What's missing from B Positive and other multi-camera comedies this season: A studio audience
The pandemic is forcing sitcoms to break from a tradition that started 69 years ago with I Love Lucy.
Back in the days when The Big Bang Theory was the most-watched comedy on television, the writer-producers would cringe whenever the studio audience responded to a tender moment on stage with a protracted — and very annoying — "awwww." They got even hotter under the collar when the spectators let out an exaggerated "wooooooooooo" if characters like Sheldon and Amy dared to kiss. "The audience doesn't go awww on Broadway," lamented Executive Producer Chuck Lorre during a recent PaleyFest fall preview panel. "I've never understood it. It's been happening as long as I can remember."
But now that Lorre is about to launch B Positive, his latest comedy (with Marco Pennette) that debuts tonight on CBS, he'd give anything to have those rafters filled with swarms of ooh-ers and aaw-ers. "That's the heartbreaker of the whole thing," lamented Lorre. "There's not going to be any studio audiences for some time, I'm afraid."
Blame the pandemic for that. Multiple layers of protocol make it impossible to bring the public onto the comedy sound stages, where the studios are spending millions to keep the cast and crew free from infection. "Everything is aimed at maintaining a safe environment," Lorre added. "There is no fallback position. It can't be sort of safe. It has to be safer than your house."
But that means the discontinuation of a tradition that began 69 years ago on I Love Lucy: the presence of a live studio audience. Now Lorre will have to (begrudgingly) rely on a laugh track to react to the repartee on B Positive, a comedy starring Thomas Middleditch as a man who needs a kidney and the long lost friend (Annaleigh Ashford) who offers one up.
"I've never been fond of that," Lorre said about using laugh tracks to enhance the studio audience. "We never sweetened a show. If anything we very often would take laughs out because we couldn’t hear the dialogue. Adding a laugh to something that is not funny is self defeating. It doesn’t make it funny. It makes it annoying, if anything."
At least the laughs in tonight's premiere will be genuine: the pilot was completed before Hollywood came to a halt because of the pandemic. "More than anything, watching Thomas and Annaleigh in front of that live audience last March was really spectacular," remembered Lorre. "The whole cast came up to a whole new level because it was a live performance. Most of what you see in the pilot is that performance."
But starting next week, the laughs will have to be manufactured — and there's no telling when a studio audience will be allowed again into the B Positive soundstage. "As an actor, it’s like a tragedy that we have to deal with," added Middleditch, somewhat sarcastically. "Oh shucks! We don’t get that feedback, that experience! But I’m sure we’re going to do our absolute best to manage."
Rather than dwell on what they've lost, celebrities on other shows are trying to appreciate the upside of having some empty rafters. "There are some plusses," offers Sara Gilbert, a.k.a. Darlene, of ABC's The Conners. "Usually with a studio audience, we don't want to burn them out. So we only do two or three takes, maximum. With a live show, you just don't have that many chances. So I do like having that now. I have more time if I don't like something."
Even pro Derek Hough — now a judge on the audience-free Dancing With the Stars — says cheering fans can sometimes work against his amateur partners. "The audience can create a lot of nerves, a lot of adrenaline, and sometimes that adrenaline can work against you," admits Hough. "There have been many times, at least for me in the past, when we had a dress rehearsal with no audience and my partner did really well. So a live audience can go both ways. It can be a benefit to some people and a detriment to some people."
As for the cast of B Positive, they'll have to rely on Lorre and his band of writers for instant feedback. (During rehearsals, the crew routinely laugh hard and long to help keep the energy alive). "I've been saying it's going to feel like a Wednesday matinee," jokes Ashford.
B Positive premieres at 8:30 p.m. tonight on CBS.
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