BE BRAVE AND BARE YOUR STORY SOUL
Or How A Live Audience Can Improve Your Comedy Writing.
When I was in secondary school, I always looked forward to English Composition day as it was a chance for me to write stories. I remember writing a story that was an homage to a Hardy Boys tale. Homage being just a fancy word for copying the style of an author. I was curious to see how my English teacher would react to my version of the Hardy Boys. The poet Wordsworth wrote how his heart leaped up when he beheld a rainbow in the sky. When I saw that the teacher had written “Good!” in the margins of my exercise book, my heart hurtled into the stratosphere, did a pirouette, slam dunked back to earth and proceeded to perform the Tap Dance Of Joy. It was not just great encouragement, it was an affirmation that I did good, as a writer. Any writer who wishes to advance his craft would benefit from people like my teacher back then. These days, we call these people — the Audience.
HOW I MADE MY PRODUCER DO A SPIT TAKE
I began my writing career writing jokes and short sketches for a local comedy variety show titled The Ra Ra show. Back then, it was recorded live. That meant an audience could buy tickets, come in and sit on metal bleachers to watch the recording. Diva queen Kumar was one of the regular performers on that show. I had written a short three-minute segment for him. He played a radio psychiatrist who would take calls from pretend listeners and give silly advice. I was just starting out to write comedy and this three-minute segment was a great platform for me to practice writing silly puns. The joke I wrote ran this way.
Caller: I caught my husband having an affair. What should I get him for Christmas?
Kumar: Get him something to wear.
Caller: Like a suit?
Kumar: Like a divorce suit.
The live audience howled with laughter. The producer who stood next to me had been drinking from a bottle. When Kumar said the punchline, it was as if Kumar pressed a trigger in her nose. She sneezed and snorted out water as she tried to suppress her laughter. It was then I realized that all theories with regards to the writing of comedy are academic and mean absolutely nothing. All a writer needs to know if his material is funny is simply to play it in front of an audience. If an audience laughs, then its funny. If an audience does not laugh, then it is not. Comedy does not get any simpler than that. This practice of trying out material in front of a live audience was not just applied to a comedy variety show. When Ra Ra show ended, the same practice was carried over when we began filming our first ever English Sitcom — Under One Roof.
The success of that show had a lot to do with the chemistry between the cast, the writing, and the fact that it was filmed before a live studio audience.
THE BENEFITS OF A LIVE AUDIENCE
Humor is subjective. The same joke that delivers chortles and giggles to one group can also deliver dead silence to another. Playing to a live audience allows the writers to see if their jokes had legs. And whether what they wrote on paper will work on the stage. Especially when it comes to line delivery and “action” bits. That knowledge would be useful when you write the next episode. You would know for sure what worked and what didn’t. American comedians, when they write new material, would test it in small comedy clubs, gauge the reactions and make revisions before they open it in the big venues. The sad thing is that currently, there are no live audiences any more for the local sitcoms. Which means that if a line or a delivery or an action bit fails to work, no one would know and that ignorance would continue to play out in the subsequent episodes. In its infinite wisdom, the local broadcasting station has decided to replace live audience with focus groups.
HAVING YOUR WORK JUDGED BY STRANGERS IS LIKE HAVING LIVE AUTOPSY PERFORMED ON YOURSELF
A focus group is comprised of people picked from all walks of lives to come together in one room, watch something, and then answer questions about the show or feature film. I’ve had the dubious privilege of being on both sides of the divide; being a part of a focus group, and the person who had to watch through a one-way mirror as his series got scrutinized by a squad of strangers.
Here’s what it was like.
A dozen people would sit in a room. Each person would have access to a machine that had a knob on a panel, with a small screen that showed a needle. You would be shown a new comedy pilot. Your job is to move the knob when you chuckle, or feel a line is funny. Now, back in an adjoining room, which you can’t see because it is shielded by a one-way mirror, the creator and producers would be sitting anxiously staring at their own machines, which would record and compile all the results of how the focus group was responding to your work. Ideally, you want to see a graphical curve that’s ascending. You do not want to see a flatline for a comedy.
When the episode ends, a host would enter the room, and ask questions from a clipboard. If this show was a dessert, how would you describe it? Tasteless? Too sweet? Too sour?
