Thursday, March 31, 2016

Why people don't laugh

Continuing our theme this week of why things don't work:

When you do a show multi-camera in front of an audience you always run the risk that unforeseen circumstances will affect the crowd’s reactions.

There have been a number of times in my erstwhile career when shows that should have played through the roof played through the floor. Here’s why.

The most common enemy of all multi-cam shows: the air conditioning going out. I've have had this happen a number of times. And with all the blazing hot lights and no cross-ventilation a sound stage becomes Satan's rumpus room in ten minutes. Comedy evaporates at 80 degrees.

Power failures can also curtail things. I’ve found that audiences do not enjoy sitting in pitch-black darkness. Who knew???   Generally generators restore the electricity pretty quickly, but the audience is still unnerved. Anxiety is not the best warm up for promoting laughter.

And when the power goes out, so does the air conditioning. See paragraph three.

Rain is a problem. Usually an audience is asked to line up outside the stage before being let in. There are no retractable roofs over movie studios. Sometimes you can find shelter for the two hundred brave souls or let them in earlier, but more times than not they’re exposed to the elements. It’s hard to really yuck it up when your sweater smells like a dead raccoon and your socks are soaked.

There are companies that help fill audiences, especially for new shows. Once a show is a hit there’s a big demand for tickets. (FRIENDS used to have two audiences for every taping. They took forever to do that show. The first audience would come in at about 4:00. By 8:00 they were burned out and the show was only half done. So they were mercifully released and a new audience took their place. Fans were just so excited to be at a FRIENDS taping they didn’t care. Good luck pulling that on a new show that hasn’t even premiered.) These companies arrange for buses and in some cases even pay people to attend the tapings. (Considering some of the shows I’ve seen lately that’s a hard way to earn a buck.) They are not always conscientious when it comes to selecting groups for specific shows. Imagine a hundred 80 year-olds attending a WHITNEY taping.

One time we had a group of convicts. Who did they kill in the yard to warrant that punishment? Again, there’s that unnerving factor for the rest of the audience seeing armed prison guards. And then at 9:00 they were herded out – right in the middle of a scene. Then we were left with a half-empty house. 

I’ve told this story before but a script my partner David and I thought was very solid died on the stage. And only later did we learn that half the audience couldn’t speak English. 

But the worst audience I ever had was for an episode of the Mary Tyler Moore comeback show David and I created. And this was no one’s fault but ours. We had a terrific show. One of our funniest. We were very excited.

And then the morning of the filming the Challenger disaster occurred. Seven brave astronauts perished. Our first instinct was to cancel the filming, but the studio (protecting its investment) argued that we should film anyway. Their reasoning: after a full day of inescapable sorrow, people would gladly welcome the diversion. They would love the opportunity to just laugh for a few hours.

So we gave in. After all, we had a good episode. Sometimes the release of laughter is a Godsend in times of grief and this show was funny.

We filmed as planned. And the show absolutely died. Silence. Crickets. Tumbleweeds. DEATH. I don’t think there were three laughs the entire night. Even the audience that couldn’t speak English laughed at a few things. Not this group. If someone dropped a coin on the floor you could tell by the sound whether it was a quarter or dime – that’s how quiet it was.

As they were filing out I happened to glance at the set and suddenly it all made sense. This was a large newspaper bullpen set along the wall most prominent to the audience was photos of current events. Right in the middle, in plain view of everyone, was a photo of the Challenger.


Still, part of the fun of shooting in front of a live studio audience is the unpredictability. Each filming night is different. And the pros outweigh the cons. Plus, the cons leave at 9.

This is a re-post from four years ago but really fit into the theme. 


Jeremiah Avery said...

Your statement about "They are not always conscientious when it comes to selecting groups for specific shows." reminds me of what Eric Idle said about the audiences at some of the early "Monty Python" shows. That some at the BBC didn't have much of an idea as to what the show was about and brought in an audience comprising retirees and people expecting to see an actual circus with animals, trapeze artists, etc. Those were rough nights.

I wonder if a lack of laughs at some of the more established shows could stem from the writing making call-backs to minor events of past episodes or an over use of out-of-context catchphrases that may not make sense to some in the audience who may not be well-versed on this particular show?

Fred from Scarborough said...

And sometimes the warm-up guy is a giant pain in the ass and you are so pissed off at him you don't feel like laughing.

