Before my working weekend, Pam and I were lucky enough to be able attend an event that was, at least as the comedian Simon Rakoff and ‘Master of Ceremonies’ described, the first time something like this had happened in 10 years in the Vancouver area: the filming of a Sitcom pilot in front of a live studio audience.
Because of an email from the CBC that I answered (I don’t know how I ended up getting it; probably from having signed up at the CBC web site at some point), at about 5:15 on Friday, Pam and I found ourselves shivering in line at twilight in front of what looked like a nondescript business office, at the corner of First Avenue and Gilmore Avenue in Burnaby. We had both just come from work nearby, so we were fortunate that it was easy to get to. The concession truck was feeding chili to the actors and crew (and it smelled good), but soon we were ushered in to a messy collection of sets, cameras, and bleachers inside. After a few minutes, Mr. Rakoff handed out tickets for a bunch of drawings for door prizes that would go on as the evening’s filming progressed, and explained our duties for the evening. “People watching TV aren’t too smart, he said, “so we want you to help out, and laugh so you can show them where the jokes are. Your laughter is an important part of the process of bringing this show to life.” OK. Bring on the jokes. But first, the setup.
The name of the show was ‘All the Comforts’. That much we knew already. Here’s the gist of the sitcom that we were to see, created for us the first time that evening:
The Bunion family is headed by Mac and Brenda, who, in their retirement years, are hoping to take off with their new motor home to celebrate their golden years alone together. Unfortunately, their plans are thwarted by their daughter Susie, a ditzy 20-something who has never left the nest, and the recent return of their always optimistic and timid but ne’er do well son, his pretty but abrasive wife and their 2 kids (2 typical precocious and cute sitcom children). Mac is a grouchy rubber-faced Jackie Gleason type who just wants to be left alone to enjoy his massager/recliner, his sandwich, TV and bottle of Snapple in peace. Solitude and space is to not be found. Through a series of physical gags, jokes involving aging and child-rearing, the cranky old guy eventually apologizes for yelling at his grand-kids and may even admit that there are advantages to having them around (one of them discovers and turns on the ‘auto adjust’ button on his hi-tech chair, ending his 4‑year quest to find ‘the perfect setting’). While they aren’t a perfect happy family, they may just make it, although Mac will still be thrilled the day that all of his kids finally do leave, and he and his wife can hit the road together.
Before I get into any critical appreciation, it was just kind of fun to see how you shoot a sitcom. This was a four camera show, with director calling cuts and camera angles, 3 different sets (including the motor home), and a large crew, including a stage director, cameramen, sound man, grips, key grip, clapper, a bunch of writers doing rewrites of jokes down to the last moment, and bunch of other people (who I couldn’t tell what they did). This was as close as we’ve gotten to the filming of a real TV show, and it was a great education about how this is done these days.
As for ‘All the Comforts’, it sounds like pretty typical sitcom fare, doesn’t it? On this evening, what the writing of the pilot lacked, the actors made up for in professionalism and energy. They made the material far funnier than it deserved to be, but will it be enough for this pilot to catch on? That’s hard to say. The theme of the return of kids living with their parents far into their 30’s is something that many of us are uncomfortable with, to be sure. It used to be a stigma, but is becoming so widespread that it is clearly going to have to be re-evaluated. Discomfort often leads to humour, so this might have a chance. On the other hand, if it just becomes another collection of sitcom gags…
- Mac attempts to return a stolen xxx before discovery of the theft … Hilarity ensues.
- Susie is given the position of responsibility she can’t handle … Hilarity ensues.
- Brenda, tries to change her physical appearance through an xxx … Hilarity ensues.
I hope that they reach for plots and character development that’s better than these stock situations. Pam and I have both become real fans of Corner Gas, a CBC Sitcom that consistently provides a big laugh at least once in an episode. I suspect that it’s the writing staff, although that sitcom also has very good acting. So far, ‘All the Comforts’ is no Corner Gas, but perhaps it could be. I’m hoping it does, because to have been in the audience at the pilot could be a bit of history, if it is a hit.