Do sitcoms taped before a studio audience have a future?
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From its earliest days, television has attempted to create the illusion of community. Most of the early broadcasts grew out of the New York theater world, and what stage veterans knew was putting on a show in front of an audience. These shows went out live, and even the dramas were treated like filmed versions of plays, with the audience right there, a part of the action. No one was quite sure if television could survive without those crowd noises. It was a medium meant for consumption by large audiences, but it was also one beamed directly into their homes, an uneasy combination of films and stage plays (which required one to leave the house) and sitting down with a nice long book that unfolded over many sections (which didn’t). With the noise of the crowd’s laughter or shock or approval, viewers didn’t have to feel so alone.
Then Desi Arnaz took this basic idea and, working with veteran cinematographer Karl Freund—whose career went back to the days of German expressionism—refined an approach to shooting comedy so durable it’s lasted 60 years and produced many of the greatest shows in television history. Working on his new show I Love Lucy, Arnaz shot in front of an audience using multiple cameras, each capturing different angles of the action. Using this format, he’d get the strengths of stage plays (audience interaction, stronger comic writing, letting the actors feed off of the audience’s energy) and movies (the ability to choose camera angles, cut between points of view, and use the best takes). It certainly helped that the series’ star, Arnaz’s wife Lucille Ball, was the kind of performer who truly loved working in front of an audience. The technique was such a perfect hybrid of the cinematic and the theatrical that, like comic strips or jazz, it became one of the truly original American art forms.
And while the world of televised sitcoms has swung back and forth between the I Love Lucy approach and the “single-camera” format (which allows for more cinematic techniques and a greater freedom to shoot in different locations), one of the tenets of television for roughly its first 40 years was that stronger comedies always used a live studio audience. Having the audience there kept shows honest and prevented them from sliding by with merely good-enough jokes. If the audience members didn’t laugh, you had to come up with a way to make them laugh. That meant digging deep. The funniest shows of the era dominated by the multiple-camera approach—shows like All In The Family, Cheers, and Seinfeld—all used a live audience for this reason, feeding off the crowd’s energy to create entertainment that wasn’t quite a stage play, but not quite a movie either. In contrast, the single-camera shows of those eras—The Andy Griffith Show and M*A*S*H, to name two—used more subdued humor (and recorded laughter known as a “laugh track”). They could be just as funny, but never as wild.
In the last 15 years or so, however, television has begun what seems like an irrevocable process of shutting the in-studio audience out of the picture. Sure, there are some genres—the talk show, for instance—that will probably always require an audience. But in comedy especially, the need to suggest that a community is watching the show has become less and less important. In some respects, this is an outgrowth of our growing sophistication as an audience. My generation is only the second to grow up with television always present in the home; we’ve been raised on setup-punchline humor, so it’s essentially impossible for us to be surprised by it anymore. In other respects, this shift is an outgrowth of the fact that the airwaves were clogged with shitty multi-camera sitcoms for many years, particularly in the late ’90s, when the twin successes of Seinfeld and Friends led to networks stacking every night full of comedies. It might also have something to do with the fact that the Internet provides an instant community for viewers. A relatively small audience may watch Community every week, but the Internet makes it easy for fans to find each other. We don’t need ghost voices to laugh with us when we have our friends online spitting out LOLs.
I’ve been thinking about this because 2 Broke Girls—one of my favorite new shows of the fall—is a multi-camera sitcom, and it’s a multi-camera sitcom clearly struggling with just how much it can do within the format. Some scenes in the pilot are wonderfully done, blending snarky humor into the kind of warm environment that multi-camera sitcoms have always done so well. (By the end of the episode, I wanted to hang out at the diner at the show’s center in the same way I always thought it would be cool to get a drink at Cheers.) Other moments get torpedoed by too-predictable lines or by the sort of broad, stereotypical humor that marks the very worst of sitcom land. Reactions to the pilot have been mixed: Some critics see the promise of the good stuff in the show—particularly the terrific Kat Dennings, who’s a massive TV star just waiting to happen—while others see the hackier sitcom stuff in the script, roll their eyes, and say, “Again?”
