Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Duking it with Earl

If you’re not reading Earl Pomerantz’s blog, you should. Earl is a terrific comedy writer who views the world with a fresh, often hilarious, perspective. He was a guest on my podcast last year and it’s an episode well worth checking out.

On January 29th I posted a rant about multi-camera sitcoms – how recent ones were not funny and worse, were pumped full of canned laughter. On February 1st Earl weighed in, contesting some of my points. This is his piece.

What you’re seeing here is very unique – two people who disagree on something but still manage to carry on a civilized discussion while never personally attacking the other person or those who have similar beliefs. In fact, this might be the only such debate you’ll find on the internet dated after 2015.

Earl maintains, if I’m paraphrasing him correctly, that the heightened laughter from studio audiences is more genuine because they are fans of the show and are thrilled to be there. And that is certainly valid. (Seriously, if you’re looking for mud slinging this isn’t the place.) I always maintained the latter years of CHEERS we didn’t have to earn the laughs because the studio audience was so crazy excited to be there they laughed at safety instructions.

Add to that a warm up guy who TELLS you to laugh and react. Ironically, both Earl and I did the warm-up for CHEERS during various seasons. So the heightened laughter might be real but it’s somewhat artificial.

And I can tell you, as a freelance director, I worked a lot of different shows – not all of them beloved hits. And whereas there is the novelty factor of attending a TV taping that wears off in a half hour. The freebie laughs stop. And that’s where the rubber meets the road. That’s when you have to really earn the laughs. And I contend that most of today’s multi-camera shows don’t. Instead they rely on the laugh machine. And news flash: they’re fooling NOBODY.

Earl claims that sex jokes almost always work with studio audiences but less so with home audiences. I totally agree. And there’s a real danger to try to please the studio audience first as opposed to the nebulous home audience. But that’s catering to 200 people at the expense of several million. I’m a firm believer in jokes that come out of characters and behavior and that might make it harder to coax laughs from the studio audience but to me it’s worth it. Shows like 2 BROKE GIRLS or TWO AND A HALF MEN would disagree.

Earl points out something else that’s very true. Just because a studio audience goes wild over an episode doesn’t mean it’s automatically good when all assembled. And by the same token, shows that might play a little flat to the audience turn out to be terrific shows at times.

You’d like to think you’re a genius when the audience is in convulsions but there have been times I’ve watched the first edit of one of these love fests and said, “What the hell are they laughing at? This is not very good.” And other times the performances are fabulous but maybe too subtle for folks in the bleachers but at home they really emerge. Now in those cases the showrunner has a dilemma. Clearly the episode is funnier than the audience reaction would lead you to believe. Do you boost the laughter with the machine? Personally I don’t. I’d rather the audience appreciate the show and maybe feel they’re smarter than the tepid audience.

Ultimately Earl says it’s less important what veteran sitcom writers think about today’s crop of sitcoms than what young audiences think. These shows, after all, are meant for them. I would agree with that too. But how do we measure? Ratings are down for these shows but is it because they’re bad or just that Millennials have way more choices and being on CBS is no more an incentive than being on epix!

The way to find out is for someone to do a really GOOD multi-camera sitcom and see if the numbers go up. I think Earl and I would agree that at least we’d be watching.


Mike Barer said...

I subscribe to Earl's blog and enjoy reading it.

Ben said...

Sounds like it's time for you and Earl to put a pitch together...

Craig Gustafson said...

Jokes for the home audience:

My sister told me about watching "3rd Rock from the Sun" when William Shatner was the guest. Both Shatner and John Lithgow had played the lead in the "Twilight Zone" episode about a gremlin on the wing of a plane.
The cast meets Shatner at the airport. He's drunk and very disturbed. They ask what's wrong.
SHATNER: It was a horrible flight! There was a man on the wing of the plane!
LITHGOW: The same thing happened to me!
My sister said it got almost nothing from the studio audience, while she fell on the floor.

cd1515 said...

Friday question: curious how writers react to something like this, where an actor is apparently telling you how to do your job:

Mike Doran said...

How a studio audience reacts to a joke depends on whether they are themselves familiar with the subject.

