Thursday, July 27, 2017

Laughs per minute

Lots of interesting debate on last weekend’s post about laugh tracks (or more accurately, the lack of same). But I want to delve into a deeper aspect – how often are jokes necessary in a multi-camera sitcom? This speaks to the tone you set. As a showrunner are you looking for two laughs a minute or seven? Do they need to be big laughs or a steady stream of smaller laughs? It makes a big difference in the type of jokes you employ and the overall rhythm of the show.

On BIG BANG THEORY they go for LOTS of jokes. Almost every line has a joke or humorous turn. That’s one of the reasons the laugh track sounds more intrusive on that show – a studio audience can’t laugh at every single sentence.

A writer I know who worked on THE NEW ODD COUPLE for CBS said the network’s constant note was “more jokes, more jokes!” Maybe using the successful template of BIG BANG THEORY, or maybe just fear, but they believed if there wasn’t a laugh every few seconds the viewers would flee en masse.

Now you might say, what’s wrong with a laugh every few seconds? Nothing if you can do it. But that’s like saying “what’s wrong with hitting a home run every at-bat?” What often happens is that many of the jokes are forced or unfunny or both. It’s not natural for people to talk in punchlines. Especially if there’s nothing particularly comic going on. Two people are sitting at the kitchen table talking offers way less comic possibilities than two people with claustrophobia trapped in an elevator. And yet, if the same amount of jokes is required that kitchen scene is a holy bitch to write.

Here’s a dirty little secret: Shows with fewer jokes can be funnier than shows with more jokes.

It’s not the quantity; it’s the quality. Having a scene with three big genuine laughs is better than one with twenty zingers, even if a few of the zingers score.

On CHEERS and FRASIER and the shows I created, we were never afraid to go even an entire page without a joke if it meant setting the audience up for a big payoff. The risk of course is that the payoff better pay off, but the reward is so much greater. That’s when you get a real laugh from the audience. It also makes the show feel less stylized, less exhausting, and less desperate.

But I can tell you from experience, it’s hard when you’re watching a runthrough and thirty seconds go by without a laugh to resist the impulse to just pump in a few more jokes. The key is to remember the big picture. Does the episode have a good comic premise? Are the jokes you do have good enough? Is there a funnier way to tell the story?

Now some may say this creates sitcoms that are slow, and that today’s style is machine gun-fast. Maybe. But I would ask you to watch episodes from the first season of CHEERS. See how many jokes still evoke outright laughter thirty-five years after the shows were produced.

Also, laughs come not only from funny lines but from attitudes and pauses and reactions.

On my podcast right now is a reading of a failed pilot David Isaacs and I did for Fox in 2003. (You can hear it by just clicking the big gold button underneath the masthead.) We put a group of actors together on a stage, invited a small audience of about fifty, and recorded the results. So what you’re hearing is the actual laughter. There’s no laugh track, there’s no sweetening. As a result some lines and moments got better laughs than others. And that’s as it should be. There are lines in there that are cute asides and little zingers. They don’t get giant laughs. They aren’t meant to. There are other moments that depend on seeing the show on its feet and since we didn’t have that visual capability those laughs (costume jokes, reactions, throwing a cat out the window) aren’t as big as they would have been. So be it.

And happily, there are still a lot of real laughs in the reading and that tells me they were earned. See what you think?

What I didn’t include in the podcast was this: Earlier in the day I had a runthrough and recorded it just for protection. The cast did a terrific job. But the energy level in the room with a live audience added a real sparkle to the nighttime performance. It even got laughs we didn’t expect. Forget the number of jokes, that’s when you know you’re on to something.

In the cast photo of the SNOBS reading (from left to right): Harry Murphy, Bernadette Birkett, Oliver Muirhead, Mark Elliott, Dane Oliver, Suzanne Mayes, Jack Zullo, Barbara Howard. 


Jim S said...

The thing I like about live-studio shows is that they can build to a huge laugh. Classic example was the Cheers in the second season where Sam and Diane are on the rocks and fighting in the office. It's tense and intense. Not very funny. Sam tells Diane to get out of the office, opens the door and then we see the entire frame of the door filled with the people from the bar, who were listening to the fight.

Very funny and a huge payoff to the previous couple of minutes of jokes.

