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.




The State of the Sitcom

written by Sarah McLean

We all know there is an exorbitant amount of television constantly in production. This new ‘Golden Age’ is churning out more content than we can watch in a lifetime.

Television, as a new medium, was introduced to households in the 1940s, but it wasn’t until the 1950s when ‘TV’ as we know it came to be. Networks filled (some of) their hours with programming similar to what was already established, and proved to be working, in other mediums: interview shows, the news, live plays, short vignettes, and serialized crime dramas. All of it aired live.

Since TV’s birth, we’ve gradually been introduced to new formats (news magazine! reality!), genres (dramadies! 24 hour cable news!) and ways in which we watch (the VCR! streaming!). In the last 15-20 years it seems that the tectonic plates in TV land (the metaphorical world, not the network) are still shifting and settling. Television in 2016 has its own taxonomic rank of sub-categories where even those sub-categories intersect and overlap: scripted, unscripted, comedy, drama, news, educational, reality, dramadies, half hour, hour, etc. We shove whatever new or existing show that comes our way into our preconceived, yet ever expanding, boxes so we feel like we have some control over it. It often feels like we’re hammering a square peg into a round hole mainly because we don’t know what to do with it.

With so much changing over the last 70 years, for our purposes, let’s focus on how scripted comedies and sitcoms are different now than when they first started.

As the new-fangled TV needed more and more content to fill its empty hours, it was only a matter of time until a “new” format was created – the sitcom. I say “new” because sitcoms have their roots in Vaudeville: set ups, punch lines and physical comedy, all in front of a live audience. Its concept wasn’t new but translating it to television was.

I Love Lucy was one of the first and, arguably, most successful sitcoms. I recently saw an episode and, I know this is stating the obvious, the show holds up, almost 70 years later. And I’m not talking about one of the classic episodes but the fourth episode they filmed, where they were still working out camera movements, still figuring out this new genre and how to make it work for television. Since then, not much has changed in the multi-camera world. And, since then, the multi-camera sitcom has never gone away. There’s been an ebb and flow in its production and popularity but it’s always been a solid pillar of TV programming, even when it’s been uncool to do so. It’s our comfortable pair of sweats that make us feel at ease. Perhaps that’s why I Love Lucy has never left the air.

As everything new becomes old and everything old becomes new again, times change and ideas need a way to stay fresh and relevant by reinventing themselves. Multi-camera shows stay current through topical issues and current events while simultaneously maintaining true to their forefathers: a new take on an old idea. When we watch a multi-camera show, regardless of what decade it’s from, we know what to expect from it: a 3-4 act structure containing many jokes that heighten a conflict in a comedic way and will resolve by the show’s end. As formats evolve new shows emerge that push the boundaries of our traditional ideas: the single camera comedy; non-linear storytelling through time jumps, flashbacks and cut aways; or the innate characteristics of a show’s lead characters.

While we still have the good ol’ standbys of traditional multi-camera shows, what is now becoming the norm is a newer crop of single camera, super-real “comedies” that attempt to recreate and mimic every day life right down to its awkwardness and me-first attitude.

This reflection of societal changes (a lot’s happened between 1951 and 2016) mimics how narcissistic anti-heroes, first in real life, then slowly on TV, has become the norm; it has evolved in front of our eyes over the last 15 years.  Our heroes used to be loveable dreamers full of optimism, now they’re self-absorbed assholes. In our social media-driven world we’re constantly bombarded with information and overloaded with, frankly, a lot of useless crap. Fairly recently we’ve started seeing this reflected in the shows we watch and how that manifests itself into a new style of viewing entertainment. Togetherness, Difficult People, Casual, Catastrophe, Master of None, to name a few, all feel similar at their core (real, awkward, unapologetic) in that they reflect society today, but are still different in their own ways.

Not only is the content staying current with the times, but it also feels like the format itself is evolving. The boundaries are being pushed. Or perhaps a new comedy genre is being created. The aforementioned shows are all 30 minute comedies, but none resemble I Love Lucy, not that they’re supposed to. Most of their humor is based on circumstance and situations, not set ups and punch lines. There may not be a resolve at the end of each show. There is not necessarily a solid structure or storytelling in each episode. It is more like watching a slightly heightened reality, as if we were to look out our living room window and people watch.

Maybe I’m comparing apples and oranges. Maybe there isn’t a need for such specific categories when talking about a show. It would cause less contention during awards’ season, however.

This is more of an open-ended discussion that I don’t think has an answer yet (or ever will).  Television, like many mediums, is ever-evolving as society changes. They symbiotically inform and change each other. It’s interesting to see how far television has come in such a short time and how drastically it’s been updated from what it once was. I’m also interested to see how TV keeps progressing, especially with streaming services pushing boundaries with their content, and in how a viewer consumes (or attempts to consume) it all.