Filmed In Front of a Live Studio Audience
The TV show Friends is one of my favorite TV shows ever. Admittedly, it has a lot of issues. But it also had a huge impact on pop culture and paved the way for contemporary media. I recently read I’ll Be There For You: The One About Friends by Kelsey Miller. It’s a fascinating book about the effect Friends had on the world. It also includes a ton of behind-the-scenes about the making of the show. One of my favorite facts about Friends is that it was filmed in front of a live studio audience.
I love behind-the-scenes and documentary-type books, movies, and shows. Just this weekend I watched the first episode of the new Disney+ original show Marvel Studios: Assembled. This show looks at the making of their new Disney+ MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) shows. The first episode is “The Making of WandaVision.” The premise of WandaVision, at least the beginning of the show, is that the Marvel characters Wanda and Vision are living out the beginning of their married life through the sitcoms of the late 20th century. In keeping with the authenticity of paying homage to those shows, they filmed in front of a studio audience. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about a comparison that multiple actors made about that style of filming. Is filming in front of a live studio audience a form of theatre?
History of the Live Studio Audience
I Love Lucy was the first TV show to be filmed in front of a live studio audience in 1951. While not always synonymous, most shows that are filmed in front of a live studio audience are also multi-camera shows. A multi-camera show versus a single-camera show means exactly what it sounds like. Historically, but not necessarily true anymore today, multi-camera shows were sitcoms filmed in front of a live studio audience. Single-camera shows were more like hour-long action shows or dramas.
Many shows have followed the format of multi-camera filming and filming in front of a live studio audience. Popular shows of the late 1900s using that format include Friends, Seinfeld, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and Full House. Contemporary shows that have used this format include The Big Bang Theory, Mike and Molly, and (as mentioned previously) WandaVision.
Effect of a Live Studio Audience
Filming in front of a live studio audience is extremely different from filming a single-camera show. In a single-camera show, the actors know that they should work off of each other and to the camera. But when performing in front of a live studio audience it’s not all that different from live theatre. When we watch the show after it’s been filmed it’s not like live theatre. But for the people in the audience at the time of filming, they might as well be watching a play.
With a live studio audience, the actors don’t just have other actors to play off of, but also the reactions and energy of the audience. They aren’t acting to a machine (the camera), they’re acting to living people (the audience). The fact that they’re acting to the audience instead of one camera is why having multiple cameras is great. The version of the episode that will air on TV can be edited later to have the shots and angles that make the most sense for TV. Finally, when filming in front of a live studio audience they are less likely to start and stop as often, giving the run of the episode the continuity feel of live theatre.
So What’s The Verdict
Obviously when I watch my favorite episodes of Friends or Full House I don’t sit on my couch thinking, “How nice that I get to watch theatre in the form of television.” But, it is a form of theatre, isn’t it? Especially now when we are looking more into virtual theatre, streamed theatre, and pre-recorded theatre due to the pandemic, if we say that these TV shows (originally filmed and performed in a theatrical way) aren’t theatre then are we saying that the form of theatre we’ve come to accept during the pandemic isn’t theatre either? We’re starting to walk a really fine line and I’m not sure which side I stand on. What I do know is, if I’m going to watch Hamilton on Disney+ and call that “theatre”, then maybe I can call TV shows filmed in front of a live studio audience “theatre” too.