Tuesday, October 9, 2012

"The Studio Audience"

Continuing my recent more sanguine approach to remembering my career – wait!  I’m not sure that’s the right word – hold on while I look it up… Okay, “sanguine” – cheerfully optimistic; hopefully confident – no, that’s not it.  Maybe it’ll come to me later.  I was trying for something on the positive side of the ledger, but “sanguine” is way too upbeat.  I have never been “cheerfully optimistic” about anything.

But looking back, I would be remiss if I did not shine a adulatory light of praise on the studio audiences that would make the effort to come see our shows.  Once, a contingent of Marines made up about a third of the audience for the Major Dad pilot.  It was unquestionably their enthusiastic response that night that contributed to selling the series.  So a big Oo-rah to “The Few and the Proud.”

Okay, so hours before the filming (or, often in the old days, the videotaping) of an episode, there would be a line of prospective audience members snaking along the  outside the studio, waiting to get in.  These are regular people.  The V.I.P’s and cast invitees would be ushered in directly.

There were a couple of hundred seats in the gallery.  The V.I.P. seats were taped off with masking tape with the V.I.P’s names printed on them.  Many of these seats were invariably still empty at show time, and were then filled with “nobodies.”  Thank you, “nobodies”, for actually showing up. 

Sometimes, the gallery would be fully occupied, and even though you’d waited, possibly for hours, you still didn’t get in.  The studio always distributed more tickets than available seats, in case some people decided to imitate the V.I.P’s and say they’d be coming, and then not.  The studio was unwilling to take chances on a not-full “house”, so they regularly overbooked the seating, knowing that when tickets are free, sometimes people will not bother to use them.  Or they do use them, but it’s to pry stuck spinach out from between their teeth.

What I’ve been discussing so far is shows people wanted to see, which meant shows familiar to the audience, because they were already on the air.  With new shows, especially new shows with no recognizable stars in them, it is considerably harder to fill the seats.  Professional companies must be contracted to wrangle audiences for such shows.  The results of these efforts, unfortunately, vary. 

More than once I’ve had audiences bused in from Senior Homes.  I have nothing against Seniors – I happen to be one myself – but many Senior Homes, like Sorority Houses, have curfews, and there were occasions when, at a specified time, the Seniors were required to get up and leave, even though the filming had not yet been completed.  The Seniors would be very apologetic, but, they would explain, their hands were tied.  You got on the bus, or you missed your ride home.

Besides the long waits outside, often in winter downpours, studio audiences also had to endure being crowded into rows of seats, often without backs, having their views blocked by the cameras (this was before the technology had advanced to provide viewing via overhead monitors), and suffering through extended filming sessions, that, for technical reasons or actors who would keep forgetting their lines, could drag on for hours.

In my view, the audiences who put up with these difficulties were heroes.  Necessary heroes.  Audience laughter energized the actors, motivating them to bring their “best game” to the proceedings.  You could feel the audience’s encouragement giving the actors a lift.  As a Warm-up Man, I would never forget to remind them how important they were.  In basketball parlance, the audience was our indispensible “Sixth Man.”

(I once did a show without an audience called Family Man.  The actors never knew if what they were doing was working.  Later, when we screened two completed shows in front of a live audience, the episodes were rapturously received.  Unfortunately, there is no such thing as energizing actors retroactively.)

(I also informed the audience that a sparsity of laughter on their part would trigger the need for a supplementing “laugh track”, and that that “laugh track” had been recorded decades earlier during an episode of I Love Lucy.  This meant that many of the people cackling away on the “laugh track” were currently no longer with us.  I informed the audience that if they did not want to risk making some viewers at home sad when they caught the sound of their dead relatives laughing on television, they should make sure to react loudly enough, so that the addition of the “laugh track” would not be necessary.)

The audiences that attended the shows I worked on were generally wonderful.  It was almost as if they had a personal investment in the show they had come to see, like the show was, somehow, family.  If the show was already a hit, the studio audience would often laugh much louder than many of the jokes deserved, rewarding the show for its overall success (if not for the success of that particular joke.)  If it was a fledgling show trying to make it, the audience treated it like a lost puppy, clutching it to their collective bosoms, and nurturing it to health and vitality until – as in cases like Cheers, which, during its first season, ranked last in the ratings – it finally gained strength, and could make it on its own.

Sometimes, for various reasons, a joke needed to be reshot.  In such cases, the audience was always encouraged to laugh as hard as they had the first time.  They didn’t.  Very often, they laughed harder.  And if the joke had to be reshot a third time, they laughed harder still.  You’d never imagine an audience of “civilians” being biz troupers, but that’s exactly what they were.  They’d do whatever it took to help the show. 

On the “down” side, the audience consistently laughed the loudest at sex jokes, or more accurately, sex innuendo jokes.  I hate those jokes.  Even though, sometimes, I allowed them, because they work.  Still, every time the audience went nuts, I would always turn my head up to the chortling galleryites and say, “Shame on you!”  (It occurred to me just now that I was actually speaking to myself.)

Studio audiences were also the dutiful products of decades of conditioning; you crossed their expectations and you mercilessly paid the price.  I once wrote a script where the adult star of the show was defeated in a tense chess match against a precocious twelve year-old boy, and the studio audience, as one, went “Awww.”  I wanted the kid to beat the star; the audience wanted the star to beat the kid.  The audience won, and I went home that night with a stinging “Awww” ringing in my ears. 

This last observation is in no way their fault, but because of their presence, the success or failure of the filmed episode was judged entirely by the studio audience’s reaction.  The result was a focusing more on the two hundred people in the studio audience, rather than the tens of millions watching at home. 

It is, I don’t know, a chemically different experience watching a show when you’re actually there than it is watching the same show sitting in your living room.  There are certain kinds of jokes, or moments, that explode when you’re in the arena where they’re taking place, while, at home, the reaction to the same material is ho-hum.  Also, studio audiences – especially those without the benefit of monitors to watch the close-ups – do not respond enthusiastically to subtlety.
That’s why the jokes written for “audience” shows (The Big Bang Theory, Two Broke Girls, for example) are punchline “hard”, while the writing for “non-audience” shows (Modern Family, Parks and Recreation) are more quiet and nuanced.  (Not being a natural joke writer, I might actually have done better with the current formats.  If I were fluent with the references.)
A live audience was a mixed blessing.  It adrenalized the performers, but it influenced, not always in a good way, the way you were required to write.  Still, I felt a visceral thrill when the audience started filing in.  And I was especially grateful when they stayed till the end. 
Had I not been working on them, in some cases at least, I am not sure I would not have taken off with the Seniors.
Sorry, I never did come up with what I really meant when I said I had recently become more “sanguine” about my career.  But that’s what’s great about blog writing.  You get another shot at it tomorrow. 
Wait!  More “positively disposed”?
Not quite. 

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