Saturday, May 26, 2007

What night to film?

Thanks so much to everyone for responding to yesterday's post. If I had your email addresses I'd thank each one of you individually. In any event, I'll try to keep the good stuff coming.

I feel a little bad about taking a shot at the Kelsey Grammer/Patty Heaton promo on the AMERICAN IDOL FINALE because (a) I like and admire everyone associated with that project, and (b) that show may be the last hope for multi-camera sitcoms as we know it. Network promo departments are like the relief pitcher that comes in and gives up seven runs. So here's hoping the show is terrific.

While I'm on that subject...

Multi-camera shows that film before live studio audiences generally shoot on Tuesday or Friday nights. That way two shows can share one camera crew (back in the day when there were that many shows). I’ve been asked which of those nights I prefer and why? My answer is Tuesday and it stems from my first foray into playwriting.

A hundred and ten years ago my writing partner, David and I wrote an evening of one-act plays. It was more of an exercise really. We did four one acts in four different comic styles. The small theatre scene in LA was booming at that time. Melrose Ave. had ten or fifteen 99 seat theatres, one more charming than the next. To get to OUR theatre you continued east on Melrose until you heard gunfire then you turned right. Once you got to the first building that wasn’t on fire you turned into the lot and you were there. The 5th Street Studio theatre on 5th and Western over a pizza parlour. We were practically on Broadway.

Our shows ran Friday and Saturday nights for a month. We wanted to close before the summer and any riots. Amazingly, we had good crowds. (These are the same people you see on FEAR FACTOR.) On the first Friday night things were going great. Each act worked. Lots of laughs. The finale was an all out farce – people running in and out of doors, hellzapoppin’. It was 45 minutes long. For the first half hour the audience roared and then suddenly…they just stopped laughing. We couldn’t believe it. The last fifteen minutes (the big wild finale) was greeted with stone silence.

David and I were so thrown we didn’t know what to change. So we decided to just leave it, watch carefully the next night and see just where the play goes off the track.

On Saturday we had another good house. (Must’ve been a GREEN BERET convention in town.) The farce started, the laughs started, we braced ourselves…but this time they didn’t stop laughing. All the way through. In fact the laughs were bigger at the end.

Tremendously relieved, we concluded we just had a bad crowd the previous night (all of their cars had been broken into and they were bummed) and left the script alone.

But the next Friday night the same thing happened as the previous Friday. At the half hour mark the laughs stopped. But on Saturday night they were there wire to wire. And this pattern continued throughout the run.

What it taught us was that Friday night audiences are tired. It’s been a long week, they’ve just come from work and at a certain point they’re just pooped. Saturday crowds had a day to relax.

Since then we’ve always shot our shows on Tuesday nights. It’s the middle of the week, it gives people something to look forward to, and most importantly, they have more energy.

I’d feel bad for those four Friday night audiences but hey, they got home alive. You can’t ask much more from theatre in Los Angeles than that.


VP81955 said...

Over the years, what's the rough percentage of sitcoms that filmed (or taped) on Tuesday as opposed to Friday? And is there a difference in the types of shows that do so? Just curious.

I remember attending a "Frasier" filming in 2000 (the Robert Loggia restaurant episode), and it fell on a Tuesday. The year before, I interviewed Laura Prepon for my local newspaper in New Jersey (she hails from Watchung, in our circulation area), and she described what a typical work week was for "That '70s Show," which filmed on Fridays.

Anyway, I also have my fingers crossed for Kelsey's new sitcom; I doubt it will be a massive hit (can he successfully shake off Frasier Crane's ghost?), and I still have my trepidations about it being on Fox, a network which, aside from the aforementioned "'70s" and "Married...with Children," generally hasn't done well with live-action sitcoms, but if it can keep the genre going until the next big thing arrives (being the "Cheers" before "The Cosby Show," so to speak), it will have served its purpose.

Richard Cooper said...

