The Cheers set required the production to rent a beer stein that later had a vinyl decal of the 75th Emmys logo applied to it.
For the 75th Emmys, Stonestreet repurposed the couch from BET's Martin reunion special for the sitcom's recreated set
Host Anthony Anderson introduces The Sopranos set at the 75th Emmys
The Sopranos stars Lorraine Bracco and Michael Imperioli on the show's recreation of Dr. Melfi's office
"It was emotional."
The bar "where everybody knows your name" was one of several set recreations — that Stonestreet and the production team referred to as "vignettes" or "love letters" to the shows — that were constructed using both analog and digital tools to celebrate television's past with a nostalgic look back at iconic or influential series. It was also a challenging task for the production, which whittled down a list of around 50 potential series into a more manageable roster to put on the live broadcast, which aired January 15 on Fox. The sets featured on the broadcast included Fox's hit sitcom Martin, ABC's long-running medical drama Grey's Anatomy, CBS's Norman Lear sitcom All in the Family and HBO's landmark mob drama, The Sopranos.
In an exclusive interview with the Television Academy, Stonestreet reveals how he and his team set out with the enviable (but somewhat daunting) task of bringing back some of TV's most memorable locations, as well as which shows from the list of potential set vignettes didn't make the cut.
Television Academy: How did you and your team approach building Dr. Melfi's office from The Sopranos? Were those the actual chairs used in the show?
Brian Stonestreet: I don't believe they were [the actual chairs]. Katie Lavorn was our set decorator, and she matched things really closely. But I do know that for All in the Family, we got permission from, I believe, the Norman Lear museum to use the chairs that were featured in the  Live In Front of a Studio Audience show. They weren't the original chairs, but Katie had found two really good close matches, and we were in the process of picking out fabric when the Norman Lear folks got back to her, and they allowed us to use [the Live chairs]. Archie [Bunker]'s hat rack was not an exact match; we didn't have one. But I couldn't believe that Katie found one that was very close and probably from the exact same time period as the original one. We were lucky that way.
How did she find it? Just going to thrift shops or searching online?
Well, for the more specialized things, a lot of the stuff was rentals. So [Katie] would go to rental houses. And there's such a terrific amount of historical props in L.A. prop houses. But some of these more specialized things, I think she found them on Facebook Marketplace. In Lancaster, Calif. Or Palmdale. So she drove out there — she drove all around for stuff. For Game of Thrones, she was able to get a throne duplicate from the production company for Thrones.
Going into the 75th Emmys, how long was your wish list of series to recreate or reimagine?
We went through probably 50 different what we call "vignettes," but IP shows. And I designed as the requests or ideas would come in. At one point in time, we were going to build everything, or at least attempt to build everything [practically]. But budget played a factor. As did the scope of moving things on and off set, or in and out of storage. So when it kind of distilled down to building the Cheers set, then we got into creating LED [set walls]. I think my first pass was 23 variations of built scenery for shows.
Can you share some of the shows or sets that were on that original brainstorm list?
One was the I Love Lucy living room. At one point, it was going to be the apartment where Little Ricky was born. Another was [the apartment from] Will & Grace. We talked about the kitchen set from The Golden Girls. Handmaid's Tale. We weren't sure where we were going [in the early days]. We [considered] House, Star Trek, Modern Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. We looked at doing ER — one of the show's main trauma rooms. There were a lot that we explored before it really honed into the ones we ended with.
As a massive Star Trek fan, how far did you get with that design concept? Was it the bridge from The Original Series?
It was, actually — when we first looked at this, the idea was that we were treating our stage almost like a music award show. Where you had a right stage, a left stage, sometimes a center performance, sometimes a full stage performance. So at the time, the Star Trek set was actually going to be rolled out and live dead center on our stage. And it was the [Original Series] transporter [room]. So I mimicked the transporter. We were hoping to get a version of the transporter control unit. It would have been off to the side, in front of one of the LED screens.
And then we would carry the image of the rest of the transporter room behind that. So it wasn't the bridge, unfortunately.
So, in terms of mock-ups for the designs, what is that process like for you? Did you sketch them or make 3D models?
I would first build [the sets] using a 3D modeling program. So, I created it for a sketch. I'll build everything in models and then, from there, do a rendering based on that.
