Jerry Seinfeld does stand-up in my apartment. Jackie Gleason and Art Carney do vaudeville for me and a few friends. Harpo Marx plays and destroys a life size piano and my friends laugh so hard I make him do it again and again.
A couple of months ago a friend loaned me a multimedia LCD projector that hooks up to my computer and I’ve been projecting movies, TV shows and youtube clips onto the wall of my apartment ever since. I’ve set up extension cords that send the sound to two speakers on either side of where I project the picture (an area about the size of a ping pong table). I’m hooked. A pleasant surprise has been how doing this highlights the link between sitcoms and theatre.
My career is in theatre - fringe theatre, specifically, which means (among other things) venues of fifty to two hundred seats. The actors can see the audience and make eye contact with them. Laughter (or the lack of it) strongly affects their rhythm and delivery. Everyone hears people fidgit if they’re bored. There’s a palpable excitement if a venue is packed, and a dreadful awkwardness if there are only a few scattered people sitting there. The audience is an integral part of the experience.
Sitcoms are inherently theatrical. The form grew out of stage plays (as well as radio drama and vaudeville)(which also grew out of stage plays). In early television the actors rehearsed during the week and then performed the show for a live studio audience. This is still largely how it’s done, even when the audience is canned (Two and a Half Men) or absent from the process (The Office, Scrubs). The spine of a sitcom is actors interacting. Doing dialogue. Sometimes there’s physical comedy. Chase scenes, location filming, montages, special effects, crowd scenes - staples of movies and dramatic TV series - are rare. Actors in multi-camera sitcoms (I Love Lucy, Cheers) angle their bodies towards the cameras (and audience) and pause when entering a room as the audience applauds. There may be retakes as needed when taping, but scenes are performed from beginning to end. Budgets and schedules don’t allow for too many takes. Actors play scenes with each other like they’re in a theatre piece. And they sort of are.
There aren’t many close-ups in sitcoms. No wide shots. It’s mostly mediums. So the actors on my wall are approximately life size. Watching them is a lot like watching a stage show in an intimate venue. Fittingly, the comedy clubs where Seinfeld does stand-up on his show seem to have audiences of a few dozen people.
Watching a sitcom this way makes it easier to picture the performance as it was filmed. The sets seem more tangible when they aren’t miniaturized in a little box. With DVDs and downloads the show isn’t interrupted by commercials, station identification, and voiceover pitching what’s on next. There’s no clicker in your hand, giving you the sense of control and of there being dozens of other things you can flip to at any second. You get a feeling of continuity. There’s a certain majesty in seeing great comedic actors right there. And you’re looking up at them. Like you’re at the theatre.
Watching The Honeymooners gives a strong impression of watching performers on a stage. An actor will be absent from the beginning of a scene if they’re getting a costume change (their absence is always written into the scene). Sometimes they’ll flub a line and correct themselves in character - or be corrected by another actor in character. In one episode Audrey Meadows (Alice Kramden) sneaks in a few stifled coughs between lines. In another episode Ralph (Jackie Gleason) plans to sell a multi-purpose kitchen gadget on live television, and in the scene where he and Norton (Art Carney) rehearse their pitch, a part of the gadget comes loose and flies off. Gleason walks over and picks it up (getting closer to the camera than he usually does), and ad libs the line “Maybe we should say something about spear fishing”. That scene (embedded at the end of this post) goes on to have the two of them play their ad to the camera, their direct address giving an even greater sense of it being a vaudeville routine.
Here’s another thing - people generally watch TV alone, unless there’s a special event (the Oscars, a play-off game). But friends will come over if you’ve got a projector. Laughter is contagious. Group reactions bolster the sense of being part of the genuine audience the actors are playing to (canned laughter tries to simulate this). Watching life-size TV with friends makes the solitary experience communal. It becomes more like watching a stage play.
I don’t mean to justify our culture’s lust for new toys and perrennial distraction. It would be easy to go overboard with this projector. And it still can’t beat the give and take of an actual live show. I have no plans to stop performing or attending plays. But I wasn’t going to see Jackie Gleason ad lib and do physical comedy in person anyway. And it’s nice when a piece of technology helps you appreciate something that was already there. All of the elements I’ve been describing are part of sitcoms whether they’re watched on a TV, a computer or a phone. Seeing them projected life size can remind us what the roots of the form are, and what its essential strengths can be.
This post is the first in a series I have planned that looks at how form affects content, specifically in the arts. I don’t have an over-arching thesis. I’ll make my discoveries as I go and see if there’s any unifying element in the end. This comparison of sitcoms and stage plays leads me to believe our tastes haven’t changed that much. Live theatre of the traditional sort has been dying for a while (more experimental forms of theatre are thriving - something I’ll write about in an upcoming post), whereas sitcoms made their way into the public taste fifty-some years ago and are as popular as ever. Many theatre purists poo poo television, and many sitcom watchers associate theatre with confusion, pretension and boredom. And yet they have more in common than is generally thought to be the case.