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!

Interview with Director Mary Lou Belli

written by Sarah McLean

I recently spoke with Emmy award-winning director, writer, producer and author Mary Lou Belli. If you’ve watched TV in the past 30 years then you’ve probably seen a show she’s directed. Her scrolling list of IMDb credits include: Sister, Sister, The Hughley’s, Girlfriends, Monk, The Game, Hart of Dixie, and NCIS: New Orleans. We talked about the relevance and relatability of sitcoms throughout the years, what can make (or break) a show, the importance of writers, and her take on streaming services and the resulting changes in our viewing habits. I hope you enjoy Mary Lou’s candid and insightful responses.

You’ve directed many different shows for different networks. I’m curious about your experiences on set. While you’re working, can you tell if a show has ‘it’ and the potential to be a success (notwithstanding studio head decisions)?

I always know if material is truthful and if the material strikes me as funny when I read it, it usually is to an audience as well. And as to your question of whether it has potential to be a success, notwithstanding studio head decisions, you can’t separate the two. Producer and network decisions can make or break a show beginning with who is chosen to act, direct, production design, shoot, and all the other things that go into making a show. You can start with great material, and it may or may not end up being great… but it doesn’t work the other way around. No amount of help with elevate mediocre material.

How do actors, writers, directors, and the network help and hinder the process of making quality sitcoms that can endure the test of time?

That is many questions rolled into one. Actors can bring to life words on a page, and the director can, using all the tools of her trade, tell a great story, and a network can give the product a great shot by programming and advertising it so it becomes a hit. As for enduring the test of time, if it is good, it has the chance of lasting. I teach film acting to teens during the summer, they relate to good material, whether it’s Bewitched or The Big Bang Theory.

What do you think makes an audience click with a comedy?

IF they relate to the subject.

Why do some shows seem inherently better than others?

Because they are.

The popularity of sitcoms (single and multi-cam) has ebbed and flowed since the 1950s. Why do you think they’ve never gone away?

Good writing and people want to laugh. I think there have been trends by networks and studios to think different was better rather than better was better. I also think that the skill level of the writers hasn’t been consistent. But when good writing meets a great cast and director, and it is well programmed, there it flows, and the ebb is over.

A lot has changed in the world and in entertainment since the sitcom entered our lives. How do you see them affecting/being affected by changes in society? Are they accurately reflecting what we experience in real life?

Good sitcoms are a mirror: Let me answer with relevant show titles: All In the Family, MASH, Married with Children, I Dream of Jeanie, Modern Family, The Big Bang Theory, Girlfriends.

What trends do you see happening in scripted comedies?

I don’t predict trends, I do notice when there are more single camera shows rather than multi – and not all of them need the more expensive single camera format to tell the story. Then I question why that decision has been made.

What are your thoughts on all these reboots” to classic sitcoms we’re now seeing?

If it’s good, great, if it’s not, then networks should be finding better material.

As someone who’s directed many multi-cam sitcoms, why do you think they often get looked down upon as lesser” comedies? Many people seem to prefer single camera over multi-camera because they feel they’re more authentic. What’s your take on this?

My take – the folks who program recognize that single looks better, and it does… but what they don’t realize is that it doesn’t matter to an audience. They just want to be engaged. Steve Levitan, and I’m paraphrasing, said he never had an audience that wanted to talk about a camera shot. He has an audience that wants to laugh. He’s right.

Netflix is cutting in to the traditional TV market. Do you think this is a good thing or a bad thing for sitcoms, seeing how Netflix used older sitcoms to create our binge-watching habits and are also creating their own original multi-cam shows? Do you think sitcoms can stay relevant with this new type of viewing?

There is always room for quality. And folks will not stop viewing. They may just view differently.

How do you think other streaming sites, like Amazon and Hulu, and online content (from web series to longer comedies) are affecting the traditional sitcom?

They want to make money, they will hopefully do that by assessing what is relevant to their audience.

What is your favorite thing about directing sitcoms?

Getting to tell a funny story, working with actors and writers, and hopefully elevating what is on the page to even more excellence.

What is it that drew you to sitcoms as opposed to hour long shows?

Someone offered me a job, I kept learning and growing, and it payed well. And it was a great schedule to allow for raising a family.

Are you looking to direct more hour long comedies and dramas or single camera comedies?

