When you go to a sitcom taping, you are taught how to laugh. It cannot be one solitary bark, nor can it be a polite chuckle. It cannot take the form of a wry grin, and it can’t stay all at one pitch. It must rise and fall, like a sitcom story itself, starting out quiet, before getting louder and louder, then falling in pitch again. The ideal is “Ha HA Ha ha.” You are not strictly laughing because you think something is funny or even because everyone else is laughing. You are laughing because the actors need you to. They are up there on stage, relying on you to laugh, with the rise and fall, in such a way that they will seem funnier on TV. You are letting them know they are loved.
This is all, more or less, what the warm-up comic tells us before the cast runs out onto the stage. He also tells us how to do a standing ovation, so they will know they are loved, to the degree that he tells us what word to stand on. This will be no surprise to anyone who has attended a multi-camera sitcom taping before — everything is carefully stage-managed in Hollywood — but it must feel artificial on some level to everyone here. The room is packed, mostly with students and other groups, the sorts of people who might want to come to a sitcom taping a week before Christmas Eve.
“And if a girl comes out in a sexy outfit or two people kiss,” the warm-up says, “don’t go ‘Woooo!’”
We all laugh. We know shows like that, including Charles in Charge and Saved by the Bell, the two he cites as examples of what not to do.
“We don’t want to be the kind of show where people go ‘Woo!’” says the man who will spend most of the next five hours trying to get us to go “Woo!” in between scenes and trying to get us to “Ha HA Ha ha” while the scenes are playing, standing in silhouette in front of all of us, holding the tension of non-laughter in his arms between laugh lines, then releasing that gesture with a flurry of movement when we’re meant to laugh, cuing us like that shadow conductor in Fantasia. We are a good audience. We laugh. We do not “woo.” This is not a show where you go “woo.”
Welcome to the last days of Dads.
Going to a multi-camera sitcom taping — even for a good show — is like watching one of those slow-motion car-crash videos they used to show in drunk-driving PSAs. I’ve been to several now, and I’m always amazed by how the process of filming them turns what will eventually be an episode of television into a series of scenes unmoored from each other. The time between setups is usually so long that the audience can grow antsy or bored without a good warm-up comic, which means the warm-up has to immediately distract everyone in the audience from what’s happening on the stage with other antics, then wrap back around to the show when the time comes. This means that most of the time, when you watch a multi-camera sitcom, you’re not hearing the people in the audience laugh at what’s onscreen. You’re hearing them laugh at how well the warm-up managed the mood of the room.
(Before we continue, let’s briefly define “multi-camera sitcom” as it’s generally used in TV terminology. A more precise term for this might be “stage-play sitcom,” or a sitcom that is filmed in such a way that it appears to be a stage play captured by cameras that just happened to be here. They’re usually filmed on four cameras that capture the action at the same time — hence the “multi-camera” — and the production process is shockingly similar to that dreamed up by Desi Arnaz and Karl Freund for I Love Lucy in the early ’50s. Shows like these tend to be very cheap, and they’ve traditionally been more popular than their more cinematic single-camera comedy cousins. They also tend to have audience laughter, whether from a live studio audience or a laugh track. However, the presence of audience laughter does not, in and of itself, indicate a multi-camera sitcom.)
Managing the audience’s mood (all the better to make those actors feel loved) is particularly important for Dads, which isn’t yet on its last legs but seems very close to it. The show debuted — amid a firestorm of critical controversy about the series’ racist gags and just plain awfulness — with a fairly healthy number for a low-rated time slot on a Tuesday. This was treated, in some circles, as yet another front in the eternal battle between audiences and critics, but what was missed was how quickly the show began to tumble down the Nielsen charts.
American TV viewers will watch a bad TV show, so long as it’s sincerely bad. Aaron Spelling made dozens of awful shows, but they came from a place of sincerely wanting to bring a touch of his skewed idea of old Hollywood glamour to the small screen. The same goes for Chuck Lorre, who really does want to make confrontational, crass comedies. What American TV viewers won’t watch is a show that’s insincerely bad or contemptuous of them, and Dads, with its barely-there jokes and “so this is what the people want” approach to politically incorrect humor, more than fits this bill. The show’s ratings slide was all but preordained, and even though Fox gave the series a full season order, the fact that it was sliced back by three episodes suggests even the network has lost patience with it.