Douglas Trapasso said...

Actually, there -is- one power failure scene that has me laughing every time. I'm referring, of course, to the Johnny Carson cameo late in the Mary Tyler Moore (70's) run.

VP81955 said...

Too bad more showrunners don't embrace multi-cams. Who does these days, aside from Chuck Lorre?

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Hey, there's always single-cam sitcoms . . . if only they'd go back to using laugh tracks instead of going for this surreal and ghastly mockumentary style that THE OFFICE made standard practice.

Pete Grossman said...

Do I assume correctly in the case of "Silence. Crickets. Tumbleweeds." that the episode is "sweetened" with a laugh track to bolster things up a bit?

Loosehead said...

And further to Pete Grossman's comment, how did you decide how much laughter for each gag?

Loosehead said...

Just reading obits for Ronnie Corbett, an EXTREMELY popular comedian here in the uk for30-40 years, who died today. He used to do his own warm-up for his sitcom "Sorry". Imagine having to go out whenever there is a break in filming.

Andy Rose said...

For "The Parking Space" episode of Seinfeld, they decided to shoot much of it outdoors on the backlot. Instead of shooting first and sweetening it or playing it back for a studio audience later, they brought audience bleachers outside. Unfortunately the audience had trouble hearing the dialogue, and other issues caused the shoot that started in daytime to go well into the night. They never tried that again.

On the flip side, they wound up shooting "The Parking Garage" episode without an audience because the garage set took up the entire soundstage, and there was no room for spectators.

Fred Nerk said...

The Two Ronnies was my mothers favourite TV show of all time, 50 years of success, well done Ronnie.

Mike said...

@Loosehead: I can envisage Corbett stretching out a single monologue for the entire evening with the occasional interruption for filming. "But I digress." And the audience going home having enjoyed the monologue and been bored by the programme.

Gary said...

Somebody recently posted (I think it was here) about attending a taping of Mom, but not being able to see the actors because they were behind screens. I think if you waited in line for hours expecting to see a live performance, this would be infuriating. Ken, do you know if this is a common practice now?

D. McEwan said...

I had an improv comedy class the evening of the day the Challenger exploded. Our instructor was not really plugged into current events. No laughs, no one was funny. All night. AS we were were leaving, he said: "Boy, no one was funny tonight. What was the problem?" I replied, "Well, a national disaster happening live on TV can have that effect. He said: "What national disaster?" I said: "The Challenger exploding? It was mentioned in several sketches." He said: "People were upset about that? Why?" To him, it was just something that happened on TV. He'd known it had taken place, but it meant nothing to him. He was shocked that it had taken all the air out of the room. This was a man who had voted for Reagan because he'd worked with Reagan once and hoped for a White House invite (Which he never got). He was oblivious to Reagan's, or indeed anyone's, politics.

Andy Rose said...

Mark Evanier wrote that after they loaded the audience for Sonny and Cher's program, the stars of the show would come out to do the opening dialogue (including a mention of that week's guest stars). Then S & C would do the show closing. Then they would leave, and a producer would come out and advise the audience that the rest of the show (including all the guest stars) had already been taped, so good night! And that was it. They only brought in an audience to be seen briefly at the beginning and end of the show, and the rest of the show had a canned audience response.

Patrick said...

Here is a FRIDAY QUESTION - Why did FRIENDS take so long to tape??? Was it always this way or just when they became huge stars? Were they just having too good a time? Did no one know their lines? Im dying to know!

Steven said...

@PATRICK: Someone who's posted here before about attending a FRIENDS taping said that the cast didn't seem to know their lines and that he got the impression they were rehearsing, blocking and filming as they went along. He said that was very late in the show's run, though, and maybe it was just harder by that point to get them there to do the work.

Re: LAUGH TRACKS: Sometimes, watching MASH without the laugh track, there are times when you can tell the show was filmed with the intention of having a laugh track dubbed in. Speech doesn't always flow naturally. There will sometimes be little "pauses" after funny lines (where there wouldn't be a pause in normal conversation) that were obviously left there to allow a bit of room for the laugh track.

