Tuesday, March 13, 2012

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 WHITNEY 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.


Rory W. said...

Did you write that whole post just so you could use the line, "And the pros outweigh the cons. Plus, the cons leave at 9." at the end?

RS Gray said...

When my parents visited me in LA for the first time, I thought it'd be fun to take them to the filming of a sitcom. They're from Cleveland, so Drew Carey was our first choice, but it was sold out and Dharma & Greg filmed on the same lot so we saw that. It was what must have been a nightmare day of filming for the crew (a Friday shoot, FWIW) - there were technical difficulties, one scene appeared to be completely rewritten on the fly, and we ended up sitting there for four and a half hours. For the first half hour it was fascinating watching them film, for the next half hour we were just curious how the story would play out (it was the end-of-season cliffhanger when Greg flips out and goes off the grid and Dharma has to try and reel him back in), by hour two our butts were sore, and by hour four we wondering what the Geneva Convention had to say about the situation. After an hour and a half, the warm-up comedian had told every joke he knew and gave up. Kevin Nealon, who was playing Greg's boss on the episode came to the rescue and was way funnier and saved as much of the day as could be saved. But bless his heart, as exhausted and frustrated and war-weary as we were, my dad took his job seriously, and you can hear him laughing all the way to the end of the episode, what for us was the end of a very, very long day.

BigTed said...

If heat is the enemy of comedy, are any sitcoms filmed in extra-cold studios? We've all heard about late-night talk shows, most notably David Letterman's, keeping their audiences chilly to make sure they stay alert and receptive to what's going on. (Which can be a problem for some of the barely dressed starlets who appear as guests.)

And is the audience colder than the cast, who perform under hot lights?

Johnny Walker said...

I was actually in the audience for an episode of Becker than you and David wrote ("Afterglow").

I think I've posted about this before, but I remember a line that didn't get a laugh. I then remember seeing some people huddle together behind the camera (presumably you and David, although I had no idea who you were at the time), come up with new lines, and then feed them to the actresses.

They did one pick-up take of the new lines, and it got one of the biggest laughs of the night (as I recall).

But when I watched it air, they'd used the previous line, and I've often wondered why.

The scene, for those interested, was this: Margaret is desperate for cash, and so takes a telesales job in the evening... except it turns out it's a sex line.

Initially repulsed, she decides to give it a go when she learns she can make $500 a night.

Then this happens:

(Watch before reading further, if you're really, really interested.)

And so the replacement exchange at the end of the scene was:

MARGARET: That's my husband Louis on the phone...
DORIS: Louis? Oh, that'll only take a minute.

It got a huge laugh (and I'm probably not picking the perfect words) but, as I say, it never made it to the final cut.

I wondered if it could have been Standards and Practices or something, but just skipping through the episode again for this comment, I just noticed that (pretty much) the same joke is made by Margaret in the subsequent scene... I wonder if they decided to give the joke to the regular, rather than the guest?

Mitch said...

A former co-worker who sat through a FRIENDS taping complained that part of what took so long was that none of the show's stars seemed to have bothered to learn the script before they showed up.

Quickest taping I ever saw was for an episode of THE GOLDEN GIRLS. Say what you will about the show, those ladies knew their stuff. There was scarcely a fluffed line.

Anonymous said...

I attended a few sitcom tapings during an L.A. vacation many years ago, and I was so fascinated by the process that I found it hard to get into the story. I was always distracted watching how the cameramen moved around, or comparing the live scene with the TV monitors, or noticing how artificial the sets looked in person. If you have an audience that's full of star-struck tourists like me, this may account for some disappointing laughs.

Kirk said...

Ken, in the second paragraph, you mention your "erstwhile career". Erstwhile means former. Have you left TV writing for good, and now concentrating solely on sportscasting?

Kirk said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ben said...

I think the deadest audience I can think of that actually made it to broadcast was the one SNL had for their 1985-86 season premiere with Madonna and Simple Minds. It's very uncomfortable to watch at times.

The repeat version actually had to add laughter and applause in post-production.

cadavra said...

I remember going to a taping of the Newhart series BOB, which started at the odd time of 4:00. And they ended just after 5:30. Afterwards, I said to a friend who was one of the writers, "That's the fastest taping I've ever been to." He replied: "Bob insists on being home in time for dinner."

Canadian Viewer said...

I remember years ago a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation show, "Flappers", where the plot one day was a disasterous new stage show where the audience all walked out midway through. That was the opening setup - and the rest of the episode consisted of the performers, musicians and creators all blaming each other with ever increasing frenzy, re-writing and changing everything - only to go out the next night and see many of the same people coming in, with one of them explaining "We loved the show, but we had to leave because our bus tour was going."

xjill said...

To answer Big Ted, yes the audience is cold because we aren't under the lights - always a good idea to wear layers!

For the tapings I've been to recently (The Big Bang Theory) I too, get so involved in watching the process I wish all the staff would wear shirts saying "script supervisor" or "gaffer" or whatever they are, but that's because I'm a big 'ol tv nerd.

Blaze said...

Early in my sister's career, she was part of the crew of a commercial. She was particularly jazzed about how she had successfully arranged for the required helicopter to come swooping out of the night.

This sounded interesting, and I could finally see what my sis did. So I tagged along.

It took nearly four hours out of my life I'll never get back. It was like watching an oak tree growing race. To her credit, sis did warn me.

That experience and these endurance test anecdotes make me smother any desire to see a sitcom taping when I visit her in L.A.

Tim Dunleavy said...

Jerry Seinfeld once said that he and Jay Leno were on "The Merv Griffin Show" (with Jay guest hosting) on the day of the Challenger explosion. As Jerry said, "You think it's hard getting laughs on Merv NORMALLY..."