Theatre in L.A.? Now you're just making shit up.

Ian said...
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Ian said...

I'm hoping that the decline of multi-camera sit-coms is just part of a cycle. I believe that people will always want to laugh at the end of a hard day. Grammer and Heaton are tremendous talents, but quite possibly they need another year or two before starring in a new show, lest the public's recollection of their previous hits overshadow the new project.

As for Fox, they've had their collective arse saved by a few monster hits - X-Files, Married With Children, The Simpsons, and a certain singing competition, the name of which escapes me.

A few tentpole shows and lots of also-rans - a quick search produces a ton of series titles, only a few of which I can actually recall: Duet, Get a Life, Women in Prison, Parker Lewis Can't Lose, The New Adventures of Beans Baxter, Duet, Ned & Stacy, The Loop, Free Ride, and something called Stand By Your Man (starring no less a luminary than Rosie O'Donnell, whom I have a hard time picturing standing by her man). To mangle a metaphor, is this really the network horse to which Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton should be hitching their comedy wagon?

R.A. Porter said...

They have very little choice what network to choose, as there are so few horses in the race. NBC is bringing out no new comedies, ABC is still throwing things randomly at the wall to see what sticks, and CBS is trying to skew much younger with its comedies.

I think what both Heaton and Grammer need is a big, public flop. A reminder that they can do wrong and misfire. I don't believe either of them are going to suffer from curses like the Seinfeld cast, so in another year or two they should land in something decent AND audiences will accept them as new characters. Right now, I think people are going to compare whatever they do to what they did and dislike it regardless of merit. And the clips I've seen of this new show have no merit.

And in response to Ian...I remember several of those shows quite fondly. The fact that they couldn't secure large audiences doesn't detract from their entertainment value: Parker Lewis Can't Lose was a take on Ferris Bueller which I found funnier than the movie; The Loop was a raunchy, risky, gleeful little show; and Ned and Stacy was quite funny, had a ridiculously talented cast (Thomas Haden Church, Greg Germann, Debra Messing), and came (partially) from the warped mind of Charlie Kaufman.

VP81955 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
VP81955 said...

Fox has had a few other decent sitcoms, too -- anyone remember George Carlin's show? It ran for a year or two and was pretty charming. And the surreal "Get A Life" was erratic, but often brilliant.

Anonymous said...

The problem with the Fox promos on shows that are not in the "Married With Children" style is they're false advertising -- they disappoint viewers tuning in expecting raunch and jokes with the subtilty of a dentist's drill, while at the same time keeping some viewers from watching who might actually like what's in the epsiode, instead of what Fox puts in their preview ads.

Since Grammer and Heaton already are known by much of the audience, the latter problem shouldn't be as bad. Plus, this seems to have been the year that "Idol" and "24" are beginning their downhill slides, so Fox may be a little more patient with any show this coming season that has a chance to attract a new core of viewers.

People who liked "Cheers", "Frasier" or "Raymond" will give the first couple of episodes a chance based on that. It's just up to the cast and writers to make sure the first few shows live up to what they're expecting, and don't dumb things down to the stereotypicial Fox sex-obsessed shout fest.

And as for not filming three-camera sitcoms on Friday, it seems like Friday also isn't a good day for airing them, unless they're the type of show that requires no thought processes whatsoever to watch, like ABC's TGIF lineup in the 90s, or their Brady Bunch-Partridge Family-Nanny and the Professor trilogy from 20 years earler (OK, ABC did somehow sneak the best seasons of "The Odd Couple" in there as well, but nobody watched the show until it went into syndication).

Ian said...

Just for the record, I didn't mean to suggest that the shows I mentioned weren't good - just that I don't remember them as being stellar hits.

Anonymous said...