Read a book once on George Burns and Gracie Allen's television series. The show was filmed without an audience, edited together, then played to an audience in a theater, whose laughter was recorded and mixed onto the soundtrack. Actors who worked on the show remembered that George Burns had a very reliable sense of about how big a laugh a line would get, and where he anticipated a laugh, he would give them a number to count to. "You say your line, then Gracie will say her line. That'll get a small laugh, so you count to four, then deliver your next line. Gracie will deliver her next line, which will get a big laugh, so you count to eight before you deliver your next line." I suppose years of experience in front of live audiences gave Burns such a strong sense of how big a laugh to expect. Even still, they would usually keep Gracie busy during a scene, arranging a vase of flowers, cleaning, puttering around the kitchen. This was so they'd have something going on in case a line didn't get the anticipated laugh. The problem they had recording an audience's laughter in a theater was that the microphones would pick up the show's soundtrack in addition to recording the live audience's reactions, which locked them into what they could do with the audience track. Still, it was, in the 1950s, a popular method of getting a "live audience" onto a show filmed without one, before Charley Douglass and his laugh box pretty much took over completely. Early '50s sitcoms like THE AMOS 'N' ANDY SHOW, I MARRIED JOAN, and MY LITTLE MARGIE used it. OZZIE AND HARRIET used that method, too, but they tried to get around the problem of the theater mikes picking up the show's soundtrack by having the audience listen to the audio through headphones. Which solved the problem of picking up the soundtrack, but resulted in the audience's reactions being rather stifled and low-key. People are more self-conscious laughing in a crowd like that when they're not hearing other people laughing.

Dale said...

@Steven: That's interesting. I'd never heard of that method of getting a laugh track onto a show filmed without one. I remember late ALL IN THE FAMILY episodes saying something like, "Played to a studio audience for live response," but I never thought about what that actual process was like. I can see that there were drawbacks to recording a live audience and dubbing their response onto a show that's already been filmed. I've watched some AMOS AND ANDY shows lately (so shoot me -- some of them are pretty funny) and have noticed that it's not unusual for the laughs from the audience to overlap over dialogue. Where the laugh they got was obviously longer than they had anticipated and had allowed for when they edited the show. Not knowing that the laugh track was a live audience recorded watching the show in a theater, I had figured either somebody was sloppy with the laugh box or the cast was just bad about not always waiting until audience response had died down. I think, though, that if I had had a show back then filmed without an audience that I wanted a laugh track for, I would have preferred this method to using a laugh box. What I just hate about all those 1960s sitcoms that used the laugh box is that it sounds like the same damn audience on every show. I guess the guy who did it didn't have a very big "repertoire" of laughs. You can hear the same ones, used over and over and over, on all those shows. Either that or he was just lazy and they figured nobody would ever notice or care.

George said...

My favorite "live audience" story concerns Suzanne Somers, who, post-THREE'S COMPANY, was taping a pilot for a new series in which she was to play a "zany" airline stewardess. As was reported at the time, the show was getting a decidedly tepid response from the audience at the taping, and Alan Hamel, Somers' husband and producer of the series, finally lost his temper and threw the unappreciative audience out. Taping proceeded without an audience and, presumably, the old reliable laugh box found the proceedings far more hilarious than the studio audience had. In any event, the series never sold.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@Dale It's not that there was a lack of repertoire in the Laff Box (there were 32 loops in the machine, each containing ten laughs spliced together, so that's 320 laffs), it's because Charley Douglass's company was the only audience reaction company in the business in the 60s, that's why you hear the same laughs on all of those shows back then. And to Charley's credit, he would switch out whatever loops he was currently using in his machine every few months or so to keep the audience reaction from sounding too similar. Not to mention, he would do slight overhauls of his entire library every few years or so: for example, if you watch a show from 1964, 1967, 1970, and 1975, you'll notice a difference in the overall sound of the audience reaction -- I remember up until I started watching M*A*S*H eleven years ago, I watched mostly 60s sitcoms, and even though I knew it was the same laugh track, something about M*A*S*H's audience sounded different than the 60s sitcoms. Then, of course, by 1977, Charley's protege, Carroll Pratt, spun off into his own company, so by that time, many sitcoms began switching to Carroll's company for audience reaction, because he used different laughter than Charley did.

The last I heard anything, Charley's son, Robert, retired and dissolved the company a few years ago, and while Carroll's company still continues to do 90% of audience reaction for television today, the business as a whole is suffering since more and more outlets are opting to produce either laughter-free sitcoms, or cheap reality shows.