greenroom2

Illustration by Eddie Guy

 

It’s an hour before show time at Jimmy Kimmel Live!, and Morgan Freeman has just slapped Kimmel across the face. The actor and the host are filming a skit that will air at the top of tonight’s broadcast, one that 25 lucky people are previewing on two flat-screen TVs in the backstage greenroom. You might think these individuals—sipping drinks, slouching on plush couches between shooting games of pool and shoveling mouthfuls of guacamole—would be yearning for a spot out front, nearer the action. But you’d be wrong. At Kimmel the greenroom is the place to be, which is exactly as the comedian has always planned. When the show debuted in 2003, the host tells me later, “we figured that nobody would want to come on, so we decided to make the greenroom nice.”

“Nice” is an understatement. Look around: A handsome tapster serves free beer and wine to two overdressed blonds and one tattooed hipster. The crowd—friends of the show, of the guests, of Kimmel—drink and mingle and lean into old-school arcade games, trying to master Donkey Kong and Ms. Pac-Man. By the buffet a couple struggles with what to eat: chicken skewers with chipotle aioli, tiny grilled cheese sandwiches with caramelized onions and tomato, or a choice of three salads—Greek, kale Caesar, and watermelon beet.

There are so many distractions, it’s no wonder that when Freeman breezes by postskit, casual in jeans and a turquoise polo shirt, his trademark thatch of white hair gleaming, hardly anyone notices.

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Time was, a greenroom—“a room in a theater or studio in which performers can relax when they are off stage,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary—was like a waiting room at a dentist’s office: a sparse and unadorned holding pen where people were left to twiddle their restless thumbs and ponder the terrifying scenarios that lay ahead. In the days of Ed Sullivan and Johnny Carson, those scenarios were generally limited to a rapid-fire tête-à-tête between host and guest, one that was supposed to seem easy and off-the-cuff even when it was anything but. During a 1968 appearance on The Tonight Show, John Lennon summed up the late-night experience when guest host Joe Garagiola asked why their conversation was making the Beatle anxious. “Because, uh—it’s not natural,” Lennon replied.

Paul McCartney, to his left, agreed: “It’s a bit difficult when you know you’re going out into a million homes.”

Such angst was a reality even when guests only had to talk. Today, as the format of late-night TV has changed into a mélange of interviews and antics, the stakes are higher. Celebrities are expected to verbally spar like improv ninjas and gleefully play along with whatever weird high jinks a host cooks up. Jimmy Fallon, for example, has a recurring segment called “Lip Sync Battle,” in which he and his guests try to outperform each other. A recent matchup saw Fallon lose to Emma Stone, who ruled with her rendition of DJ Khaled’s “All I Do Is Win.” Ellen DeGeneres invented a Charades-like game called “Heads Up!” (now a popular app) that requires players—Melissa McCarthy and Lena Dunham, in one instance—to act out various clues (“chest bump,” “volleyball”) for a guessing DeGeneres.

With the demand for such levity, it’s a good idea to keep guests comfortable before they go live. Hence the greenroom wars: Conan O’Brien’s boasts a PS2, which guests can play while sitting in Zero Gravity massage chairs from Brookstone. Fallon is known to have his stocked with freshly baked cookies from the acclaimed New York bakery Momofuku Milk Bar. Seth Meyers’s has a perfectly positioned photo booth for celebrity selfies (Anna Kendrick! Nick Cannon!). The Late Show with David Letterman even offers personalized creature comforts. “I asked for sake or tequila there once, and now they always have booze for me,” says Oscar-winning actress Susan Sarandon, who’s been in more than her fair share of greenrooms during her 44-year career and who worked with architect David Rockwell to codesign the greenroom at last year’s Academy Awards. “Late-night shows are so fast and furious now, almost like game shows,” she says. “Instead of just chattering, you are asked to put yourself at risk and be playful. I’d like to think that the people at these shows want to make you feel loved and happy and special—before baring your soul.” A good greenroom, she adds, “helps to take the edge off.”

Liquor doesn’t hurt, either. In the 1960s and ’70s, alcohol was front and center on variety and talk shows, where viewers were used to seeing cigarettes and spirits being consumed on camera (on The Dean Martin Show the host was rarely without a smoke or a scotch-and-soda). Ample relaxants lent a “we’re all friends here” sense of verisimilitude to such broadcasts, but that would soon change as societal pressures (not to mention powerful PR firms) pushed for at least the appearance of cleaner living. The shift, however, had an unintended side effect: Formerly loose-lipped celebrities suddenly became anxious and stiff.