Not a lot of that filters through at this taping of what will surely be one of the last episodes of the show (one that may not even air, as the network has eight episodes it will need to air and only seven slots left to fit them in). There’s good reason for this, as for the most part, the studio audience isn’t going to give two shits. It’s here to have a good time, and hearing about the show’s likely cancellation would surely damper that.
But outside all of the obvious reasons to not discuss the troubles the show may or may not be in, there’s a far more insidious one, the one that all multi-camera sitcoms need to deal with if they are to succeed: All shows filmed before an audience necessarily need to turn that audience into an uncredited additional character in the show. The best live studio audience moments — Sam and Diane’s first kiss, say, or Archie Bunker talking with Mike about his old man in the store room — are those when the viewer’s anticipation of the audience’s reaction is almost as important as what’s happening onscreen. It can mimic watching something with an audience, or it can turn disastrous. (This was a big reason Dads’ racist gags, which might have worked on executive producer Seth MacFarlane’s Family Guy, were perceived as so offensive. Get a studio audience in there to hoot and holler at these things, and they suddenly feel a lot more like bullying than silly cartoons.) The modern, warm-up-guided live studio audiences can’t take chances. The network must find the uncredited audience character as predictable as everybody onscreen.
This is why we don’t woo. This is why we laugh the same way every time.
Watching the actors film this episode, though, there are little hints creeping through of the turmoil that has always surrounded Dads, if you know where to look. Even though the taping of an episode that will eventually last only a little more than 20 minutes takes nearly five hours, director Gerry Cohen rarely runs through a scene more than twice. Similarly, the script seems particularly lame and threadbare, as does the one for the unaired episode screened before the taping. In several scenes, there are places where it seems like there might be jokes still waiting to come, yet the dialogue doesn’t bother doing anything clever or unpredictable, counting on us to laugh because we know there’s supposed to be a joke there. (We always do.) Say what you will about that Dads pilot, but it was trying really hard to be shocking; now, the show just seems to have given up.
But here I wonder how much my confirmation bias enters into play. If I were attending a taping of The Big Bang Theory and the director zipped past scenes at a steady clip (as often happens on that show), I would chalk it up to a cast of experienced actors and a well-oiled production machine. Here, I chalk it up to the show just being done with all of this, even though it has had more than enough episodes to figure out a streamlined production process and boasts a cast filled with talented actors who have tons of experience working in this sort of format. (Even the cast’s youngest member, Brenda Song, came up on Disney Channel multi-cams.) Instead, because I know the show is sinking, slowly but surely, I read into what happens the feeling that everybody would really just rather get on with their holiday breaks and start looking for other work come January.
Yet there are just as many signs that all is well on the good ship Dads. The cast and crew seem to get along famously — in that way where it seems to extend beyond the forced camaraderie that all multi-camera casts have to show for the audience in their presence. Seth Green and Song dance and joke around together. Elder statesmen Peter Riegert and Martin Mull (the dads of the show’s title) take their younger costars under their wings. Everybody’s congenial and friendly with the episode’s handful of guest stars, and they even chat with the extras when the occasions arise. Green carries out a playful mock rivalry with the woman who runs the clapboard, though by the end of the five hours, she seems a bit weary of it all.
The one time there’s a bit of tension, it comes from Riegert, and it’s directed not at the other members of the cast or the crew but, rather and completely obliquely, at the writers. There’s a scene in which his character is required to return to the reason he’s in a particular place, after a long runner about something else. (A desire to avoid spoilers means I have to be vague.) There’s absolutely no reason for him to bring it up, other than the scene needs him to, and Riegert spits out a quick joke about why he would be saying that. It’s meant to be funny, but there’s an undercurrent to it, an undercurrent that recognizes the pointlessness and artifice of all of this. We laugh because we’re supposed to laugh; he says the line because he’s supposed to. We’re all just playing a part in another episode of Dads.
As always, the thing knitting all this together, the thing that keeps the great ship Dads steaming toward a new horizon, is the warm-up comic. Allow me to suggest that if the studio audience is the unseen extra cast member in any given multi-camera sitcom, then the warm-up comic — who’s really more of a master of ceremonies in the modern sitcom taping situation — is the conduit between what the audience thinks it’s doing (having a good time watching a TV show be taped) and what the producers need the audience to be doing (offering a level of emotional continuity to the program — even if that’s just constant laughter).
