If I were looking for a single word to sum up why Chuck Lorre has managed to build a comedy empire in an era that didn’t seem very sitcom-friendly, the word would be “efficiency.” Two and a Half Men may be kind of cruel and mean, but every element of that show is calculated to make the show an efficient laugh machine, and remove anything that might stand in the way of generating jokes on a regular basis: no needless set clutter, no extra plot complications, no verisimilitude in staging or lighting. It is, as all multi-camera sitcoms need to be, a machine that can produce 20 minutes of jokes every week. Not that efficiency doesn’t matter in other forms of TV, but it’s just even more important in a multi-camera comedy because every joke has to land in front of a studio audience, which means that the writers are literally writing for two audiences at once.
One little thing that can sometimes be a test of comedy efficiency is, believe it or not, how well the studio audience is recorded. It’s a tiny thing, but I think it has a subliminal effect: flop sitcoms often have audiences that don’t sound like real human beings. The default assumption is that when audience laughter sounds fake, that’s because it is fake. But while there’s usually some fake laughter in there, many comedy shows, even the bad ones, can get a studio audience to laugh at the jokes. But real laughter in the studio sometimes sounds like fake laughter to the people watching at home, which can make it harder to laugh along with that audience. A show where the laughs sound real and “live” has the subliminal effect of making us feel like we’re in an audience, and that makes it easier to laugh. (Shows that film without an audience and add a laugh track, like How I Met Your Mother, are a different story; the laughter is just there to brand the show as a comedy, so it needs to be at a low volume level. But with a live-audience show, it’s important to give us the feeling of being there in the studio.)
I suspect that the key to making laughs sound real is to mike them in such a way that they sound like they’re the product of real individual voices: instead of one big undifferentiated blob of laughter, the listener should be able to detect differences between frequency and timing and volume of laughs. Oddly enough, as recording technology has become more sophisticated, miking of studio audiences has gotten worse; on live-audience shows from the ’50s through the late ’70s, audiences usually sounded “real” (to the point that it was very easy to tell when fake laughter was dubbed in), whereas many of them now sound like they’re in a different room from the performers. Back To You was like that, and a current show where I have a real problem with the laughter is Gary Unmarried. The audience is often so distantly miked that it doesn’t feel like a live-audience show at all, even when the laughs are live. When you occasionally hear a single person laughing, it’s almost weird because it’s so much more present than the rest of the audience. (When that happens, it’s usually a crew member or producer laughing.)
But it doesn’t have to be that way. One thing that made Everybody Loves Raymond such an efficient comedy was that it had the most live-sounding audience in the business: You could hear individual voices, you could hear people laughing when they hadn’t really been prompted to laugh, and the audience sounded like it was right there next to the actors. And it wasn’t just about the miking, but the editing and the reactions of the actors: the producers would let the laughs play for a long time, the actors would “hold” to let the audience laugh. There are a lot of shows where, in the interests of realism, actors will not hold for laughter any longer than they need to, and the length of the laugh will be cut down further in the editing room. Raymond was more in the tradition of The Honeymooners, where everybody would milk the audience laughter. Some people thought it was over the top, but I thought it was part of the secret of that show’s success; the audience was like a character on the show, and the actors were playing off the audience in a way that doesn’t happen on a lot of other sitcoms. Here’s an example, selected mostly because it has Sam Anderson in it and Sam Anderson is awesome.