Tuesday, January 29, 2019

My latest multi-camera rant

As you know I’m a big proponent of multi-camera sitcoms. I’ve always maintained that they force you to be held accountable. An audience will tell you whether something is actually funny so you really have to up your game to make sure them laugh. And I’ve proudly been associated with several series that lived up that — and still are funny to this day.

The criticism often leveled at multi-camera shows is that the laughter is not genuine. It’s sweetened with a laugh machine.

For the past number of years I’ve been writing plays and those are even tougher to get people to laugh. Not only is there no laugh track, there’s no warm-up guy, and the audience isn’t familiar with the premise or characters like they would be with a popular sitcom. Laughs have to really be earned.

But that’s part of the challenge and when I do make audiences laugh it’s that much more rewarding. And it seems a worthy goal as a writer to push yourself and continue to raise your standards.

That said, I recently watched some current multi-camera shows. And I was appalled. The jokes were terrible and yet the laugh machine was orgasmic. The most obvious lines, the lamest quips were met with explosive laughter. Half the time I was saying, “What are they laughing at?” I’ve been in multi-cam long enough to know the difference between real audience laughter and the machine. And these shows, some highly regarded, were drenched in canned laughter.

I can only assume the studio audience didn’t laugh (and why would they?) so the show runner sweetened the shit out of the show. But that defeats the purpose of the audience. If you’re presenting subpar material you’ve got to circle the wagons. You’re not trying hard enough, you’re settling, you’re fooling yourself, or you have the wrong writers.

Again, as someone who believes in the form, please step it up. I can’t believe that show runners and writing staffs can objectively look at the final product they’re turning out and not say, “this is unacceptable. We’re better than this.”

Imagine you can’t use the laugh machine one week. Imagine every laugh has to be earned. I guarantee you’ll turn out a better show. You might stay up later rewriting. You might have to throw out a whole scene or subplot. But as a comedy writer, if you don’t believe you can write something that will make strangers laugh out loud you shouldn’t be on staff. If nothing else, have some pride. Your names are on these damn shows.

39 comments :

VP81955 said...

Dear Lord, more misguided ammunition for the single-cam TV snobs.

Steve Bailey said...

I felt that way about a whole slew of sitcoms from the late 1970's and early '80s that stayed on for years and never once made me laugh. Another test of a good sitcom is when people recall specific episodes. "Remember that time when Sammy Davis Jr. visited Archie Bunker?" Again, some of those shows that lasted for years, I'll bet that their staunchest fans couldn't recall a specific episode that they found funny.

E. Yarber said...

I don't mean to beat that Laurel and Hardy biopic over the head endlessly, but it's kind of symptomatic of the thinking you're talking about here. The people who made it went to immense trouble over the SURFACE details, leaving no stone unturned when it came to making the sets and props and costumes look authentic, then recreating the original comedy routines as closely as possible, yet the film is totally sloppy in trying to understand who Stan and Babe were as PEOPLE, lapsing instead into cliches about the Darwinian nature of show business.

Likewise, you have people who think that amping up the laugh track is a substitute for creating material that is funny from the INSIDE, just as I've had pointless discussions with Suits who think that you can make a story exciting by pounding the audience with a relentless soundtrack or dangling CGI in front of an audience that's presumably impressed by effects alone.

Unless you have writing in place with a careful understanding of the subject and how to convey it to the audience, no amount of bangles and beads are going to carry the material.

Garrett said...

I've noticed this a lot lately on CBS sitcoms. One thing I noticed on the Murphy Brown revival is that they were leaning heavy on the laugh machine, but I don't know if it was out of a feeling of guilt, but they seemed to have the laughter volume low. So a lot of canned laughter, but at half the normal volume.

If you want to hear real, spontaneous laughter, there is no better example than the pilot episode of Frasier. You can tell that it's just organic, earned, non-GMO laughter.

George Adelman said...

I was in the audience for the taping of the second episode of the Murphy Brown revival and I can attest that the laughter was through the roof. In the broadcast, the audience responses were severely toned down and cut short to make room for the plot. There were multiple times during the taping where I couldn’t hear what the actors were saying because the laughter was so loud and prolonged.

Glenn said...

Ken, you don't seem to be a big fan of Chuck Lorre and Big Bang Theory. I like Big Bang, but admit it's a good thing it's ending this year (if not a year or two ago). But the characters and jokes are funny to me. Can you give your detailed take on the show?

Mike Barer said...

That reminds me of when you went to the live showing of "Undatable" and I saw you when they pan shot the audience.

thirteen said...

