Sunday, July 24, 2016
Why people don't laugh
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.
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.