Sunday, April 27, 2008

Mosh pit roll call: Buffy, Muffy, Duffy, and Tippy...

How’d you like to be in the mosh pit during an AMERICAN IDOL taping? It’s easy! All you have to do is be a hot coed, get accepted to UCLA or USC, and join a sorority. And you thought all girls in Southern California were blond, beautiful, and swayed in unison.

The show’s producers recruit these sororities. They further orchestrate things by placing the most attractive girls in camera view, instructing them to clap with their hands over their heads (otherwise America doesn’t know they’re appreciative), and choreographing their swaying back and forth.

The New York Times recently blew the lid off this shocking story.

AMERICAN IDOL was accused or almost trying to script the audience’s reaction. How dare they?! But the truth is…


There is always a warm-up guy who instructs the audience to be lively, clap loudly, and in the case of a comedy, laugh like an blithering idiot whether you think something is funny or not. And then laugh again just as hard the second or third time when the scene is re-shot. I can think of a couple of shows where the audience members deserve more pay than the actors.

Some sitcoms tell the audience not to applaud when cast members enter scenes for the first time. It takes the viewer out of the "reality" of the story. Other shows encourage it. They want to send the message that you must be watching comic geniuses if they receive that kind of adoration. Watch an old episode of THE JEFFERSONS. The crowd goes bat-shit when neighbor Bentley enters a scene.

On CHEERS we also asked the audience not to go “Awwwwwww” during heartfelt moments or whoop (for any reason). Other series even add "Awwwww's" -- usually whenever there's a cute kid and a puppy in the same scene and comic savior Urkel is nowhere to be found.

Remember that tickets to television tapings are free. So if they ask that you laugh or don't boo when Jason Castro mangles "Itsy Bitsy Spider" it's a small price to pay. And when I was doing the warm-up for CHEERS I could kick myself that I didn't think of that sorority angle.


TCinLA said...

Someone is concerned about Aryan bimbos who can pass the IQ test low enough to join Future Spawners of Republicans? Actually, they pass the IQ test by proving they have none.

Anonymous said...

Nevermind the sorority girls.
We had PRINCE in the audience on more than one occasion @ CHEERS! Yep, Prince. Same guy that just played Coachella on Saturday night.

Anonymous said...

Not to mention that less popular shows will often pay extras to fill out an audience.

Anonymous said...

After several seasons of using increasingly unresponsive studio audiences (Owing to the steadily decreasing quality of the "Comedy") Fran Dresher's abysmal THE NANNY began using professional audiences, that is people whose job it was to watch tapings of THE NANNY, and pretend it was wildly funny. (And you thoought your job sucked.)

From Fran's POV, this had several attractions:

1. They didn't have to feed them or otherwise bribe them with prizes.

2. They could fire the band they had had playing during breaks when they had real audiences.

3. No warm-up comic.

4. The audience could be ordered to laugh no matter what they were forced to endure.

And best of all from Fran's point of view:

5 They could be fired!

So normally you have a warm-up guy charming and amusing the audience, and asking them to please laugh at the gags, even if gagging were a more natural response, and to laugh as much the fifteenth time they saw it as the first. Instead now the audiences were charmed by Fran telling them, "Laugh your lungs out or you're fired, you jerks."

The problem was, when the audience is paid to laugh whether they're amused or not, there's no way to differentiate the gags that are actually funny, from the ones that are not remotely funny.

And so THE NANNY managed the seeming impossible: it got even worse, year by year. Eventually, the last season if I remember correctly, they reverted to real audiences, but by then it was far too late.

Anonymous said...

I've been to only 3 sitcom tapings in all my years here - a pilot for "The Show," a short-lived Fox show with Mystro Clark and the then-unknown Paul Giamatti (who stole the show and was recast by air time for some reason), the 100th episode of "Everybody Loves Raymond" and an episode of "Dharma and Greg." I enjoyed myself each time, but it really is hard to stay into it over the course of what can be a fairly long evening. And I'm the worst possible audience for these things -- I rarely laugh out loud, no matter how amused I am, and I can't fake it for shit.

By Ken Levine said...


You worked at Cheers? Doing what? Email me.

Bitter Animator said...

Why film a television show with an audience at all?

Anonymous said...

I hated when the Full House audience would go Awww everytime the olsen twins would poop in their diaper or some dumb thing.

Ian said...

Every once in a while I catch a few minutes of "America's Funniest Home Videos." They frequently cut to the audience for reactions to the latest clip of some drunken ass taking a fall and suffering a spinal injury (in my book, always good for a laugh). It's so weird, in a Stepford-meets-Up-With-People way. In any event, this show may have the most unconvincing audience-bots on TV.

Nat G said...

The enjoyable public radio show Radio Lab actually did a recent piece on the professional Nanny laughers, available here: (they give a different reason for their use.)

