Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Is it worth doing a weekly sitcom live?

The writing team of Josh Goldsmith & Cathy Yuspa (two talented and lovely people) just sold a pilot to Fox that would be a domestic comedy shot live every week. Coincidentally, I just received the following Friday Question from DyHrdMET (I assume this is a Mets fan and if so, my condolences):

What are your thoughts on doing a sitcom on live television (even a single episode)? I remember a TV show Roc about 20 years ago that did live episodes on Sunday nights on FOX. Have you ever been involved in that? Would you want to be? 

There have been several recent live episodes of sitcoms done as a rating stunt.  30 ROCK did a fantastic episode.  I seem to recall WILL & GRACE doing one as well.

There are pluses and minuses. The first plus for Cathy & Josh is that this hook helped sell their pilot. If you don't sell it first, nothing else matters.

The other big advantage – from a producer standpoint – is that you have absolutely no post production. You save hours and hours of editing, color-balancing, sound correcting, etc.  Not to mention no pick-ups.   No 2:00 AM wraps. 

Another advantage goes away quickly – the novelty aspect of the stunt. At first it’s very exciting as a viewer – you know you’re watching something live. But after awhile, you forget and the show just has to live or die on its content. Do you pay any real attention to the fact that SNL is L?

And now the downsides. You have waaaaay less control over the quality.

You’re putting an enormous amount of pressure on the actors week after week. Josh & Cathy mentioned they want cast members with improv backgrounds, which is very wise, because they’re going to go up on lines. It’s inevitable.  Wait'll two big jokes a week get trampled. In addition to everything else, they’ll be expected to cover and still steer the show back to the script. Some can do this. But very few. Lots of really good actors who would be perfect for your show might avoid it because they’re worried about this aspect. So suddenly your pool of candidates shrinks considerably. It’s hard enough to cast when everyone in the world is available to you.

And then there’s the guest cast. Your principals might get somewhat used to the format, but actors just coming in for the week would not. One of them could kill an episode if they fuck up badly.

All the imperfections will be exposed. Sound problems (the audience didn’t hear a line because the boom operator missed a cue), bad camera shots because someone is not right on their mark, a light blows out on the set, a prop malfunctions, a wall falls down, etc. You’re stuck with it.

Writing-wise, you back yourself into a corner. There will be weeks the script doesn’t work and you need to do a lot of rewriting. There’s no wiggle room for pushing the filming back a day or two. Plus, you make it that much harder on the cast when you give them whole new 40 page scripts to memorize with only a day or so before they have to perform it in front of millions of people. That’s not fair to them.

On the other hand, to not change things because you’re putting too much pressure on the actors means you often have to live with lines or scenes you know are not as good as they could be. I had that with the musical I co-wrote. During production we were so strangled by Equity restrictions that we had no time to fix lines and moments and night after night I would watch stuff that needed help but couldn’t address it. It drove me out of my mind. In television I’m used to just going out on the floor and changing something. No can do in live TV. Or summer stock in Connecticut.

The storytelling itself will be dictated by the restrictions imposed by the form. Just like with a play, costume changes have to be covered and getting actors from set to set can be a challenge. And unlike a play, you don’t have the suspension of belief you do in the theater. Sets can’t just fly in. Lights on and off can’t determine different locales. These obstacles are not at all insurmountable but they must be factored in. Here again, Cathy & Josh are smart to make it a domestic comedy. Entire shows can take place in the house. Imagine doing SEINFELD live with its forty or fifty one-page scenes. Yikes! Or FRIENDS where the costume changes for the actresses alone took hours.  A typical FRIENDS filming took from 5:00 PM to 2:00 AM.   They even had two audiences because the first one would be exhausted after five hours.  That ain't gonna fly in live TV. 

Assuming they’ll perform the show twice each week (once for the east coast and again for the west), the west coast shows will probably be way better because the writers will be able to change a few jokes that bombed, and the actors will have had essentially one more runthrough before their west coast performance. That’s great for us out west, but the majority of the American audience will then see the inferior version.

By eliminating the editing process you also eliminate a major step in improving a show. I can’t tell you how many episodes I’ve worked on that came way up in quality or were literally saved by editing. Besides hiding a plethora of blemishes, you can greatly improve the pace. And pace in comedy is key.

Personally, I wouldn’t want to produce a live weekly sitcom.  Too many things I couldn't control.  But that’s me. Cathy & Josh are terrific and I’m sure will do a great job.

Of course, the ultimate irony is that with DVR’s, even though the show will be live, most people will still see it on tape.


