Friday, September 26, 2008

"Story of a Writer - Part Eighteen D"

When I did Best of the West, Ed. Weinberger and Stan Daniels oversaw the operation. With The Cosby Show, Bill Cosby, show owners Tom Werner, Marcy Carsey and the director, Jay Sandrich shared the load. On Family Man, it was just me. I had a business partner, Universal Studios, but from a creative standpoint, I was completely on my own.

I liked that better.

Not that there was no pressure. There’s always pressure. (Just writing the word “pressure” makes me feel pressure.) And it wasn’t that I’d grown from my previous experiences, though maybe I had, at least a little. The “growing” thing is hard to evaluate. You look in the mirror and it looks like the same person. The person who’d left The Cosby Show after seven episodes, the person who during an excruciating moment running Best of the West lamented, “There must be an easier way to make three hundred thousand dollars a year.”

The conditions on Family Man were decidedly different. I had written all of the seven ordered scripts myself, our schedule permitting me to complete them before we went into production. The show was not yet on the air, and would not be, until after all the episodes were done, freeing me from the added anxiety of ratings and reviews.

Family Man was an ideal situation from a writer. Especially one who handles the second-guessing of others – others generally low in comic instincts and expertise – not generously. To me, creative interference is like a surgeon trying to make a cut, and somebody’s jostling his arm.

Too lofty?

Okay, then it’s an artist painting a landscape, and the guy buying the painting’s peering over his shoulder as he works.

“I love the sky. Could you make it bluer?”

TV’s not art?

Okay, see, that’s just what I’m talking about. They never let you do your job.

I used to say to Pete, our “line producer”, who puts it all together from a technical standpoint, that while the show’s in pre-production, it’s like the weight of the world is on his shoulders. When we start making the show, that weight gets transferred to me. As we’re about to enter the Family Man soundstage, the first morning of the first day of production, Pete mimes lifting a big, heavy globe off of his shoulders, and transferring it onto mine.

I accepted it with a dancing heart.

“Let’s go make shows.”

And so we did. Seven episodes of Family Man, shot on videotape, without a studio audience. The set, modeled after the interior of my house looked sensational. (I also used the exterior of my house as the “exterior” of the house on the show. When the crew came to shoot the “exterior footage”, our family was at home, eating dinner. Every time we left the table, we had to crouch down, so we wouldn’t get “caught” through the window. It was weird. We were crawling around in our own house.)

The actors brought the characters I’d written excitingly alive. The director, drawing on his improvisational background, established a natural rhythm in the interplay, thus grounding and enhancing the “funny.” (Some sitcom directors are more adept at working with actors than they are at working with the cameras. With others, it’s the other way around. I, by far, prefer the former variety.

For me, performance is everything. From a visual standpoint, a situation comedy is not that complicated. How bad can you do it? I mean, you’re not filming the Normandy landing. The “coverage” involves a small number of people. They get up, they sit down. They come into a room, they go out of a room. That’s pretty much all there is.)

(In a Best of the West script, I once headed a scene: Interior Cabin – Dusk. The Director of Photography, who, in his heyday had worked with Alfred Hitchcock, came up to me and said, “Earl, in the script, you wrote “Dusk.” When you’re doing this, you’ve got ‘Day’ and you’ve got ‘Night.’ That’s it.”)

Everything was going well. I oversaw the taping (which I wouldn’t have been able to do if I hadn’t already written the scripts), made suggestions, fine tuned things in editing, even got to re-shoot stuff, if it wasn’t right. Once, when the director was unavailable due to a work conflict, I got to direct a scene myself. Doing that brought me an immediate understanding of, “But what I’d really like to do is direct.”

Directors say, “Action!” and the actors, the crew – everyone – immediately starts doing stuff. You say, “Cut!” – even if it’s in the middle of a scene – and they stop. They have no choice. It’s not like, “We’d actually like to keep going.” No. The director says, “Cut!” – and that’s it! It’s very Divine-like. Thus spaketh the director: “Cut!”

This doesn’t work at home. Dr. M’s saying something I don’t care for, I yell, “Cut!” – and she just keeps going. And she looks at me funny. “Ultimate control” is not available in any other aspect of life. It only happens when you’re directing.

We were doing good work. There were times when what we were doing in reality was better than what I’d imagined in my head. And my head has pretty high standards.

Okay, that’s the positive stuff. There was quite a bit of it. Being of a negative nature, it wasn’t easy being positive for that long. I’m a little tired. Now, we’re heading into "my area.”