Comedy pilots are hard to knock out of the park anyway, simply because comedy takes time. You can’t expect to have a perfectly built ensemble right away, and building the kinds of character relationships that will make audiences laugh time and again takes several episodes, if not seasons. But the current culture of TV-watching involves hooking people directly from the pilot, a task that’s much easier for dramas, which typically rely on higher stakes and bigger situations.
Multi-camera sitcoms also must eventually face the challenge of incorporating that never-seen, always-present character: the audience. This is something I realized while attending a taping of a later episode of Girls. For obvious reasons, I can’t talk about plot or even give general impressions of the episode (though I may pipe up in comments for that episode when it airs), but it was interesting to see how the show worked to keep the audience a part of its world. Like all other shows in this genre, the show’s tapings involve warm-up comedians and a lot of energetic music designed to keep the audience on its feet and excited during the long breaks while writers and directors tweak scenes with the actors. Snacks are passed around and audience members are called up front to discuss their lives with the comedian/host for the evening.
I couldn’t honestly tell you if the episode I saw being filmed was funnier than the pilot, simply because the atmosphere of the event had me primed to laugh at every little thing that happened. The comedian was an expert at getting the audience just revved up enough to be ready to laugh uproariously without exhausting us. The DJ was great at picking just the right song (or sound clip) for just the right moment. And down on the floor, the people making the show worked diligently to pull the whole thing together, tweaking lines we weren’t laughing at quite as hard as other lines, and figuring out ways to zip the performances along even better.
And yet as the night went on, the experience grew wearying. The taping started around 6 p.m., and it stretched to just past midnight. (Those who attended the week before said that taping went past 1 a.m.) This is typical for a new show filming in this process, particularly one that comes from people who’ve just come off a long, successful single-camera show, like 2 Broke Girls showrunner and co-creator Michael Patrick King (of Sex And The City fame). And while King has stacked his staff with sitcom ringers, not all of them have a ton of multi-camera experience, turning every between-scenes discussion into something of a make-or-break session. This made for lengthier shooting times, as did the fact that it just takes a while to learn how to make a show like this work and run smoothly every week. (Longer-running shows have much shorter taping schedules because everyone’s developed a kind of shorthand that makes working together efficient and easy.)
And yet, paradoxically, as the night wore on, the takes got stronger and smoother, even though watching the story form slowly before our eyes made apparent structural flaws that might not be present after editing. It was fun to see Dennings and co-star Beth Behrs (a spirited theater vet who’s immensely comfortable hamming it up for the audience) tweak lines and try out new deliveries to see what worked best. And it was interesting to watch the different takes flop or succeed, and hear how King would tweak a line to make it a funnier and smoother, or make sure certain bits of exposition got slipped in as unobtrusively as possible. As I slowly trained myself to stop watching the monitors above the set and start watching the actors on it, I realized that the experience of watching this was going to be entirely different from the experience of watching the finished product. This was unlike anything else: theater with do-overs.
None of this answers the central question of whether studio audiences are still necessary or if some combination of generational savvy, terrible shows of the past, and Internet communities have made them less valuable. I do know that I love the format, and I’d love to see it make a comeback. I also know that 2 Broke Girls strikes me as the first multi-camera sitcom in many years that’s aiming to say something more than, “Hey, here are some funny people in an apartment,” and that seeing the episode filmed suggested there’s still life in the format. I don’t know what it will be like to see the finished product and hear my own laughs and the laughs of those around me, or if that will improve or destroy my enjoyment of the episode. But it does give me a strange thrill to know that, if this show is a hit and this episode airs for years upon years, someone will someday stumble upon it and hear me laughing—and for a moment, we’ll be in the same space, an imaginary audience, joined across time, laughing in the dark.