Upon such questions is the fate of a creative piece of work decided.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A FOCUS GROUP AND A LIVE AUDIENCE
I think there is a small but significant difference between a live audience and a focus group. A live audience participates without judgement. They aren’t told to assess the funny. They’re just there to enjoy themselves. As long as the story tickles their funny bone and distracts them from the worries of the day, you have earned their applause and laughter. There is no better validation to what you do as a writer of commercial entertainment.
A focus group, however, is subconsciously given a power to judge. Your creative work is put up on stage, so to speak, and then is made to turn around, while every flaw of skin and joint, is coldly assessed and given a grade. Each member of the focus group somehow realizes that his or her opinion can make or break the show. In the end, it comes down to this. Whether or not your show gets made, depends on the varied opinions of a squad of strangers.
Therein lies the danger.
When you look back at how successful ground-breaking shows came to be, you’d be shocked to realize that the road is littered with poor focus group reviews. One reason is that a show that is ground-breaking, would often times be very different from the usual run of that particular genre. For example, Seinfeld was touted as a comedy, but did not feature any likeable characters, or a theme song like Friends. When it first came out, it was unlike anything that was seen on air. Much like the British version of The Office, with its brand of uncomfortable cringe comedy and no laugh track or theme song or even cool opening titles at all. When you’re confronted with something that is unfamiliar, it’s natural and human to step back. Adopt a wary attitude. Its why new shows require at least two seasons for the audience to grow with the characters and get used to the style. If not for the faith in which some executives had in the shows, the shows would not have survived beyond the first season.
So is there a need for a focus group? Does it help or hinder the writer? The answer very much depends on how you deal with the feedback.
FOCUS GROUP YOUR OWN WORK
Between a focus group and a live audience, I would prefer to put up my comedy work in front of a live audience. The reaction from a live audience is pure, untainted by an urge to judge.
Aneesh Chaganty and Sev Ohanian, both writers for the thriller Searching, told entirely through apps and the screen, had this to say about soliciting feedback.
“Our process of getting script feedback, and later editing feedback, is pretty neurotic. We sent the script out to 5 close friends, and then interrogated them on the phone for an hour each, asking around 100 questions about every page and whether they picked up on certain clues, etc. And we do the same thing with our test screenings. The goal was for us to make sure audiences were following along with the clues and mystery… but not following along too closely.”
I would add this. If you have to submit a short film or even a feature, to a focus group, choose people from a broad range of ages. Whether or not you should find a focus group really depends on the kind of questions you come up with. Never ask questions like if the show was like a fruit, or a jam or drink, what would it be? (Which was an actual question asked of a local show)
Instead, ask questions whose answers will help you as the writer, to improve the script. Questions like –
Do you follow the story? (This is THE most important question to ask)
What do you think the theme is about?
What do you think is the motivation for the main character when he did what he did?
What’s unclear in the story?
Questions like these will give you a clue as to what you need to do to rewrite the story. If your focus group consists of ten people and nine of them profess that they cannot follow your story, then you should quietly bury your ego, and re-assess your story. Or re-edit the film. But do remember one thing. The focus group should never ever be the ones to tell the writer how to fix the problem. That still has to be the duty of the writer. Only someone who is familiar with story structure should be allowed to do the rewrite. This is because an issue in the second act, sometimes, is not because the second act is problematic. It is because you had not set up the story problem clearly in the first act. An audience not familiar with storytelling techniques might not be aware of that. And sometimes an audience member might suggest that you add more action because the middle part is a bit slow. Thank the member but ignore that feedback because a problem with slowness of the second act could simply be a lack of emphasis or escalation of the emotional stakes in the first act. Adding more action does not necessarily make your film more compelling. Adding more depth and stakes for your main character to overcome however, will make your story more compelling any time.
WHAT I HAVE LEARNT AS A WRITER
Focus groups are great as a means to help you with the rewrite. But only if you choose the right questions to ask. If nine out of ten people in the group, has a problem with following the story, then there IS a problem you must address.
Go back to fundamentals and rewrite your script. Bare you story soul to a live audience. And may you feel like performing the Tap Dance Of Joy.