Test Case:
This is a possible for All In The Family or later on, for Archie Bunker's Place.
It's a runner to use in the bar, as background for another story or stories:

Archie, Harry, Barney, Hank, et al, are looking at a picture hanging behind the bar.
They're arguing about a car in the picture. specifically about what kind of car it is.
As many extinct makes as you can think of are named: Maxwell, Packard, Stutz - until Archie stops everybody thusly:

That was my old man's car - that was a LaSalle. We had it for years, I'll never forget it.

All the other guys nod and back off; Archie stays behind the bar, looking fondly at the picture.

Gee, that old LaSalle ran great …

Question (Friday or otherwise):
Do you think a live audience might have gotten the reference?

Wendy M. Grossman said...

The Guardian today has a piece about FRIENDS and its ongoing success (it's one of the most-watched shows among kids aged five and up since its arrival on Netflix, apparently). In it, the actor who played Fun Bobby, who appeared in just a handful of episodes in the first year or two, says all these years later he's still getting $2,000 a year in residuals. Ken, does that sound like a lot to you, especially given that the show would have been paying less during the early years? Piece is here:


Jahn Ghalt said...

I may be fooling myself, but at home I don't pay conscious attention to the studio reaction.

(and I AM smarter than most in those audiences - again, fooling myself?)

At least at home I can be out-of-synch with the studio audience - last time at Young Frankenstein in the theatre, I sometimes laughed BEFORE the punch line.

Craig Russll said...

Ultimately, where is the potential for the bigger audience? The more eyeballs? On the screen. If you play to 200, you lose the perspective of (hopefully) millions...

michael weithorn said...

In the summer of 1982, a studio audience filed into stage 28 on the Paramount lot to watch a taping of an episode of a new NBC series, Family Ties. And they were PISSED. Family Ties hadn't yet premiered, so no one in the audience had ever heard of it - they had come to Paramount that night to see a taping of one of their favorite shows, Laverne and Shirley or Happy Days, and been turned away due to overflow. Well, I was a young story editor on Family Ties that summer, and so it was my luck to have my first script as a professional writer be shot in front of a decidedly indifferent, even slightly hostile audience. Fortunately the script was pretty good and even more fortunately, the young unknown actor in the lead, Michael J. Fox, was GREAT, and before too long the crowd was having a terrific time, laughing easily and totally invested in the story. Though I've since been a part of hundreds of multicam tapings and filmings since then, that night has always stayed with me - the laughs we got felt like the purest, most honestly-earned laughs I've ever experienced in my career. Once a show is a success, you never get another shot at that kind of thing... Ken, I'm sure you must've had a similar experience that summer a hundred yards or so away on Cheers!

RyderDA said...

I certainly agree with Earl on one point: We are not the target market. I'm 61. I got rid of TV entirely -- no cable, no Netflix -- and basically stopped going to the movies because I am not the target market for ANY of it. "Stars" I've never heard of, situations I can't relate to, comedy I don't find funny, drama I don't find real.

Occasionally some movie comes though to capture my attention, driven usually by subject matter (FIRST MAN comes to mind) or writer (MOLLY'S GAME). Hell, after being a huge fan of early Pixar work, ever since they became Disney-fied, I stoped (haven't seen INCREDIBLES 2, MONSTERS UNIVERSITY, CARS 2 or 3, GOOD DINOSAUR, COCO, PLANES and have zero desire to see TOY STORY 4). I liked JJ's STAR TREK, but not much that's followed that. Nowadays, I watch DVDs that I pick up in my local $5 bargain bin -- and that bin is full of dreck.

Funny part is that it's hard for me to describe what I would start watching TV for again. "Buzz" series like GAME OF THRONES hasn't even made a blip on my radar. TV lost me, and in truth, I'm not the worse for it.

Frank Beans said...

I agree that the most satisfying jokes--the ones that truly make an audience get into a show--are character-based. It can be a bit of catch-22 at first, because you have to introduce the characters first with accessible humor in order to make them funny, before they can become intrinsically funny in a deeper way.

