Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Another one of my rants

As if they do any good.

This is for all the showrunners of new multi-camera sitcoms (i.e. shows shot in front of a live studio audience) that the networks have recently picked up.   The format is much maligned, but hopefully this will help you avoid the audience complaints and ride your new series to success. 

I have a number of friends who are on staff of various multi-cams . They report that the one note they now get incessantly from the networks is MORE JOKES. Networks are terrified that if there’s not a joke literally every two seconds that the audience will flee en masse to something else.

What they don’t understand, of course, is that the viewer needs to be invested in the characters and story. He needs to CARE what happens to these people. Although in a stylized setting, the characters have to appear at least somewhat REAL. They have to be relatable on some recognizable level. Characters just firing a barrage of one liners at each other for a half hour is what causes audience defection.

Then things get worse. And I don’t know whether this is the network or showrunner’s fault – but the laugh track goes crazy over every line.  It's exhausting.  When viewers have shouted for years that the laugh track is what turns them off the most about multi-cam shows, they’re now being fed more, not less.

The truth is not every joke is going to land, especially when there are a thousand of them per half hour. Even if they all were genuinely funny an audience would not laugh at every one. If they did, they’d be worn out by the second act.  They need to breathe. So when the laugh machine punctuates every single line with an orgasmic burst of laughter it sounds ridiculous and moderately offensive.

I understand that the pace of today’s sitcoms has been accelerated. Some multi-camera shows from the ‘70s and ‘80s may appear sluggish today. But trust me, it’s better to go six lines to set up one big genuine laugh than seven one-liners that are titters at best. When there are jokes every second the show reeks from desperation. And an audience can sense that.

As regular readers of this blog know, I love the multi-camera format. I also believe that sitcoms need to strive to make viewers really laugh, and in many cases that means jokes. But GOOD jokes. And presented in a respectful way. It’s not the number of cameras that turns many viewers away, it’s the abuse of the format. Take a step back. I guarantee you studio audiences are not laughing at every line. Don’t pretend that they are. Either lay off the laugh machine or don’t go for so many smart-ass remarks. At the end of the day the goal is to make the show FUNNY. Do that with clever surprising stories, do that with reactions, do that with ten big belly laughs or one big block comedy scene. Sometimes sluggish isn’t such a bad thing.

46 comments:

Scott Cason said...

I abhor the laugh track. I feel like some producer somewhere is telling me what's funny. No, _I_ determine what's funny, I don't need a laugh track, that lately is so hot it's drowning out dialogue, cueing me as to what's funny. I always thought the laugh track in MASH was out of place. You are producing a show about a war that you want the viewer to believe was shot on location in said war....where's the audience gonna sit in The Swamp or the mess hall?

John Leader Alfenito said...

Example: "Two Broke Girls." Any episode.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

The constant barrage of one liners usually means that the show is populated by unfunny characters, unfunny situations and/or unfunny actors. It's just like a roller coaster that loops turns and twists constantly with no set ups or playoffs. We'll try it once but then we'll just be sick from it or just bored.

Mike said...

We watched the recent sitcom, The McCarthys, with the incredible Laurie Metcalfe (her work on Norm was hilarious). What a waste. It was a non-stop joke factory. Even she couldn't save it. Your rant is spot-on.

John in Ohio said...

When 2.5 Men was at the top, it had huge laughs. It often had too many one liners, but while we may not have cared about the characters, or liked them, we knew someone like them, or at least understood them. Yes, you can see the joke about Charlie drinking too much or Alan being broke coming a mile away. But ... and this is something I think a lot of writers don't get ... that's ok as long as the joke is funny enough. It has to be better than the one we though up in our heads, or why watch. A surprise may get a big laugh, so can the obvious. George Carlin didn't say anything that wasn't obvious (to him).

2.5M, BBT, HIMYM, TBG, M&M, etc. all fall into this situation. It's both the secret and the curse. We know what the characters are, what they do, what they will say. The writers have to both know this and be better at it. If you succeed more than you fail, big hit. If you don't, cancellation (or should be cancellation, TBG). Even TBG lands one every now and then. The problem is it they were too few and far between.

Whatever you are doing, do it well. If you are making a brainless half hour, do it well. If you are making a brainless procedural, do it well. TBG gets a lot of (deserved) grief on this blog for vagina jokes. IMHO, the problem isn't that they are vagina jokes. The problem is that they aren't FUNNY vagina jokes - at least not any funnier than the one that we came up with when we saw it coming.

