Filmed in Front of a Live Studio Audience, Part 1

written by Sarah McLean

If you’ve never seen a live taping of a sitcom I highly suggest it. Depending on your love of comedy and sitting in a small, cold theatre for about 4 hours, it may not be something you want to do numerous times, however, for an actor, TV watcher, or sitcom fan, it’s a very educational, behind-the-scenes look at how the shows we watch are created.

I’ve attended a wide range of tapings (pilot, pilot run through, a show in its first season, a show multiple seasons in, streaming series) and while they are all similar in format and function, each has its own advantages, disadvantages and experience.

Here’s a quick breakdown:

Pilot run through: This is a warm up for the actual taping. Nothing will be filmed, except possibly for reference, and this will be the first time the show has been performed in front of an audience other than its writers and crew members. They’ll run through the entire show once for pacing, last minute re-writes, camera blocking, network notes and “last looks”. This will only take about an hour.

Pilot Taping: The big show. This is where months of hard work come to fruition. The cast and crew may be working together for the first time (instead of multiple seasons). There is enormous pressure and need to get everything absolutely perfect in order to put yourself in the best position to get picked up to series. Because of all these factors, tapings can take a while.

First season taping: This would be a show somewhere in its first season. They’ve done the pilot, got picked up and have already filmed a few episodes. They’re not a well-oiled machine, yet, but they know what they’re doing. The taping won’t take all night but can still be long.

Multiple season taping: A show that’s been around for multiple seasons. You know it and the characters very well as an audience member. The cast and crew work on a short-hand basis. Everyone knows what they’re doing. Expect to be in and out in a couple hours.

Streaming: Thanks to Netflix, this is something new. Netflix currently has 2 new, original multi-cam sitcoms streaming on their site: Fuller House and The Ranch. Because both are in their first season it technically mirrors a “first season taping” as far as your live-audience experience. However, because they’re on Netflix, it’s its own beast, and why I was inclined to write about it.

Netflix, unlike network TV, doesn’t air commercials. Historically, a 30 minute sitcom would really only run 24 minutes (back in the good ol’ days) and now start clocking in around 20 minutes (22 if you’re lucky, 18 if you’re on basic cable). Thanks, commercials! Netflix actually airs a full 30 minute show. Those extra 10 minutes, while fantastic for writers to better flesh out story arcs and characters, can have an adverse effect on a live taping. If it takes a network sitcom about 4 hours to tape a 20 minute show, that could mean an extra 2 hours of taping time for Netflix. Yowza. Granted, you’d be getting way more than your money’s worth (free), but I’m not sure I can spend almost 6 hours in a taping, not including the extra couple hours it takes to check in, go through security, etc.

That’s where pre-taping comes in. Pre-taping isn’t unusual: sometimes there are mitigating circumstances that make it necessary (a one-off set piece that won’t be used again; filming on location, outside, or in a car; a scene with babies or animals; a guest actor who isn’t available on the shoot day; nudity, etc). Instead of seeing the action happening live, we the audience watch it on monitors hanging overhead and react to it as if we were watching it live (or on TV). The live taping I attended for The Ranch lasted roughly 4 hours and had about half the show pre-taped. Thank God, or it would have gone on forever. This was mainly due, however, to a major guest actor not being available.

This isn’t to say that every episode of both Fuller House and The Ranch have used pre-taping to this extent, but it’s certainly worth noting, and is noteworthy because streaming services continue to alter every aspect of creating and consuming television, and not necessarily for the worse.

Another thing you won’t get in a network TV taping is a bevy of F-bombs. Single camera comedies are consistently peppering in the use (or assumed usage) of FCC-fineable words but not multi-cams, until now. The Ranch taping I attended averaged just under 1 use of “fuck” per scene. While at first jarring, it quickly became natural and second nature because it fit with the tone, look, feel and theme of the show. You won’t hear much swearing on Fuller House (breasts and sexually suggestive dialogue? yes), but thanks to Netflix, we can now watch heartwarming and gut-wrenching sitcoms that don’t feel watered down by restrictive language and content.

Have you been to a live taping? What do you like/not like about them? Share your experiences with us!

A Character Study: Sitcoms Characters! They’re Just Like Us!

written by Sarah McLean

When we think of sitcom characters our minds automatically head toward the words broad, one-dimensional, generalized and unrealistic. With this default thinking we fail to recognize that these characters are reflections of ourselves and therefore have a variety of emotions, thoughts, feelings, traits and intentions that are always happening under the surface.

In comedy, writers have a tendency to pinpoint and focus on one (or a few) major aspects or defining traits of a character and continue to heighten them to a point that’s, for lack of a better term, a few stops short of crazy town (more overtly in sketch; more subtly in sitcoms). How far can we push this one thing while still making the character believable? Think of it as the live action equivalent of an artist’s caricature: Jay Leno’s elongated chin, David Letterman’s tooth gap, or President Obama’s large ears. All are exaggerated and all stop short of going too far to be believable (or recognizable).

