Monday, July 22, 2013

The geography of comedy

As I’ve mentioned on occasion, I’m in a weekly improv workshop taught by the masterful Andy Goldberg. (Notice I've never mentioned whether or not I’m any good?)  Recently we’ve had to change theaters. Even though we are very sentimental, we opted not to stay in our original theater once it was torn down. Still, we had been there for eight years and were a little leery about making the change.

But the new theater had ample street parking and an oriental massage parlor next door so it definitely had its pluses. And it wasn't going to be a restaurant in six months.

The new theater was laid out differently. Our original venue was a little larger with a very wide stage area. The new place was narrow. A deeper stage and six rows of seats instead of three.
Lo and behold we had a hot class that first night. Lots of laughs. Everyone concluded this theater has a good comedy vibe.

I could have predicted it. Why?

Because of its shape.

Comedy plays better in confined spaces. Laughs are louder when they don’t drift away.

Now you may say this is a superstition and I just want to be near that massage parlor, but (1) they don’t give group on’s, and (2) being in close quarters amplifies the laughter and laughter is infectious.

Whenever a sitcom episode goes into production the first order of business is a table reading. Several large tables are set up, the actors sit across from each other and read the script aloud as the writers and executives sit around them. Many shows I’ve worked on just hold their table readings right on their cavernous sound stages. On shows I’ve produced I insist we hold the table readings in conference rooms. Yes, it’s a little cramped, and chairs are pushed up against walls, but the difference in the reaction is startling. Laughs are so much bigger when you’re not at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.  Jokes are so much funnier when they don't echo. 

Lest you think it’s just me, the table readings for CHEERS, FRASIER, WINGS, THE SIMPSONS, and BECKER were all held in conference rooms.

Do we get an unfair reading as a result? Do the scripts appear funnier than they really are? Sometimes. There are producers who won’t change jokes later if it worked at the table reading. I’m not one of them. If a joke doesn’t work when it’s on its feet I cut it.  Table readings can always be deceiving. 

But way more often, I’ve seen bad table readings done on the stage then gone back to the room and changed the shit out of the script. Later that day we'd have a runthrough of the original table draft and 70% of the stuff we planned to cut suddenly worked.

I’d rather err on the side of the table reading going well. Especially since you have the network and studio there as well. The less nervous they all are about the script, the better it is for all concerned.

Comedy can be effected by many outside factors. Room temperature, audience fatigue, visibility, traffic, distractions, level of alcohol, time of night, and the intimacy of the venue.

So I invite you to take seriously the notion of comedy geography.  You could be in for a happy ending even without the massage parlor.


An (is my actual name) said...

"Even though we are very sentimental, we opted not to stay in our original theater once it was torn down."

Full stop for actual LOL. Still giggling.

John said...

I think of sounds and Oriental massage parlors and I don't think of 'laughter'. 'Moans of joy', yes, but not so much laughter (though I suppose if you were doing a table reading for the Katz Delicatessen scene in "When Harry Met Sally" the two would fit together nicely).

(Also, semi-related, Amazon's offering all 11 seasons of MASH plus the movie for $80 today. If you don't own most of the seasons, now's the chance to go for it.)

Johnny Walker said...

I've only been there the once, but I liked the fact it was in the Avery Schreiber Theater... Kind of sad that it's being torn down.

That's LA, I guess.

Mark P. said...

How important is the design of the studio that a comedy's live audience sits in? Do you get a professional to renovate it to suit your particular show? How do you balance capacity and intimacy? How close do you want the audience to the stage? What temperature do you set, and is it for the benefit of the actors and crew or also the audience? (Letterman chills his studio to somewhere in the 50's, "to keep the comedy fresh". Go to the restroom before taping begins.)

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

...and then there is the art of being funny in a small room with no one there to hear: the DJ booth.

THAT'S tough. :)

Rowan said...

First off - great post.

And I think a reading of one of my scripts was done in that particular theater because it looks super familiar.
And yes, the jokes played really well in the room. I thought it was my sparkling wit, but it was probably just the room.

We did a read for a different script in a larger stage last year and yeah, less laughs, although they were there during rehearsals. I'm going to go your route with the conference rooms from now on.

Paul Duca said...

Obviously we're not going to hear how good or bad your improv is at the massage parlor...

Lori Kirkland Baker said...

Right on about table reads and small rooms. We also did the Desperate Housewives reads in a room that barely fit attendees -- so cramped with a huge cast and guest cast that writers (even EPs) never sat at the table itself. Now mind you, on that show, I'm not sure it helped the laugh factor... but it still was a much more effective way of making people pay attention and able to follow the plot.