Friends didn't succeed because it was about 20something hot bodies. That got people to watch it the first couple times. People kept watching it because it was FUNNY. Networks missed that and just gave us good looking garbage. 2.5M must have meant we wanted crass, so we get 2BG, etc. etc.

Oat Willie said...

The Simpsons (back in the golden 20th century, when Harvey Kurtzman wrote for it) started this "nonstop funny" trend. As for shows that followed it, they didn't have Kurtzman or Swartzwelder on them and they were not great, Bob.

Canda said...

But some hit shows run for so long that studio audiences have waited many months and sometimes a year to get tickets. They are so thrilled to be in the studio, watching the cast live, that they will laugh at almost anything.

MikeN said...

I thought Becker had this problem, and attributed to maybe they were editing too much in syndication.



Anonymous said...

Something else that has declined in quality, the minimum level needed to qualify as a 'rant'.

Mike said...

@Oat Willie: Kurtzman wrote for the Simpsons? Was that the legendary Flying Hellfish Go To Korea episode, drawn by John Severin & coloured by Marie?

Diane D. said...

Would that all the network people would read this post and trust that someone who was involved in creating several of the greatest sitcoms of all time (not to mention, enormously profitable) would know more than they do about what it takes to make a successful show. How I long for another sitcom in which I CARE about the characters, in which I get to feel that delicious build up to a hilarious conclusion several times, instead of a constant stream of mediocre one-liners. They make me want to scream.

For one of the best examples of that build up, watch the last few minutes of "Snow Job", a Season Two episode of Cheers.

Sam has just left the bar.
Coach: I forgot to ask him about the olives.
Carla (disgusted): Don't worry, he'll be back in 10 minutes.
Norm: I say 5.
Diane (charmingly smug): Maybe even less.
(As a viewer, you're holding your breath--show is almost over, no time, but he has to!)
Door is heard opening, Diane sitting with back to door.
Diane "alerts" with a smile starting on her face. Viewer is laughing hysterically!
Sam in the doorway (exasperated) A box boy?? Laughter increases!
Full smile on Diane's face as she turns her head around. Even more laughter!

Shelley Long was at her very best in this whole episode. Her expressions and line delivery were unbelievable.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

That was a problem they had way back in the early days of television and had to eventually work out through the 60s: it's all in the timing, the conversations and the exchanges have to have just the right amount of pauses after a gag or a punchline to allow room for laughter without overlapping and interrupting the rest of the dialogue. Of course, it's a lot more controlled on single-camera laugh track sitcoms. Multi-camera audience sitcoms have had their own problems too: take SANFORD AND SON, for example - whenever Redd Foxx, Demond Wilson, LaWanda Page, or anybody first entered a scene, the audience would go crazy with applause and cheers that the actors would always just literally freeze in place and wait for the audience to calm down before continuing the scene. I mean, can you imagine what it would be like if SANFORD AND SON had no audience?

FRED: (Enters) Lamont!
LAMONT: (Enters) Yeah, Pop?
(Long awkward pause)
FRED: Well, say somethin'!
LAMONT: Oh, was that my cue?
FRED: Yeah, dummy! What are you waitin' for? A standing ovation? You big dummy!

I understand that Larry David had that exact problem on SEINFELD whenever Kramer would enter Jerry's apartment and it finally got to a point where they actually had to instruct the audience not to cheer or applaud whenever Kramer entered.

@Scott Cason: That's a very common misconception. The laugh track does not tell you what's funny, or when to laugh - it's there to compensate for absence of a studio audience, and to otherwise recreate the ambience of watching a comedy with a group of people as opposed to by yourself. Let's be real here, don't you find you're more inclined to laugh at something when you're with friends or others and not when you're alone?

Julia Littleton said...

The joke-every-half-second approach certainly doesn't work for me. Probably the pressure to squeeze a guffaw out of every line is what has led to increasingly vulgar and repellent jokes as writers try for shock value, even though there isn't much that is truly shocking anymore.

But this brings up a question: Can you explain something about the art of the setup that won't, as it were, kill the frog in the process? Probably you've explained it before, but I can never get enough of this stuff. The setups on Frasier were so elaborate that the reward, when it came, was truly memorable.

Alan C said...

I love a good joke, but reading this I couldn't help thinking of one of my all-time favorite sitcom episodes, "The Contest" on Seinfeld. I'm not sure there's a single "joke" in the whole episode.

