Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Laugh Track

                                    It ain't so, folks…

Multi-camera shows have been the subject of posts at the Anonymous Production Assistant and Totally Unauthorized recently, as well as the comic above, by Dan Piraro. As it happens, I'd been  (slowly) working on this post ever since that comic appeared in the Sunday LA Times a few weeks ago, so now seems a good time to weigh in.

I've been reading Bizarro comics in the daily paper for many years now, because I appreciate Dan Piraro's playful, off-kilter sense of humor. More often than not, his cartoons absolutely nail it -- whatever the issue might be -- dead on target.

But not always, and given that this cartoon perpetuates popular myths concerning sit-coms in general and multi-camera shows in particular, I'd like to set the record straight. Over the last 18 years, I've worked on dozens of multi-camera shows of the sort depicted above, and never once has there been an "applause" sign to prompt an audience, much less any signage urging them to "whistle, laugh, giggle, sniff, gasp, hoot, sigh" or whatever that last one might be.

Such signs may well have been used back in the early days of television, but I've never seen one  in Hollywood.*

And since I'm in a rather pedantic, stick-up-my-ass, "say WHAT?" mood today... multi-camera shows use four cameras, not two, and the warm-up man works up in the audience grandstand, not on the stage floor.

But hey, it's just a cartoon, where such details don't really matter.

What does matter (and  the main thing this cartoon gets wrong), is the contention that "nothing the performers do will even remotely resemble comedy or entertainment of any kind."

That's simply not true, and tells me that for all his comedic artistic talent, Dan Piraro has never had a chance to sit among the audience watching the filming of a multi-camera show -- because with very few exceptions, those people have a blast.

This doesn't mean the completed episode as it appears on television will be funny, mind you. A lot can change between shoot night and the broadcast, and sometimes the comedy suffers in the editing process. Some sit-coms are really good, more are average, and many  are mediocre on their best days. Truth be told, although I work exclusively on multi-camera shows these days (and usually enjoy watching the live show unfold), I rarely watch them at home.  

It's just a matter of personal taste. When it comes to television, I'm more of a Breaking Bad, The Wire, and True Detectives kind of guy. For comedy, I prefer shows with some real bite -- Louie CK, Archer, or even The Comedians, the recently-concluded Billy Crystal/Josh Gadd effort on FX.

One thing I've never liked about watching multi-camera shows on the Toob is the ever-present laugh track, which has always seemed a bit insulting to me. Before I began working in the multi-cam world, I felt that if a show had to tell me when to laugh, then something was seriously wrong. "Canned laughter" seemed like a cheap trick designed to make me think I was enjoying a show simply because of the laughter bellowing from the speaker of my TV. 

I don't know if other viewers feel the same way about laugh tracks -- vaguely insulted -- but it wasn't until I actually began working on multi-cam shows (after twenty years of single-camera life -- features, commercials, and music videos) that I understood why that laugh track exists in the first place. Although multi-camera shows had been around long before Desi Arnez and Lucille Ball came up with I Love Lucy, their show was the first multi-cam to shoot in front of a live audience.**  Short of looping every episode after filming (which would have been prohibitively expensive), there was no way to cut the audience laughter from the sound track -- so they made it part of the show. Eventually, someone came up with technology to "sweeten" laugh tracks for broadcast, and the practice was accepted by the viewing audience at home. Single camera comedies used canned laughter on their soundtracks for a while, but that faded away as the shows got better and the audience at home learned to laugh without any prompting. The more recent advent of "hybrid" multi-cam shows -- which are not shot in front of a live audience --  brought back the canned laughter. It's a bad idea, in my opinion, but the industry doesn't care what any of us who do the heavy lifting think. Until my current show (a ball-busting hybrid), every sit-com I've worked (including pilots) was shot before an audience of anywhere from two hundred to three hundred people. 

That audience was right there, with an up-close and personal view of the actors performing the show -- and they had a great time.

The truth is, any civilian who wants to have fun (and a lot of laughs) while observing the making of a television program would do well to attend the taping of a multi-camera show. Those who have never been on a working set may find this hard to believe, but even if they could manage to get on the set of their favorite single-camera comedy or drama -- no matter how good the show -- the experience wouldn't be nearly as entertaining as sitting with the audience of a multi-camera show.

Watching a single-camera show being made is a lot like watching paint dry -- especially for civilians, who expect to see shoot-outs, huge explosions, or maybe a high-speed car chase on set… but they won't.  What they will see is a large crew of people standing around and apparently doing nothing.  

It's the reality of our working lives on set.

One reason the audience of a multi-cam show has such a good time is the warm-up man, whose job is to keep the audience entertained during the inevitable lulls in the action on set.  Since a sit-com script runs only twenty-two minutes long, but takes three to four hours to shoot, there's a lot of down-time between takes and scenes. A good warm-up guy is worth his weight in gold, and the good ones are really good. Guys like Ron Pearson bring the archaic term "warm-up man" to a whole new level. I've seen Ron many times on several different shows, and never get tired of the kinetic dynamism of his very funny act. He's just amazing -- the best in the business, IMHO -- and if you're ever lucky enough to attend a taping that he's working, you're in for a real treat.***  

I'll never like the laugh track, but it exists for a reason, which I can accept.  And since I rarely watch sit-coms of any sort at home, the idiocy of being told exactly when to laugh doesn't bother me at all...

* I do like the arrow in the back of the cameraman on the right, though.  I've seen a few directors fire those arrows, and -- metaphors or not -- they had an impact…

** I Love Lucy was the monster hit of its time, a huge show.

*** Or one of his gigs on the corporate circuit, where Ron does quite well. Here he is appearing on Craig Fergusson's show a few years back.


Anonymous said...

I agree with you on both.. Ron is terrific.. and I too find the LAUGH TRAC a bit insulting. I have actually turned off shows because i found it so over-used and annoying. thanks for another great post. k

Anonymous said...

I've only been to one taping, and that was Mike And Molly. Now I had only seen one episode before attending the taping, but it was a completely tedious experience, and the warm up man was just about the only funny part of the whole thing. I do seem to remember that the screens where the pre-taped segments were shown DID have applause on them at certain moments in the show.

Michael Taylor said...

Anonymous --

Like anything in life, sometimes you get a dud. That said, I saw ten minutes of a "Mike and Molly" episode at home a few weeks ago, and none of the lines made me laugh. It wasn't funny at all.

I can only speak from my own experience -- and although every show I've worked produced an occasional less-than-stellar episode, the audience at the vast majority of the 200 or so shoot nights I've done really seemed to enjoy themselves. Maybe you had the bad luck of getting one of the duds. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.

Thanks for tuning in...