Saturday, November 18, 2017

Comedy Geography

As I’ve mentioned on occasion, I’m in a weekly improv workshop taught by the masterful Andy Goldberg. (Notice I've never mentioned whether or not I’m any good?) A few years ago we  had to change theaters. Even though we are very sentimental, we opted not to stay in our original theater once it was torn down. Still, we had been there for eight years and were a little leery about making the change.

But the new theater had ample street parking and an oriental massage parlor next door so it definitely had its pluses. And it wasn't going to be a restaurant in six months.

The new theater was laid out differently. Our original venue was a little larger with a very wide stage area. The new place was narrow. A deeper stage and six rows of seats instead of three.
Lo and behold we had a hot class that first night. Lots of laughs. Everyone concluded this theater has a good comedy vibe.

I could have predicted it. Why?

Because of its shape.

Comedy plays better in confined spaces. Laughs are louder when they don’t drift away.

Now you may say this is a superstition and I just want to be near that massage parlor, but (1) they don’t give group on’s, and (2) being in close quarters amplifies the laughter and laughter is infectious.

Whenever a sitcom episode goes into production the first order of business is a table reading. Several large tables are set up, the actors sit across from each other and read the script aloud as the writers and executives sit around them. Many shows I’ve worked on just hold their table readings right on their cavernous sound stages. On shows I’ve produced I insist we hold the table readings in conference rooms. Yes, it’s a little cramped, and chairs are pushed up against walls, but the difference in the reaction is startling. Laughs are so much bigger when you’re not at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.  Jokes are so much funnier when they don't echo. 

Lest you think it’s just me, the table readings for CHEERS, FRASIER, WINGS, THE SIMPSONS, and BECKER were all held in conference rooms.

Do we get an unfair reading as a result? Do the scripts appear funnier than they really are? Sometimes. There are producers who won’t change jokes later if it worked at the table reading. I’m not one of them. If a joke doesn’t work when it’s on its feet I cut it.  Table readings can always be deceiving. 

But way more often, I’ve seen bad table readings done on the stage then gone back to the room and changed the shit out of the script. Later that day we'd have a runthrough of the original table draft and 70% of the stuff we planned to cut suddenly worked.

I’d rather err on the side of the table reading going well. Especially since you have the network and studio there as well. The less nervous they all are about the script, the better it is for all concerned.

Comedy can be effected by many outside factors. Room temperature, audience fatigue, visibility, traffic, distractions, level of alcohol, time of night, and the intimacy of the venue.

So I invite you to take seriously the notion of comedy geography.  You could be in for a happy ending even without the massage parlor.


blinky said...

Maybe the same idea works in government. When the GOP was writing the Health Care and Tax reform legislation they did it in small (possibly smokey) back rooms. Maybe the idea of taking everyones health care was hilarious there. Or the idea of taxing the poor to give billionaires a tax break was comedy gold. But on the floor of the house and senate it wasn't so funny or maybe poor people just didn't get the joke.

Brad Apling said...

A few questions on the table readings before I hit you up on writers rooms.

Table Readings first. In the beginning season of a TV show or the introduction of a play, has it been discovered that an actor/actress just doesn't read the character well enough (even if they are generally good in acting)? Ergo, the aforementioned actor/actress gets replaced? How many table readings generally take place? I assume just one for each episode (or pre-production of a play) but, if there are multiple rewrites to a script/play, is there a table reading after each major change? When you're writing a play, being as they are generally not a partnership or a group effort, who do you run your script by for feedback before the table reading? Is it a tighter group at table readings for plays (not all the agents, directors, producers, etc.) than for TV shows?

Secondly, Writers Rooms. Has the snack table been better with some TV shows you've been involved in than others? Who decides what goes in and who pays for it? (Hopefully, the writers can they take this off on their taxes?) After the initial get-together in the writers room to work out episodes, story arcs, etc., does your place on the totem pole determine what kind of flat surface you get to do your writing at? (If you are a newbie, I figure you get either the top of an oil drum out in the alley or the wash counter in the bathroom, but most probably a table in a room that is shared with other newbies.) Did you and David ever get an upgrade when working on MASH, Frasier or Wings?
(Okay, you can probably use some Visine now after reading all of this.)

Eric J said...

I'm not too surprised by this. Teachers usually focus on students in a sort of inverted T. Facing the class, from side to side for several students, then down the center toward the back. It favors a narrow deep room. In a wide room, students to the far sides are ignored.

That said... If you already have a permanent set, why don't you set up in that familiar setting? For a show like Cheers, why couldn't everyone crowd into the bar for the reading?