Ken Levine said...

A joke doesn't have to be a one liner or stand alone (he was so cheap he...); it can be a line of dialogue in character that due to the attitude or situation moves the story forward with a laugh.

TheThomme said...

The worst offenders - the Disney & Nick zitcoms. Shrieks of laughter after Every. Single. Line.
Some of the shows are actually clever, and I can put up with the laugh track. And some I've banned my daughter from watching, especially "Jesse" (working title "Little Assholes and the Fat Man They Mock").

Anonymous said...

Ken, maybe you know the answer to this.
Winchester's sister was honORRia, or a something like that (make sure to use the Boston accent). Near the end, maybe even in GFAmen, someone pronounced her name so it rhymed with gonorreah.
Was that always a joke in the pocket from when the sister was named, or a happy coincidence? My low brow mind thought it was one of the funniest jokes on the show, especially in the last couple years.

Clarence Odbody said...

The excessive and misplaced laughter is exactly why I had to stop watching the Big Bang Theory, even though it is a show that could have been targeted specifically at me.

bruce miller said...

Ken... "I" could write a book on this subject!!!!!!

H Johnson said...

I imagine it would be hard to find anyone to defend the laugh machine. But there must have been a network study done at some point that determined that the sound of canned laughter induced the viewer into buying more soap.

Used subtlety I can bear it, but most shows abuse it. And there must be some collation to shows that over use the machine (Disney/ABC) and writers that don't know the difference between a joke and a stupid (smart-ass) remark. It's not that I feel they're trying to tell me what's funny, rather they're using the blast of laughter to identify the jokes. "look! there was one!, there's another!

I hate it. Laugh machines do not prompt me to laugh. They do however make me want to punch a network executive in the face. But that would be wrong. Right?

Aloha

Thomas said...

Hi Ken. Unrelated to your rant, have you seen this? It's every episode of M*A*S*H... simultaneously...
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GaWlGIvgJ6w

Anonymous said...

I still laugh at Modern Family, no laugh track. I laughed at Police Squad, no laugh track. Leave the overly used laugh track to Nick and Disney. There should be a rating system for this, #jokes/min compared to # of laugh tracks/min. Besides a show having 3*, have that ratio just to alert us.

Barry Traylor said...

Laugh tracks make me turn off a sitcom. I loath them.

Barry Traylor said...

@Scott Cason: That's a very common misconception. The laugh track does not tell you what's funny, or when to laugh - it's there to compensate for absence of a studio audience, and to otherwise recreate the ambience of watching a comedy with a group of people as opposed to by yourself. Let's be real here, don't you find you're more inclined to laugh at something when you're with friends or others and not when you're alone?

Does this mean if I am reading something by Mark Twain or Jean Shepherd I need to have a person reading it with me?

Hamid said...

The Simpsons was funny back in the 20th century because it was new. Nonstop quality. Until about ~1996, then the quality was hit and miss. They were original, and we are nostalgic. If those episodes aired today for the first time, I'm sure they'd receive lower ratings because we'd be dull to the ideas and have no warm memories for them. The show should've ended in 2004. Oat Willie you need to check your facts.

Rowan said...

Hi Ken, I have what I hope is a Friday Question:

As someone who has run a writers room multiple times on shows, you've stated how the writers' room needs to be a place where people can speak up and say whatever they want without restriction so they can create freely. I think that's fantastic and have seen that in action. But is there a limit? And what is that limit? I don't mean sexual harassment over dirty jokes or statements, or people getting their knickers in a twist over being the butt of a joke, but how abrasive can a writer get away with being in the room? What if one of the writers uses that freedom only to slam the other writers in the room. Not trying to be funny, play devil's advocate or inspire a line of thought or a better line while doing so - just constantly insulting the other writers' thoughts and abilities pretty much all the time? This has come up recently online in a TV writer's group page and I'd love to know what, if anything, you think about having that writer in the room.

Gary said...

Anybody trying to write good comedy should study the best episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show. Even though there were plenty of jokes, the dialogue and conversations among the characters sounded totally natural and believable. If you watch any sitcom today, most of the lines sound like they were carefully written, and they are often something nobody would ever say in real life.

mmryan314 said...

Diane D.- I couldn't agree with you more about Cheers and getting to know and love the characters. The humor comes often from just watching their interactions.I`m feeling the same way now about the characters in the Netflix show Grace and Frankie.

