Spending Time on the “Tavis Smiley” Set

December 2nd, 2010, by MARGUERITE DE BOURGOING

Photo by Van Evers

The first time that I went to a taping of Tavis Smiley was after getting back from lunch with my WNET team, and I saw Nas. As I glanced behind me, here was the “Illmatic” — as Tavis would greet him later — nonchalantly talking on the phone, without sunglasses. This was my cue to go on set.

(Watch Tavis’ conversation with Nas and Damian Marley.)

As I discovered, it’s the little details that make the show’s behind-the-scenes interesting: Nas and Damian Marley sitting silently watching the monitor and bobbing their heads to the beat, entranced by their song “As We Enter” as if they were hearing it for the first time. Venus Williams effortlessly elegant, changing into a pair of low-heeled ballerina pumps and covering her arms with a cropped, slightly military-style jacket as she sits down.

(Watch Tavis’ conversation with Venus Williams.)

But the thrill of being behind the scenes is witnessing the object of the interview unravel live as Tavis engages in a question/answer type of dialogue with different personalities. Witnessing it live is an experience very similar to the viewer’s, but with the added tension of the build-up to the interview.

What makes Tavis a great public broadcasting talent is his ability to be a catalyst for an in-depth exploration of a subject matter that is often disregarded for a more superficial and consensual approach. A prime example is when Tavis goes straight to the matter with his interview of Nas and Damian Marley introducing the “Distant Relatives” project as “an African heritage exploration.”

Just like he implies in one of his questions to Nas, it’s not a topic that the general public or regular hip-hop audience is particularly interested in. A couple of years earlier when he interviewed Nas on the controversy that surrounded his solo album, Tavis was probably the only interviewer to pronounce the “N” word when he explained to the audience “what Nas had originally intended to call the CD.”

Again, by calling a spade a spade, he enables the conversation to go beyond its more controversial aspect and settle in a more progressive realm.

Tavis’ approach is hermeneutic, like when he goes back and forth from Nas to Damian, keeping the audience and the interviewees on their toes, establishing a rhythm to the talk.

This approach was obvious with photojournalist Stanley Greene. I was curious to see how Tavis would translate into words the work of a cultural agent who produces a visual universe. Two impressions emerged from the interview. The first is that this was a great exercise of improvisation. After the last-minute briefing from his production team, it became clear that he’d made up his mind to focus on Greene’s work in New Orleans instead of his overall work.

My second impression is that he’d found and grabbed an angle that he just went at. To make the interview more visually appealing he focused on the material side of the photographer’s work: the traveling exhibition van, the objectified vision of the New Orleans disaster.

(Watch Tavis’ conversation with Stanley Greene.)

Again, I admired this ability to make the unseen visible. In this case I thought the material angle he chose was a good way to anchor the viewer’s attention, while at the same time bringing up the Katrina disaster that culminates with the airing of his own Tavis Smiley Reports episode “New Orleans: Been in the Storm Too Long.”

The interview with Oliver Stone was great to watch, as the attention was on the documentary South of the Border, arguably a subject with not too much headline appeal, instead of the eagerly awaited sequel to Wall Street. As a non-U.S. citizen, I thought it was a fascinating way to bring up U.S. foreign policy as the film itself was less in focus than what was discussed in the film. For Oliver Stone, it was a great platform to voice some of his opinions.

(Watch Tavis’ conversation with Oliver Stone.)

Again, Tavis’ approach to Oliver Stone was to ask him why the subject of Latin American politics was so important to talk about: “What are we are not being told?” The importance isn’t so much the biased — or unbiased — approach by Stone (Tavis alludes to it later when he says he enjoys controversy), but the talking about it. It just throws in a completely different perspective: “Six of these countries have gotten together with democratically elected presidents who are from the people, who came up from the roots, many of them poor.”   

Finally, one of my greatest delights is to witness the interaction between Tavis and the production crew. From the recording booth to the set, they are like a family, where everyone knows their place, the atmosphere is always relaxed in between the takes, and once the recording starts, all the energies, including those of listeners like me, focus on the talk. On set, it isn’t rare to see Tavis bring up one of the crew members in the conversation and even, in some cases, in the shot — like when John Mellencamp was surprised by a producer with a cake. The Tavis Smiley show is especially the result of a great team effort.

Marguerite de Bourgoing moved from London to Los Angeles to complete a master’s in communication at University of Southern California. She is in the midst of producing her first documentary via LAStereo.TV, the multimedia hip-hop Web site she founded.

Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 10:49 am