Network Defeats Truman
I’ve not talked about this much before, but during production on season 2 of Key & Peele, there was a big push from the network to begin using audience laughs over our sketches. For those who aren’t sure what I mean, traditionally, sketch shows were performed in front of a live audience, so you’d you hear the audience laughing throughout the performance (think SNL, MadTV, In Living Color, etc). As sketch shows began to use pre-taped sketches, they still played them for a live audience, and the show was broadcast with the audience’s laugh mixed into the audio (Kids in the Hall, Mr. Show, Chapelle’s Show, etc. all used this method, though a notable early exception and a personal favorite of mine, The Ben Stiller Show, did not). There’s a common misconception that these laughs are “fake,” and although there is certainly sweetening that goes on during the mixing process (mostly for jokes that were inaudible to the live audience for one reason or another), for the most part the laughs are a real audience’s reaction to the comedy onscreen.
Now, we had fought this battle before. Our pilot was mixed both with laughs over sketches and without, and both version were focus group tested by the network once the show was picked up. Our feeling was that because the sketches had a filmic quality to them, the laughter was distracting, and in a way cheapened the effort we had put into making the sketches work as individual short films. So, when the results came back as a virtual tie, we pushed hard for the show to be laugh-free, so that the viewers could watch the sketches and decide for themselves where the funny parts were. Having the laughter mixed in felt old-fashioned, and because I am very particular about the sound design and mix, was like a garish wash of LAUGH AT THIS smeared all over the finished product. It removed all traces of subtlety. We won that particular round, and the first season aired without laughter on the sketches. I still have a copy of the pilot with laughs, and my god, is it ever disconcerting.
Going into season 2, the network decided that the show should be getting bigger numbers, and used some focus group data to justify their claim that viewers wanted the laughs over the sketches to feel more involved in the show. Part of this was motivated by some very vague responses to focus group questions, but a big factor was how much the execs enjoyed going to our live tapings. Indeed, there’s unquestionably a fantastic amount of energy in the sound of a room of 200 people laugh their collective heads off at the sketches, but translating that energy into a sound mix where the dialogue, music, and sound-effects, all of which play a role in the comedy in most of our scenes, can still be heard over the audience is almost an impossible task. Plus, no matter how boisterous that laughter is, when mixed down and played on someone’s tv at a comfortable listening volume, it inevitably sounds canned and artificial, and worse, is just not in the spirit of our show. A lot of our sketches rely on setting up a believable world in often very serious genres and then subverting them, and so having that laughter cut in during an action movie or sci-fi style opening was like pouring ice-water on the viewer.
These are all arguments we made during pre-production and continuing into shooting, and the discussions grew more and more urgent as we got nearer to our season 2 premiere date, but the network held their ground. As word that this change was happening spread throughout the crew, morale began to suffer. All of our departments work very hard to build believable worlds for the comedy to exist within, and knowing that there would be laughs over everything made people feel like their work was for nothing. I began to dread the premiere, and having to explain to people why we had made such a monumental change to the DNA of the show between the first and second season.
To the network’s credit, they were always willing to hear us out on the issue, though I’m sure they got sick of our arguments. We debated it throughout shooting, then at the live audience segments taping (which take place about a month after production, so that we can show the edited sketches to the audience), and on into post. Finally, about a week before we went to air, and the night before our final sound mix on episode 201, they relented. I can’t say what exactly changed their minds, but I suspect it was mostly the collective passion on the subject from the creative team. While we were certainly not unanimous in how much we were opposed to the choice (I was ready to quit entirely, others were more willing to just make the network happy), we all agreed that is was not going to feel like the same show we had aired the first season.
We got an email late in the evening from the head of original programming (an email which I printed out and considered framing) informing us of their decision, and I immediately opened photoshop and made the image above to celebrate the moment and sent it to the EPs (for those unaware, this is a famous photo of then-president Harry S. Truman holding a copy of the Chicago Tribune, who incorrectly reported with the headline “Dewey Defeats Truman” that he’d been defeated in his reelection campaign by challenger Thomas Dewey). It was the last possible minute for them to come around, and there was much celebrating at the mixing session the next day.
I don’t tell this story to knock the network, as it was always clear they had only the best intentions for the show, and they certainly had every right to simply tell us to shut up and comply with their instructions (a right they never exercised). I tell it because it provides some insight into why the show is what it is, and because it illustrates how supportive the network has been to making the show truly an extension of Keegan and Jordan’s vision. But for me, it was a lesson in standing up for what you feel is creatively the right decision. Would the show be getting better ratings with laughs on the sketches? Perhaps. But it would no longer have been the same show for me personally, and I would not have returned for our third season, which we’re currently in pre-production on. Working on this show has been the most fulfilling experience of my life, and I’m grateful to both our amazing executive producers who fought the good fight and our very understanding and intelligent execs at Comedy Central who were willing to listen to us and respect our position. That’s rare enough as it is in this industry.