Greg Ehrbar said...

What ever happened, though, to "live on tape?" Today's sitcoms, reality shows and game shows (few as they are) seem so heavily edited and polished that they lack the spontaneity of shows of the past.

Even when Gleason filmed the "classic 39" Honeymooners, they were still done like plays with no stopping. Even though Desilu pioneered the filmed three-camera show, all the Lucy series were largely done all the way through, where many of today's sitcoms can take five to six hours to shoot.

One of the reasons Dark Shadows has never been the same in series revivals and movies is the charm of the original series live feel (there were few if any edits) and its modest budget (70,000 a week).

Even talk shows seem canned, as performers repeat a cute story they already told the talent coordinator (or worse, another talk show host) and some used prepared material, skillful as their delivery may be).

I've noticed that the broadcast of SNL can differ slightly from the rerun -- not that they take out the really noticeable mistakes because viewers love them, but they have changed small line errors here and there.

It might be nice to see the live feel return, at least to a degree. There seems to be a belief that audiences won't forgive mistakes when in reality, errors can by endearing. Just ask the fans of Jonathan Frid.

5w30 said...

That's a great idea. TV geeks like it as it harkens back to the 1950's, when some of the greatest television was done live. But think of it as a sports event. No retakes on that A-Rod home run ...

Jaime J. Weinman said...

I think the point of the pitch may be just that network executives have become so bored with three-camera studio-audience sitcoms that writers need to find some gimmick to pitch the show as a "re-invention" of the format.

I think there are advantages to the live format, mostly the look of it - I think the live video look is more suitable to a lot of comedy than the HD film-like look that most multi-cam sitcoms use today. But I mostly think Fox executives just aren't going to order a multi-cam unless they are convinced it's somehow "edgy" and "new," and one way of convincing them of that is to pitch it as the first of its kind in decades.

Rick said...

Unless they do ANOTHER live performance for the Pacific Time Zone, it won't be live on the west coast anyway...

Terrence Moss said...

I would love for there to be more live TV outside of sports and awards shows.

Even if I'm not watching it live, the live feel with the potential for mistakes is exciting.

As Greg said, audiences can be very forgiving. I look for mistakes and flubs -- not to poke fun, but to feel like I as a viewer am part of something slightly unpolished. It adds to the fun. I love when Bill Hader cracks up as Stefon on SNL.

Even the "live to tape" has come to rely on retakes, pickups and fixing it in post way too much. There's no spontaneity. It's too polished. And while it saves some less-than-talented "actors", it inhibits others who could benefit from the freedom to experiment and riff and ramble.

"The Carol Burnett Show" is a perfect example of this. Harvey Korman would break up at the slightest thing Tim Conway did and they kept it in. There was an earthquake during one filming. Carol Burnett ad-libbed and they kept it in. It kept the show light and fun.

That's a lot of what's missing in TV. They Old Pantheon looked like they were enjoying themselves. They were all brilliantly talented and supportive of each other.

We don't have that now. And it's a shame.

Terrence Moss said...

And if network executives call themselves bored with three-camera studio audience sitcoms, then they have no credibility with me.

It's not the format. It's the development and the writing. Some of TV's greatest sitcoms were filmed in front of a live audience.

The problem is that a lot of sitcoms are more about gags, plots and one-liners than character, story and situational humor.

So if network executives are bored with the format, it's because they killed it with developmental laziness and a focus on being "edgy" and "new" instead of being "good".

DyHrdMET said...

thank you Ken, I am a Mets fan...

Nat Gertler (Sitcom Room alum) said...

I think they're missing one good way to make and keep this profitable: do it in Vegas.

It seems to me that a casino would love to have a nationally-publicized show that they could have, say, five performances during the week (three rehearsals-with-audience, the east coast time zone performance, the west coast time zone performance.) They love short shows that get people back out to the gaming floor quickly, and a half-hour sitcom, even with warm-up, can turn people around in under an hour. They could probably pick up a lot of the production costs.

HL Mencken said...

I think you meant "principals." there are no principles in show business.

ScottyB said...

@TerrenceMoss made a great point about 'The Carol Burnettt Show' (even tho it wasn't technically broadcast live) leaving in the flubs and unexpected moments, which often made a sketch funnier and more "real" to us watching at home. Not because someone flubbed a line or broke up over something, but at how amazing these talents were at running with it. For me, that's the *real* magic, and boyoboy, Korman and Conway in a sketch together could be magicians.