And whenever I hear some outsider suggest that some live-tape sitcom has been sweetened with canned laughter, I say it's probably not the case. I've sat in enough studio audiences to realize that there is laughter at almost every para-joke that goes by. It's not just that there are people with different senses of humor, it's that the audience realizes that they are participating - they aren't really the audience, they're part of the product, and they want to make the product better. (And besides, you're all being subjected to watching a 22 minute play over the course of four hours; a certain camaraderie does develop.)

Charles Jurries said...

I went to a taping of "Late Show w/David Letterman" last month, and we were told repeatedly to laugh, LOUDLY, even if we didn't think a joke was funny. "You are the laugh track," they said. And, for an hour, I was fine going along with it. And I don't think any worse of the live audience process.

Doug Walsh said...

It always amaxed me how Michael Richards was able to stay in character when he would burst through the door to Jerry's apartment and the crowd would go nuts for 5 seconds. You could tell he had this urgent need to say something but would have to hold it until the cheering died down.

I like it when the crowd cheers for their favorite characters on long-running shows that become that special shared experience (like the aforementioned Seinfeld) but I absolutely hate it when they laugh at stuff that isn't funny. I'll flip the channel.

Anonymous said...

when young frank sinatra first played the paramount theater, his press agent stocked the place with bobby soxers and told them to scream, faint, and moan "frankie" whenever the kid opened his mouth or looked at them. they did, the media picked up on the frenzy, and the rest is history.

Anonymous said...

I feel so used and dirty. Same thing with posed “candid” photography. Although, I have to tell you, I do enjoy a good warmup, especially when it’s a pro comic, like Eddie Brill at Letterman (where the studio, audience literally and physically needs to be warmed up), who’s got the schmooze and react thing down so it doesn’t sound stagey. I remember during a Murphy Brown, the warmup woman sat on the arm of my chair for the whole thing, and didn’t mind me feeding her lines. Felt like actually being in show business – and enjoying someone who was comfortable "relating." Plus almost got me laid. Well sort of.

Not that anybody asked but that same manipulated feeling is why I never accept any of those invitations for an audience with “The Queen.” First of all, the audacity of feeling that they have absolutely no need to identify which Queen. And second because you gotta bow. The hell with that, she’s not our queen , why the hell should we have to bow? If the beatch can’t take a “How ya’ doon’ toots?” Well I’m outta there. (Yeeeeesh, really didn’t think I’d meander this far from Fran Dresher. It's a peeve, O.K!)

Of course it’s all relative. Over 57,000 Catholics went to see Benedict XVI at Yankee Stadium. Nobody went to see George Steinbrenner. Of course, with the Pope you only have to kiss his ring.

Anonymous said...

"(they give a different reason for their use.)"

My source for the reasons for THE NANNY using pro laughers was one of my oldest and closest friends, who was a writer/rpoducer on THE NANNY for 5 years. I'm not challenging the radio piece, just sourcing my comment.

"It always amaxed me how Michael Richards was able to stay in character when he would burst through the door to Jerry's apartment and the crowd would go nuts for 5 seconds."

He's solved that problem now, although these dyas, he might have to wait for the booing to die down.

I went to a few of Dame Edna's talk show tapings. (Never pass up a chance to watch Barry Humphries work live.) The warm-up guy at DAME EDNA'S HOLLYWOOD had it easy. He did the pre-show, but after that, take a load off, because during every break, Edna herself came down and chatted with the house. Barry just can not resist an audience. Often, the funniest things he says are during the breaks.

For the taping of her Fox pilot EDNA TIME, they dispensed with a warm-up guy altogether, and Edna handled the warm-up herself. After a few minutes of jokes, she brought out "My personal trainer," a gorgeous young hunk, and had him lead the audience in a literal warm-up, having the audience get on their feet and do arm and stretching exercises with the trainer, while Edna lolled on a sofa behind the trainer, enjoying her view of his behind. And as Barry Humphries never strays far from his provacateur Dada roots, it went on and on, to see just how long the audience would put up with it. Patrick Stewart was immediately behind me, and I shan't ever forget when he broke, and thundered out in that great rich voice, "That's enough. I'm tired!" and grumpily sat down.

This happens even on other people's shows. I went to a day of Hollywood Squares tapings when Edna was center square for a week, and during commercial breaks, Edna came down to the stage apron and made remarks and answered questions, and even pointed me out in the audience ("That little senior citizen is a personal friend of mine, and my favorite author.") and did a gratuitous plug for my book.

Anonymous said...

If those screaming girls were ordered to scream for the Beatles, I DON'T WANNA KNOW! And what the hell is Prince doing at a Cheers taping, are you serious?

Anonymous said...

