Sunday, July 24, 2016

Why people don't laugh

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 2 BROKE GIRLS 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.


Michael said...

For what it's worth ....

Ken, this comes from your other life. Lindsey Nelson (for the unfamiliar, the longtime voice of the New York Mets, Notre Dame football and 26--yes, 26--Cotton Bowls) told the story of doing a new bowl game in San Diego, and the morning of the game, it was pouring--biblically. As game time approached, it turned out that not one ticket had been sold--literally no tickets. So NBC got ahold of some military brass, who rounded up soldiers and sailors from wherever they could get them, and got 2-300 of them. NBC positioned them all together and whenever the director wanted a crowd reaction, he would cut to them, sitting there, unsmiling, in the rain. Strangely, that was the only edition of that bowl game.

Anthony Host said...

And what a time to be here in NYC, when we are all dying of this sweltering humid hell.

Hope you had some time to take in some Broadway.

Earl Boebert said...

Again, FWIW:

I was stationed at Randolph AFB (San Antonio TX) during the Johnson years. When Lyndon would fly in on his way to the ranch, they would order all the dependents in base housing to line up along the flight line fence and wave for the photographers.

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

Friday question:

I guess it's my age contributing to this...

We went to see the new Star Trek Beyond. My wife loves the franchise, so why not? After 20 minutes of coming attractions and the entire movie, I concluded that I'm waaay out of the primary movie demo because everything, EVERYTHING seems to me to be little more than an exercise in very expensive visual effects. I don't have a quarrel with high-end tech, but jeez, it seemed to me that very little happens to the actual characters. Instead, things explode, people fight, the camera jerks around and the sound is cripplingly LOUD. But very little human story. Lots of "flash and trash" as we once called it. Like Trump's campaign, too.

So, folks, is this a genuine cultural trend or is it a cranky old man thing? (I DID buy my first pill caddy yesterday, so I'm ready for that. (Kill me now...)

Dave Creek said...

The special effects seem to be the one think movie studios want. The rest is "extra." As much as I liked STAR TREK BEYOND, for instance, I'm looking forward to the new series STAR TREK: DISCOVERY more, because with TV budgets producers may look toward more thoughtful stories.

You can combine great effects and great stories, and I would maintain that some of the recent Marvel movies have done that. But for so many producers, the effects ARE the show.

VP81955 said...

A happy birthday to our little giant from Broken Arrow, Kristin Chenoweth. It was a year agoes today she received her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame:

D. McEwan said...

The evening of the Challenger disaster, I had an improv class with an instructor who generally paid little-to-no attention to "Current Events." Like your taping, it was death. No one was funny. No one was laughing. On the way out my instructor said to me: "What a dreary class tonight. I can't imagine why everyone was so off their game tonight."

I replied: "Well, national disasters can have that effect on people."

He said: "What national disaster?"

D. McEwan said...

"Barefoot Billy Aloha said...
We went to see the new Star Trek Beyond. My wife loves the franchise, so why not? After 20 minutes of coming attractions and the entire movie, I concluded that I'm waaay out of the primary movie demo because everything, EVERYTHING seems to me to be little more than an exercise in very expensive visual effects. I don't have a quarrel with high-end tech, but jeez, it seemed to me that very little happens to the actual characters. Instead, things explode, people fight, the camera jerks around and the sound is cripplingly LOUD. But very little human story. Lots of 'flash and trash' as we once called it. Like Trump's campaign, too."

Trailers are aimed at the audience for the feature. You were at a special effects movie so you got special effects movie trailers.

I went to see Absolutely Fabulous, The Movie yesterday. We easily had 20 minutes of trailers also, but none for special effects movies. Several of them were for "Relationship movies," and the rest were for comedies.

Norm said...

I've been in the audience for countless number of shows (partially due to the fact I worked at the studio/network of the show) and can relate to the audience issues.

One that particularly irks me is the "warm-up/audience guy" who continually asks us to act like we have never seen the scene - even after they are doing it for the 6th time. GET REAL - please!

Even at the BIG BANG THEORY, they are handing out pizza and water because we've been there for almost 2.5 hours.

Sometimes I feel as if I'm at summer camp with the bizarre skits/contests the guys comes up with to try and amuse us while they are resetting for the next scene. Too funny - well, sometimes!

