Pili Valdés, writer for Remezcla magazine, was present amongst the live audience for the taping of the first episode of season 2 of the Netflix original series One Day at a Time. In her review she provides a lot of insight into the taping process that viewers who have never been to a live-studio taping of a show may not have. One of the insights that she provides is the fact that the taping process for a studio audience is around 4 hours for a ~25 minute show. The audience has to remain engaged and supportive of the cast for the entire time with only one “pee break” halfway through the taping. This is no easy feat and she says that both the cast members and the audience are instrumental in keeping morale up. In her words, “if you have to be stuck in a room with strangers for four hours, these are the strangers you want to be shut in with. I’m talking about the cast and the audience. In between takes, the cast would mingle with each other and with us plebes.” The audience members at her taping included an R&B singer who did impromptu songs between takes and a professional salsa dancer “who, after being egged on to share his talents, slayed Marc Anthony’s ‘Valio La Pena’. To his delight (and ours) Rita [Moreno] was watching and congratulated him. He then took the mic from the comic and professed his love for her. At that moment, he was all of us.”
All of this interaction serves to create a kind of community atmosphere that isn’t felt by TV viewers hearing only the highly canned laughter that a comedian “helped to calibrate our laughs.” She goes on to point out that the canned laughter is in fact real; “you remember Full House? Friends? You remember those annoying laughs that you thought was a fake laugh track? That’s us! And they need to calibrate us because they can’t run the risk of us being too loud or too soft with our laughter.” The taping of a traditional multicam sitcom is far more complex than any of us critics of the format could have guessed; despite its low-brow reputation, the show is so calculated and exacting that they have an ancillary comedian on-hand to correctly gauge the volume of studio laughter.
The laugh-calibrating comedian is not the only member of the sitcom crew that is often overlooked in the creation of a multicam sitcom. In the Friends documentary “The One That Goes Behind the Scenes”, an in-depth look is given to the unsung team of heroes behind the legendary show; the writers. A team of 12-ish writers slaves away coming up with solid jokes for each show, finding away to advance the plot without breaking the core dynamic of the show. They are always on a tight schedule and rewrite the script constantly even through rehearsals, all the way up to the actual taping of the show. If jokes don’t land or if a writer is off their A-game on any given day, other writers have to step in and look for ways to shore up weak material. It is a far more strategic process than I personally would give a sitcom credit for and it certainly gave me more appreciation for the art form.
Despite all of this very intelligent and practiced work, the multicam sitcom has become woefully outdated. From the stale, nerd insult-fest that is The Big Bang Theory to its painfully unfunny spin-off Young Sheldon, modern sitcoms fail to keep their finger on the pulse of viewers looking for a show with depth, choosing instead to stick firmly to the conventions of the genre and broadcast to a wide, generic audience. They don’t tackle socially relevant issues outside of the classic “special episodes” and have very little to add to the discourse of society. Enter One Day at a Time. Paste Magazine writer Manuel Betancourt claims that “One Day at a Time’s thirteen-episode season is, for all intents and purposes, a series of very special episodes.” And he’s right; the show tackles a whole host of relevant issues in its first season, from illegal immigration to cultural heritage to PTSD to homosexuality. It is a show that has much to add to societal discourse, especially in our current, tumultuous political climate where immigrant families like One Day at a Time’s Cuban Alvarez clan may be feeling pressure from seemingly every side and need a source of comfort and support.