Hello. My name is Eric and I like sitcoms with a studio audience.
Yes, I know. I’m a critic. I’m only supposed to like those ultra-meta, ultra-complicated (and ultra high-brow) single-camera comedies like Community or 30 Rock. The moment I hear audience laughter during a television show, I’m supposed to stick my nose in the air in disgust and argue that it lowers the quality, cheapens the humor and flat-out ruins the show. But you know what? That’s all bullshit. In this single-camera comedy world, there is room for laughter. It just has to be done right.
Studio Audience Done Wrong
For an example of a mess, look at NBC’s latest comedy Perfect Couples. It’s basically a multi-camera sitcom without being multi-camera, nor does it have a studio audience. And you know what? It fails miserably. But before you jump down my throat and say that producing it as a multi-camera program with a studio audience wouldn’t make it any funnier, let me say that I agree with you. I don’t think PC can be saved now. That’s not the point. The problem with it is that it never embraced the fact that it is, at heart, a multi-camera sitcom and needs to use a studio audience to support its humor. Since there’s no studio audience, a vital “character” is missing.
Everything is a just a little off, right? Yeah, the jokes aren’t the greatest and you’ll probably want to lay the blame there. But if they had done this scene in front of a studio audience, the actors would’ve had the opportunity to hear the audience reaction and maybe would have tried to make them laugh more by pushing their characters further; maybe even achieving a different level of comedy. In that scene, they’re all getting drunk. If there’s any opportunity for silliness in a television show, it’s as the characters are drunk — especially when it’s a big, ensemble cast. How can a scene like that lack energy? And yet, that’s exactly what’s missing.
Studio Audience Done Right
Now let’s define “right,” because there are quite a few sitcoms out there that do it the wrong way. “Right” means that if you’re going to make a multi-camera sitcom, you need to understand that the studio audience is a vital part of the show. In fact, it’s so vital that you should consider it a character. Jokes and gags, should be written with the understanding that audience reaction isn’t just filler for dead space, but an opportunity for the actors. They can use the laughter from the studio audience as energy to push their characters into silly and wacky territory, a place that they probably wouldn’t go without that energy. If these guidelines are forgotten, there’s a good chance that the show won’t work and will turn into a mess. When it’s done right, however, it can make for classic television.
Let’s take a couple of great sitcoms – at least ones I consider to be great: Seinfeld and The Big Bang Theory (until this season). When you think about it, multi-camera sitcoms are essentially live theater on television. The shows don’t take tremendous leaps to create original plot lines or attempt to turn television upside down with their social commentary. No, they’re just trying to do some funny gags that make people laugh. And when people laugh, like in the theater, it creates the energy that performers rely on.
Look at this classic moment when Kramer “is Batman.” (Unfortunately, the video is not embeddable, so check it out right here). Or perhaps, let’s look at an example from The Big Bang Theory, a more recent sitcom that proves the format is still relevant. In the same way that Kramer feeds off the audience above, Sheldon does so when he receives the best Christmas present ever, right here (with another non-embeddable clip. Stupid YouTube).
Sure, these moments are silly and absurd and might not be as meta as a Cosby Show joke about a sweater in Community, but come on, they’re just as funny, if not funnier. Frankly, they wouldn’t achieve their greatness without the laughter from the audience. A character gets placed in a nutty spot, suddenly wrapped up in a monologue. As the studio audience starts cracking up, the actor feeds on their energy, using their laughter to push further and further. So far, in fact, they’re doing things that they normally wouldn’t, which causes the audience to laugh even more until finally, boom; the end result is an over-the-top, absurd and hilarious moment.
I’m not denying that there are plenty of awful, awful sitcoms out there (just channel surf around on any given night and you’ll see what I mean). It’s very easy to get caught using plot twists we’ve seen before or lines we’ve heard hundreds of times. It’s a fine line to walk, but when a multi-camera sitcom does get it right and understands that it can use audience to its advantage, we’re lucky enough to see some of the best moments that television can offer.
After all, we just want to laugh. And it’s fun to laugh with someone. What’s the harm in that?