I liked Josh & Kathy's 'Til Death' quite a bit. I hope their new show is just as watchable not just because it'll be live, but because the writing is worth a half-hour of my life I'll never get back.

Bradley said...

I agree with Greg 100%. I hate how polished and "perfect" all shows are these days. I enjoy watching old MTM or Lucy or Odd Couple episodes and seeing an actor stumble over a line or encounter unexpected laughter that makes them pause. Or trip over the carpet. Or something, anything, that reminds the audience these are real people. That's what makes those shows feel spontaneous and ALIVE.

The first sitcom taping I ever went to ran just over an hour and the show was awful and it didn't take. The next taping I went to ran almost 7 hours and the show was really awful and it didn't take. Bad material is not going to magically get better by tossing in a few new punchlines. The worst example of this was a taping of some lame NBC sitcom I attended in 2005. There was a moment that surprised everyone, even the actors, by how funny it was. The audience just couldn't quit laughing. So what did the director/producers do? They went back and re-shot the same moment over and over and over again, making it bigger and slicker, until it lacked any of the spark it had the first time around. If the show had been shot live, or live on tape, it would have been magic.

Personally, I don't think it should take 6 hours to shoot a 22 minute episode. Lucy wouldn't have that shit and neither would I. Of course I'm not Lucy, and I get that this way of working might be beneficial for all shows, but I personally prefer shows that are less processed.

Now I'm sure many of my favorite sitcoms contradict this idea, so my question to you is: on average, how long did it take to film an episode of Cheers?

ScottyB said...

As usual, another really-informative post by Ken from a production/direction standpoint that we don't get anywhere else, really. Here's a Friday Question for Ken -- maybe a silly or trivila one, I know, but still something I've always wondered about since I was a kid when it comes to shows shooting in front of a live audience:

Since minutes mean money, how do y'all deal with occasions when a bit ends up being so good that the audience laughter just goes on *forever* (which is pretty much a writer's crowning glory)? That's gotta eat up a whole mess of time on the clock since you basically have to shoehorn in every available stage second. Do you do edit something else down in post-production? Do the actors (who typically wait until the laughter trails off a bit before delivering their next line) re-jigger their lines slightly on the fly to buy a few more seconds for the producer?

Just wondering.

ScottyB said...

Crap. Someone mentioned 'Friends' in their comment and it reminds me of another question for Ken: Who is usually responsible for a really good series morphing into something where it's original charm and inherent likeability has been completely stripped by the 4th season because the focus has gone from something that revolves around the character to something that revolves around the actor, or fashion, or just looking hip? Or is this just some inescapable fact of TV that this is going to happen naturally anyway?

Other than 'The Andy Griffith Show', I think the original 'Mary Tyler Moore' is a good example. It's like by the time Mary moved into her second apartment, the show seemed to become more about set decoration, hairstyles, and what kind of bitchin' clothes we can have Mary and Rhoda wear this week. Even 'That Girl' was kinda like that to a degree.

Heck, they even go screwing up the original theme songs every new season. Sigh.

Jen said...

As Rick said, the big issue with "live" is that the west coast is never getting it live. So there's a large part of your audience that won't get to partake in the gimmick unless you shoot two live shows a night, which is a ton of pressure.

I think live-to-tape would offer a lot of the same things people who are into watching live want to see - the potential for misses, gaffes, crack ups etc.

And with so many people DVRing everything or watching On Demand, will anyone care that it's live these days?

ScottB said...

Gosh, if nothing else, Ken Levine goes a long way every week just to answer the question "Is it worth doing a weekly sitcom?" Just sayin'.

BigTed said...

Add everyone who doesn't live in the Eastern time zone who won't see the show live. (Unless, as "30 Rock" managed to do, they film it twice, three hours apart -- but that was one episode, not an entire series.)

Wendy M. Grossman said...

A lot of the people that have been mentioned, though - Carol Burnett, Harvey Korman, Tim Conway, Lucille Ball, even Tony Randall and Jack Klugman, started out doing stage or even vaudeville work. (Most of the Dick Van Dyke Show actors came out of vaudeville - certainly Rose Marie and Maury Amsterdam; Carl Reiner did live comedy routines with Mel Brooks.) One problem with today's younger actors is they don't have that background. Some of the Friends did - David Schwimmer still does stage work- but lots don't. (Note that Jim Parsons is not one of them - his idea of a summer vacation is to go do a play off-Broadway - this year Harvey, last year The Normal Heart.) I'm sure a lot of them haven't a clue - I guess this is a Friday question for Ken - how to work without the safety net of retakes and post-production fixes.


