Wednesday, April 29, 2020

A final thought on audiences

They’re not always the best indicator of what’s genuinely funny.

You think they would be. There’s that old adage: The only way to know if something is funny is if people laugh.

But that’s not always accurate.

I learned that doing multi-camera sitcoms for thirty years that were shot before a live studio audience.

There were some weeks when the audience was super hot and everything got guffaws. We’d feel pretty good about ourselves until we saw the first rough cut of the show and would say to ourselves: “What the hell are they laughing at? This sucks!”

And the reverse was also true. An episode would get a tepid audience response and we’d see the rough cut and the episode came alive. Performances and facial expressions played great for the camera but were missed by the audience.

I did the warm-up the first year of CHEERS and would have the same five-minute monologue each week. Based on the reaction to that I knew whether we had a hot or cold crowd.

And like I mentioned yesterday, if you have an adoring audience that moved mountains just to get precious tickets, they’ll laugh uproariously at anything. You don’t have to earn laughs.

As a playwright I’ve experienced another phenomenon. Different audiences laugh at different jokes. For the life of me I don’t understand that dynamic. Why would 200 strangers collectively find one line funny enough to laugh out loud one night and 200 other strangers the next night react in silence? And the following night a joke met by silence by the first group gets a huge laugh by the second.

Comics know this all too well. They kill on Friday and bomb on Saturday with the exact same routine.

The point is there are lots of variables that stand between a joke and a laugh. You need to trust your own judgment . Again, don’t use the audience as your crutch.

So how do you really know if something is funny? You just do. Unless you’re wrong. 

15 comments :

VP81955 said...

What's going to happen to the traditional multi-cam sitcom if live audiences have to go by the boards? Nearly all the performers have worked on single-cams or movies, so that won't be much of a problem. But shows such as "Mom" or "Last Man Standing" will undoubtedly feel different minus an audience. They'll survive either way, but newer series with less experienced casts, writing staffs and crews might find things more difficult.

Bryan north of seattle said...

I watched cheers season 1 episode 2 (Sam's women) last night. Two or three times a joke would get laughter and APPLAUSE. There was no mistaking those jokes were hilarious.

Craig Gustafson said...

I read Woody Allen's autobiography, "Apropos of Nothing." Page 87.
Page 87 *alone* is worth the price of the book. It describes the precepts taught to Allen when he was learning how to write TV comedy from Danny Simon.
The most important was "Trust your own instincts. Stand up for the material."

Dana King said...

Part of my job is to be an adult trainer. I used to get to do a fair amount of it face-to-face, but the past couple of years the vast majority has been online. (Obviously now it ALL is.) It's a serious adjustment, and not just for the humor I like to inject. In a classroom a teacher can tell just from looking around who's lost, who's bored, who's close, and who's got the bit between their teeth. You don't even have to see it sometimes, especially if you're losing the class for some reason; after a while you can sense it. I fall back on my experience (this worked before, it's probably working now) and the occasional feedback I receive. We do what we can do.

Abdul Waheed said...

Season 1 is mind blowing.

J Lee said...

Ken, was doing warm-up for Season 1 of "Cheers", during the early episodes a little different than later on in the season, after the show had been on the air for a while an the audiences were getting more familiar with the characters? (IIRC, the main thing toued about "Cheers" going into the first season was that the people involved with it had also been involved in "Taxi" and it was going to be an ensemble like that show, but viewers really didn't know anything about characters, especially the supporting ones, until several episodes into the run.)

Mike Snider said...

Ken - I lived in L.A. during the 80s & 90s, and went to maybe a half-dozen show tapings (sitcoms, game shows, and talk shows). At virtually every one of them, the audience was kept waiting in line outside longer than necessary; and also the number of tickets was usually 'overbooked'. Don't you think this sort of universal mistreatment might account for a good percentage of "cooled down" audiences?

Brian said...

I just saw that the WGA lost the case. What next?

https://deadline.com/2020/04/writers-guild-agency-lawsuit-antitrust-claims-dismissed-1202919375/

Covarr said...