This doesn’t mean their plethora of other characteristics have fallen by the wayside, they’re just not as prevalent. And what we think of as the “uncharacteristic” characteristics usually come out to play for specific (comedic) reasons, e.g., a one-off story arc, to set up or pay off a joke. The longer a sitcom is on the air the more we get to see these “other sides” of a character on a more frequent basis.

Let’s use the cast of Friends as an example. Considered one of the best comedies of all time, the writers deftly crafted six layered yet unique characters that still felt like real people, but not only that, real people that were identifiable in our own lives. Certain traits resonate more with an individual than others but all are a part of every person. In Ross we see our super nerdy, dorky, neurotic side; in Monica, our hyper neurotic, perfectionist, controlling side; in Joey, our sweet, jovial, innocent side; in Rachel, or narcissistic, shallow, vain side; in Phoebe, our offbeat, shameless, unconventional side; and in Chandler, our charming, self-deprecating, sarcastic side.

I can hear you now, “But wait! You said Ross and Monica are both neurotic! So that means they’re the same, not different!” Not exactly. Yes, they are both neurotic, siblings from the same family tend to have similar characteristics (Frasier and Niles Crane, Bo and Luke Duke) but, like diamonds and snowflakes, no two are alike.

While each Friend is known for their one “thing”, that’s not all they are. If Rachel is only self-involved the show and her character would get boring very quickly because she’d be a one-note, uninteresting-to-watch-after-one-episode character. We would know everything she’s going to do and say before it happened. There would be no fun, comedic surprises to engage and entertain us. Her moments of generosity, sincerity, and playfulness are what add to a well-rounded character and are what makes her more likeable and real.

This extends to any sitcom character we’ve seen (especially those that have lasted more than one season). Yes, we can quickly describe them in one word or phrase to efficiently sum up who they are or to make a point, but that wouldn’t be doing them justice. Saying, “Joey is the dumb one on Friends” negates his pure sense of joy, his love of women, his nurturing side, his optimism, or his sense of wonder – all of which are still alive inside of him while he’s being truly naïve. Sitcom characters, just like real people, are complex, unpredictable and more than just broad, sweeping generalizations. So, the next time you’re about to play a “What ‘Friend’ are you?”-type game on Facebook you can save your time and respond, “All of them.”

What other sitcoms have multi-layered characters that feel like real people? Who’s your favorite sitcom character? Why? Let us know in the comment box below!

Single-Camera Vs. Multi-Camera

written by Sarah McLean

I’m surprised how often I hear people say they don’t like sitcoms. They are often described by the following terms: not realistic, too jokey, not funny, simple, and stupid. What people usually end up meaning is they don’t like multi-camera sitcoms. They do like some sitcoms but prefer the “smarter” comedies of the single-camera world. Multi-camera sitcoms tend to get a bad rap because of their use of laugh tracks. Our minds also can’t seem to move past the overly schlocky premises of some 1980s sitcoms. These haters somehow forget about the eye-rolling single camera shows that have been televised. What they also fail to realize is that single and multi-camera sitcoms have many similarities and that their differences tend to be in the technical side of things and not in the quality of the material.

Let’s dispel some of these rumors about single and multi-camera sitcoms.

Multi-Camera shows are not realistic like single camera shows.

All sitcoms (single and multi) play in a heightened sense of reality. Multi-cams are not bigger and broader in tone or acting than single camera shows, they are more theatrical because they play in front of a large, responsive audience. Single camera shows are just as big, broad, silly and goofy (Arrested Development, Better Off Ted, Scrubs, The Office, New Girl, The Goldbergs, Modern Family, Fresh Off the Boat, The Muppets, Brooklyn Nine-Nine) as any multi-camera show, but we don’t immediately recognize them as such because we don’t hear an audience reaction. We aren’t prompted with a response that indicates, “What he just did was crazy!” Instead, we are left to our own devices to react how we choose, and more often than not, we’ll respond the same way would have if it were a multi-camera. We assume single camera shows are more realistic because they are written and shot with an intimate and cinematic feeling (no live audience, tight shots); however, multi-camera shows are as equally realistic but their theatrical quality makes it seem less real to those people who feel like they are being told how to react.

Multi-Camera shows are jokey whereas single camera shows are not.

