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!