I have found that the best ever sitcoms tend to hit this stride around midway through their first season, then really take off with it after that, provided of course that they have good writers who can find novel situations for them to exist in. Hence the term "situation comedy". I do think the best humor derives from the characters, but there needs to be some novel element to keep them from, as the saying goes, stepping on the same rake over and over again. Shows that turn into mere gag-fests get old pretty quick.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting but not very unique.
Can't be very unique. Just unique.

VP81955 said...

The "jokes for the home audience" are a staple of "Last Man Standing," which occasionally has jokes reflecting on Tim Allen's past roles or recurring cast member Jay Leno (a longtime pal of Allen's from the stand-up circuit).

BTW, for those who haven't heard, CBS yesterday announced "Mom" has been renewed for at least two more seasons, through 2020-2021 (which would give it eight seasons on the air, a very healthy run). Stars Anna Faris and Allison Janney, whose six-year ties to the series end this year, came to an agreement as expected. This longtime fan couldn't be happier.

KB said...

Make no mistake; only a machine could laugh at anything on "Man With a Plan" or "Fam."

Edward said...

I never heard of the "Chicago School of Television" (1949-1955) until recently, but the producers seemed to have a feel for what they were trying to do with the shows they created nearly 70 years ago.

"The guiding axiom of the Chicago School performers and production staff was that television was neither theater nor film, but a unique, new medium. The corollary followed that television performances should not be directed at a studio audience, but at the viewers at home who watched singly or in small groups."

MikeN said...

Craig, now if Shatner had said he was cursed for getting on the plane really for leaving home, that would be a reference.

MikeN said...

Ryder, it's not just you old folks. I don't even show my kids any TV, so they have no concept of what all these shows are, or even the idea of watching TV shows. I don't feel they are missing anything.

MikeKPa. said...

You mentioned you're a freelance director. On most sitcoms, how are directors selected by the show runners? I know James Burrows, who has directed every episode of WILL AND GRACE and did the majority of CHEERS shows, is the exception to the rule. But, what is the rule? Do some sitcoms rotate 3-4 directors and others might have a dozen in a season? And how does a freelance director get gigs?

J Lee said...

For a long time I've felt that the jokes on a show like Two Broke Girls are 'one-time laughs', in that the laugh you get from the audience is more about the audaciousness of the character saying a line like that. It's not so much wrapped up in personality as it is in just the surprise/shock value of saying the line.

But once the shock value wears off -- i.e. once people know the character's going to say something wackily outrageous as the punchline to a gag -- the novelty of doing it starts to wear off, and the law of diminishing returns sets in. Which may not really matter if your only goal is to get shock laughs the first time around, but it seems like showed based only on that type of gag have a fast burn-out rate, because you never really care about the characters themselves.

I'd consider Two-and-A-Half Men to be something of a hybrid during the Charlie Sheen years, in that the shock gags were there, but the show also was boosted by the Oscar-vs.-Felix type situation and chemistry between Sheen and Jon Cryer, where the personalty contrast drove the stories apart from the sexual shock jokes (a character contrast Chuck Lorre would use again and even more obviously with Sheldon and Leonard in The Big Bang Theory. He really does owe a lot to Neil Simon and Garry Marshall).

Rashad Khan said...

Why do I feel like this is gonna end with you two brandishing pistols at dawn?

Unknown said...

Can someone please explain to me what Earl's shirt means? Thanks.

YEKIMI said...

Earl's shirt may mean this:

And on another subject: I don't watch a lot of TV anymore mainly cause I am fairly busy. But I do watch some. Years ago I knew a very religious police officer who would not let his kids watch TV, nor listen to the radio, sent them to religious school until he decided his wife and he could do a better job home schooling them and discouraged them from having friends in case they introduced any "impure" thoughts [read, any ideas or thoughts that they did not come from the parents]. When they were old enough to go out on their own, the boy ended up having a nervous breakdown because he did not know how to function in society, was taken advantage of big time and did not know how to handle situations that came up, even if they were minor. I guess he would have been better off becoming a monk. If I had kids, I would at least let them watch the TV news and explain to them what was happening and as they get older let them make up their own minds on some things.