In the 1970's while writing on a Norman Lear show, I had occasion to ask legendary Jack Benny writer Milt Josefsberg if the Jack Benny TV show had a live audience for the entire show or just Jack's opening monolog.
Milt said they didn't use a live audience for any of it!
What a pro!

Anonymous said...

Prince was in the audience when Woody married Kelly. He's a fan of CHEERS.
He was also there for a few other Tuesday ~filmed before a live studio audience~ evenings.

Mef said...

Hey Ken:

FIrst of all, thanks again for the blog. I really enjoy it.

I work on a show in Canada that is taped (well, captured) in front of an audience. We play back some bits that were shot earlier in the week and then do a bunch of jokes and a sketch in front of the audience.

The show has been on for 15 years and when it started the laughs were augmented. One reason is that is the way show is packaged. We have 37 or so minutes a week that we squeeze into 20 minutes or of content so not every joke or sketch makes it (thankfully) and is not shown on tv in the same order that it was shown to the studio audience. Another reason is that some of the producers and network execs believed at the time you can trick people at home into thinking they are watching something funny by cranking up the laughs. Maybe you could in 1993. I don't know. I didn't watch the show then.

It had gotten to the point though that it didn't sound right, because, well in real life laughter doesn't sound that loud. Especially when there wouldn't be laughter in the first place. So now we have stopped sweetening. If anything we turn down some laughs as we cut from actor to actor out of sequence on our newsdesk because we don't want it to look as if our anchor is ignoring a previous laugh. We also have problems with applause because sometimes audiences applaud after a successful reading of a joke. It wouldn't be applause worthy to someone at home who hadn't been in the studio so (believe it or not) we try to get out before the applause unless feel the content warranted the applause.

To my ear it sounds better, but more importantly the show looks (or sounds or feels) more real. When the studio laughter isn't fake, it's not distracting, And the more distractions that are removed the more chances that something that is actually funny will be received as such. Now if we do lame shit (which some people think we do all the time), then we're screwed but imo we are with or without canned laughter. And of course if a sketch requires canned laughter for accuracy (for example when we parody Just For Laughs Gags) we do crank up the laugh track.


Tom Quigley said...

I worked on some shows where the warmup was so bad, that his "pre-game" instructions to the audience were the best part of his act that evening. If he hadn't done that, he would have been fired. But for the uninitiated: yep, that's why you hear the chuckles and guffaws to every bad joke or gag that happened on STEP BY STEP and YES, DEAR.

Incidentally, I can confirm what Doug McEwan said about THE NANNY. MAD ABOUT YOU filmed on the next soundstage at The Culver Studios and we all knew about it. Doug, I don't know if you worked on the show, of if you did, for how long, but you may remember some of the gimmicks they used for warm-ups when they did have civilian audiences:

(1) A comedian who looked like an unkempt version of Grizzly Adams and seemed to be totally disinterested in the show, the audience and whatever other reason he was supposed to be there for;

(2) A Russian balalaika band with jugglers a la the flying Karamazov Brothers (no kidding!);

(3) A 40's style big band which sat up in the bleachers and whose presence forced the producers to pull a third of the seats out to make room for it (their front singer was Heather Paige Kent, who used the job as a springboard to an acting career that lasted about two minutes);

(4) Finally when all else failed, Peter Marc Jacobsen, Fran Drescher's husband and one of the show's producers started doing the warmups himself. -- No wonder they needed professional laughers!

Meanwhile, right next door (at the same time, no less), MAD ABOUT YOU would regularly have nearly 400 people show up for a show that could seat only about 220, but because the production guest list was usually fairly large, and we know that production guests (and some regular audience members) generally don't stay for the entire evening, I was able to bring in those people that didn't get in at the start later when seats became available.... Contrast that with the situation at THE NANNY... Hmmm... could it have had something to do with the quality of the product being turned out?....

Rob said...

Anyone see the Rolling Stones movie, Shine a Light? The whole front five rows were made up of people who weren't born the FIRST time people joked about how old the group was.

As someone who actually watched the Nanny (I know, I'm not proud), the stories about it are fascinating. Sounds like cancer got one right.

JSWN? Was Prince sitting on a phone book in the audience?

Is it true that Family Guy and the Simpsons are shot in front of an animated studio audience?

Anonymous said...

to the crutnacker:

actually, he had a booster seat....

Anonymous said...


No, I never worked on THE NANNY. One of my oldest, closest friends did, for 5 years, as a writer adn later as a producer. Her horror stories about 5 years under Fran are scary and hilarious.

I went to one taping, to see one of her scripts shot. It was with a real audience, and they had the 40s-style band in the bleachers. They also had snacks. (I forget what.) Although I was a production guest, I stayed for the whole taping.

Needless to say, I enjoyed attending a MURPHY BROWN taping more.