A year ago, in fact almost exactly a year ago on January 11th, 2011, I was a member of that elite few known as a live studio audience. You know, the kind that “Happy Days” was filmed in front of. In my case, I was going to see the CBS sitcom “$#*! My Dad Says.” Sitcoms in front of an audience are becoming a rarity as networks move into the slightly more polished feel they can get from a more cinematic setup, so the idea of watching a live scripted television program may soon be a thing of the past.

It wasn’t the first time I’d been a television audience. I had the pleasure of seeing Conan O’Brien‘s short-lived tenure on “The Tonight Show” with two very good friends. That experience will always be with me. Conan is a hell of a showman and the quality of the show from before the cameras ran until we went home was the kind of spectacle usually only imagined by eight-year-olds when imagining what Hollywood is really like. But quality aside, the logistics of our visit were pretty much exactly what I expected them to be. My sitcom trip on the other hand, was anything but expected. My day watching a sitcom being created was filled with very surprising ways of doing things; some reasonable, some very odd. A lot of people have asked me questions about how that process goes down. The most common question is “Does the audience really laugh that hysterically and constantly and the slightest whims of comedy?” Well, yes. And no. It’s a long road the studio goes through to get that very odd, very forced creature known as an audience laugh track. Allow me to illuminate.

So, the first question is: “Why ‘$#*! My Dad Says’?” Good question. It certainly wasn’t the worst television show on in 2010, but it was far from the best. It wasn’t fanboyism to see William Shatner in person. I could plunk down $20 and go to Comic Con for that (and in fairness, I have.) It was to see Mr. Shatner act in person. Long before “Star Trek”, William Shatner was a celebrated stage actor in Montreal and the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, even receiving praise for his lead in Henry V in 1956. Many decades later, I read some of his books on acting, including Up Till Now, and learned that his views on acting, and life (if I may get a bit hyperbolic) were incredibly in sync with my own. I started actively consuming his early work before he was typecast as a Starship Commander. I saw his early films – good films. I watched The Intruder, The Brothers Karamazov and “Studio One”. Many of them not easy to find. It was a very personal kind of acting that I found very similar to my own. I wanted to see him act on stage. I knew I’d never get to see Tyrone Guthrie‘s 1954 production of Taming of the Shrew, so if a 2010 sitcom based on a Twitter feed was the only way I’d get to see a live stage performance, that’s what I’d see.

A few week’s prior to filming, I reserved my tickets online and received an email confirmation as well as parking info, etc. You aren’t required to reserve a spot, but I sure as heck wasn’t going to take chances if I was driving to another state. Everything was pretty normal. I packed up my car and drove out pretty early from Phoenix to make sure I got there in plenty of time. A 12 pack of Mt. Dew and the soundtrack to TRON: Legacy as my road companions. I arrived plenty early on the Warner Brothers lot and saw the iconic water tower where I can only assume Yakko, Wakko and Dot still call home. Several shows were taping that day, and each had their own little waiting area. I was first in line, but the lines all filled quickly and I had my first realization of the day. Most sitcoms are on in the evening after we get home from work. I think subconsciously we kind of think of them as being filmed in the evening. But if you think about it, that’s just impractical. Shows are filed in the afternoon, on workdays, when people have jobs. As the lines filled up, there was the occasional tourist or person with a day off. But the large majority of audience members fell into two categories, the elderly and the homeless. The elderly crowd was mostly retirees just looking for something to fill their days; every one of their days. Most of the people I talked to came down three or four times a week for various programs. It’s how they passed away their retirement years. In fact, most of them knew each other. This was their gathering place. Many of the people in my audience watched the same show every week. It was their ritual. I never really imagined that when a show was filmed before a live studio audience, it was virtually the same audience week after week.

The homeless part, was an even more interesting part of the behind-the-scenes “magic”. As the lines started filling in for each respective show, some shows just didn’t fill up. They can’t very well film a show for 12 people if they want that sweet, creepy laugh track. When this happens, the people in charge send a guy with a van to one of the local shelters. They bring back a few van loads of folks and give them a few extra bucks for food after the screening. I spoke with one of the people there and apparently, it was a pretty regular thing. It wasn’t expected from day to day, but it was a nice little bonus that happened for them once in a while.

So that’s the makeup of your typical audience. It was a bit odd, though not unpleasant that I was one of the few n00bs in the scenario. There were two interesting exceptions to this rule. The line for “Big Bang Theory” did trend a bit younger and had a palpable hipster element. I can see that, I suppose. The other was an amusing incident when two retired couples walked right past the line to enter the studio before being politely stopped by a security guard. They seemed very confused that they had to wait in line. One of them proclaimed, “When we go to see Jay Leno there’s never a line. We just walk right in.” I politely bit my tongue.