BA said...

SNL had its stretches of dead/uncomfortable laughter-space right after the new 1980 cast debuted.
"Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell"

Donald Benson said...

Strangest studio audience I ever saw was on a local Bozo franchise in the 1980s on a Bay Area UHF station -- it was the late 70s or early 80s, when I thought that kind of show was extinct. It was obviously micro-budgeted, featuring a few puppets and a mime in support of Bozo, and had a dozen or so kids in what Howdy Doody called the Peanut Gallery. Bozo spent a lot of time rousing them to yell ("Who wants this?", waving a contest prize).

One day I stumbled onto it and that day's Peanut Gallery consisted of developmentally disabled adults. They were quieter than the usual kids, smiling and maybe a bit embarrassed. Bozo didn't try to work them up, being calm with them and aiming his outrageousness at the camera. Nothing unusual or noteworthy happened. It was just strange that instead of the usual screaming kids the camera would pan over and reveal these slightly uncomfortable adults.

The stuff of an especially tasteless sitcom episode, or a high-concept entry in a college drama competition.

Mark said...

Me too, Barefoot!

The coming attractions were so loud and explosive that it really wore me out then the movie started and it was way, way too much of [something] crashing. It didn't advance the story to have that part of the movie, that loud and dark (visually) part of the movie last that long. Then the fight scenes were shot so tight that the viewer could never figure out what was going on, until you realize you just don't care if it's going to take that much effort.

In the end I liked the movie but not the previews (which I hated) and not the first part of hte movie which was almost as bad as the previews.

I guess these movies are shot for the young and foreign markets which probably don't really care. For me I'll take "My Dinner With Andre" over these things every night of the week.

Andy Rose said...

This reminds me of the Seinfeld episode "The Barber." It's about Jerry getting a really bad haircut and Kramer taking his place in a charity bachelor auction. The episode struggled somewhat in front of the live audience. For one thing, Jerry Seinfeld came out to greet the audience before the filming began, and he was already done up in the Bad Haircut look. So the audience didn't laugh at the reveal in the actual scene because they had already seen it before the cameras were rolling. Later, the bachelor auction scene depended on some physical comedy from Michael Richards. But because the episode used all of the standing sets and an additional barber shop set, they had to squeeze the auction set into a corner of the studio out of the view of most of the audience. Most people couldn't clearly see what Richards was doing.

If you watch the final show, it's evident that the audience reaction is substantially sweetened. They seemed to do a lot of that on Seinfeld, in part because they did so much filming in pickup. Even their blooper reels have obvious canned laughs.

Andrew said...

Since Donald Bensen mentioned Bozo, and Andy Rose mentioned Seinfeld, I couldn't help thinking about this awesome dialogue:

ERIC: Sorry, I...
GEORGE: You've never heard of Bozo the Clown?
GEORGE: How could you not know who Bozo the Clown is?
ERIC: I don't know, I just don't.
GEORGE: How can you call yourself a clown and not know who Bozo is?
ERIC: Hey, man - what are you hassling me for? This is just a gig, it's not my life. I don't know who Bozo is, what - is he a clown?
GEORGE: Is he a clown? What, are you kidding me!?
ERIC: Well, what is he?
GEORGE: Yes, he's a clown!
ERIC: Alright, so what's the big deal! There's millions of clowns!
GEORGE: Alright, just forget it.
ERIC: Me forget it? You should forget it! You're livin' in the past, man! You're hung up on some clown from the sixties, man!
GEORGE: Alright, very good, very good...go fold your little balloon animals, Eric. Eric! What kind of name is that for a clown, huh?

Jahn Ghalt said...

I think we, up here in Alaska, are not as suffused with media as you are down in America - and perhaps SoCal is more so than the "fly over states". This was more true thirty years ago when the Challenger exploded.

My first thought was "maybe they survived". This was dismissed by a colleague who had seen the TV footage that morning. I then felt sorry for the crew and their families. But next, I wondered how long it would take for NASA to get on with Shuttle missions.

At no point did any of this involve "a full day of inescapable sorrow" - an advantage to go with the disadvantages of remoteness.

Jason said...

80 degrees Fondly Fahrenheit..