I thought it was just me. (But that’s nothing new. I always think it’s just me.)
Pilot Season – 1981.
Rehearsals for the first series I had ever created (Best of the West) had gone smoothly. The reading got laughs. The actors we’d selected lived comfortably up to expectation. The rewrites during “Production Week” were not substantial.
I had made certain guesses about what would be funny, and they were generally paying off. It appeared like I actually knew what I was doing. (Despite the fact that, to the concern of my bosses, much of the script’s comedy emanated directly from the situational “moment” rather than, as was traditional in sitcoms, from setups and punch lines, which was good, because I have little or no aptitude for setups and punch lines.)
On the Wednesday evening before the Friday “Shoot Night” (when the pilot would be filmed), we had what they call a “Camera Rehearsal.” In order to reduce the possibility of mistakes, the cameramen (running three cameras, all filming at the same time) were given an extra opportunity to go through their moves, rolling the massive machinery from one pre-marked-by-masking-tape position to the next as the action played out in front of them. You noticed those “marks” on the floor indicating where to go next, and it looked like a remedial school for hopeless dancers.
“Forget about the steps. Just move your feet to the next mark.”
The cameramen were amazing. They had to learn dozens of moves in an extremely short time. I don’t know how they did it. Probably because they were professionals.
“Normally, we move furniture. Today, it’s television cameras.”
It was nothing like that. They did one thing. And they did it impeccably.
It was decided that we would bring in an audience to watch the camera rehearsal. A live audience would give the actors a chance to find out where the laughs were, and would energize their performance. Nobody “phones it in” when people are watching. One of them could be considering them for their next job.
I do not recall where the audience came from. Some of them were members of the show’s office staff. Others were low-level network and studio employees. Some were… I don’t know. Better that disclaimer than theoretical conjecture. I just know the bleachers were three-quarters full…of somebody.
And I also know this.
The Wednesday run-through was “through the roof.”
Everything worked. The actors were “letter perfect”, their timing and delivery thrillingly “on the money.” As a result, the laughs came loud and long and often, sometimes accompanied by applause. And then it pinballed. The more they responded, the better the actors performed, flying on the fumes of audience acceptance.
Even a pessimist like me had trouble finding something to complain about. Of course, I managed. I was sorry the Wednesday show had not occurred on the actual “Show Night.” Everyone else was elated. Truth be told, though I didn’t show it, so was I.
The next day, there was another camera rehearsal, but without an audience.
And it was….
The energy was down. The timing was off. The confidence-level diminished.
And the shock set in.
Maybe the show wasn’t funny after all. Maybe Wednesday had been just a fluke. It was a stomach-churning feeling. The pilot would be filmed the next night. And nobody knew if it was great or an enormous stinkeroo.
Then, on “Show Night”, the “magic” mercifully returned. About eighty-two percent of it. The audience seemed to really appreciate what they saw. Of course, they had not witnessed the “Miracle Of Wednesday Evening.”
The abiding question is, “Wha’ hoppin’?”
Wednesday – “Brilliant!” Thursday – “Death.” Friday – a resurgent “Very Good.” (Good enough to get us picked up as a series.)
At the time,
I thought it was just me.
And then I read Mary And Lou And Rhoda And Ted, by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, a book chronicling the trials and triumphs of the all-time classic, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. A show the network originally hated.
Check this out.
CBS had asked the producers to stage a preliminary taping, and a lot was riding on it. The network wanted the producers to test some new cameras, and the run-through would also allow them to prove that their pilot was better than executives thought it would be.
Sometimes what works in rehearsal doesn’t connect with the audience… Nary a chuckle escaped the bleachers, and the less the audience reacted, the less sure the actors were… Post-show polling indicated that Rhoda…was indeed universally hated. Phyllis, also, was “too abrasive”, according to audience feedback. Mr. Grant didn’t fare better; he came off as humorless and bullying when he grilled Mary about her religion and marital status at her job interview, then ended by telling her, “I hate spunk!”
That was the Wednesday rehearsal. And then on “Show Night”…
This time, the audience roared… The atmosphere lightened like it was filling with helium, taking the studio up higher and higher.
Mr. Grant asked her about her religion and marital status; the audience laughed this time. “You know what?” Asner finally said as Mr. Grant. “You’ve got spunk.” Mary nodded in agreement, then he delivered the punchline, “I hate spunk!”
Asner saw the audience take off like a guided missile…
Two performances – two reactions; one – “outhouse”; the other – “penthouse.”
How does that happen?
I am not at all certain.
But the good news is…
It didn’t just happen to me.