Scott Cason said...

@Joseph Scarbrough. I understand that some want to use the track to "sweeten" the audio. I personally don't need that. I don't need an audience telling me what's funny, either. It's just very annoying to me when overused...which it seems to be these days.

Steve Bailey said...

I remember seeing an interview with Larry Gelbart in the 1970's. He spoke of a network exec who had graphed the soundtrack of a sitcom episode and was complaining that the lulls between the laughs were too long. The exec couldn't comprehend that the laughs had to be set up first, hence the "lulls."

Mike said...

Coincidentally, I considered commenting on this subject a couple of days ago - after watching an episode of Instant Mom on YouTube (out of curiosity). There was a remorseless machine cycle of "set-up line, punchline, pause for laugh, set-up line, punchline, pause for laugh" throughout, which became so obvious it jarred. And confusingly, the laughter seemed canned & loud (quiet on the set-up & punchline, loud on the pause, instantly dying away for the next set-up), yet the programme seemed multi-cam. Perhaps this is an effect of editing out the laugh spread.

The overall effect was to transform every character into a machine whose only function was to wisecrack and to age the children by ten years (into adults that constantly cracked wise).

MikeN said...

Hamid, I disagree about the Simpsons. There is a definite change in the show. For one thing they have reduced the time by several minutes, which makes it very difficult to do a long setup like Ken is talking about here. They used to have multiple plotlines for each episode. For example, the episode with all the baseball players, started with a very long setup where they parodied The Natural. Then there was the episode with Dustin Hoffman as Lisa's new teacher. It was advertised as "Bart runs for class president!"

chris said...

Friday question: as a showrunner yourself, where would you say the line between unihibited free speech and sexual harassment is in a writer's room?

James said...

The jokes don't need to be funny--just the laugh track up louder.

One of the reasons I rarely watch new tv comedies. It's like watching 1960s era single-camera comedies where the laugh track alerts you to every joke no matter how small.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@H Johnson: You would be correct. When the Laff Box was coming into vogue, one of the networks conducted a study to see how necessary it was to add laughter to a sitcom. They screened two different sitcom pilots for three different test audiences: the pilot the network felt was superior had no laugh track, while the pilot they felt was inferior had one. The results were the poor pilot with the laugh track took head and shoulders over the better pilot with no laugh track. Similarly, before HOGAN'S HEROES went to air, CBS tested the pilot with test audiences in two versions: one with a laugh track, and one without; the audiences watching the silent version actually had no idea what to make of what they watched, but the audiences that watched the laugh track version understood it was a comedy. As such, CBS decided it wouldn't send a sitcom to air without giving it the sound of laughter - live or simulated. Matter of fact, CBS was initially horrified that Charles Schulz forbade a laugh track on A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS, but were shocked and surprised that it became such a big success despite not having one.

@Scott Cason: You're right, in terms of sweetening, there doesn't need to be a whole lot done. Sometimes you can tell if a show is oversweetened when it seems like the prerecorded laughs sound like they're competing with actual audience laughter. Carroll Pratt -one of the original laff men in the industry- has said when sweetening an audience show, it's best to take a lighter approach and just flow with the audience.

Hamid said...

MikeN

I didn't post that comment, it's my stalker who posts under my name. I seem to have provoked this moron and I think it's because he kept posting every day a few months ago about how much he hated script readers and that they were wrong to criticize his "violent genre action script" and all I said was that he was repeating the same point every day and for that he's been on a ludicrous vendetta ever since posting under my name. It's really quite sad actually.

Susan said...

Hamid I don't believe you if what you say is true you would fix your name so people couldn't duplicate you. What kind of fool would put up with that for months. I think you have this story so you can pull it out when someone critical of you so you change course and disavow your statements.

Hamid said...

Susan

I tried that by registering as hamid verified on wordpress and he registered on a different site with the same username so comments by either of us would appear to have the same handle.

As for the rest of your comment, it suggests you're either new to this blog or are hard of thinking. This idiot posted a long insane and homophobic rant last week which Ken deleted. I don't write shit like that.

Incidentally, I've expressed my opinion on The Simpsons before and it's that the show went downhill after Oakley and Weinstein stood down as showrunners.

Hamid said...

I've given in and joined Blogger. Hope that shuts you up.

VP81955 said...