Mike Bloodworth said...

I'm vaguely familiar with the Goldberg workshop. You ARE a good improvisor. Although, how funny you are depends on your scene partner. (Not to toot my own horn) On a similar note, comedy is a lot like porno. When its good it doesn't matter where it's set. But, When its BAD it could take place in the most beautiful location in the world. But, its still bad porn.

VP81955 said...

Ken, you're probably familiar with the history of the site where Garry Marshall's Falcon Theatre sits in Toluca Lake (met you there for a performance of your play "A or B?"), but I wasn't aware of it until reading this piece about one of my favorite singers and two of her husbands -- no, she wasn't married to both at the same time. (The relationship the three had might make for a fascinating biopic in the hands of the proper screenwriter.)

Pat Reeder said...

I never hear anyone talk about this, but I've always believed a too-big studio was a major reason why Conan O'Brien's Tonight Show failed. NBC was so determined to hype their new host to the skies that they built a cavernous new studio for him so it could be filled with screaming fans. When he came out for the monologue and did a joke, it sounded as if he were yelling into the mic at a basketball arena, introducing the "Noooooo Yooooooork Kniiiiiiiiiiicks!!!!" He had to wait for the laugh to roll to the back row before starting his next joke. It ruined the sound quality and comic timing on the very first segment that viewers saw and put distance between them and the host, with whom they needed to feel some personal connection if they were going to grow to like him.

In his old, small studio in New York, the camera, mic and audience were all close, and when he did some bit that relied on a silly, whimsical premise, you could actually see and hear it. In Burbank, it was as if he had to hurl each joke into a tornado. Only the filmed bits were still funny because those were still up close and intimate. Maybe they learned their lesson with Jimmy Fallon (or more likely, he and Lorne Michaels already knew it and put their foot down), so Fallon stayed in NYC and does his Tonight Show from a studio, not an airplane hangar.

To VP81955: Thanks for that link to the article about Julie London and Bobby Troup! My wife, Laura Ainsworth, is a retro lounge/jazz singer who loves Julie (Julie may not have liked her album covers, but we love them and study them for inspiration, especially Laura's new best-of vinyl LP, "Top Shelf"). Laura's late dad was a musician who used to play at places like the Cocoanut Grove and Tail O' The Cock, so we search for anything we can find online about cool bars/restaurants of that era. My friend and writing partner, George Gimarc, just came across a treasure trove of internal correspondence from one of the major booking agencies of the early '60s, with contracts, comments on acts, etc., and we've been going through them for the Texas Musicians Museum. It seems that Julie had some personal problems that sometimes affected her shows adversely, which was sad to read about. I wish we could have gone to the China Trader and seen Bobby on a night when she felt in the mood to sing.

Randall said...

This makes me wonder about where they do the table reads for THE BIG BANG THEORY and how they make the audience feel so good because the audience is laughing after almost every single line.

jcs said...

I never understood why some comedians strive to sell out large venues. Sure, you're a tremendous success as a performer if you can sell 10,000 tickets, but to me something gets lost in those large arenas. There's this tiny person 50 metres away on a giant (and mostly empty) stage telling jokes. It's really not the same as interacting with 100 people in a packed comedy club or traditional theatre. The German term "Kleinkunst" (literally "small art") that covers readings, comedy, cabaret etc. describes perfectly in what environment jokes are served best.

Matt said...

When you say “level of alcohol” do you mean more or less?😀

Andy Rose said...

I recently saw my first stand-up performance in an arena a couple of weeks ago. It was still funny and enjoyable, but I could tell it would have been much more enjoyable in a club, or even a theater.

Letterman was really reluctant to move into the Ed Sullivan Theater when he moved to CBS, in large part because he didn't like the idea of going into a bigger venue. His director, Hal Gurnee, convinced Letterman it could work with some upgrades, and taping their did appeal to both men's appreciation of TV history. (It also helped that the Sullivan is not quite as large as it appears on TV.) Colbert reportedly was also concerned about moving to the theater, but ultimately relented because CBS owns the Sullivan, and nobody could find a better space in New York.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

It's not only comedy that's improved by smaller spaces. After the Houses of Parliament were bombed in World War II, Winston Churchill ordered the Commons debating chamber to be rebuilt exactly as it was originally, even though because it was too small for the numbers then being elected, because he said being cramped fostered better debate. This appears to be true - have a look sometimes at the House of Commons debates and compare them to the US Senate or the UN, where there are huge amounts of space around each desk and the atmosphere is absolutely dead.