Wednesday, October 10, 2012
Is it worth doing a weekly sitcom live?
What are your thoughts on doing a sitcom on live television (even a single episode)? I remember a TV show Roc about 20 years ago that did live episodes on Sunday nights on FOX. Have you ever been involved in that? Would you want to be?
There have been several recent live episodes of sitcoms done as a rating stunt. 30 ROCK did a fantastic episode. I seem to recall WILL & GRACE doing one as well.
There are pluses and minuses. The first plus for Cathy & Josh is that this hook helped sell their pilot. If you don't sell it first, nothing else matters.
The other big advantage – from a producer standpoint – is that you have absolutely no post production. You save hours and hours of editing, color-balancing, sound correcting, etc. Not to mention no pick-ups. No 2:00 AM wraps.
Another advantage goes away quickly – the novelty aspect of the stunt. At first it’s very exciting as a viewer – you know you’re watching something live. But after awhile, you forget and the show just has to live or die on its content. Do you pay any real attention to the fact that SNL is L?
And now the downsides. You have waaaaay less control over the quality.
You’re putting an enormous amount of pressure on the actors week after week. Josh & Cathy mentioned they want cast members with improv backgrounds, which is very wise, because they’re going to go up on lines. It’s inevitable. Wait'll two big jokes a week get trampled. In addition to everything else, they’ll be expected to cover and still steer the show back to the script. Some can do this. But very few. Lots of really good actors who would be perfect for your show might avoid it because they’re worried about this aspect. So suddenly your pool of candidates shrinks considerably. It’s hard enough to cast when everyone in the world is available to you.
And then there’s the guest cast. Your principals might get somewhat used to the format, but actors just coming in for the week would not. One of them could kill an episode if they fuck up badly.
All the imperfections will be exposed. Sound problems (the audience didn’t hear a line because the boom operator missed a cue), bad camera shots because someone is not right on their mark, a light blows out on the set, a prop malfunctions, a wall falls down, etc. You’re stuck with it.
On the other hand, to not change things because you’re putting too much pressure on the actors means you often have to live with lines or scenes you know are not as good as they could be. I had that with the musical I co-wrote. During production we were so strangled by Equity restrictions that we had no time to fix lines and moments and night after night I would watch stuff that needed help but couldn’t address it. It drove me out of my mind. In television I’m used to just going out on the floor and changing something. No can do in live TV. Or summer stock in Connecticut.
The storytelling itself will be dictated by the restrictions imposed by the form. Just like with a play, costume changes have to be covered and getting actors from set to set can be a challenge. And unlike a play, you don’t have the suspension of belief you do in the theater. Sets can’t just fly in. Lights on and off can’t determine different locales. These obstacles are not at all insurmountable but they must be factored in. Here again, Cathy & Josh are smart to make it a domestic comedy. Entire shows can take place in the house. Imagine doing SEINFELD live with its forty or fifty one-page scenes. Yikes! Or FRIENDS where the costume changes for the actresses alone took hours. A typical FRIENDS filming took from 5:00 PM to 2:00 AM. They even had two audiences because the first one would be exhausted after five hours. That ain't gonna fly in live TV.
Assuming they’ll perform the show twice each week (once for the east coast and again for the west), the west coast shows will probably be way better because the writers will be able to change a few jokes that bombed, and the actors will have had essentially one more runthrough before their west coast performance. That’s great for us out west, but the majority of the American audience will then see the inferior version.
By eliminating the editing process you also eliminate a major step in improving a show. I can’t tell you how many episodes I’ve worked on that came way up in quality or were literally saved by editing. Besides hiding a plethora of blemishes, you can greatly improve the pace. And pace in comedy is key.
Personally, I wouldn’t want to produce a live weekly sitcom. Too many things I couldn't control. But that’s me. Cathy & Josh are terrific and I’m sure will do a great job.
Of course, the ultimate irony is that with DVR’s, even though the show will be live, most people will still see it on tape.