They're even sweetening the promos for these series. There's riotous laughter throughout, even over the announcer's "Thursday!" at the very end. CBS is particularly guilty of this.

I've sometimes thought Big Bang would have worked better as a dramedy.

benson said...

Make it's time to also point the finger at audiences.

There's a lot of really not intelligent people out there. As mentioned above, this is nothing new. The first time I remember the audience reaction annoying me was Happy Days and every time Fonzie entered his first scene in an episode; A half way decent sitcom became a hyena fest.

James Van Hise said...

I like that the MASH dvds have the option to watch them without a laugh track, and they are still very funny. Supposedly that version exists because the UK didn't want a laugh track on the episodes they aired, which is odd because all of the Britcoms one sees clearly have a laugh track, even Monty Pythons Flying Circus!

Jeff said...

They don't even try to modulate the canned laughter throughout an individual episode. On BBT it's the same explosive, gargantuan laugh after each predictable joke. It is so irritating.

Andrew said...

Something I enjoy about Cheers and Frasier is that you can tell the laughter is genuine. I especially appreciate how the actors stay in character as they wait for the laughter to die down.

Seinfeld is peculiar in that some episodes seem to go back and forth between audience laughter and canned laughter in a very obvious way. It was as if the canned laughter was designed to draw attention to itself. There are certain moments in Seinfeld when the audience laughter really adds something, for example when George gives his "The sea was angry that day, my friends!" speech.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Last time I was in LA, a couple of years ago, I went to a recording of a show I didn't particularly like, just for the experience. They worked insanely hard to keep the audience revved up. First of all, the audience was largely students, who were just thrilled to have free entertainment. There were prizes. There was candy, pizza, and soda. There was a warm-up guy, who ran competitions during the breaks. And they laughed hysterically at *everything*.

The show was DR KEN.

I don't think you need canned laughter if this is the audience.

wg

Mike Bloodworth said...

I agree with everything you've said. But I will add that most audiences are miked. So, some of the lukewarm responses have their volumes boosted in the final sound mix. In other words, It's a genuine laugh, but augmented.
I've said many times before in this blog, some sitcoms really need a laughtrack because how else would you know what's supposed to be funny?
Speaking of unfunny comedies, what do you think of CBS bringing back "Man with a Plan?"
M.B.

Todd Everett said...

Check out late-night talk shows, if you want to hear some dead audiences "sweetened" by laugh tracks. In fairness, even if the jokes are OK (as is frequently the case) the lack of audience response would really deflate the show far more than the lack of laughter would hurt a decent 1- or 3-camera show shot without an audience at all.

Jen from Jersey said...

Was The Middle multi camera? There was no laugh track but it’s one of the few shows that made me laugh out loud- husband too and he’s not a laugher.

Myles Warden said...

You can't get more successful than Big Bang. It worked better than anyone could've imagined. Hundreds of episodes, a successful spinoff, highest paid actors, and the ratings are still top notch after all these seasons. Tickets are sold-out within seconds for every taping.

Myles Warden said...

Thank you for this! Been at plenty of tapings and witnessed this myself. Sometimes things are just funnier in the room and in the moment than those who may be watching later can actually believe. I'd love it if shows had to show what % of laughs were real and not pumped up. I feel like multicams get a bad name for this and the number of times things are pumped up are way less than most would believe. Important to note people who are in those audiences are usually big fans who waited hours to see it and will enjoy it way more than someone casually watching on the couch.

KB said...

CBS has a new godawful sitcom called "Fam" that legit didn't have a single funny joke, yet the machine was on overdrive. It's one thing to not be funny, but it's downright insulting to try and convince me otherwise.

MikeKPa. said...

The past couple weekends I've been watching interviews on the Television Academy website. First the Charles brothers. Then David Lee (unfortunately, no Peter Casey). One of the lessons David Lee took away from Charles Brothers was that a script might be good, but it could still be better and never be satisfied with just good. And they would rewrite whole scenes, even entire drafts that were good. Also, to trust the material and be willing not to have two laughs a page to build up to a bigger laugh later and that developing the spine of the story was more important that the jokes, which could be added in later drafts.

Brian Phillips said...

FRIDAY QUESTION: What was one of the earliest loud laughs from a studio audience from a Levine and Isaacs script?

Darren Drevik said...

Love the column, Ken, but wished you'd named names.

Frederic Alden said...

I stopped watching sitcoms about the time the laugh tracks were used even when someone just walked into a room and said "Hello". I have always found them distracting when overused, and they are always overused.

