The Hollywood Reporter‘s roundtable discussion with television comedy performers (all men, which unfortunately may just be a reflection of the current state of TV comedy) reminds me that the single question every TV comedy performer gets asked these days is “how much of your show is improvised?” The transcript makes it look like Neil Patrick Harris asked the question here, but that might be a misprint. But any time actors from the current single-camera comedies are gathered together — particularly the mock-documentary comedies — they will be asked, sometimes repeatedly, how much they improvise.
The answer is always the same: not much. The lines are tightly scripted, and as Ed Helms notes, they have to stick to what’s on the page because there’s “camera choreography” and all the rest to be worked out. Even an unexpected movement can be hard for the camera to follow. There may be spots for the actor to “throw something in,” or they might be encouraged to do it once they already have a good take of the scene and are doing another one to see what else happens, but for the most part, improvisation is not something that you can afford when you have to shoot an entire half-hour program in a week. (That’s why Curb Your Enthusiasm, which actually does have improvised dialogue, made the decision to use video instead of film. They had to be able to shoot lots of footage and then put it all together in editing.) But you know, that also happens in drama. That way of “throwing things in” to enhance the actor’s performance or make the scene seem more natural is not at all inherent to comedy. But the comedy actors are the ones who are asked about it, all the time.
But because it’s the job of the actors to make their dialogue seem natural, and because Office and Modern Family encourage the actors to sound like they’re in a documentary, it’s constantly assumed that they’re making this stuff up, when in fact they’re not. I guess it’s a tribute to how well the actors do their jobs, and maybe also to the audience’s surprise at hearing more unusual comic rhythms on TV: you can tell that dialogue was scripted if the actors’ rhythm makes it sound “memorized,” and some current comedies are trying to sound like the actors haven’t thought about these lines before saying them.
This is one thing that probably pushed Modern Family over some of its predecessors from the same writers and producers. In my opinion, Modern Family is not nearly as good a show as the first collaboration between creator Chris Lloyd and star Ty Burrell, Out of Practice. (It’s better than Back to You, though.) But one problem that Out of Practice had was that the very smooth, thought-out, “writerly” style of dialogue Lloyd specializes in was thought of as being a bit old hat. Modern Family uses the same kind of dialogue, lines that sound more like pre-planned jokes than things people would say. But because the delivery of that dialogue is so much looser and not constrained by the rhythm of audience laughter, it doesn’t sound as contrived as it did on those earlier shows. You can get away with a lot more if you make the lines sound sort of tossed-off.
On a related note, interview also contains some pro and con observations about the method of working in front of an audience — which most of these actors no longer do, although most of them have experience doing so. Interestingly the pro and con both make the same point: that unless the audience laughs on the first take, the studio audience format doesn’t work particularly well. Jim Parsons, pro:
The thing that’s scary to me about the live audience is that you only get one chance to deliver. I really love to feel as good about that first take as possible, because they’ll never get to hear it for the first time again. And that drives me crazy. That’s one of the reasons I love it when they do rewrites, because you do get a chance to go through the scene right, or pop something out.
Neil Patrick Harris, con (remember, HIMYM doesn’t use an audience):
I found that after when it’s fourth pass at the scene and you’ve got some guy with a mic saying “All right, everybody, big laughs, you’ve never heard this before! Whoever laughs the loudest, you’re gonna hear it at home and you’re gonna get a T-shirt!” it makes me almost less secure. And writers themselves are laughing loudly at their own jokes, because they have a quasi-agenda and they’re hoping their stuff gets in. And at the end of the day you leave the show and think, “Was that even funny at all?” In theater, you do it once to people who have paid an exorbitant amount of money are sitting back and going, “Impress me.” So I feel, if I win them over it’s really nice.
I would say that this demonstrates the importance of working fast and doing as few takes as possible — which means, among other things, having all the actors know their lines when they show up. Someone once told me that they went to see a Happy Days and that, bad as it was by that point, the whole cast was thoroughly rehearsed and the filming was done very quickly, so that all the audience reactions were genuine and spontaneous. They compared that to a late episode of Friends, which took an immensely long time and was full of stops and starts and multiple takes on every line.
However, the director who is known for doing few takes and keeping the filmings moving very fast is still James Burrows, and based on his most recent pilots, nobody’s particularly funny under his direction any more. So that lets out that theory.