I actually went online and watched a longer clip of the Grammer/Heaton show and thought it was funny and had potential. What nobody has mentioned here is that it really isn't up to them if show is good or not. It's the WRITING that will determine that. The best actors can't surivive mediocre writing. (See the entire cast of Seinfeld in their subsequent efforts and the very funny Brad Garret in his latest turd) If the writing is good and the jokes character based, the audience will soon forget Grammer and Heaton's previous personas and embrace their new ones.

Whether the show is a hit is another matter entirely. It can be great and still flop. Remember "Arrested Development" or "The Powers That Be?")

And speaking of the dead LA theater scene ... I remember it well. It launched my career. Back in the 80's I produced and acted in an equity waiver production of a play that had flopped on Broadway. It was a smash hit. So successful that we were able to raise the money and move it to a larger theatre, a real equity house. (The now dead Las Palmas theatre) We ran for a year and became the longest running drama in LA history. The play was NUTS. Our production reinvigorated Hollywood's interest and it went on to become a feature film with a badly miscast Barbara Streisand in the title role. Of course we got bupkus because all those rights were gone before we got involved but it was one of the most exciting times of my young life.

R.A. Porter said...

Sorry, Ian. I wasn't trying to put words in your mouth. I misinterpreted your earlier comment.

Ger Apeldoorn said...

Lots to comment on. First, for Ken... have those one act plays ever been made available for use beyond their first performances? Good funny plays (such as your new one) are always in demand.

As for the Fox shows one might or might not remember.. they seem to have a very good development department and very little pateince to wait it out. Before they tried a second and third year on Arrested Development (and were confirmed in their suspicions by the results) they canned a lot of good shows too early. Latest one I saw and liked was Andie Richter saves the universe. I thought is was the only true successor to Seinfeld in spirit.

As for the current sitcom slump... I believe it is not the form people are dissatified with... it's just they assoicate it with a lot of lame shows. Not only too many comedies were made over the last decade, they (and their makers) were also getting more and more tired. With two results... too many 'haven't I seen that before' plots and too many desperate attempts by the makers to be different. What sitcoms have to do is prove again that anything is possible... instead of that everything has already been done. Traditionally, this has always been done by an new generation of writers.

Over here in Holland my writing partner and I are forced to rethink our role in new productions. I guess you and David must have had conversations like this as well.

Anonymous said...

For stand up comedians performing at a comedy club, the late show Friday night is almost always the worst show of the week. That's one of the reasons Michael Richard's last set at the Laugh Factory didn't go over so well. Plus, the fact that he's an unfunny racist didn't help matters much either.

Anonymous said...

It's one thing for someone to play a character on a show for 5 or 7 years and then go on to play someone else in a new show a few years later. Mary Tyler Moore (Sorry Ken) went from "The Dick Van Dyke Show" to her own seamlessly. Bob Newhart managed it. And wonderful Betty White has had how many different series? (She won her first Emmy the year Ken were born.)

But Kelsey played Frasier for 20 years! Shaking that free may well be impossible, unless he's got a bag of comic tricks he's never employed before. I saw him play Sweeney Todd on stage opposite Christine Baranski 6 years ago. In Sweeney's act one climactic epiphany, when he should be terrifying, all I could hear was the familiar sound of Frasier peeved.

Anonymous said...

Having been in the audience for the pilot of "Back To You," I can say that Kelsey does an increidble job at making his character different from Frasier ... especially with his voice. I had visions of Frasier vs. Debra (from Raymond), but actually seeing the show relieved my fears.

Fred Willard is amazing! His character is a perfect fit (think "Best in Show."). I hope the writing can stay sharp and Fox gives this some time.

Anonymous said...

"In Sweeney's act one climactic epiphany, when he should be terrifying, all I could hear was the familiar sound of Frasier peeved."

Reminds me of that musical TV adapation of "A Christmas Carol" he did a few years ago where some scenes felt like they would have fit as dream sequences in a holiday episode of "Frasier."

Batocchio said...

Thanks very much for the background. Fascinating stuff. I like many single-camera shows, but I'd hate to see the studio audience set-ups die off completely.