When you say LED screens, does that mean you used Volume-like tech, like they employ on The Mandalorian, to make or fill in walls of the sets?
Not to that full extent, like on Mando, but we had LED screens that [screens producer and video content designer] Drew Findley worked on, and he did a great job. Our LED wall screens would fill in the walls for certain sets. Like, for The Sopranos, the only practical [set decoration] there was the carpet and the chairs.
I had no idea. You can't really tell. How did you fill in the screens? Did you use screenshots or something from episodes featuring the sets?
Yeah, we would take screenshots of the sets. I would go in to create the flat elevations, to create a rendering. And Photoshop people out. Cut out chairs. Duplicate wallpaper. Flip things. Because there are usually people in front of it, or it wasn't straight on, it was skewed. Just to get flat elevations to see how it would work in the model. And then Drew took it and made it 5,000 times better. So, in terms of the layout of the set, we had the two inner stages — one left and one right. With the fly LED wall, which usually carried the logo of the show, that would raise [sometimes] when we were revealing the set we wanted to spotlight.
And so the Cheers set was built over on the stage right side. On stage left, we had a three-wall standing set that did not move. And it was high-res LED panels. So there was one long one in the back that went way past the side walls for cross shots, to avoid seeing beyond the room. And then two side walls, left and right, [that] kind of angled. Basically, kind of a keystone shape. That's where Drew would create the information for the set. Then we would augment that. For example, All in the Family, there's kind of a partial divider wall. A bookcase with a column. We built that. And then we worked with Drew on the exact height. The baseboard, the wood tone, chair rail — all of that. And we went through a couple times where we would set it up even before we were rehearsing, just to make sure everything lined up. Then, if something was off, Drew would adjust the molding a little bit.
It's a fascinating mix of what would have been then-futuristic tech to bring back iconic sets from TV's past. Very fitting for an awards show celebrating 75 years of Emmys and television.
I hadn't thought of it like that. But what you said just reminded me — I have an art director friend who was texting me about how great the sets looked. He really liked Cheers, and then he said he really enjoyed seeing All in the Family. I said, "Well, thank you. Drew created the content for that. And I think he did an amazing job." And he texted back, "Wait, that wasn't real?" So I was actually surprised [to get that] from an art director, who's savvy in the entertainment world, that he did not notice that.
That has to be the best compliment for you and the team to get. And the positive reaction online to what you and the team accomplished must have been rewarding, too. Especially in response to the Cheers set.
For that one, I took screen grabs of things and then tried to mimic it. All of the decor on the walls, I believe that was all materials we found or made or rented. I know we printed the Melville's sign [for the restaurant] that's upstairs, above the bar. And then, of course, we had to adjust for the scale of our stage. The Cheers set, for example, probably was 20 feet larger than the one we made. We did a very distilled version.
There's a lot of room between the [bar's] front door and the bar. The bar front also returns and goes back. So a lot of people can sit on the sides. We didn't have the space for that. For Sam's office, there was a door directly from the hallway to the pool room that we didn't put in. So I would edit out things [in the design] just to get the overall feel.
I had to have a chair rail in there, in the back, at an angle. Like it was on the TV show because, when I was watching it — which was probably in college — I do remember the idea of "Oh, they're in the basement, and there's this huge restaurant running above them that we never see." But we know it's there, because sometimes people walk up and down the stairs. Like it's part of [the bar], but never seen. So I had to get the chair rail in and the Melville's sign.
What was it like seeing Sam Malone himself, Ted Danson, back behind the bar?
It was emotional. Because we were loading the set in, rehearsing, lighting and all that. Our focus was not on, "Oh, who's going to grace these sets?" Like, the talent is coming in. We knew, of course, who was coming. But our focus was getting the sets in and making sure all we had to build was there, you know? But when we finally saw them when they were rehearsing, it was emotional for a couple of reasons. One, of course, seeing those that could appear for the reunion was very exciting and nostalgic and wonderful. But also, knowing that we were a part of that. A visual part.
We live behind the camera. We try to create environments. So it was two-fold. It was the excitement of seeing them, but then also, seeing them in a [place] we all helped create that they were a part of in the past.