I am looking to do good work, and I have made an effort in the past 5 years to move to dramas and single camera. The challenges are greater. I love the stories, and with my kids nearly out of college, I am free to travel and choose to devote more time to my career. That being said, all my training as a sitcom director, i.e. timing, pacing, working closely with actors, has informed the work I do as a single camera director. I have found that doing 1 hour shows is ten times harder and ten times wore rewarding. It is still directing, it is still storytelling, it’s just a bigger challenge so the sense of accomplishment is greater when you do it well.

Anything else you want to add?

Yes. Over my career I have seen something that works brilliantly but is not employed often enough, and that is experienced writers mentoring younger ones. With the right combination of the two it is MAGIC… the lesser experienced learn from the more seasoned. It has to be the right combo, but everything needs to be in a collaborative business. I have seen this partnership launch talented young careers and utilize older wisdom and experience to full advantage.

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I love her last point. We shouldn’t rely on under-experienced writers (and that goes for producers, directors, et al.) to figure things out “as they go” on such a large scale. Yes, learning from your mistakes is beneficial, but we can cut down that learning time drastically by being more receptive to “on the job training” and the willingness to actively help out those a few tiers below. At some point a new crop will need to replace the old guard and the more prepared they are the better.

My thanks to Mary Lou for taking the time to answer my questions. She had a lot of great insight that most people aren’t privy to on a regular basis. I think one of the key take aways is this: different isn’t (necessarily) better. Better is better.

To find out more about Mary Lou Belli, you can visit her website.

Archetypes in Written Comedy

written by Sarah McLean

Have you watched The Carmichael Show? You may have missed it. Their 6 episode run quietly debuted over 3 weeks at the end of last summer on NBC, just before the new Fall season. If it somehow escaped your live viewing schedule or DVR recording, I suggest you go watch it.

To be quite honest, I had no idea who Jerrod Carmichael was until I saw him on The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore the night before his show debuted (smart marketing!). I had seen, and probably fast-forwarded past, commercials for The Carmichael Show so I recognized his name. As panelists go, he was fine. I couldn’t tell you anything he said or what the night’s topic was, but I do remember thinking that he was intelligent, funny, and normal. Seeing him on The Nightly Show actually made me more interested in watching his show, a show where I knew next to nothing about the lead actor, except for the 5 minutes I had just watched. I still had no clue as to the premise of his sitcom (having watched a lot of TV I could take an educated guess – his crazy life with his crazy family!) but now I could at least put a face to the name, and a point of view with both.

Turns out I enjoyed The Carmichael Show pretty early on and because I spent a childhood doing nothing but watch TV, I very quickly knew why: after watching only the pilot, it felt liked I’d already seen 10 episodes. I knew who these characters were. I knew their archetypes. Their points of view. Their shared histories. I knew what made them tick and how each character would react in certain situations.

To the untrained ear this may sound like an insult but it’s not. In fact, it’s a huge compliment. In one episode, the writers were able to clearly and concisely share this world with their audience. I understood these characters because they were very clearly drawn and very precisely written. There was no hemming or hawing. We learned their family dynamic, the tone of the show, their style of humor, the type of topics they’d cover – everything. All in roughly 20 minutes. That’s hard.

For most shows it takes a while to find their footing. By no means was the pilot of The Carmichael Show perfect, but it wasn’t clunky either. It knew what it wanted to be before the first episode. There was no “figuring it out” as they progressed from episode one to six. This was going to be a sitcom that dealt with controversial, topical issues in a clever
and funny way.

Shows that come with backstories, shared histories, and clear characters hit the ground running a lot sooner than sitcoms that are based on just a funny idea or interesting concept but with no real substance to stand on. You need to have your show’s foundation set and your shit together before you get started or it will be a lot harder and take more
time to get there.

This is especially huge right now since we’re in a world where most networks don’t even give shows a chance to succeed. Looking back, 2015 was a kind year but in recent history some shows were cancelled after only one episode (or even before the pilot aired). Yes. Every show needs a learning curve, and some (most) don’t really hit their stride until season two (30 Rock). For those shows that do all the work beforehand, they’re more likely to succeed a lot sooner and be given the time to get even better.

After you catch up on season 1 make sure to check out season 2 of The Carmichael Show starting March 13th. What shows have you liked right off the bat? Which ones took a while to find their footing? Are there any shows you stopped watching and then gave a second chance? Let us know by posting in the comment box below!