Charlie Harper’s Beach House: The John Shaffner Story

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Television – God’s gift to the friendless misanthropes of this fine earth who aren’t afraid to say, “Gosh darnit, I don’t want to go to Bar A with you people, I just want to curl up in my bed and watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer on Netflix.” For those souls brave enough to consistently forego active social lives for the thrill of living vicariously through fictional entities, the focus when watching most shows will be on one or two things: the characters or the plot. Much to the chagrin of production designers everywhere, the average viewer will, more often than not, take for granted the all-important aspect of the set despite the fact that such aesthetics impact our television experiences more than we might realize.

Enter John Shaffner, multiple Primetime Emmy Award winner, former chair of the Television Academy, and production designer for such popular shows as The Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men, and Friends. The Villanova On Set crew had the distinct pleasure of hearing from John today during an intimate tour of Warner Bros. Studios.

Throughout our long walk with the man behind Sheldon’s infamous seat (the one that provides a perfect angle for watching television while still participating in conversation and catching just the right breeze from the air conditioning), John revealed many interesting thought processes behind the surprisingly elaborate decisions that go into creating a show’s set.

Two and a Half Men serves as a perfect example of how important a set is to the entire success of a show. Charlie Harper, one of the main characters on the show, is, quite frankly, a despicable character. If he isn’t getting drunk and satisfying his seemingly unquenchable sex addiction, he can usually be found giving questionable advice to his young nephew or trying to kick his deadbeat brother out of his guest room. In other words, Charlie’s not the most lovable character – and yet we do love him… Why? Well, as John very astutely pointed out, it has a lot to do with the set. Charlie’s home in Two and a Half Men is extraordinarily inviting. Between its plush leather couches, rustic tile floors, and wooden ceilings the audience feels like Charlie has a warm, comfortable place we’d all like to hang out in, and whether we realize it or not, it serves as an all-important balance that effectively evens out the coldness we often feel from everyone’s favorite alcoholic.

In conclusion, set design is extraordinarily important, and, according to John, can single-handedly ruin a pilot if executed incorrectly. From little things like putting Rachel’s bedroom and bathroom on opposite ends of her apartment in Friends to create space for comedic farce to larger scale ideas like fully furnishing Sheldon and Leonard’s apartment on The Big Bang Theory so that the audience doesn’t feel uncomfortable (originally the two scientists lived in a more realistic, emptier apartment, but the viewers couldn’t get on board), the work of the production designer is vital to the life of a show, and does not get nearly as much recognition from television fans as it should. Forget the directors, writers, and cinematographers – it is the production designers we should be hailing as truly creative geniuses (PSA: don’t totally forget the directors, writers, and producers… they are still very important).