A lot of the bad stuff relates to my decision to shoot the show without an audience. First, because there was no audience response, we were obliged to “sweeten” the show with a “laugh track.” I wasn’t against the idea. There are shows where injecting, what was then, an obligatory “laugh track” was ridiculous, like, for example on M*A*S*H, which was set in Korea, and it made you wonder, “Who exactly is laughing? The Koreans?”

For Family Man, a “laugh track” seemed necessary. Doing a sitcom on videotape, minus a live audience, if you played it without a “laugh track”, the show felt like a soap opera. A weird soap opera, since no one was in a coma.

The problem is the “laugh track” laughs don’t sound real. (Studio audience laughs don’t sound real either, due, I believe, to the way they’re recorded, but they sound better.) Though the “laugh track” can be modulated, in terms of volume and type of laugh – “The Titter”, “The Rolling Ha-ha”, “The Guffaw” – no matter how skillfully it’s administered, it still feels “canned”, distancing and glued on.

So that’s one problem – a real show with fake laughs.

The bigger problem concerns how the lack of a live audience affects the actors’ performances. I should have known this, but I forgot. Performing in front of a live audience is energizing in a way that cannot be fabricated. It’s “the rush of the now.” You’re on the line. The audience is there, and you have to come through.

You get a laugh, and it juices your confidence. You get another laugh, and you’re on “a roll.” Your adrenaline’s pumping. The response is building, one laugh, on another, on another. Suddenly, you’re flying. You’re doing things you never did in rehearsal, and the audience is eating up. Though you’re in “in the moment”, for the tiniest flash, you’re thinking, “Where did that come from?”

You’re on fire.

Working without an audience, though the director reminds the actors to “keep up the energy”, it’s nowhere close to the same. As professional as you are, you’re aware, on some level that, when there’s no audience watching, there is nothing really at stake. You can always shoot it again.

I remember running into meeting Family Man’s Leading Man, Richard Libertini, after the production was over, and asking him if he had any residual thoughts about the way things had gone. His only comment was, “I wish the show had been funnier.”

That was the problem. Libertini had been funny, and, frequently, hilarious. But without the audience reaction, he never got the word.

Not long after that, we set up a screening of Family Man, offered to volunteers from the Universal Studios tour. We wanted to demonstrate to the invited Fox executives how a “typical audience” would respond to our show. A crowd of about a hundred assembled in the bleachers, a large screen was lowered, and they watched two episodes.

They laughed their heads off.

I don’t know what was more gratifying: hearing the audience’s enthusiasm for the show, or watching Libertini’s face, realizing how funny he had actually been.

Despite the successful screening, Fox was unwilling to put the show on the air. When I had originally pitched Family Man to them, I had promised “the best show I know how to do.” Fox didn’t want that. They wanted Married With Children. (Which I didn’t know how to do.)

Eventually, ABC picked the show up, airing it in March and April. The audience was surprisingly large, more than seventeen million viewers a week. But it wasn’t enough to keep the show alive. Family Man ended its run after seven episodes.

Maybe if I’d used an audience. Maybe if Paul Reiser had starred in it instead. Maybe if I’d mixed my “actually happened” stories with “Andrea thinks Shelly is having an affair.” It doesn’t matter. Though it was done the way I wanted it to be – and there’s nothing more gratifying than that – the bottom line was, it was done.

And when it’s done, there’s only one thing left to say. In the words of that famous manager, concerning the most important word in show business:


karyrogers said...

17 million? These days I'm thinking they would be thrilled with numbers like that.

impworks said...

Personally I find some comedy works better without a laugh track. MASH was shown in the UK without one on the BBC and they had a flood of complaints when they showed an episode with it by mistake. I prefer to decide when to laugh and not be told - and I think its one of the things that had gone wrong with the traditional sitcom

Anyway my personal preference aside would it not be possible to film it without an audience and then record the laughter from a live audience and add it afterward rather than using the bad canned variety laughter?

James said...

It's been a year and a quarter, but I just read this and I keep thinking about it, so I'll ask anyway. Was the idea of taping the show and then presenting it before a studio audience (as you said you screened it), and using That as your audience track, ever considered? For some reason, I thought All In the Family did that near the end of its run: they'd tape it and then run the finished product for an audience, and record the audience's response. The result is a realistic laugh track.

The english show Last Of the Summer Wine does it that way. My only problem with them is that they run the laugh track too loud and it often steps on the dialog, which (because I'm not a Brit) is already hard to follow...