Trying to be funny all the time just seems desperate. That shows. The Big Bang Theory works because we know the characters and their individual points of view. These are smart characters who say funny things on purpose and they are nerdy characters who do funny things as a part of their nature.

And, yes I am one of the 20 million people who watch The Big Bang Theory. What can I say, I find it funny.

CRL said...


VP81955 said...

Using the baseball analogy regarding jokes, I'd rather my team have a home run or two with men on base than three or four solo shots.

And RIP June Foray, a voice acting legend.

Julia Littleton said...

The buildup to the big payoff is what makes Frasier so much fun to watch, even yet. There are a few chuckles along the way, but the real pleasure is in watching the hapless characters keep adding to that pile of twigs only to have it all blow down in one hilarious moment. Some of those payoffs still have me falling out of my chair, even though I've seen them several times in the past. It takes great writing and great actors who can deliver it to make it all work in perfect sync.

Johnny W said...

I attended a improv class run by Scott Adsit here in London recently. He said a bunch of things that made me fall back in love with improv, and one of them was that we're watching for DRAMA. That's really the core. The thing we relate to as humans. A joke is great, but it's better if there's some drama behind it. In fact, I'd rather watch a drama that I'm engaged with, without jokes, than a series of jokes without any drama that I care about.

Or as Tom Whedon (Joss's Dad) put it: "If you have a good story, you don't need jokes. If you don't have a good story, no amount of jokes can save you."

In my improv class we also talk about "resting the game", which means returning to normalcy before hitting the funny thing again. When there's a gap of normalcy it makes it all the more enjoyable when the funny thing returns. A bit like a rollercoaster.

I believe Shane Black said something similar, but I can't find the quote now. It was along the lines of complaining about test screenings where audiences could turn a dial up and down, depending on how much they were enjoying a film. He said that executives would look at the resultant graph, point to the troughs and say, "we need to make this bit peak!". It frustrated the hell out of Black because he believes you need a juxtaposition for something to work. You need the troughs to get to the peaks.

On a sitcom, I think once you've run out of stories, the audience will stick around for the characters, which accounts for the longevity of things like TBBT, but I think everything works better when there's something at stake.

Andrew said...

"On CHEERS and FRASIER and the shows I created, we were never afraid to go even an entire page without a joke if it meant setting the audience up for a big payoff."

One great example of that is the pilot of Frasier. I still remember it so vividly. Frasier and his father are having an argument, and not only are there no jokes, but it's a brutal conversation. There's no sense of relief at all. Then the payoff comes later when Marty calls in to Frasier's show. "Did you hear what I said? I said 'thank you!'" It was perfect.

PS What the hell is with these street signs?!

Ray Morton said...

Friday question: Have been watching a lot of MASH episodes lately, since it is now playing on quite a few cable stations (Sundance, AMC, WGN, TV Land, etc.) and really enjoying revisiting the entire run. Much has been said about how the show changed over the many years of its long run: from a comedy with dramatic overtones to more of a comedy/drama "issue" show; from a show that dealt with its subject matter in slyly satirical fashion to one that adopted a more earnest (and sometimes preachy) approach; and so on. But something else I've been noticing as I rewatch is how the performance style of the show also changed. In the early years of the show, the cast performed in a relatively realistic fashion, but as the show went on the performances became much, much broader, to the point where in the final seasons the actors seemed to be playing really "big" -- practically shouting all of their lines and with expressions and gestures that sometimes bordered on mugging, as if the cast suddenly forgot they were performing on camera and were attempting to reach the back rows of a theater instead. The characters most affected by this were Potter and Klinger, both of whom sometimes seemed to be playing cartoon caricature versions of their original personas. The dialogue seemed to follow suit, with everyone speaking in a never-ending series of puns. These factors, combined with much more shooting on the indoor "outdoor" set, conspired to make the show feel (in my opinion) much less real and much more like an ordinary sitcom than it had started out being. So my question is -- why do you think this happened? Was it a conscious decision to change the performance style or something that just developed over time? Was it the actors becoming bored and trying to change it up or did they just get sloppy as the years went on? Is this a hazard that any long-running show faces and what (if anything) do showrunners do to prevent it (if they want to)?