Thanks for your comments on “Why ‘Taxi’ Was Better.” Your feedback allows me to track your interest, and gives me a chance to use a post to respond, which permits me a bit of a break, while also providing me with the opportunity to use “allows me”, “gives me a chance to”, “permits me to” and “providing me with the opportunity to” in the same sentence.” Whoo-hoo.
Also a thanks to Ken Levine for letting people know I’m here. Always a help.
Comedians depend on audience laughter to tell them what’s funny. (Current single-camera showrunners seem to think they already know what’s funny, excluding the audience from the process, who, going by the ratings, return the favor by not watching their shows.)
Iconic comedian George Burns was the co-star The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, which aired on TV in the fifties after a successful run on radio. Like most sitcoms of its day, Burns and Allen was filmed single-camera, like a movie. A single camera films the same scene again and again from different angles and with different compositions – “establishing” shots (establishing the location of the scene), close-ups, “two-shots” (two actors in the shot), etc. Then they move on to the next scene and repeat the process, until they’ve completed filming the entire episode.
Filming each episode took two or three days. (By contrast, an episode of Taxi could be filmed in less than three hours.) You can obviously see why the single-camera technique is not appropriate for a live studio audience. They’d have to endure watching the same scenes being filmed over and over during a two or three-day period. Who can sit that long? People get hungry.
So, no audience for single-camera filmings. But then, whither the laugher? Radio shows had laughter. Audiences were invited in to watch performers recording the shows. Accompanying laughter became a tradition. Executives insisted it was a necessity. Otherwise, they believed, the audience wouldn’t know the show was funny. (Hence, the laugh track on M*A*S*H, though no one ever explained exactly who it was that was laughing.)
Most early half-hours starred actors rather than comedians, people like Donna Reed, Fred MacMurray and whoever starred in My Little Margie. Most of them had movie actor experience, making them comfortable with the movie-style single-camera technique. They were happy not to have to face a live audience (they weren’t used to it). Plus, single-camera filming required them only to learn the lines for the scene they were filming, rather than having to memorize the entire script, as is required when, like on Taxi, filming the entire episode during a live-audience performance. (No show I worked on ever used cue cards.)
Movie actors needed the protection provided by the single-camera approach. Comedians need to hear the laughs. That’s why Lucy, or more precisely Desi, devised a system (which became the three-camera technique), where you ran three cameras at the same time, accelerating the process, and allowing the inclusion of a live studio audience. Lucy heard the immediate response, which undoubtedly bolstered her confidence and energized her performance, allowing her to stuff more candies into her blouse..
George Burns used a different approach (possibly because his co-star wife, Gracie, was extremely shy). Burns filmed Burns and Allen without an audience. But he invited an audience in afterwards, to view the finished product, having their live laughs recorded while they watched the show. In this way, Burns could deliver flesh-and-blood laughter, having tested his comedy in front of actual human beings.
This process provided a tricky challenge for Burns and Allen’s editor.
The editor was responsible for assembling the show together for the audience screening. Required to leave space after every joke so the audience’s laughter could fit in, the editor had to determine the length of that space, by ascertaining, at least in his judgment, the funniness of each joke. This was an extremely delicate calibration, resulting in his leaving either leave too much space after a joke, or not enough.
Not enough space caused the laugh to spill over into the following line of dialogue, making it difficult for the audience watching at home to hear it. Too much space – the joke got a smaller laugh than the editor thought it would – left echoing holes of silence, crippling the pace of the entire production. Either way, the editor knew one thing. Mr. Burns was not going to be happy.
I myself faced a similar challenge. I did the show Family Man without an audience. For justifiable reasons, but it didn’t matter, I made a mistake. When I viewed it without a laugh track, the show felt like a soap opera. When I added a “tastefully administered” laugh track, it sounded like a subdued comedy with muffled ha-ha.
However, when I later screened two episodes of Family Man in front of volunteers from the Universal Tour, and they laughed their heads off, I realized one, the show was actually quite funny, and two, I should have done it in front of a live studio audience. Of course, by then, Family Man was history.
Here are a scattering, or smattering – your choice – of other facts on the subject, mentioned elsewhere in the blog, but gathered together, serving as a “cheat sheet” for your “laugh track” take-home exam.
Laughter recorded from a live studio audience sounds “canned” even when it isn’t. Why? Because the recording system is, I believe the technical word for it is crappy, making actual laughs sound otherworldly and fake.
The other reason is – and you’ll have to take my word for this – jokes and comedic situations are exponentially funnier when you’re witnessing them in person. That’s why the studio audience is still cracking up, while you’re at home going, “I’m finished with that. Move on.”
Trust me. It’s funnier when you’re there.
The following is true of the shows I was fortunate enough to work on. Other shows, I have no idea.
Laugh-machine laughs are not only injected when a joke fails to get the expected response. (More likely when it doesn’t work, the failed joke is edited out of the show.) Laughs are added when the second or third or the twenty-third “take” of a performance is used in the final version, and the audience finished laughing a considerable number of “takes” earlier. Machine laughs are also employed when a large “cut” is made, and a synthesized “blend” is needed to wallpaper over the gap.
Sometimes, the laugh from the first “take” – when the material was still fresh to the audience – is cut out, and inserted after the “take” that ultimately gets used. Only when that’s not possible is “canned” laughter resorted to. (I was told that the machine’s laughs were lifted from shows recorded decades earlier. When I was a warm-up man, I used this information as an encouragement for the audience to go all out. “Getting an inadequate response will require us to use that old laugh track, and if we do, people watching might recognize the laughter of relative who is currently dead. So if you don’t want to make strangers cry, laugh really hard.”)
I hope that covers the subject for you. If it doesn’t, keep asking questions. Ask about anything. I’ll be happy to respond. It’s fun to write about whatever comes to my mind, but once in a while, “interactive” feels really good.