I don't mind criticism of multi-cams because of a too-loud laugh track -- though the reason I don't watch "The Big Bang Theory" is that I find the characters obnoxious nerd stereotypes, no matter what volume its laugh track may be -- but it's reached the point where many of whom I refer to as sitcom snobs don't like audience laughter under any circumstances. To me, audience laughter is like good umpiring -- it's most effective when you don't know it's there. And these same people probably loved "Seinfeld" and "Frasier" back in the day.

Ken also is right about the jokes being more valuable in quality, not quantity. One of the things I like most about "Mom" is that it's primarily a character comedy, not a situation comedy. On the whole, "Mom" probably has slightly fewer jokes than other current comedies, but that's largely because of its subject matter (recovering from addiction isn't a bundle of laughs, as Chuck Lorre himself knows). Having the jokes done tastefully, however, as examinations of the characters of Christy, Bonnie and company, it can work. And the audience buys it, as the show's steadily increasing ratings attest.

Anonymous said...

I tried to turn a friend of mine on to Mozart in the Jungle, a new sitcom on Amazon Prime. There weren't enough laughs in it for him; he prefers the Seth McFarlane/Judd Apatow type of comedy where there IS a laugh every two seconds because they will go anywhere and say anything to get a laugh every two seconds, no matter how crude, gross or stupid. I tried to explain to him that, sometime, less is more, that the non-laughing bits were for taking a breath, getting to know the characters a little bit better, and building up to the next funny bit that isn't cheap. No go. - Jeff, who has to post under anonymous because of some weird glitch in his computer.

John Hammes said...

That is a picture of the famous Charley Douglas laugh machine, no?

"Laugh-In" actually recorded the first episode or two with an audience. It did not take long to realize that all involved (including the audience) would find this method slow and awkward, and that all involved could never really enjoy or appreciate the rapid-fire, tightly edited, psychedelic result that would eventually make the airwaves. So, as many times before, it was Charley Douglass at their service. Those particular series of laughs, already so familiar even in 1968 and now running pretty much full blast for this series, still seem custom fit for the zoned out, unreal universe that was "Laugh-In". Incidentally, this is indeed meant as a compliment.

Speaking of "Sanford and Son",
the live audience years of "Happy Days" had that same issue - characters walking in, then having to stand more or less still, wait, or mutter a private aside or in-joke to whoever they were standing next to - until the audience finally simmered down. Granted, Mr. and Mrs. C, Arnold, Murray The Cop - I mean Al - would receive robust audience response, so at least the "wealth" was spread around to cast members of ages.

"Chico And The Man" also had huge audience response upon cast members or guest star entrances, but always seemed to handle the pacing far better... probably because Ed Brown's garage was so large and so cluttered, it DID take a while for anyone to manuever to their position, depending on the camera postion and so forth.

Our college library has several auditorium/public spaces for public speakers, smaller class graduations, etc. During those sessions, accordingly there will be random laughter and applause, sometimes around every five-ten minutes or so. Without fail, every time the sound of the audience reactions reach our offices, one of will deadpan that we feel we are in a 1970s sitcom!

:)

Andy Rose said...

Sometimes sweetening is done to compensate for factors that are beyond the control of the writers. A Newsweek writer sat in to watch a Seinfeld episode in production ("The Barber"), and noted underwhelming laughter during two sequences: the reveal of Jerry's terrible haircut, and Michael Richards' pratfalling at the bachelor auction. As it turns out, the audience had already seen Jerry's haircut during the cast greeting before filming, so they had already burned that laugh. And because that episode had so many new sets, the Kramer scene had to be squeezed into a section of the studio where very few audience members could actually see it. Yet when the episode actually aired, both scenes miraculously got big laughs. Wonder how that happened.

What I find baffling are the Seinfeld blooper reels. It's obvious that several scenes were filmed in pickup without an audience, and they dubbed in laughter just for the reel.

Diane D. said...

To: mmryan
I've been wanting to try GRACE and FRANKIE, but I so rarely like a new show, I have to work up the courage to probably waste time and possibly feel very annoyed. You have given me that courage for this show. Thank you!

Diane D. said...

To: the real Hamid:

I just wanted to let you know that I have been reading this blog long enough that I can distinguish your pathetic stalker from you, even when he tries to sound rational. In those times, he still doesn't sound like you. I've always enjoyed your comments, (even when you sound a little too harsh), and I hope you don't completely give up something you obviously enjoy doing.

Hamid said...

Thank you, Diane.