Friday, July 8, 2016

"Hearing The 'Ha'Ha'"

A while back, when I was talking about the triumphant return of “single-camera” comedies to television, another story came to mind that I decided to write about.

That’s the way it works around here.  You already heard the story, you didn’t – I just keep talking.  Like a car whose existential reality is confirmed by its exhaust  emissions. 

“I spew toxic gases; therefore I am.”

So here we go.  If I repeat myself, it is not because I’m forgetful.  It’s because I can’t stop.

I met this veteran film editor once – I no longer remember the circumstances – who in the course of our conversation revealed that he had edited the 1950’s sitcom The George Burns And Gracie Allen Show.

Like virtually all the situation comedies of the day, The George Burns And Gracie Allen Show was filmed “single-camera” – hence the connection to yesterday – meaning, there was no studio audience.  Filming a half-hour “single-camera” takes  two and sometimes three days to complete.  What audience would hang around that long?  

“We’re hungry, and we’ve got jobs!”

So they don’t have them.  We’d have to give out pajamas.

Shooting “single-camera” comedies…

No, wait.  First this.

Every “single-camera” series up till and including M*A* S*H in the 1970’s (or even the 80’s, I’m not sure, the internet is out) was required to be accompanied by a laugh track.  (Even though, in M*A*S*H, no one could explain who exactly was laughing.  It couldn’t have been the Koreans.  They didn’t speak English.)

Okay, now

Shooting “single-camera” comedies created unexpected difficulties for the venerable editor.  Especially with a stickler overseer like George Burns, whose comedic experience went back to vaudeville.  (Where he was not always “George Burns” but he always somebody.  Although not Sophie Tucker.)

Here’s the difficulty in, hopefully, a nutshell.

When a joke is told on a sitcom, the editor has to leave “air” before the dialogue resumes so that the laugh track technician can insert an appropriate, disembodied comedic reaction.

The unique challenge in this process was that if the editor left too much “air” between the joke and the resumption of dialogue, the scene’s comedic momentum would immediately dissipate.  It was like, “Joke” – “laugh track” – “moment of dead silence” – and then “resumption of dialogue”. 

Unacceptable.  It’s like the show was suddenly on “Pause.”    

On the other hand, if the editor concerned about “dead air” made the interstitial interval too short, the inserted laugh would lap over the ensuing dialogue, drowning the setup for the following joke, causing that following joke to fall flat.

You can see what a delicate matter this is.

Through the intervening years, the recollection of this arduous assignment had stayed with the veteran editor, not because the process was physically taxing but because George Burns berated him mercilessly when he got it wrong. 

He recalled spending an inordinate amount of editing time making the “laugh track space” exactly the right length.  With no actual idea that of what “exactly the right length” was.  And fearing he would be yelled at if he messed up.  I would not be surprised if he drank.  I would have.

The laugh track was deemed obligatory because otherwise, according to the geniuses in charge, the viewing audience at home would not know it was a comedy.

IMAGINED AUDIENCE MEMBER VIEWING AT HOME:  “I wanted to laugh but I wasn’t sure I was s’possed to.”

Thus demonstrating a concern for the audience and a disrespect for them at the same time.

Slightly different, but not too different to merit inclusion…

I did a show called Family Man, which, although not filmed “single-camera” was shot without a studio audience.  (It’s complicated, and it was a mistake, two reasons I will gloss over it at this time.)

In this case, it wasn’t the network “suits” who were unsure whether the show was funny, it was the show’s lead actor himself.  (The inserted laugh track did not help, because they knew that a technician had been paid to insert those laughs and would have done so whether the show was funny or not.  The recorded laugh track laughs themselves were lifted from a studio audience reaction to an I Love Lucy episode, proving that Lucy was funny but not necessarily Family Man.)

For reasons I no longer remember, Universal Studios, for whom I had made Family Man, had decided to screen two completed episodes for visitors to the always-popular Universal Studios Tour.  They watched a “flash flood” effect sitting in trams, and were then dutifully delivered to us.  Family Man’s lead actor had agreed to show up and later mingle with the tour participants.  They had witnessed “the parting of the Red Sea” on the tour, but Moses hadn’t been there.  This would be something special for them.

“We met this famous TV actor.”

“Who was he?”

“I don’t know.  But he was there.”

Anyway, when we screened the two episodes, the invited audience was enormously receptive, laughing at everything I had hoped they would laugh at, and with enthusiasm. 

Only then – when he had experienced those genuine laughs – did the lead actor concede that the show, which he had earlier confided to me he had wished had been funnier, actually was.

Something just came to mind (as I replace the previous ending to this post with this one.) 

They don’t use laugh tracks on sitcoms anymore. 

And the audience for them is a fraction of what it used to be.

I don’t know,

You think they don’t know that they’re comedies?


Wendy M. Grossman said...

Well, the top comedy, THE BIG BANG THEORY, has a decent-sized audience and a laugh track (though I don't think it's nearly as funny as it used to be, say five years ago). On the other hand, it also has Chuck Lorre. I'm going to guess that Lorre's involvement matters more than the laugh track (see also: MOM).


Tom Thomas said...

I was bothered by "too much air" on THAT SEVENTIES SHOW, but in this case it wasn't the fault of the editor. Apparently the actors were instructed to hold for a laugh after each punch line, but they consistently held too long. We'd hear punch line, canned laughter, pause, and then the dialogue would resume. Felt choppy.

classictvfan said...

'Burns and Allen' was a 2-camera show, not single-camera (according to Dwayne Hickman, who was in 'The Bob Cummings Show' on the same lot), but the 'air' concept in editing still applied, of course.

'The Bob Cummings Show' was 2-camera as well.