Playing to Empty Seats

The TV series Up All Night is switching procedures. Up 'til now it's been shot with one camera with no live audience. It's moving to multi-camera with a live audience. Over on his blog, my pal Ken Levine notes that this is not unprecedented. A number of shows including The Odd Couple and Happy Days made this switch. In fact, it's believed that both those shows went from probable cancellation to Top Ten status because of the change.

From the stash of trivia that I pass off as a brain, I'd like to note that a classic sitcom — one that makes most "all-time greatest" lists — did something of the opposite. The Phil Silvers Show (aka Sgt. Bilko) didn't go from multi-camera to one but they did dispense with a live audience…and it doesn't seem to have made a bit of difference in their series.

In the middle of their second season, show #60 of 143 was called "Bilko Goes Around the World." It was inspired by the then-current movie, Around the World in 80 Days and it featured scenes with that film's well-known producer, Mike Todd. In the midst of rehearsal, Mr. Todd suddenly announced that he couldn't stay until the scheduled filming night; that pressing business elsewhere beckoned and he had to go. The producers made the decision to just film the show a few days earlier, sans audience. It was still done multi-camera but with no one in the bleachers…and it turned out fine.

I'm not sure if it was immediately after Show #61 or if it happened a little later but the Todd episode convinced them that a live audience was a needless expense. Phil Silvers thought it even made the show better. Without one, they could do retakes easier so it wasn't necessary to rehearse every line and move in every scene to within an inch of its life. Silvers felt free to improvise more and to do each scene a few times, plus they could film when he and the director thought they were ready, not when the audience was scheduled. They could film scenes out of sequence if that seemed appropriate. The writers could write scripts with scene and wardrobe changes without worrying about how fast they could be accomplished. The mood on the set got looser because the actors could cuss and ad-lib and screw up without an audience there.

They could also edit out mistakes or reshoot more easily.  If you watch the first season and a half of Bilko, you'll see a lot of them left in.  There are places where actors (especially Paul Ford) forget what they're supposed to say and Silvers ad-libs around this or prompts them.  Because so much of TV then was broadcast live and those moments happened so often on those programs, there was a tendency to not do much editing on film done in front of an audience.

When an audience-free episode had been cut to time, it would be taken and shown to warm bodies…often at some sort of military facility. A cast member — one of the supporting players — would go along to welcome and "warm up" the house before it was shown. Legendary was the one time they sent Joe E. Ross, who played Sgt. Rupert Ritzik. Ross was a burlesque comic with a very raunchy act and virtually no sense of judgement about what was appropriate to say before a given audience. He got up in front of a room full of elderly women and even a few nuns and launched into jokes about hookers and rapists. Enough people walked out that it was necessary to schedule another "sweetening" screening of the episode he was hosting…and they did not send Ross out with it or any other one.

Anyway, the recorded laughs of those audiences were layered onto the shows and according to Mr. Silvers, "Nobody could ever tell the difference." If you watch them, you probably won't. Once in a while, a laugh continues over someone's line and it's obvious the actor speaking that line wasn't hearing that laugh so you may figure it out. Interestingly, the performer in such a situation is almost never Silvers, even though he had close to half the dialogue in some episodes. He just had such a good sense of timing that he knew how long the pauses for laughter should be. I'm not sure you could do that with most situation comedy actors today.