Friday, April 17, 2009

"Why 'Taxi' Was Better"

When people hear that I wrote for Taxi (I wrote nine episodes), they often respond by saying, “Taxi was one of my favorite sitcoms of all time. Why don’t they do shows like Taxi today?”

Sometimes, I think they’re just telling me that to make me feel better. You know, “What you did was better than what they’re doing now, so you shouldn’t feel bad that you’ve been unceremoniously cast aside.”

Eh.

Sometimes, they’re just saying, “I liked the shows they did when I was young, but when you get down to it, I didn’t really like them, I just liked being young.”

Them, I understand.

Sometimes, however, they’re actually saying something about the show. What I hear them saying is that they enjoyed Taxi’s honest and imaginative storytelling and the richly developed characterizations. The bulk of the credit for that belongs to the writers, not me especially – with two exceptions, I didn’t come up with any of the story ideas that became the scripts I wrote – the kudos go primarily to the prodigiously talented Mr. Brooks, Mr. Weinberger and Mr. Daniels. It also didn’t hurt that Taxi had maybe the most talented ensemble of actors ever assembled.

But there was something else.

I believe writing is fundamentally affected by the prevailing technology. I recently tried to explore how creativity was affected by the fact that the authors of the enterprises were writing with a feather. Tethered to so tedious a method of getting things down, not to mention an elaborate and flowing sentence-writing style, I couldn’t (and still can’t) understand how the feather-writers could remember what they were trying to say. I can’t a lot of the times, and I’m writing short sentences quickly. How did those ancient quill pushers pull it off? The answer is,

I don’t know, but they did.

Maybe they had better memories than we do. That happens. People once walked seven miles to town; we’re out of breath going across the street for a paper. When we don’t use them anymore, because of technological advances or other reasons, previously well-honed faculties can atrophy and ultimately disappear, or at least become seriously diminished. Once, storytellers used to sit around a fire and recount entire oral histories. I can barely remember a phone number.

I may have to accept that I may never figure that mystery out.

This one I know. Because I was there.

I know one reason, I think an important one, why Taxi was the show that it was.

Again, aside from the talent involved, it involves the issue of available technology.

Taxi was filmed in what’s called the “three-camera” format, (a format that became the “four-camera” format when they subsequently added a camera). In the “three-camera” technique, all three cameras film the scene at the same time. This results in your having three times as much film as you can actually use (if you do extra “takes”, even more). The final product is achieved by editing the most desirable portions of the filmed material together, resulting in the show you end up seeing on TV.

Taxi, and all other sitcoms filmed in this manner, was filmed in front of a live studio audience, three hundred or so people waiting for hours outside, only to be ushered in to sit on back-spasmly uncomfortable bleacher seats. These were the folks we were contracted to make laugh.

The bleachers are situated a number of feet above the soundstage floor, allowing audience members to see the performance, as the cameras set up in front of them are filming it. This is vitally important. Audiences don’t laugh at performances they are unable to see.

The laughter of the studio audience is essential. It energizes the performers, and allows the writers to feel successful, hugging each other triumphantly at the completion of “show night”, rather than going out and shooting themselves. You can’t have that. Writers are notoriously bad shots. They may well miss and accidentally take out a departing audience member whose only crime was not laughing enough.

“Audiences don’t laugh at performances they are unable to see.”

That’s the whole thing right there. Think back to what film was. A spool of shiny brownish material with sprocket holes down the sides. Film was the medium on which the show was recorded. Unlike “digital”, where you can see what you’ve just shot immediately, with film, that’s not possible. To see what’s on the film, you have to send the footage to Fotomat or someplace, and get it developed.

What did this mean specifically to Taxi? Because Taxi was shot on “pre digital” film, there were no immediately generated pictures for the audience to watch on the monitors. Their only access to the performances was the performance itself.

Lacking that “digital” advantage, Taxi was prevented from doing scenes performed on sets set up behind other sets. The studio audience might be able to hear the performance, but they wouldn’t be able to see it. Suddenly, they’re at a radio show.

You notice on Seinfeld? Due to digital technology, Seinfeld was able to build sets where the audience couldn’t see the scenes directly, but they were still able to watch and laugh at those scenes by looking at the monitors. This allowed them to build considerably more sets, which, in turn, initiated an entirely different style of storytelling.

Without digital technology, Taxi also couldn’t, as Seinfeld could, go out onto the “New York street” – actually a standing set at Studio Center, California – shoot an exterior scene, and show it later that week to a live audience watching on the monitor. Why not? No time to develop the film, no monitor.

What was Taxi restricted to, besides the garage set and maybe one other interior location?

Words

characterization

and storytelling.

That’s all they had to work with. A minimum number of (necessarily longer) scenes, in a limited number of locations. What held people’s attention? The writing and the acting.

I’m not against advancing technology. I don’t know how to use it, but I’m not against it. The hope is that we remember the good parts of what did – parts in no way precluded by technological progress – and not allow them to disappear.