Al said...

I'm curious about something that Ken may have insight on. When I was in my twenties and hard up for cash I used to do extra/audience work. They would usually pay 50 bucks and buy lunch to sit and watch a sitcom taping. They expectation was that we would laugh uproariously. Obviously, the shows that needed to use the extra agency to fill their audiences weren't always the best quality shows (although some were. I saw Newsradio this way). Often, they would do multiple takes of the same joke and the agency made it clear we were expected to laugh just as much every time.

I always wondered if the folks making the show could tell the difference. Pretty quickly I could tell that a lot of the folks laughing were being paid to be there and the laughs felt not genuine to me.

jean satzer said...

We just saw 5 minutes of an episode of Fam, before tapping out and it was very close to the Monty Python bit, where Michael Palin turned the laugh machine on, then off. Barely a fade in/out. Just terrible.

Andy Rose said...

This is a timely post coming just after the Rent production on Fox. It sounded like nitrous oxide had leaked into the studio. The audience was so ecstatic at every little thing, you genuinely could not hear the performances at times. I have a feeling that at least some of the audience was paid (especially given that they wound up having to air the dress rehearsal).

As far as those audiences that really do laugh their heads off, I wonder if that is a natural response to the build-up before seeing the show. When people wait for a long time for something with anticipation, it's been my observation that they tend to give it the benefit of the doubt because -- at least subliminally -- they don't want to feel like all that effort to see the show was wasted. (Remember how long it took Star Wars fans to finally acknowledge that the prequels sucked.) If you put a lot of effort and time into going to see The Big Bang Theory, you go into the show *wanting* it to be hilarious, so it's kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Or maybe audiences just think they are supposed to be laughing hard at every telegraphed punchline, like some concertgoers think they are supposed to sing along with every song.

Danny Jacobson said...

Enjoy your column Ken. CHEERS and FRASIER are both in that upper echelon of sitcom gems and still hold up. The laugh track thing IS annoying ESPECIALLY when it’s the only laughter earned (by lazy writing and directing)... Maybe the hour shows should be accompanied by a gasp-track. I think the networks have to work harder (thus the laugh track), to keep audiences engaged now that there is only 20 min of content and about 10 min of ads and promos. Imagine telling a story and being interrupted every 4 or 5 minutes? It jolts the senses, the way (commercial breaks) take viewers out of the shows they’re watching... One second your watching some people in a living room then snap, you’re watching a new Toyota drive onto a summit, or a gigantic cheeseburger... And thus, god created streaming.

Rob Greenberg said...

So glad for this column, because this has been bothering me for a while now. And I'm especially glad someone mentioned 'Fam,' because that was the most blatant example I've ever seen, and was turned off immediately from the very first (unfunny) line. I have no issue with a chuckle on a throwaway line, but you'd think the audience was watching Sammy Davis Jr. kissing Archie Bunker. And much as I loved the original 'Roseanne,' 'The Connors' is another perpetrator of this.

I know people disliked the canned laughter of the 60s and early 70s (those used on the first five seasons of M*A*S*H). But in their defense, they purposely sounded canned. So when they were added to a multicam with 'Dick Van Dyke,' there was a clear distinction. You never felt the producers were pulling something over on you.

Mark P. said...

Our living room TV is permanently tuned to Disney, where almost all shows seem to have the audience laugh every 10 seconds. I was wondering if you or your daughter could describe how different it is to write for kids' shows and whether the composition of the audience influences the writing.

david russell said...

I could not agree more.

I watched The Conners a couple of times, figuring I would give it a try after its previous namesake was shown the door.

I could not believe how uproariously the audience was allegedly laughing. There were lines I don't think were even intended to be funny that were getting this identical, huge laugh.

It's unbearable to watch.

MikeN said...

Why can't you have a single camera how with a studio audience?

Mike Doran said...

I'm a Fifties Kid, born into TV, and (I'd say) about average intelligence.
"Canned laughter", as we all called it then, never bothered me one way or the other.
Any more than back projection, or miniatures, or stunt doubles who looked nothing like the stars they were subbing for, or any of the "lovely cheats" (Efrem Zimbalist's term) that TV showmakers used in the programs I grew up watching.
Even as a kid I knew full well that Ozzie and Harriet didn't have an audience in their house, any more than Sgt. Bilko had one in his barracks.
I loved how George Burns would kid the cheats while the stories were going on (remember his "magic TV" that let him interject himself into the action?).
I don't claim to be more "sophisticated" than any other watcher, yesterday or today; honestly, I thought everybody got it, just as I did - I and everybody else I knew, anyway.
It seems to me as I'm reading this that I find some people's outrage at the Lovely Cheats to be misplaced - hey, it's only TV, fer cry-eye.
Maybe that's it - I'm Just Gettin' OLD.
I think I'll lie down …

Joseph Scarbrough Puppet Productions said...