After a not too long wait, our line was taken into the studio. Our line had two minor “persons of interest” that day; myself for having traveled across state lines, and a lovely woman who’s daughter got her first professional acting job as an extra in the program. The people at the studio were actually pretty cool and nice and gave us the two best seats (except for the four VIP seats reserved for… you know… VIPs.) The room is actually not too large, not as many seats as Conan’s show. Just enough to have a decent crowd. In front of us was the two main set pieces of the show; the living room and the kitchen. These were center stage. For each week’s episode the additional sets for the episode in question were built out to either side so we could still see them easily enough even if we had to look at a bit of an angle. For the episode being filmed on that day, “Ed Goes to Court“. There were two additional sets; a clothing store and a ballroom. The ballroom scene extended slightly beyond what was easily visible. They had ways around that little problem which would present themselves later.

As mentioned, the episode was titled “Ed Goes to Court.” It guest starred Jean Smart from “Designing Women” and Tia Tequila. (I was later sad to learn that the following week’s episode would guest star my old boss, Lee Majors. But that’s a story for another day.) We were given a brief welcome and introduction to how the filming would happen, as well as a brief summary of the story so-far, as many episodes had already been filmed, but not yet aired.

So how is a sitcom filmed? Well, it’s certainly not like any film set I’ve been on (oh yeah, ‘cuz I’ve been on so many film sets.) There’s no coverage. There’s no pick up shots. There’s no reaction footage. The scenes are filmed in their entirety. And the scenes can be fairly long. I have to admire the actors in the series. It really is more like a play than a film. They don’t have permission to miss a line when a shot is seven minutes long (yes, seven. Believe me, we’ll talk about that.) There are four cameras on the shot so editing can be done later, so each actor is always “in the moment.” And I don’t recall a single time when the director would call for a second take. Not a traditional second take anyway.

As soon as the scene wrapped, a half dozen writers – all desperately trying to look like Jason Schwartzman from Rushmore came out into a huddle. This is where the show became a bit more interactive. Since the show is produced on a fairly tight schedule, there is no rehearsal process. The take for the audience is the first time the actors perform it together. The dialog spoken by humans is often very different on the page. Some jokes fly. Some don’t. And the first part of the answer to if the audience laughs at everything is this. We don’t. Some jokes were met with deafening silence. The writers rework the scene. Keeping the beats, but rewriting dialog, changing jokes, changing blocking. New scripts are created in pencil and given to the actors and the scene is done again. In a couple of instances, only a single line or two was changed, but for most scenes the dialog was signifiantly reworked and the scene was shot again in its entirety.

This is where I gained an additional level of respect for the performers. They had time to learn their lines and become comfortable with their delivery before the first version of the scene, but for the second (and occasionally third) versions, they had only a moment to learn their lines before going at the scene in full again. This impressed me. They were professionals. Quick costume changes, long uninterrupted scenes. It truly was more like a play than I expected. And I got to see more than what I came for. Not only an actor I respected on stage, but to be audience to the processes. For someone studying an actor, it was better than a play. It was a play with all of the preparation on transparent display. It was really worth coming. But there was more to see.

Each scene progressed this way; long into the evening. Several hours passed. The production crew kept us engaged. Mr. Shatner came and talked the craft between takes. Pizza was ordered for us, and it was pretty good pizza. Two very brief scenes from the episode were filmed ahead of time as they were location shots, but they were shown to us on a large monitor so they could still get our reaction. The ball room scene out of site? Also on the monitor. The clothing store scene featured the extra whose mother was in attendance and visibly proud. More hours passed. The sun was down now. More scenes were being filmed. Two things began occurring to me. First, this show was getting to be pretty long. Oh sure. I knew it would be edited down a bit, but they had filmed enough for a full length feature by this point. How could this possibly be a 22 minute program? Second, the show I was watching was actually pretty good. Not “Alex Haley’s Roots” good, but much better than the episodes I’d seen at home. The jokes fell generally on the slightly lame side, but there was timing and finesse and acting involved. The laughs, when they did come, were earned. The story flowed and the characters were interesting and invested. This was much less shallow than the TV show I’d TiVo’d for the last several months.

The show wrapped. The cast came out to thank us for coming. Somehow I got a handful of candy. We left the studio to get on with our lives. The daughter/extra came out to meet her mom and talked with me about acting for a few minutes. She was cool, and I wish her luck. We said our goodbyes, I visited my friends at iO West, walked off into the night without a plan for where to sleep much to the furrowed brow of the cast of Dr. God. The next morning I went home, satisfied, but curious how what I saw would turn into what TV would make it.

It wasn’t until the show aired a mere sixteen days later that I learned that the show would be taken through the Hollywood machine and all of its dreams would be crushed.

Someone in this photo has never been on TV before. Photo courtesy Warner Bros.

So we finally come to the question at hand. How can those laugh tracks possibly be real? No one laughs that much at so little. It’s weird and creepy and… weird and creepy. Well, there are a few tricks to keep the audience laughing that are pretty straightforward and not really skeezy at all. Although the day was long, they kept us in generally good spirits the whole time. There was no laugh sign, but there was a warm-up guy who got us at ease before the show started. He was genuine and honest and engaged the audience and made us feel at home. He entertained us during the breaks between scenes and kept a positive spirit. Mr. Shatner also took a few opportunities to come out and play with the audience. And pizza never hurts. So we were having a high old time and in a laughing mood. That’s all above the board as far as I’m concerned. That’s all fair game.