Mickey said...

Great guest actor would be Clint Eastwood.

Johnny Walker said...

It may break the illusion that it's "live", but surely they'd only do it once for the East Coast, and just repeat that, warts and all, for the West?

Even taped, there's some excitement that anything could go wrong... it's just that the excitement will wear off really quickly. Talk about gimmick...

Sure, that live episode of ER was impressive, but it wasn't THAT exciting. I didn't feel let down the following week when they returned to pre-taped. Did anyone?

There is one thing the show could do that other sitcoms couldn't: It could make jokes about that week's news. With that in mind, it would make sense to place it in a newsroom or something. (Like the British show, "Drop the Dead Donkey" did.)

The only downside is the jokes won't be topical in syndication... which might be a huge problem now that I think about it.

Mitchell McLean said...

Who had "Made in Jersey" for first cancelled series? Pulled after only two episodes.

chalmers said...

In her book, Carol Burnett said that they shot the show "live to tape" twice each week. Tim Conway would do the first run-through "to the ink," sticking faithfully to the script.

In between performances, Conway would check to the see if the director had gotten all the shots necessary to get the show on the air.

Secure in the knowledge that there was coverage, Conway would then cut loose in the second performance, improvising to his heart's content. This led to the great natural reactions of Harvey Korman and others who, like us, were experiencing these moments for the first time.

BigTed said...

"Made in Jersey" wasn't bad, but I think the premise sunk it from the beginning. They kept trying to play up the lead character's "underdog" status, despite the fact that she's a gorgeous young attorney making big bucks at a fancy law firm. Her coworkers are snobbish toward her, because supposedly New Yorkers have never met anyone from New Jersey before (or seen "Working Girl," for that matter). And it didn't help much that the "Jersey" role was played by a British actress.

But I think what really sunk it was the existence of "The Good Wife," a far, far superior female-led legal procedural.

DyHrdMET said...

now that I've read this, a couple of points...

1) I completely forgot about the 30 Rock Live episodes. I actually think I watched them on my DVR instead of actually live. But the principles of that show have SNL as a background.

2) I've heard of Goldsmith/Yuspa before, so maybe their new live show will be good.

3) You wrote a musical? Tell me more (or did I miss that post)?

4) have you ever wished you WEREN'T live on a baseball broadcast?

Liggie said...

I recall a 1990s sitcom "Roc" went live in its final season. Only caught bits and pieces of it while flipping channels, so I can't tell you much about how the episodes were structured to accommodate the live staging. I do remember between-commercials shots of actors scrambling to marks and the studio audience waving at the camera.

As far as the current live shows, such as "Saturday Night Live", occasional award shows, and "Dancing With The Stars", they just use the tape from the East Coast run for the West Coast feed. Which means any goofs show up on both coasts.

cadavra said...

Don't forget that much of the first real decade of TV was largely live: from variety shows to those legendary dramatic anthologies. Somehow the medium survived...and in some ways was never as good.

And if it weren't for live TV, we wouldn't have the single funniest minute-plus in the history of the medium (sorry about the overlays):

thomas tucker said...

Remember a live show back in the 60's starring Robert Morse? I think it was called That's Life. Seems like it was very quickly cancelled.

Mike said...

How about a live show where the script is live as well? No rehearsals as the dialogue will be handed out during filming.

Chris said...

Always thought it was a little ironic that Burnett and crew made a big point of how they did those sketches straight through without stopping at each of the two tapings, when it was extremely rare for either individual take to be used in the broadcast tape. What got on the air was almost invariably edited together from the two tapings. This bit from the first taping, that bit from the second taping.

My favorite spontaneous moment from that series came from a late episode during a "Family" sketch (Eunice and Mama). The cast is playing a board game and Conway brings the proceedings to a halt with a very long, very silly story about siamese elephants. When the audience finally calms down, Burnett, trying to continue the sketch, prompts "Mama" (Vicki Lawrence) to take her turn at the game. Lawrence, never breaking character, brought the house and cast down when she turned to Conway and said, "Well, I don't know. Do you think that little asshole's through?"

Jill Pinnella Corso said...

I hadn't heard about this new live show before. I'm excited to see what it's like.

That said, I can't imagine wanting to watch, e.g., the 30 Rock live show every single week. It's a fun novelty but I'd rather have a well-written show without the constant interruption of an over-zealous audience.

chuckcd said...

More likely it will be live for the east coast and on tape for the west coast.