Thursday, June 18, 2009

"Why Some Episodes Play Better On Television Than They Did In Front Of A Live Studio Audience, And Vice Versa"

Meaning, “Why Some Episodes Play Less Well On Television Than They Did In Front Of A Live Studio Audience.” Maybe that’s not “vice versa”, maybe that’s the converse. Or the obverse. I don’t know. Can I just get started here? Thank you.

I’ll do the second one first:

Why Some Episodes Play Less Well On Television Than They Did In Front Of A Live Studio Audience:

You had a magical “show night” – “show night” being the night you film the episode in front of the audience. Everything worked. The audience went nuts. The jokes got huge laughs, and the moments you hoped would be funny were ecstatically “through the roof.”

Everyone’s delighted. Executives are actually smiling at writers. The show runners are riding such a euphoric high, they don’t even bother with drugs. That’s how well it went.

Two weeks later, you watch the episode on television.

And it’s just…not there.

It’s a very strange experience. An episode that seemed “better than perfect” on “show night” comes off stunningly disappointing. Most painfully, those “through the roof” comedy moments are now considerably less funny, confusing viewers at home, the laughter recorded from the “live” studio audience appearing bewilderingly unearned.

“Why are they laughing so hard? It’s not that funny.”

This leads to the suspicion that an enhancing “laugh track” must have been involved.

The show’s participants feel demoralized and perplexed. Where did the “funny” go? Where’s the excitement? What happened to that exhilarating “show night” they’d celebrated with such satisfaction and pride?

Had they somehow been mistaken? Was the episode not as good as they thought it was? Were those explosions of laughter some desperate form of “ear hypnosis”? They wanted to hear them so they did?


At least, not usually. (And what the heck is “ear hypnosis”?)

I will now try to explain this phenomenon.

Starting with this.

Before Conan, there was Jay, and before Jay, there was Johnny. Johnny hosted The Tonight Show, accompanied by a chortling sidekick, and a kick-ass jazz band, fronted by “Doc” Severinsen.

Anyone who watched back then will remember this. “Doc’s” band would entertain The Tonight Show’s studio audience during commercial breaks, the viewing audience hearing only the end of their performance, as the break segued back into the show. When the music ended, Johnny shouted, “How ‘bout that band!” – it became almost a cliché – and the audience would roar their approval.

You’d sit there at home and wonder, “Why are they cheering so hard? They weren’t that good.”

The thing is, they were.

Why didn’t you feel it at home?

Because you had to be there.

(I attended The Tonight Show once; that’s how I know. The band was an energizing delight. But you had to be there. Minus the adrenaline-pumping sensation of “being at The Tonight Show”, and stuck with substandard television speakers, you didn’t come close to that electrifying experience watching at home.)

Same thing with the “show night” episode.

“Being there” makes all the difference. Sharing the same space, breathing the same oxygen, with gifted performers right in front of you, dazzling you with delight? There’s nothing else like it. (I’ve got to write about the “theater experience” some day.)

I personally enjoyed a handful of such unforgettable moments, moments when the audience exploded over something I’d written. One of them occurred on Best of the West, when we did a “runner” – you do the same set-up three times, the third time ending in a hopefully hilarious twist. The “runner” was called, “The Milk Trick.”

“The Milk Trick” is primarily a physical “bit”, and it would take a better writer than myself to do it justice on paper. I will only say that on “show night”, “The Milk Trick” could not have worked better. On television? Still good. But not even close.

In certain ways, a magical “show night” can actually make a successful finished product less likely.

Here’s how.

A broadcast episode has an invariable, network-mandated length. You get prolonged laughs on “show night”, and the episode stretches. I’ve known episodes that were close to a third too long. These episodes then had to be edited down to “time.”

This involves some tricky decisions. It’s only natural to want to hold onto the episode’s funniest moments. But a lot of times they’re peripheral to the plot.

What then do you cut? You cut, or at least cut down, the exposition and the continuity. Also at risk are the underpinnings that set the comedy up. What happens then? Duh. The funny parts, less carefully prepared for, are no longer as funny.

“Editing for time” also hinders the natural flow of the storytelling. Struggling to retain the comedic highpoints, the episode can evolve into a compilation of “greatest hits”, becoming choppy, and losing its shape. An episode once deemed “better than perfect” can, when finished, feel disjointed and ultimately unsatisfying.

On the other hand, episodes, lacking those time-stretching “big laughs”, tend to play more smoothly in your house (and better than they did in front a perhaps attentive but less vocal studio audience.) Though admittedly less hilarious, there’s something rewarding about a story that takes time to connect the necessary story dots, from its premise, through its complications, to its natural, though hopefully surprising, resolution. Consciously or unconsciously, it’s an ultimately happier experience.

Are there episodes that play spectacularly both before the studio audience and on the air? Absolutely. Are there episodes that play badly in front of an audience as equally as badly at home? Sadly, yes. Could I just be making excuses, ‘cause I’m a better story structurer than a joke writer? There’s always that.

But the situation described happens often enough that I thought it was worth examining.

I wish you had been there that night. “The Milk Trick”, in front of an audience?

“Through the roof.”


A. Buck Short said...

Without the full John Philip Sousa experience, that's why the Spanish American War was such a dud for those of us reading about it at home -- even with the killer Hearst warm-up.

JED said...

I enjoyed this story. To me it points out the magic of what you and the other television and movie artists do.

Could part of the difference between how the live audience reacts and how it plays on TV be from the fact that the studio audience sees everything while the TV audience only sees what the camera lets them see? We miss the off-screen action.

I suppose that is part of what you said about the editing affecting the show. The editors are the final arbiters of what we see at home.

Thank you, Earl.

MikeThe Blogger said...

Similar story: "studio audience" vs "TV audience". My wife loves figure skating - she competed as a youngster up to the Provincial level. So when she retired I purchased tickets to five days of an international Skate Canada competition. (I learned a lot and came to respect the athletes. Still think Sasha Cohen was the most beautiful female skater) Anyway, the ticket holders get to attend the daily practices. You can watch the competitors rehearse and perfect their programs. Jeffrey Buttle would try and try one move but kept falling, however in the competition he hit the jump - the live audience went wild. Anyone watching on TV would not know why there was such a big hand for this ordinary move.