The logical solution? Serve alcohol backstage. Some greenrooms were repurposed as virtual speakeasies, but even when guests opted to bypass the greenroom altogether—as many did on Jay Leno’s iteration of The Tonight Show—cocktails still found their way into the hands of jittery stars. According to David Berg, author of Behind the Curtain: An Insider’s View of Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” and coproducer of the show for 18 years, Leno’s guests had access to a mobile bar cart that was known as the Jay Bar. “It was a throwback to the days of Johnny Carson,” Berg writes. “There was no actual bar or bartender. If a guest wanted a drink, he or she used to ask the guy in props…you had to know somebody.”

On the rare occasion that alcohol is prohibited in a greenroom, stars often find a way to get their fill anyway. “I presented at the Creative Emmys, and that’s a dry greenroom,” says comedian and Veep star Matt Walsh. “They intentionally don’t want performers getting drunk, but it was funny to see the veterans pulling flasks out of their pockets and sharing booze with each other.”

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According to Peter Davis, associate professor of theater history at the University of Illinois, the inaugural greenroom popped up in Restoration-era England sometime after 1660. The first recorded use of the phrase is in Thomas Shadwell’s A True Widow, a play that was originally performed in 1679. Back then, Davis explains, greenrooms probably served as semiprivate lobbies where royalty and aristocrats could interact with the most sought-after actresses of the period.

So why “green” room and not blue or pink or red? One theory is that the hue is linked to a certain type of makeup that needed to cure before actors could wear it onstage. Prior to setting, the makeup would be “green,” or unripe, and so actors sat in the “greenroom” while it dried. Then there’s the thought that the rooms functioned as storage for plants and shrubbery, which earned them the nickname “the greens room.” Yet another possibility is that greenrooms were so named because of their proximity to “the Green”—medieval slang for a large area of grass that doubled as a stage.

Davis believes the name is in fact derived from the color on the walls, and he has his own opinion as to why. “At that time green was the most expensive color of paint available because it was made from oxidized copper, which was difficult to obtain,” he says. “The richest men of the day spent their time in the greenrooms of these theaters, and so it’s very likely that owners painted them green as a show of wealth.”

Green-walled greenrooms have essentially gone the way of the horse and buggy. But greenrooms themselves have gained ground in the public consciousness, thanks in part to iconic comedies like The Larry Sanders Show, which premiered in 1992. The HBO series, created by and starring comedian Garry Shandling (a frequent Tonight Show guest host during Carson’s reign), took viewers behind the scenes of a fictional late-night talk show. In one episode Artie, the show’s producer (played by Rip Torn), storms into the greenroom to find the actor John Ritter lying on the couch, his face bloodied. When Ritter’s publicist accuses film critic Gene Siskel of punching Ritter in the face, Torn is distracted by a more pressing matter. “Oh, look,” he laments, staring at the snack table, “there’s blood all over the cheese!”

In recent years greenrooms have become famous in their own right, as on Bravo’s Watch What Happens: Live with Andy Cohen, where guests participate in a video segment called “Green Room Reflections.” The conceit is that viewers get to hear what celebrities are thinking while they wait to go onstage—50 Cent internally rages against Cohen’s “bullshit fruit tray,” for example, and James Marsden can’t stop obsessing about how hot Will Ferrell is.

Then there’s the impact of social media, which affords fans a behind-the-scenes look at the once-exclusive spaces. On a visit to Ellen, former Disney starlet Selena Gomez posted a makeup mirror selfie from backstage on Instagram that racked up 880,500 double taps. Kevin Hart used the app to share a picture of himself eating pineapple before an appearance on The Tonight Show. Last year’s Oscars greenroom featured a Twittercam, whereby Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Channing Tatum, Jessica Biel, and others mugged against a backdrop of Rockwell and Sarandon’s design.

But while technology and self-referential television have illuminated a small part—the choreographed part—of greenroom culture, both fail to fully capture the raw energy of these places. To be inside one is to be buffeted by a strange mix of stress-induced panic and alcohol-induced tranquillity. According to Anne Hathaway, however, that can engender a sense of camaraderie. Backstage at one Oscars telecast, Hathaway says, she ran into a troubled Jennifer Garner in the greenroom. “Jennifer was getting ready to go onstage, and she goes, ‘OK, if everybody could please stand still for a second—my contact lens just popped out of my eye,’ ” Hathaway recalls. “She was like, ‘If we could find it, that’d be really helpful because I won’t be able to read the monitor.’ ” Hathaway not only found the lost lens, but she tracked down contact solution on Garner’s behalf.

When I saw Kimmel at a recent American Cinematheque event and pressed him to comment on the importance of greenrooms, he was charmingly self-deprecating. “There’s a maxim in show business: The better the greenroom, the worse the show,” he said. “I might’ve made that up, but I think it’s true.” But then he got serious, sort of, asserting that his greenroom at least is achieving its goals. “I’ve never been a guest on my own show,” he said, “but they seem pretty relaxed.”

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