@MikeN Because single camera shows aren't formatted to accommodate a studio audience. If you have a group shot, they film the same scene multiple times from different angles - usually starting with a group shot known as a "master," then each of the actors' individual close-ups, and depending on how the actors are staged in the scene, they may have to remove parts of the set and add other parts for the camera. In a case like this, not only is a studio audience impractical, they're not going to want to sit through all that technical stuff. This is why multi-cam shows are usually shot in front of a live audience, because they're generally performed like stage plays.

Gene Braunstein said...

In addition to Joseph's good comments, some other reasons for three cameras are that you only have a few hours to get the sitcom episode in the can. With three cameras at different framings and different angles (and each angle being recorded simultaneously), the director and exec producers have choices to choose from in editing.

One-camera means the camera would have to be moved to get each of the framings/angles that a three-camera would get all at once. This would take forever and wear out the audience. Time and money are saved. A major consideration.

Most of the sitcoms I wrote for (three-camera) would tape the same episode twice the same day, with dinner in between. This gave the director and exec prods even more choices (some lines might have been done better in one taping than the other, for example). Often, our one-hour dinner break found us rewriting jokes that didn't work in the first taping.

Jen from Jersey said...

Then why shoot single camera shows? They seem like a hassle.

Joseph Scarbrough Puppet Productions said...

Then you've got shows like SEINFELD, that took an interesting approach. As the show got bigger, and its budget and production values expanded in later seasons, they filmed more and more scenes without an audience present, such as out on the New York Street set, or in Jerry's hallway, or even brief little incidental scenes on a small limbo set (somebody's apartment door, or something like that). In cases like this, they usually did one of two things: either they would film the scene, screen it for the audience later, and record their reaction for the final cut; or the actors would re-enact the scene (sometimes showrunner Larry David would stand-in for a guest actor) in front of the audience during principal filming and record their reaction from that.

Joseph Scarbrough Puppet Productions said...

@Jen As someone who films in a single camera format, my personal preference is for the more cinematic style: you see a wider variety of camera angles that you would otherwise never see on a multi-cam show due to half the studio being occupied by an audience - makes for more visually interesting screen work, IMHO. Plus, with camera angles allow you to see other parts of the sets, like fourth walls and such, you're more emersed in that show's universe and connected to its characters, because it feels a little more organic, as opposed multi-cam shows that, due to their setup and format, feel more like stage plays, which you know is make believe anyway.

That's not to say I don't also enjoy multi-cam shows either. In fact, I actually prefer the multi-cam seasons of THE ODD COUPLE, as opposed to its single-cam first season: both Tony Randall and Jack Klugman's performances are leaps and bounds more lively, spontaneous, and charismatic, as opposed to their stiffer and more subdued performances in the first season (especially Tony Randall; Felix is almost an entirely different character).

But, that's just my person preference, anyway. And, to clarify, I speak of older single-cam sitcoms, not the contemporary ones that are presented like mockumentaries - those take you out of the experience of being in that show's environment, and makes it incredibly difficult to invest in and connect to the characters. Check out my satirical case study sometime, if you'd like:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f3tSFLtYoFY

Baby Boomer Betty said...

@Mike Doran, I hear ya. Same gen here.

I think we all "got" canned laughter from "I Love Lucy" where we could hear the "Uh-oh" lady in about every episode.

I just looked online for any info about the "Uh-oh" lady and some have her as Lucille Ball's mother, but others say no. According to Jess Oppenheimer's son, Lucy's mother wasn't located close enough in the audience to be picked up on the microphones.

Nevertheless, the "Uh-oh" lady lives on - I've often heard her canned "surprise" on other sit-coms over the years.

Joseph Scarbrough Puppet Productions said...

@Baby Boomer Betty Laugh Machine mixer, Carroll Pratt, said in an interview that "Uh-oh" lady got to be so recognizable that viewers actually began writing in begging for it to be stopped.

And you're right, I know I've heard that "Uh-oh" at least once on both BEWITCHED and I DREAM OF JEANNIE. I think I even have an mp3 of it and used it at least once in my own original work as well.