On January 29th, in his stellar blog bykenlevine.com, Ken, a top-tier veteran of writing multi-camera comedies – sitcoms shot in front of a live studio audience – as am I – arguably “Top Tier Lite”, but still. I’m gonna start this again.
Ken Levine blogatorially… assailed… critiqued… you know what? I’ll let him speak for himself. (Spoiler Alert: He was “appalled.” So I guess, yeah. “Assailed.”)
In his own words (but I’ll be jumping around…)
“As you know, I’m a big proponent of multi-camera sitcoms. I’ve always maintained that they force you to be held accountable. An audience will tell you whether something is actually funny so you really have to up your game to make sure they laugh.
“The criticism often leveled at multi-camera shows is that the laughter is not genuine. It’s sweetened with a laugh machine.”
Re: Today’s lazier sitcom writers…
“”I recently watched some current multi-camera shows… The jokes were terrible and yet the laugh machine was orgasmic. (Despite) the most obvious lines (and) the lamest quips… these shows were drenched in canned laughter… Half the time I was saying ‘What are they laughing at?’”
Minus the “the “terrible” the “lamest” and the “appalled”, I wholeheartedly agree. (We just write at different temperatures.) I have sampled the new crop of multi-camera sitcoms and found them equally unappetizing. (Though, for me, the “Sour Grapes Factor” cannot be reasonably dismissed.)
Two qualifying – versus “opposing” – comments, and I’m gone.
(Hold on a second. I am trying to decide which order to put them in. That’s the trouble with “two.” You write them both at the same time and they are functionally unreadable. Okay, I got it.)
Who is that “live studio audience”? And why are they willing to endure long lines to get in to see a filming, a process which may last past midnight (rather than the possibly expected “half-hour.”)
The answer is,
They are big fans of the show.
Those fans come ready to laugh.
Hit shows – TV, movies, theater, probably art shows as well – radiate a shimmering “Hit Show Vibration.” It’s an old joke – “They come in, laughing at the scenery.” It’s like a party. Or an awards show where they allow alcohol. These shows generally deliver – that’s what makes them hit shows. But are those laughs legitimately “earned”?
Not all the time.
Laughs that feel “unearned” to the “educated ear”? It’s not always the machine. Sometimes, it’s an audience on self-congratulatory – “Look where we are!” – steroids. I thought I could tell the difference. But, surprisingly often, I was misled, confusing “raucous” with “unreal.”
What kinds of jokes – “sex jokes” – sorry, that was premature elaboration. I’ll start again. What kinds of jokes make live studio audiences laugh the hardest? As opposed to the kind that tickle audiences at home?
Uncertain Confession: I may have just proposed “nonsense.” Arguably, a joke is a joke. If they laughed in the (audience-seating) gallery, they’ll laugh in their living rooms.
To which I reply,
“Sometimes yes, and sometimes no.”
And sometimes, actually the opposite.
I recall two episodes of Best of the West (which I created, and wrote most of the episodes for.) One episode received huge laughs from the studio audience, but played awkwardly at home. The other turned the studio audience into oil painting, but played smoothly and humorously at home.
I am saying that happened.
I am not saying it’s a rule.
The question is not “What do veteran sitcom writers think of the new sitcoms?” The question is, “What do today’s audiences think?”
And for that,
You would have to ask them.
(Yes, the ratings are down. But they are down for everything. Except football. And Cohen testifying before Congress.)