21 comments:

A. Buck Short said...

A show called “Taxi,” and 5 years without an on-camera car chase or pile-up. I don’t even remember an overturned fruit cart. Amazing! Could have knocked me over with a quill. And that Judd Hirsch was sure easy on the eyes. Oh wait, that was Danny DeVito. No wait, that was Christopher Lloyd. OK, Marilu Henner.

growingupartists said...

I don't see how writing with a feather has to do with memory. Either they were copying straight out of the few books they owned, or were writing passionate love letters, friendly letters, or political ideas.

Passion, not memories.

growingupartists said...

Ah ha, the immediate gratification of digital media takes away from the overall trust and community spirit. I suppose a lot more listening is involved with film, and it delays and stretches out your bosses wrath, very powerful motivator.

Again, I blame the Hollywood egos, who are the actors. They should have researched this difference, and work harder to live it. Why you're not at the head of this industry Earl, I'll never understand.

Instead, we have a society of complainers battling with the "good enoughs". Only good thing to come out of this realization is that Palin's standard setting doesn't need to be limited to the anti-abortion crowd. It will be, but the Democrats can do better.

Artists love God too.

growingupartists said...

Oh, and I thought of something regarding Canadians and your strange speech patterns. My friend Trina always says rezource, forgoing the 's' for a z. As I heard it for the millionth time and didn't make fun of her (quite the exercise) I thought, maybe it's a spiritual thing.

You know, like resources come from God, obviously. But to put the 's' right up front is kinda well, serpentine, and so the 'z' is favored.

Oh, and process, instead of prahcess. Process is proactive, prahcess, everything lands conveniently in our ungrateful laps. Gimme more, Earl.

diane said...

You just expressed, more eloquently, why I've generally enjoyed older movies, too. While I appreciate special effects, my favorite movies are those that tell a good story and have interesting, engaging characters.

thevidiot said...

As an editor, I can agree that there is a lot of truth in what you say. When we pre-shoot scenes for the audience to watch and react to (because of effects or location), the laughs are always less than the scenes performed in front of them.

I worked on a show that preshot all but two scenes so that the producer could get home by 9. Those two scenes always got more response than the other 15-17 minutes of playback.

The worst thing that producer could do was start the show off with a playback - the Cold Opening and Scene A on tape for example. The audience did not come to watch TV... they came to watch their favorite stars act.

Just my $0.2 cents worth!

Ger Apeldoorn said...

There is an internal reason why a show like Taxi couldn't be made today (and why I love it so much). Taxi was in fact the last show about people who didn't get to live their dreams. Cheers was about losers as well, but with Taxi it was even the theme of the show. That you CAN'T always get what you want. You don't even get what you need. You learn to live whith what you've got. Since then every film and every television show is ony about giving people so-called hope. Hope that they can make their dreams come true. And even though it is probably true that you have a better chnce of seeing your dreams come true if you believe that is possible, the lare majority of people don't see their dreams come true. So how positve is it to give them hope? Still, people want to see hope, so that is what they get. These days, exclusively. There is not a movie or a television show that doesn't sell he message that dreams can come true. It also happens to be the message that creates the most customers for the advertisers, so that's a bonus. xi took another road and tought people acceptance and the comfort of friends. It didn't tell people to give up trying, but not by artificially creating win situations. In fact, I believe on Taxi nobody ever won anything.

D. McEwan said...

The statement "Taxi had maybe the most talented ensemble of actors ever assembled" should emphasize that "maybe". I would say it had AN extremely talented ensemble of actors, plus Tony Danza.

"Ger Apeldoorn said...
Taxi was in fact the last show about people who didn't get to live their dreams."

Ah Ger, did you forget ROSEANNE? Did you forget CHEERS?

Interesting column and excellent overall point. My thanks to KL for referring my attention to it.

Edward Copeland said...

I know this isn't really on the subject at hand, but another thing about the comedies today that drive me crazy (and why I can't watch any new ones with laughtracks or audiences) is that they make every laugh sound like the exact same laugh. Back on shows from the 70s such as Taxi, there were little jokes, huge jokes, etc., and the laughs followed accordingly. Now, the laughs are as robotic as the shows themselves.

bevo said...

I have stopped watching comedies because they are no longer funny. They are derivative.

Ger Apeldoorn: If you enjoy shows about characters who do not get what they want, then check out Venture Brothers. The first three seasons are available on DVD. Every character is a loser. It is one of the few shows I catch during its broadcast run.

WhitneyD said...

D. McEwan said... Ah Ger, did you forget ROSEANNE? Did you forget CHEERS?I have to agree with Ger (who addressed Cheers right after the quote you pulled). While Roseanne was in fact about losers... that final season left such a bitter taste in my mouth with its abrupt change of fortune and gimmick ending, that it pretty much wiped away any memory of being a great show.

