When you sat in the bleachers as an audience member watching the filming of an episode of Taxi you were faced with several impediments to your enjoyment due to technological advancements that had not yet advanced.
First, though the gallery was raised – the first row, maybe five feet above the soundstage floor, the half-dozen rows of seats rising incrementally from there – it was still difficult to see the actors over the intervening (three, and later, four) pedestalled cameras that were covering them. A lot of times, you went home with a lasting recollection of the cameramen’s backs. Along with fleeting glimpses of the cast. You could hear just fine – overhead microphones amplifying the voices, but sometimes, you could see, and sometimes you couldn’t. And I’m not talking about people with bad eyes. I’m talking about everybody. People with bad eyes just saw what little you could catch sight of blurrier.
The problem was, there were no, as there would be later, overhanging monitors for the audience to look at instead of the obstructed view of the stage. Why? Because Taxi was shot on film and um, well – fumpher, fumpher, covering a screaming deficit in technological know-how – you cannot see – and therefore not transmit via a monitor – the images on the film you’ve been shooting, because those images are invisible until you send the footage to Fotomat and have the developed product returned to you a number of later.
Short answer – when you are filming, there is nothing immediate to show.
Unable to see most of the action, what the studio audience laughed at was pretty much what they were hearing. Inevitably, this led to scripts being written in almost one hundred percent “verbal mode”, giving the audience the experience of attending, more or less, a radio show with cameras.
Clever dialogue was the Order of the Day. Physical comedy was at a minimum (with the exception of Lucy, which I don’t know how they did it), as were subtle facial reactions. You can see how that would influence the writing – what you put in and what the technological limitations encouraged you to leave out. You were working with a palette of virtually one color – and that color was words.
The “Swing Set” scenes were even harder for the audience to see, as they were situated in the remote recesses of the soundstage, the bulk of the stage occupied by the oversized, used-every-week “Standing Sets.” No matter how funny those “Swing Set” scenes were, they invariably garnered weaker laughs, due to an inadequate connection between the audience and the actors.
It was understandable. The “Standing Set” scenes were in front of them; the “Swing Set” scenes were in Wyoming.
Things changed via incremental technological steps. First, there was the “Video Assist” arrangement, whereby video cameras were affixed to the top of each film camera. Unlike film, you can see what’s on videotape right away. (Don’t ask me why.) These video cameras were, somehow, then connected to monitors, four or so of which, were suspended in front of the audience.
Now they could actually see what was going on. From a writing standpoint, “Video Assist” provided the opportunity for more nuanced writing, many laughs now coming from subtle facial reactions that would have been undetectable to the audience before the “Video Assist” process came along.
Now that they were available, it was not unusual for many members of the audience to watch the show almost entirely on the monitors, which made me wonder why they had bothered to show up when they could do the same thing at home when the show was on television.
The next step was the “Digital Revolution.” Again, don’t ask me how, but with “digital”, looking at the monitors, you could see everything the cameras were shooting. No more dead “Swing Set” scenes shot in obscure corners of the soundstage, which, in turn, created an increased enthusiasm for writing them, when before, it was, “Do we really want to put all our energies into a scene they’re never going to laugh at?”
“Digital” also allowed for outdoor shooting, something film shows almost never did, because of the economics, and because the outside footage could not possibly be processed and edited in time to present it to the studio audience on show night.
(Seinfeld took particular advantage of outdoor shooting, their “New York Street” – actually a standing outdoor set close to Seinfeld’s soundstage in Studio City, California – becoming virtually another character on the show.)
Today, the majority of comedies, such as Modern Family and Parks and Recreation, are filmed “digitally” with a single camera (and no audience), a process, which, prior to “digital”, was almost entirely abandoned (the exception being M*A* S*H), because of its prohibitive expense.
“Digital” filming allows writers to make little weekly, half-hour movies, the advanced technology providing a flow and an expanded storytelling range unavailable to old-time TV writers such as myself. Compared to them, we were cavemen chiseling pictures onto a rock.
So why then do many of today’s writers and noted sitcom afficionados revere the “quality” work that we did – the “Golden Age of Comedy”, blah, blah, blah?
If this is indeed the case, the explanation, I believe, lies in the fact that we made the fullest use of our “low tech” availabilities.
Better storytelling. Richer characters.
Can you have both? Or course you can. You just have to remember that technology is a tool, not an end in itself. And it might help to include, as consultants, writers who were required to do things another way.
Not mentioning any names, but a lot of us are available.