Saturday, June 19, 2021

Weekend Post


Lots of discussion about multi-cam shows this week.  So why not one more?

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 UNITED STATES OF AL 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.


kent said...

Was it quiet enough to tell if the quarter was heads?

Pat Reeder said...

Your comment about the audience being 80 hits home with me. I write a popular news comedy bit for a cable show that draws an older crowd. I have to be careful about being too edgy or making references they won't get. On the plus side, I can make arcane references that younger audiences wouldn't get, and they get them. Still, we occasionally have a show where even the best jokes get nothing. I never know whether they didn't get it, were offended for some reason, or they were all just up past bed time.

Mike Bloodworth said...

I've told this story before. This is similar to Ken's "...couldn't speak English." situation. An improv group I was in had a show. One of our members volunteered for a group that worked with mentally challenged people. She had invited some of them to our show. We asked for a suggestion and the response was, "Abawnapmf." We looked at our cast member and asked her, "What did he say?" She had no idea. We went on the best we could. I have no idea how much of what we did or said was understood by those audience members, but needless to say the show was not a success.
I guess we all have to pay our dues.


Lemuel said...

We've lost Frank Bonner.
"Somewhere there's a Volkswagen without seat covers."

Wendy M. Grossman said...

You know, 80-year-olds aren't what they used to be. I can't imagine a modern group of 80-year-olds would have trouble with in UNITED STATES OF AL. Our president will be 80 in two years. You think he wouldn't get it?


DBenson said...

John Cleese famously relates how an episode of "Fawlty Towers" was taped before an audience of Icelandic tourists.

I was in a community theater production of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum". Our Easter Sunday matinee was mostly a church groups (mainly adults). We went in a bit nervously, but it turned out they were in a mood for raunchy comedy after a serious morning service.

I wanted to add a gag. There's a moment when Hysterium, impersonating a corpse, leaps off the funeral pyre and makes a run for it. Miles Glorious shouts "This girl is alive!" My suggestion was for one of the Roman soldiers to face the audience and complain, "Not another one!" I still think it would have played for that crowd.

Don Kemp said...

I just wanted to add my 2 cents about audiences. A few years back my wife and I went to a taping of Bill Maher's show at Television City. We knew the drill, that we would wait outside, etc. Once you get there though, it really doesn't make it any better. We were were all herded onto the sidewalk on Fairfax ans spent a good two hours there in the sun. No facilities. Being early was NOT a plus, as later on when you go to yet into another bullpen area the order of people is all screwed up. You're periodically told of all the things you CAN'T do and only when someone finally ask did they tell you when and where you could go to the bathroom. (It also turns out Maher has more rules and personal quirks than some other "stars", so we made sure to only laugh when basically told to do so and heaven forbid don't ever say anything he could hear. During the show, he didn't acknowledge the audience, gave a perfunctory "thanks for coming" looking away from the audience and sure as hell didn't stay around to even chat up the audience for a few minutes. But I digress.)

Bottom line, it was a very interesting experience but one we will never repeat. Little accommodations for the audience, exposure to the elements and condescending stage hands or whatever they were. I realize this is nothing new, it's been going on in some form or another since Lucy and Desi.
Yes, you're seeing a show for free, but it doesn't mean the studios get to make sure you EARN it before you ever get in.

Mike Bloodworth said...

I almost forgot. Normally, Ken I would be wishing you a "Happy Father's Day." But considering the current political climate, let me just say, Happy Sperm providing, Binary, Co-parenting Partner Day.


Kevin said...

A question if I do studios handle phones in the audience? Audiences' involvement with their phones has robbed energy from concert crowds. Does the same happen with tapings?

Joyce Melton said...

We did a performance of Thurber's "The Male Animal" in front of the Filipine-American club. This is an intellectual comedy with enough farce to make it work -- usually. But half of the audience was translating for the other half, so all of our laughs were coming as much as two minutes late. We slowed things way down but it was still very weird. :)

Douglas Trapasso said...

Wow, Ken, that "Mary" story was pretty surreal. Not sure I can top it, but that day, as tragic as it was, had a particularly strange postscript for me.

Now, it's easy to diss dormatory RA's. I did my share too, but honestly, the RA's at Vance Hall, New Britain, CT in the mid-80's were for the most part, pretty cool.

But once in awhile, a bad call was made. Remember when VCRs and cassettes first hit the mainstream? Our dorm would hold a monthly or so movie night in our quad. It was quite the novelty at the time, to see a recent movie for free in our dorm.

Maybe no movie could have cheered our floor up the night of 1/28/86, but I have to think a better choice could have been made than this then-popular hit:

Headacher said...

The only TV show I was ever in the audience for was "Bozo's Circus" in Chicago. I was 8 years old and the entire ordeal was such a total blast that I still remember it now, 49 years later. (One of the sketches featured a hippopotamus's head bursting through a wall. Aw, it wasn't a real hippopotamus.)