All sitcoms are based on jokes, be that spoken or visual. While single camera shows often have fewer written jokes per page than multi-camera shows, they can sometimes have just as many overall jokes in a show because of the rapid fire delivery (no holding for laughs) and the ability to add visual jokes due to the way they are shot. Single camera jokes tend to be more nuanced and subtle but they are always there. Multi-camera shows are joke-heavy but also have limitations because of the necessity to hold for the live audience reaction. They often rely on the ‘set up-punchline’ format for humor, which is why they are perceived as “jokey”. You can argue that the single camera’s version of the multi-camera’s ‘set up-punchline’ style is its constant use of the flashback. Watch any high quality single and multi-camera shows and count the number of jokes each has in the span of its ~20 minute run. You’d be surprised in the closeness of the final tally.

Single-Camera shows are smarter than multi-camera shows.

All sitcoms are based on a simple and basic story structure: conflict that is diffused and/or escalated using humor and jokes, which climaxes then resolves itself. How each individual show chooses to attack this simplicity with their storytelling is what makes them smart, not whether they are single or multi-camera. Examples of smart multi-cam shows are Cheers and Frasier. Examples of smart single-cam shows are Veep and Episodes. I wouldn’t necessarily say either single camera example is smarter than the multi-camera ones. Single camera shows tend to be labeled “smarter” because they can do more with the camera and in the editing room than multi-cameras since they are shot like a short film, which makes the viewer think it’s more high brow than a show shot in front of an audience.

Single and multi-camera sitcoms are different but mainly in their execution of similar material. This difference may seem major but it’s only one part of the sitcom as a whole. It’s like comparing a college sport to its professional counter part. Some rules will be slightly different, some in-game strategies and tactics will vary due to these differences, but in essence, it’s still the same game. And for you non-sports literate readers, let’s use cooking as an example. You can have two recipes for the same dish, and while the main ingredients will be the same, there will be different spices or add-ons that give each dish its own flavor. I’m not saying you can’t like one more than the other, just know what the differences are before arguing your case.

And because pictures are fun, here is a Venn diagram comparing and contrasting single camera and multi-camera sitcoms in a bit more depth to include how it affects actors and writers.




A Catastrophic Breath of Fresh Air

written by Sarah McLean

I’ve alluded to in previous posts how sitcoms change with the times and often reflect current societal patterns. There have been many in the last few years that have turned the traditional sitcom model on its head. One of the best examples, in my opinion, is Catastrophe, a BBC series currently streaming on Amazon about an American man who knocks up a British woman during a one-night stand. Created by non-household names Sharon Horgen and Rob Delaney, they do what most shows don’t: not play to viewers’ preconceived expectations.

Horgen and Delaney created, wrote and star in the show. I think it’s because they are virtual unknowns (Horgen an actor/writer from England, Delaney an American stand-up comic) to the mainstream that they were able to come up with a different perspective from what we normally see. Rarely does something truly refreshing happen on TV, and rarely with comedies.

I love that this show unflinchingly dares to be different. When you get down to sitcoms’ nuts and bolts, they are all the same – family or friends (acting as a family) in a home or work environment who are at odds with each other. They all go through the same tropes. Sitcoms differentiate themselves through their jokes and point of views.

In Catastrophe, when you think (assume) either character will go through these tropes, they don’t. Instead, they act like normal, real life people in a real life situation, warts and all. Neither character reacts or behaves the way we’ve been mindlessly trained to see actors in television shows react. In a way, they are jolting our brains from the haze of seen-it-before-know-how-it-will-play-out expectations we have when we watch something. As nice as those warm fuzzy moments we’ve come to know and love are, sometimes, it’s just nice to not know how a story will play out and to be pleasantly surprised by its outcome.

In one episode a mutual friend catches Rob kissing another woman. So far, a common sitcom story-arc. However, the woman he is kissing, whom he despises, was the one who initiated the kiss. The onlooker does not know this. Rob did everything he could to stop the kiss from happening. The onlooker conveniently does not see this. So far, nothing out of the ordinary for a sitcom. In the traditional TV model the girlfriend, fiancé, or wife finds out and gets mad. A conflict arises. It takes the whole episode (or more) to resolve the conflict. In Catastrophe, his fiancé finds out, pretends to be mad, but only to jerk him around, laughs in his face, relieving the tension, then states she knows he would never voluntarily kiss this woman he hates. This wasn’t even the crux of the episode, merely a few scenes in a much larger story. Ahhh. Refreshing. As viewers, we all too often wonder why characters don’t have common sense. These characters do.

Maybe it’s because the BBC has proven more willing to take risks that Catastrophe was better suited to air there than be shopped in America first. Let’s face it; we do steal all their good ideas after they’ve been proven hits, of course. This also goes to show how streaming services like Amazon (and especially Hulu and Netflix) are willing to take chances on new and exciting projects (usually from England) that don’t fit the mold of “network” TV. Hopefully more shows like this will become the new normal.

Season 2 of Catastrophe is now streaming on Amazon Prime. Check out both seasons and let me know what you think! Does it feel different than other comedies you’re watching?