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!

Be Relatable

written by Sarah McLean

Why are sitcoms funny? What compels us to laugh at them? Why do we keep tuning in to our favorite shows week after week, or sometimes ten, twenty, thirty-plus years after their original air date? Why do we find ourselves binge watching the same series for 8 straight hours?

The obvious answer? Great writing! Great actors! It’s well produced! Well directed! All of those factors are true. Only the shows with all of the above stay on the air (most of the time) while lesser ones which lack some of these key ingredients fade into obscurity only to be known as footnotes in television history or as answers to trivia questions.

The less obvious answer as to why we get hooked? Relatability.

These two facets do go hand-in-hand: A sitcom with great writing, acting, production, and direction and you’re sure to get a quality show.  Missing any or all of these? Good luck.

However, it’s the relatability that keeps us coming back for more. We appreciate all the other aspects, individually and cumulatively, whether we’re aware of it or not, but it’s that raw connection we feel in watching a show that pulls us in for the long haul.

The missing ingredient of relatability is why critically acclaimed shows that are well written, produced, directed, with phenomenal actors don’t last as long. Arrested Development anyone? The big complaint by audiences from the get-go was that they “didn’t get it”, meaning they couldn’t relate. They couldn’t see themselves in the show.

Now, I’m speaking in generalities here. Sitcoms as a genre. Those 30 minute series that are meant to make you laugh. Yes, there are shows that cater to a very specific audience and aren’t intended to appeal to every single person: Arrested Development, Undeclared, Party Down, Better Off Ted, or Enlightened. Those super “inside the industry” jokes in shows that you’re not meant to get if you live in Idaho. No offense to Idaho. These shows are relatable, just to a smaller, targeted group of people. That’s why they have cult followings.

But what about the shows that were created with the intent of appealing to everyone even when we’re not all watching for the same reason? For example, I Love Lucy, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Mary Tyler Moore, Cheers, Roseanne, Friends, Big Bang Theory, etc. Why did those last for so many years and still have an afterlife? And in the case of Big Bang Theory, continue to pump out high quality new episodes while also in syndication?

Simple. They all wrote stories about the one common denominator in every human being. Our shared truth. They reflected our own insecurities, vulnerabilities, egos, over-confidences, drives to succeed, failed relationships, loss of jobs. The list goes on. While the specificity may differ slightly, the basic sentiment is the same. They showed us, and continue to remind us, how absurd and hilarious we are at the same time.

Maybe not everyone can relate to wanting to be in a variety show (I Love Lucy), writing for a comedy show (The Dick Van Dyke Show), associate producing a TV news show (Mary Tyler Moore), running or working at a bar (Cheers), being in a struggling-to-make-ends-meat middle class mid-Western family (Roseanne), living in a luxurious New York City apartment in your 20’s (Friends), or having super-human science knowledge (Big Bang Theory) but we can relate to wanting to be treated equally by our significant other (I Love Lucy), the workplace dynamics between a boss and co-workers (The Dick Van Dyke Show), being new to town and wanting to fit in (Mary Tyler Moore, Cheers), dysfunctional family dynamics (Roseanne), growing up and learning about ourselves through our friendships (Friends), or navigating life while feeling like a social outsider (Big Bang Theory).

Humor comes from the truth. The good, the bad, the ugly truth. When we see our own truth reflected back to us we acknowledge it, appreciate it, and laugh at it. When it’s done really well, when it digs down deep and hits us at our core, it resonates with us more and sticks with us long after the 30 minutes are over. That’s why we’ll still watch some shows years after they’ve left primetime but why we won’t give others the time of day.

Sitcoms that only scratch the surface in their truth-telling elicit a shrug of acknowledgment, maybe a chuckle, and then we move on with our day. Sitcoms that call us out for our own behavior get our attention, make us deeply laugh, and cause us to sit our butts down to continue watching.

When it comes down to it, we laugh at the things we know. We laugh at the things we’ve experienced. This is why sitcoms keep us coming back for more. And the sitcoms that stick with us for years, the ones that become classics, not only did this really, really well, they did it honestly and truthfully. And sometimes, when given the chance, these same sitcoms also made us cry with our truth.

What sitcoms keep you tuning in every week or voluntarily stuck on the sofa for hours on end? What new sitcoms already feel like instant classics? Leave a comment and let us know!