But the other side of the game was appalling. As I said, all the laughs that evening were earned. There was no “laugh now” sign. There wasn’t (to my knowledge) any additional laugh track inserted into the show. The laughs were earned. But after we left, those laughs had a higher currency than the quality of the narrative.

What does that mean? Well, as I mentioned the show was exceptionally long. I knew there would be editing to bring down the time. A scene with Shatner and Miss Tequila was cut. The scene in the clothing store was thankfully shortened to remove a joke about confusing a bathroom and a dressing room (fortunately, the young lady who was on TV for the first time was not cut.) That’s normal editing. That’s proper editing. But that was only one of the three kinds of editing that happened.

The second kind of editing was much less kosher. As I watched the actors, they played off each other. They were pros. They figuratively danced around each other to build up a joke, find the energy, and deliver the punchline. Even after the rewrites, they generally dodged and weaved their way to the joke. The audience came along on the ride for that joke and appreciated the punchline. Maybe the punchline was lame, but we were invested in the joke at that point. (If you don’t believe a joke can be great with a terrible punchline, you haven’t heard “The Moth Joke“). I didn’t have a timer, but on average most jokes that January evening took about ninety seconds to setup. Four laughs in six minutes? Sure, that’s believable. When the show went to the editing room, all that changed. the setup wasn’t important to the editors. The setup wasn’t important to the editors as a narrative device. It was only useful to them as a means to recorded laughter. Of that ninety seconds, eighty were removed. Only if a line was essential to understanding the punchline did it remain. What remained, was unnatural. Instead of characters conversing, it was suddenly a concentrated string of punchlines with close to zero context. Anyone watching the show in this form would “get” the joke, but it wouldn’t be funny. Certainly not as funny as it was before.

And then the third phase of editing. At this point the show had been strip mined for laugh track potential. But that wasn’t enough. When the actors spoke, they spoke like humans, with a natural amount of time between the end of one person’s speaking and the beginning of the next line of dialogue. This was precious fractions of a second that was not filled with laughter, so it was deemed unnecessary. Now that I know this process, I can see that most audience sitcoms rarely have two lines of dialog without a camera change. This is so the individual frames can be shaved away to bring the words closer together and the pace of the conversation faster.

What was left of a fairly interesting (if not brilliant) play was now a series of punchlines spoken rapidly. It was no longer the beast that it started as. I’m going to attempt to recreate the opening scene from my admittedly year-old memory as it was played out before me.

Ed: My gosh what happened to Paula Abdul? She looks terrible.
Henry: Dad, that’s Steven Tyler.
Ed: Ahh. He looks good. My God what happened to Oprah. She looks terrible.
Bonnie: That’s Randy Jackson.
Ed: Oh, he looks good.
Vince: Hey.
Bonnie: Hey, how was open house?
Vince: Oh, a couple of nibbles.
Bonnie: Really, you think any of them are going to pan out?
Vince: No, literally a couple of nibbles. A homeless guy actually bit me.
Bonnie: Oh, I’m sorry honey. I’m sure things will work out.
Vince: I hope so. It’s just hard working on our own.
Henry: Hey , what the hell’s on your lip?
Ed: Yeah, you look like you mistook a box of coal for the cookie jar again.
Vince: (sad face)
Ed: Well he does.
Vince: Actually dad, I have a rash so I couldn’t shave above my lip this morning.
Bonnie: I just can’t believe how fast it grows in.
Vince: Yeah, yeah. It’s a family trait. We all grow mustaches really fast.
Henry: It’s true
Bonnie: Ed, I’ve never seen you with a mustache, I think you’d look handsome.
Ed: Well, that hair thing is from his mother’s side. More specifically his mother.
Bonnie: Oh, come on Ed. She didn’t have a mustache.
Ed: Are you kidding? She looked like Mussolini… You should have seen her mother.
Henry: Wait a second, it’s not just her side. I can grow a mustache too.
Vince: What, you? (laughs) Please. You know something? You can’t grow any facial hair at all.
Henry: Is that a challenge?
Vince: It is.
Henry: OK. I’ll bet I can grow a more killer mustache than you.
Vince: $10 bucks says you can’t
Henry: Make it $20
Ed: Make it stop. Would you guys.
Vince: Why not make it interesting?
Ed: Please somebody make it interesting.
Vince: Whoever has the best mustache in one week, gets $100.
Henry: Deal.

This is how that scene looked at broadcast.

It’s really interesting to see the difference between the beginning and the end of that process. I confess, I haven’t been too keen on sitcoms with laughtracks. But now they seem even less appealing knowing that in some cases, they had the potential to create something with a little more quality, but instead opted to use the program to mine laughter. I won’t miss this kind of programming when it’s gone. I keep thinking about those retired folks in the audience; the ones who come back every week because they have no where else to go. That’s who you’re hearing. I keep wondering why those laughs are so important to the studios. Wouldn’t it make more sense to present a good program than one pushing laughter into our homes? The more I think about it, the more I keep coming back to this piece by Bruce McCullough’s album Drunk Baby Project. I hope you give it a listen.