Filmed in Front of a Live Studio Audience, Part 2

written by Sarah McLean

I talked last post about live sitcom tapings and how, once again, Netflix has changed the game. This time I want to talk a little more about the ways attending a taping differs from watching on TV, why, when at a taping, people still insist on watching the monitors instead of the live actors, and how the process is different for the actor.

What we watch on TV is the finished product after hours of making a show perfect, or as perfect as you can make anything in about 4 hours time. Unnecessary lines or scenes have been edited out and the sound has been mixed for the perfect dance between audience and actor. What we watch live is the semi-polished version. The shape and form have been set from a week’s worth of rehearsal and, on tape day, we watch them finesse these details to create separate pieces that will be compiled and joined together, through editing, into a final masterpiece. Like watching any artist work, it can be tedious and exciting at the same time. A TV taping is no different.

Let’s back up. Multi-cam sitcoms operate on a 5 day schedule. Using Monday to Friday as an example, Monday would be the initial read through of the week’s script. Tuesday through Thursday are blocking and rewrites. Actors are on their feet working things out and being given direction by the director. New lines are tossed to the actors and either deemed worthy to be re-written into the next day’s script or thrown away. A week’s worth of hard work has been done. It’s similar to the rehearsal process for a play, only shortened from weeks or months to 5 days. Friday, aka tape day, is its own beast.

Sitcoms tape each show in chronological order, the way it airs, which is why we compare it to seeing a live play. The difference is that each scene may be re-done about 3-4 times for punch-ups (better jokes after a ‘meh’ response from the audience), coverage (making sure you get all the footage you need to edit a cohesive show), or clean takes (to make sure actors lines are recorded without overlapping dialogue or upstaging, etc). So it is like live theater, but with a “restart” button. However, this is where it gets interesting. As opposed to a play where we see the actors give their performance only once, during a taping we get to see multiple takes. We get to see the process of actors having to keep the energy alive, to redo a scene and its dialogue the exact same way. Like I said, tedious, yet simultaneously exciting.

For the actor, it really is all business while on set. As they say, time is money. It may seem like nothing, but it’s a lot of work to turn out a new, high quality product each week. Lines are constantly changing, blocking is being perfected, network executives are adding their input. Even as I write how much work it is, it doesn’t seem like much, until you experience it for yourself. When tape day arrives you’re not thinking about anything else. You’re focusing on your job, that you were hired to do, and delivering at the top of your game, consistently, for 4 hours, with minimal breaks. It’s exhausting to be “on” for an extended period of time.

This all may seem stifling and constricting, and in some ways it can be, but you also have to remember actors are doing something different each week. Just as quickly as you learn the new script you’re moving on to the next one. By the time you’ve reached tape day you’ve already gone through the script many times. There have been daily changes to your dialogue and blocking has been locked in. Even when you’re taping and a writer or director throws out a new line, there won’t be other changes in the actor’s delivery. You won’t see an actor deliver the new line in a crazy, new way. Same delivery, new line. That’s how all tapings are for the actor: same, but different.

In a play, the actor feeds off the energy of the crowd, while still maintaining the fourth wall. The same is true for a sitcom taping, but unlike a play, the sitcom actor also has to factor in the camera and the future TV-watching audience. In essence, while there is a live studio audience present, you are still acting for the camera. Only when you hear the audience’s reaction do you make them part of the show by holding for their laughter.

One thing I find interesting at a live taping is the audience’s inherent need to stare at the TV screens even though the action is happening live right in from of them. Creatures of habit, I suppose. Monitors are plastered above the sets for you to watch the action via live feed if you are unable to see a particular scene being filmed or to playback a pre-tape. Makes sense. When you attend live theater, you are watching in a controlled environment. There is nothing obstructing your view or diverting your attention. In our minds it’s as if we are watching TV, but on a larger, three-dimensional scale. During a live taping, even when the scene is happening right in front of you we take comfort in watching in a familiar way, shutting out all the extra “noise” of the cameras, writers, director, boom mics and a plethora of people on set.

Perhaps the strangest thing about attending a live taping is when you later watch that episode you saw taped live finally on TV. You know you were there, you know what’s going to happen, yet it still feels different, fake in a way. You’ve seen behind the curtain and witnessed how the magic was made. At the same time, you have a greater respect for everyone involved because you saw the process happen: the mistakes, the unexpected jokes, the excitement.

Thanks to Gail Borges for contributing to this post.

Been on a multi-cam set? What was your experience like? How did different set experiences differ for you?

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