Of course, of more recent shows about losers, there's also Malcolm in the Middle. Though, not being taped in front of an audience- it pushes it into a difference niche.

Blaze said...

There are scads of "comedies" about losers. "Office" to name the king of the manure pile. Only these modern losers are not lovable and not sympathetic. We are not sharing their troubles, we are only watching to sneer coldly and mock their awkward and pathetic existence. And that's a difference that makes me turn the channel.

Anonymous said...

One of the two finest shows ever to be ripped off from a Harry Chapin song...

Anonymous said...

that's ridiculous. if they shoot a sit-com style scene and show it to the audience a week later, the actors would have to pause for the "audience" to laugh, so you'd get a track with a bunch of awkward silences after each "joke" (like that episode of '8 simple rules' where they were having that guy's funeral).

If you already have all the pauses there, why not just mix some pre-recorded laugh track in? what can the audience add to that? it's not like it was actually funny anyway. There's a reason why it has a laugh track in the first place; because people don't actually laugh out loud at this shit.

thevidiot said...

Actually, some actors needed help with the pauses during pre-shots so several shows that I worked on hired "laughers" to sit in the audience (20 or so people) to give them the responses so that they would leave room.

When you play the scene back, you do get some unique laughs that helps it sound like we're not using the same canned laugh all of the time. Those 20 people get covered up with the rest of the audience (hopefully).

Another show that I worked on did not leave the room for the laughs and then the trouble was in squeezing in a laugh that didn't "step on" the next line. Painful!

estiv said...

Excellent post, and dead right. As you may well know, this is an idea that has actually been around a long time--that making the technical part of creative work easier does not free up the creative people to do better work, it just makes them a little lazy.

To take an example from music: which Bob Dylan albums were better, the ones from the early sixties where he wrote at home and then was in the studio performing solo for a few hours to produce the final product, or the ones from the eighties where he had endless time and multiple collaborators? In the early ones he was a genius relying on his own innate skills; in the later ones a star with nearly infinite options. The results speak for themselves.

To be fair, in later years he seemed to figure out a good balance between the two, but it didn't happen easily.

Ger Apeldoorn said...

as to the point of actors giving a better peformance in front of a live audience, I have to say that from the few times I attended tapings and watched the shows afterwards, I got the impression that a lot of the timing was in fact created by the editor. Whole pauses were added if the actor rushed through a line. But I guess the avarage is higher when you have a life audience and also, having three tapes to choose from makes it at least possible to create a new (and better) timing. All this depends on the talent of the editor, but I am talking about the likes of the Cheers editor who later directed Seinfeld. He really knew what he was doing.

D. McEwan said...

"WhitneyD said...
While Roseanne was in fact about losers... that final season left such a bitter taste in my mouth with its abrupt change of fortune and gimmick ending, that it pretty much wiped away any memory of being a great show."

I don't dispute for one second that the final season of ROSEANNE was ghastly beyond belief, one CAN just choose to accept it as ending one season earlier, because it did not erase the many seasons of great show that ran before it, and it certainly didn't invalidate my point that it was a show that was not about people who got to live their dreams. (Remember that that horrible final season was supposed to be a story Roseanne had written, and that, "in reality," Dan was dead and they were still losers. Their final point, apparently, was that Roseanne was a lousy writer.

"Blaze said...
There are scads of "comedies" about losers. 'Office' to name the king of the manure pile. Only these modern losers are not lovable and not sympathetic."

Actually, I find most of the characters on THE OFFICE (though not Dwight Shroot or Creed obviously) to be quite loveable and sympathetic. I'd MUCH rather spend time with Jim and Pam than any incarnation of Roseanne.

thevidiot said...

Editors DO make a lot of moments - hopefully better, but you don't always have the ability to "open up" a moment for the larger laugh it might deserve. The editor/director you mentioned is a friend of mine and is VERY good at what he does but you are limited by the material you have to work with.

As a very general rule, the actors tend to "light up" in front of a real audience and that is often the best performance, but a lot of what we do today cannot be done in front of an audience - it might involve fire, a dangerous animal, or hour upon hour of work to make something work. Those scenes and others that the producers deem unimportant enough to shoot before the audience must be preshot and may lose some spontaneity in the process.

Ya win some... ya lose some!

Enzo said...

Earl,

One specific laugh in many of the Taxi episodes stands out. Guffaw?..maybe. The laugh is heard more directly as "OHH". It's very prominent in the season two episode entitled "Race Off". I know James L. Brooks has a quite distinctive laugh, as showcased most brilliantly as a audience spectator on MTM. Can you verify this is indeed Brooks in the Taxi audience?

Anonymous said...

Hi,

the "laugh" from someone in the audience that appears often in the Taxi episodes, the one that is very distinct and the one you are probably familiar with, whose laugh is that? is it an audience member that got tickets to almost every episode or someone from the staff?
Thanks