnival poster in a book, had it blown up to poster size, and hung it over a TV on the set. "We get calls on it constantly," he says.

Recently he was interviewed on the Home Shopping Network and touted as the designer who created interest among 30-somethings for the lounge chair in Joey and Ross's apartment on "Friends."

"It's selling incredibly well," he says, "so it's not just for men over 50 anymore."

The designers say that sets on sitcoms and other shows have changed over the past decade as networks respond to a society more conscious of style and appearance. Production values have gone up.

Compare two character-driven shows like "I Love Lucy" from the 1950s and "Friends." "Lucy's" furnishings are sparse and almost minimal by today's standards. "Producers and studios now want a denser and more detailed look on TV shows than ever before," says Ahrens. "They want it to look like a feature film, which is wonderful, but they want to spend less money doing it. So, we pull more rabbits out of hats than before."

Ahrens's weekly budget for "Dharma & Greg" is about $12,000, which indicates the show is a hit. The budget also includes decorating the sets built only for a particular episode. "Truckloads of stuff goes in and out," Ahrens says with a laugh. "Everything has to be found and brought in by truck, and then returned. Three wonderful assistants help me."

She spends a lot of time in secondhand stores and reading design and fashion magazines. "Secondhand stores are my main source," she says, "but we also rent from antique stores and a prop house in Hollywood."

Even though there are online vendors offering 40 different kinds of couches for set designers, Ahrens hasn't embraced computers as some other designers have. "I'm not comfortable doing that. I like to see the item," she says.

On the "Ellen" show, D'Amico's weekly budget was around $6,000. " 'Dharma & Greg' is really a stylish show, a hit, so they get more money," he says. For his TV specials, such as a recent production of "Annie," the budget was $250,000, and for one on the Beach Boys it was $275,000.

"You tell [the producers] how much you think you need," he says, "and they tell you how much they thought they were going to give you."

Another change for most sitcoms is more locations per show. Not too long ago, shows topped out at two to four locations, or sets, for each. Now it can be as high as seven sets a show.

But in the fickle world of TV ratings, the audience decides who comes and goes, attractive furniture or not.

"My guess is that 'Dharma & Greg' will be around for a few more years," says Ahrens. "A lot of people tell me they love the set, and the rumor mill says we are doing quite well."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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