We're doing a conference room on my current show -- showrunner knows better and vetoed any stage reads.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

This does not just work for comedy. After WWII, Winston Churchill (I have been told) ordered the House of Commons debate chamber in the Houses of Parliament to be rebuilt exactly the same - actually a little too small for the country's 650 MPs. His view was that the intimacy created debate, etc.

I often think of this when I look at the much larger spaces used in US govt, which usually seem to be a) cavernously empty and b) populated by people who've fallen asleep.


Loosehead said...

Are you sure you weren't in the massage parlour (is it called a rub'n'tug?) when you heard the laughter?

Richard Hatem said...

You've really hit a streak of funny, interesting blogs. What's wrong?

Gary said...

Whitney must have had a really small conference room...

DannyM said...

So true. Although in my (very limited) experience, keeping everyone close together in a larger room can also work. (Good luck getting freshly-pressed executives to bunch up, though.)

My feeling is it's a pacing thing; sound does actually take time to travel. For actors it can become a game of lobs instead of volleys. So a smaller room has the same effect as a slightly tighter edit.

Pat Reeder said...

I've always thought that one of the things that sank Conan O'Brien's Tonight Show was putting him into a gigantic new studio. I know NBC wanted to show off their new guy as resplendently as possible, but it seemed to distance him from the crowd and throw his timing way off. On the old show and the current one on TBS, he's close mic'ed and intimate with the audience, so we hear every quick ad lib and goofy aside. On his "Tonight" monologues, he seemed to be shouting jokes into a cavern from 200 feet away. I swear his voice had an echo. It took so long for the laughs to arrive from the back row that everything seemed slowed down to half speed. I really like Conan, and even I was put off by it, so I can imagine how new viewers might have reacted badly.

Maybe if NBC had just kept him in his old space and not tried to inflate the show with Hollywood elephantiasis, it might've worked. Or at least not crashed so quickly. But asking Hollywood to rein in the excess is like asking them to make a "Lone Ranger" movie for less than $250 million. It can't be done!!

Pat Reeder said...

By the way, here we go again: Spike Lee wants suckers on Kickstarter to give him $1.25 million to make his next movie so he doesn't have to go find real investors like everyone else. Doesn't he spend at least that much every year on Knicks tickets?

D. McEwan said...

Very true.

I saw Joe Orton's great play, one of my all-time favorite farces, a total masterpiece, What the Butler Saw, at the Laguna Moulton Playhouse in Laguna Beach once. Now that gigantic barn of a theater is a good place to do a really big Musical. Phantom of the Opera would play well there, or at least as well as it can play. (I'm not a fan of it, yet it is the most-successful and longest-running Broadway musical ever, so maybe I'm wrong)

The set was enormous, and opened up to the huge unused portions of empty stage that spread off into seeming-infinity. It was expansive. I can not say that it got no laughs. You really have to work had to butcher that hilarious play to the point that it gets no laughs, but it was tepid, and diluted. The claustrophobic feeling of the situation closing in on the characters, which is ESSENTIAL to the play, was utterly lost. Plus, they were doing a bowdlerized, cleaned-up version, and they cut the metal doors that slam shut and literally trap the cast in a small office from which they ultimately escape by climbing a rope ladder to a skylight (also cut.) The director defended his bowdlerizing the script when I challenged him on his desecration of this great, great script, by pointing out that Orton had died before he could revise it (True, but it needs no revising), so he was only making the changes Orton would have made had he lived. I congratulated the fautous, incompetant fool on his ability to read the mind of a man who died in 1967. The production was awful, despite a perfectly good cast.

Then, a few months later, I went and saw it staged again, in Santa Barbara. The theater was narrower than my living room. You could seat at most ten across in the audience. Not only was the set tiny, but they added a faux-fourth wall at the proscenium with jagged "Cut-a-way" edges, so it looked like verticle teeth biting the cast, and suggested the closing-in so necessary to the show. They also did the play as written. The show worked a billion times better.

D. McEwan said...

In the wide-theater photo, is that Mort Sahl?

Hamid said...

Oh dear. As Pat Reeder mentions above, now Spike Lee has jumped on the Kickstarter bandwagon. This is getting ridiculous. I like Lee as a director but he's got a huge body of work behind, a production company, an agent and hundreds of contacts. Using Kickstarter is just obscene.

By the way, did you find out in the end if that sweating waiter at Jerry's Deli had hep?

ambi guous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Comedy in small spaces happened to work on NBC in New York for years. Letterman/Conan did their late night shows in the small, narrow converted from radio studio that is NBC Studio 6A. Carson then Fallon across the hall in 6B. And compared to anything in Los Angeles, 30 Rock's 8H for Saturday Night Live is relatively intimate. Could see how Conan felt a little lost in that barn NBCU put him in at Universal City.