It was live, it was riotous. Constant moving (the cast and crew, that is) and it was an absolute thrill. Bozo and Cookie the Clown even entertained the audience during the commercials. (You might think they would have been leaning up against a monitor, having a smoke. But no, they were still "on".)

The "magic arrow" during the Grand Prize game, actually landed on me! Unfortunately, they had already chosen a boy and were looking for a girl. Darn!

And at the end, I even got to meet Bozo! (Every audience member did.) He was such a goof. He thought my 7 year old cousin, Lisa, was my wife. Silly clown!

Oh, and before the show? Everyone lined up INSIDE, out of the elements, in a long, huge hallway which featured the faces of WGN-TV stars. Bozo, Cookie, Uncle Ned, Ray Rayner, Garfield Goose. The list goes on and on.

So there! A very POSITIVE experience being a member of a TV show audience. Sweet memories.

FFS said...

In the late 1990s and early 2000s we would make an annual trek from Toronto to NYC. In the early days we could get Conan tickets a day or two before leaving and the line was inside so no weather worries. We also went to Letterman where the annoying interns shuffling us from holding area to holding area would harangue the crowd to laugh at everything even if we didn’t think it was funny. The icing on this shit cake was we were told that if we didn’t laugh we would get Dave’s “B” material instead of the “A” stuff. If you watch old Letterman shows you’ll notice absolutely everything gets a laugh even the set up to the punch line. In my estimation we mostly saw the “B” material but that wasn’t the fault of the audience. And a tip for lining up … if you have grey hair don’t bother getting there early because regardless of your spot in line you are guaranteed a back row seat.

Don Kemp said...

I'd just like to add I grew up in Chicago in the 1960's and early 70's and know all too well the Bozo Circus show of which Headacher speaks. It indeed was a blast to watch every day at noon. If you were lucky, you could come home from school at lunch time and catch part of it. Bob Bell was the best Bozo, anywhere, ever. Ray Rayner, Ned Locke, Roy Brown, Don Sandburg (who eventually left to produce the Banana Splits here in L.A.), Frazier Thomas and Garfield Goose will forever be pleasant memories. Chicago had some of the best television for kids in the 50's, 60's and 70's and most of it was on WGN, as Bozo was. It was ALL positive.

WGN TV in that time period is why so many of us loved growing up and living in Chicago. WGN had the rights to all the Cubs games. The Cubs then played all day games. After school ended each day during the baseball season, you could catch the game from at least the 7th inning on if not earlier and listen to Jack Brickhouse describe the game featuring Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Billy Williams, Fergie Jenkins, all future Hall of Famers. The Cubs and WGN had you hooked at an early age and accounts for why they have so many loyal fans all over the globe. Bozo's Circus and the Cubs on WGN made for a great childhood.

DyHrdMET said...

A FQ for you (if you haven't already answered this): How do writers write in noticeable facial reactions of characters into the script? Or don't they? For example, I'm watching the CHEERS pilot, and seeing Diane's reactions as she meets each character (especially her reaction to the joke "Is there an Ernie Pantusso here? That's you, Coach. Speaking." as she learns his name and we learn a bit about Coach). Where do those reactions get created?

Dave Dahl said...

At eight years old, your folks would have ordered the tix when you were born, right?

Headacher said...

Dave Dahl - My Aunt had ordered the tickets and yes, she had ordered them years before with the intention of taking our oldest siblings to the show!

Don Kemp - My elementary school was right across the street from our house. So yes, I was one of the lucky kids who got to go home for lunch and watch Bozo. I didn't know that Don Sandburg (Sandy, the clown) produced the Banana Splits. Sandy was on the show in my own earliest years, so I don't really remember him. But Oliver O. Oliver (Ray Rayner) I do remember.

(Hope Ken doesn't mind us talking about the local Bozo's Circus on his blog!)

Ere I Saw Elba said...

I can't stand being in cramped environments, particularly sitting in a crowded theater. Add lack of air conditioning? Yeah, I would be running the fuck out of there.

I want to support live multi-cam television as an art form. I don't think I could be an audience member. I wish there was middle ground, maybe a nightclub type atmosphere. With restrooms.

Don Kemp said...

Headacher- Ken's a forgiving guy, I'm sure he wouldn't mind, especially if we tie it into how WGN treated Bozo's audiences, as you described. Nobody ever waited out on Bradley Place to get into WGN.

There's a neat paperback available called The Golden Age of Chicago Children's Television that's worth reading. It's not as hip or cool as Must Kill TV or Where the Hell Am I?, both expertly written by Ken and also available. I learned Ray Rayner was a German POW in WWII. Ned Locke piloted helicopters.

Brother Herbert said...

Similar to Ken's Challenger situation, Carl Reiner was faced with having to film a DICK VAN DYKE SHOW a few days after Kennedy was killed. The solution was to film without an audience in attendance since they felt people weren't in the mood to laugh.