The warm-up for Dads is named Allan Murray, and he’s one of the best there is at this job. He has a fun love-hate thing going with his DJ, who is quick with a perfectly chosen sound clip or song. He stands off to the side before scenes begin filming to remind us of very basic things about the plot and the show’s very premise. He keeps things humming when the show is between scenes, and he tosses out prizes to the various audience members to keep things from getting dull. There’s a bit of quid pro quo at work here, as there always is at multi-camera tapings in an age when producers can’t count on the jokes to keep people in the seats for hours on end. If we laugh perfectly, we will be given prizes or entered into a lottery for even bigger prizes. And if we’re good boys and girls, then maybe the people who have the boxes full of brownies will deliver those unto us as well. The time of year is not acknowledged openly until the end, when we are wished a happy holidays, but Murray is only too happy to play Santa Claus. And he’s good at it.
What he’s also good at is creating a sense that we audience members are a community of like-minded souls, people who are surging forward through a really good time we’re all having together. Before the taping begins, we’re shown that unaired episode, and Murray has to wander off for a while to deal with other business. While he’s gone, the laughter abates, the audience sort of staring at what’s happening and chuckling politely every once in a while. When he returns, we laugh all the harder, because that’s what he needs us to do and that’s what we’ve been trained to do. During the taping, he uses the gaps between scenes, when the cameras are moving across the set and the actors are getting notes or line changes from the writers, to give us time to get to know our fellow audience members, and this further bolsters the sense of community.
But that leaves a question I’ve always wondered after I leave these tapings: Do we like what we see on stage, or do we like how Murray presents what we see to us? The most common complaint against multi-camera sitcoms is, “I hate hearing people laugh at stuff that isn’t funny!” And, indeed, there’s nothing more infuriating than that. Yet I’ve been in audiences where the mood by the end had shifted ever-so-subtly against the actors onstage, yet we all dutifully laughed, as if to get everything over with all the more quickly. Since the invention of the multi-camera sitcom, people have complained that the laughs sound fake, that they’re recorded laughter from dead people. But that’s not strictly accurate. The people are alive. It’s the laughs that are dead.
The ideal of the multi-camera sitcom is that the writers can get an instant gauge of how things will play with audiences at home, then tweak and fine-tune based on what the audience is and isn’t responding to. (The downside of this is what many ultra-popular multi-cams run into after they’ve run for a few seasons: The audience laughs so reliably at everything that happens that no one has any reliable barometers of what’s funny or not.) There are horror stories of shows that kept audiences far too late, because of a showrunner’s quest for perfection in a form that all but demands artificiality and distance. Think, for instance, of Barney Miller’s Danny Arnold, who would keep audiences well past midnight in his quest for the perfect sitcom, until he ditched live studio audiences altogether to hone his art.
There’s none of that here. The writers take time to tweak one or two lines, and they introduce a couple of alternate gags in assorted scenes, but never so much that we go much past that second take. (The one scene that proceeds through multiple versions of a line is baffling, because it just keeps getting less and less funny.) There is definitely a sense here of playing out the string, of not expending too much effort, because it’s almost Christmas, and this is the last taping of 2013, and there probably won’t be too many more in 2014 anyway.
For now, though, Dads is up and on its feet, and so are we. I look around sometimes, when I’m supposed to be laughing, when I feel a little wrong to not be doing so, and the people around me are genuinely entertained by what they’re seeing up there on stage. The laughs sound fake to me, but the faces are delighted. Between scenes, we dance and joke around with Murray, and when it comes time to have another standing ovation to greet the cast at the end of the recording, we know just what to do. I look at the girl next to me; she’s bouncing with excitement, dancing between both feet to see those actors up there (especially Green). The guy on my other side is holding his hands up to his mouth to make his cries of excitement better heard.
It’s all a simulacrum of fun, an event carefully managed to make it seem like a good time. But when you’re not watching, it has a tendency to tip over into the actual thing. I don’t like Dads in the slightest, and the second every disjointed, disconnected scene is over, I’m immediately realizing just how unmoored it was from everything else. But in the few precious moments when the episode is filming, when I can tune into the laugh track that underlies every one of our actions here tonight, it is my favorite show in the world, or at least the version of it that Murray presents to me is. The old saw is that laughter can never be a lie, but if you warp the circumstances around it enough, it can sure be dishonest.
Todd VanDerWerff is the TV Editor of The A.V. Club. His writing also appears in the Los Angeles Times and Salon.