Acting, Performance, and Something In-Between

While I’m trying very hard not to repeat myself on my favourite TV-related subject, the different sitcom formats and their different pluses and minuses, I do want to call attention to these quotes from an interview with Topher Grace (That ’70s Show) who has a new movie out with comedian Demetri Martin (who starts the ball rolling on that particular subject in this interview). On another website, I was in one of those arguments where I try to explain that the studio-audience format is not obsolete and one thing I was talking about was that the effect of audience performance goes beyond the question of which jokes are working and which aren’t. (In fact, a huge potential disadvantage of that form is that producers — and network executives — demand that perfectly good jokes be cut or dumbed down because the audience didn’t laugh at them for one reason or another, even if they’d work perfectly well on the small screen.) Since the actors shape their performances based on audience response, it can help develop a character in certain ways, particularly as the actor gets a better idea of what will make people like his character, or be happy to see him. Anyway, here’s how Martin and Grace put it in this interview:

Demetri Martin: Doing a multi-camera sitcom, That ’70s Show, your timing is very dependent on a live audience. They can really help you. Like you feel the room — it’s like a dialogue. For standup, that’s a great thing. One of my favorite quotes is from Woody Allen, who says, “the audience teaches you how you’re funny.” You pay attention — they’re giving you signals. Over the years I’ve thought of certain dirty jokes and I’ve tried them, especially at open mics when I was coming up, and they don’t want that from me.

Topher Grace: I remember I literally had never acted, and we had a week of rehearsal and we shot the first episode of That ’70s Show. I mean, like good Lord! Just thinking about it now — I was 19, how did I not just totally pass out or something? I was like, “Yeah, yeah, we can do this.” But if I was any older I’d have failed… I do remember the first couple episodes the audience laughing, and this was before the show was on the air. That taught me stuff about the character forever. They would laugh at stuff and I’d think, “Oh, so they think I’m this.” And I can play into that.

Now, as Martin also points out, this can also be accomplished in a movie — which is to say, single-camera comedy. It just depends more on listening to the director and trusting that he, along with the editing crew, knows how to make this work:

On the set you can’t be defensive like that, you gotta just trust everybody. Trust the lighting person, trust make-up. You’ve really gotta trust the director and the editor. Editing is so much of it; you can take the same footage and make a terrible movie, but if you really work with it and find those little magical spots, the timing works.

So, as I always make sure to say, neither form of comedy is foolproof and neither is better or worse than the other. But I do think that audience response helps explain why characters can often be surprisingly likable on a four-camera show — why a Louie DePalma type of character is kind of fun to watch even when he’s at his worst, while a character like Frank Burns became completely insufferable (and Pierce on Community is in danger of going that way). The actor gets a sense of how far he can go with the character without alienating people.

But then, of course, on the other hand, the actor’s urge to make the audience love him can become a bad thing, particularly if a show would be better off keeping a character unlikable or hard-edged. We’ve all seen characters who start out interesting and then get softer and softer, or dumber or sweeter, as the actor starts mugging for the crowd and the writers play that up with what they write for him. (One show that bucked that trend was Seinfeld, and that show shot outside of the studio more and more as it went on — the scenes in Jerry’s apartment and the restaurant, in front of the audience, could rarely have the characters as horrible as they were in the pre-taped sequences without the audience.) Different formats, different disadvantages, but the advantages of the live-audience format seem less well-known for the moment, which is why I enjoy talking about them.

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