Studio Audiences And "The Milk Trick"

Jaime Weinman

Earl Pomerantz has a post about one of my favourite subjects: the role a studio audience plays in a show, and the difference between how an episode plays in front of the audience and how it plays on TV.

Some episodes play better in front of the studio audience than they do on TV, sometimes because the best jokes were funnier to people who were actually physically present, but sometimes because the need to edit a show down to length will necessitate a choice about what to cut: the big laugh moments, or the bits that led up to those big laughs (and “set them up”).

One of the things that interests me about this choice is the idea that showrunners can focus too much on the moments that got the biggest laughs from the studio audience. They want to keep all the jokes that got huge laughs. But many of those jokes won’t play as well at home. And they wind up with an episode that feels like a string of disconnected jokes, most of which aren’t even that funny. This description could apply to many bad sitcom episodes (and even weak episodes of good sitcoms):

What then do you cut? You cut, or at least cut down, the exposition and the continuity. Also at risk are the underpinnings that set the comedy up. What happens then? Duh. The funny parts, less carefully prepared for, are no longer as funny.

“Editing for time” also hinders the natural flow of the storytelling. Struggling to retain the comedic highpoints, the episode can evolve into a compilation of “greatest hits”, becoming choppy, and losing its shape. An episode once deemed “better than perfect” can, when finished, feel disjointed and ultimately unsatisfying.

That’s why it’s sometimes better, in the editing process, to be willing to lose some of the big jokes in favour of maintaining the story flow; not only will the episode be more satisfying as a whole, but the big laughs (when they do come) will come organically from the story, and will therefore actually make people laugh at home.

Episodes, lacking those time-stretching “big laughs”, tend to play more smoothly in your house (and better than they did in front a perhaps attentive but less vocal studio audience.) Though admittedly less hilarious, there’s something rewarding about a story that takes time to connect the necessary story dots, from its premise, through its complications, to its natural, though hopefully surprising, resolution. Consciously or unconsciously, it’s an ultimately happier experience.

(I personally think this applies even more to a conventional sitcom than it does to comedy in general. Whatever I think of Family Guy, it can get away with being, as Cartman says, “one random joke after another,” because it usually doesn’t pretend to be anything else. But a regular sitcom has to get most of its laughs from the story, whatever that story happens to be. And if the story isn’t coherently told, it will not be funny to those watching at home.)