In five years of stage acting (with a bit of writing and directing mixed in), one thing that has become exceptionally clear to me is that every once in a while an audience is just wrong. I've seen hilarious lines delivered perfectly and that night's audience just doesn't get it. Last year, I was in a production of ARSENIC AND OLD LACE where the audience was laughing constantly, but at things that weren't even jokes; it was one of the most surreal and inexplicable experiences I've had on the stage.

The ultimate goal is audience enjoyment, but sometimes you just gotta take 'em with a grain of salt. You do your best, no more, no less. Try too hard to chase laughs, to pander to what you think they want rather than what you already know is good, and you end up with season 4 of DINOSAURS.

Sue T. said...

I agree with Mike Snider about the shabby treatment of waiting audience members. My first experience was a Carson-era Tonight Show taping where a mostly tourist line of eager visitors were made to stand (no chairs or benches for you!) outside on the hot sidewalk for about an hour. I still feel bad for the older woman whose lovely summer dress was ruined when she collapsed to the sidewalk from heat exhaustion and no shade from the summer sun. And I am still a tad annoyed about the studio having a top-down seating plan, meaning people at the front of the line ended up in the bleacher seats farthest from the stage floor.

MikeKPa. said...

Can you share a little bit of what you used in your monologue? Who in your opinion were the best at getting an audience in a humorous mood? And is usually someone from the production or writing staff?

Greg Ehrbar said...

Saw Leno filling in for Carson and there was no coaching. Doc's band was fantastic during commercials--the parts the home audience did not see and hear. Carrie Fisher was the guest. No screeching or screaming, but of course, the electricity of being there inspired more laughs than at home, similar but more intense than the difference between watching a theatrical comedy in a packed theater and seeing it quietly at home.

Home Improvement was the same way. It seemed much funnier in person, of course, but the audience didn't need coaching as it was very funny and it was already a hit series.

Bonnie Hunt's excellent but short-lived talk show served hot dogs and root beer (I guessing a Chicago hometown nod) before we were inside the studio. Again, no overt encouragement, but some candy as I recall. TV never gave her the proper chance.

Craig Ferguson used to tease his warm-up guy because his catchphrase was "Give me THUNDER!" Ferguson also made fun of the fact that his audience was mostly "hobos" and paid, but I was not -- Julie Andrews was on the show!

I have not really kept up with late-night since Leno, Letterman and Ferguson left, not because of the hosts so much as because the interviews are becoming too rote, planned, short and promotional. Podcasts do it better. It's funny that the virus is turning these shows basically into star-studded YouTube videos. It's interesting to see how they stack up against the "amateurs" who have been doing this for many years now down in the trenches.

One reason for the screaming audience (and Ellen's show has a decibel level that makes The Price Right seems like Sermonette) is that execs have some notion that "energy level" equals hot music and screams. I've heard this on TV shows I've worked on--there is little understanding and much "concern" about the variances in level that make entertainment work well. It's just another "concern" that has affected talk shows in the last ten years or so.

Desi Arnaz refused to sweeten "The Mothers-in-Law" and when a joke fell flat, you didn't hear much of a laugh. Gene Rayburn used to work with the audience reactions and embrace the flubs on Match Game--he even broke off pieces of the set. The home audience loved it, and it's still running--as old and dated as it is. Rayburn preceded Bob and Ray and was also a huge name in radio before he did game shows, which paid better and made him more famous.

Oliver said...

Very much depends on how packed an audience is, that I know. Same material bombs with half full audiences as opposed to sold out audiences.

Something else botheres me: I am writing comedy routines, sketches, monologues for tv, and I'm doing alright. But no matter how hard I try, almost never is the result as good as it sounded in my head. I tend to not watch things I wrote on the telly, because I'm disappointed almost everytime. Is this something you experienced? Do you just live with it, try to get to the bottom of it and get better or do you have a grip on just how good your material is and that shortcomings depend on direction, actors or circumstances?

Cheryl Marks said...

I wonder if there could be a herd response so to speak. Someone in the audience finds something funny and starts laughing then her/his laughter "infects" the other members of the audience.

Maybe it goes so far that the audience unwitting designates this person as the "Leader of Laughter" to indicate what is funny and when to laugh.

Do You Do Any Wings? said...

Hi Ken,
What *was* your five-minute warm up routine? Would it work today?
Kind Regards.