Location, location: Why Open Slather ditched its studio audience
Studio segments were no match for real locations, says producer Rick McKenna. And then there was the 'laugh track' problem.
Open Slather is edging closer towards the end of its first ten episodes, but there are more on the way later this year as part of Foxtel’s mammoth investment in a new local comedy show.
There has been plenty of chatter about the show, from reactions to Gina Minehart, The Real Housewives of the World, Gina Rileyano and new cast members, to opinions on whether the show has hit a comic tone or not.
Co-executive producer Rick McKenna, together with producing partner Laura Waters, had always warned Foxtel it would take time to develop a new sketch franchise, but says execs backed the show with two 10 episode blocks -both two be delivered this year.
“It’s a credit to Brian Walsh and Foxtel of our discussion when Laura and I pitched the show asking, ‘Are you in for a long ride? Because that’s what these shows take to build.’ You can never smash a comedy out of the park in one or two nights. It’s about growing and the audience growing familiar, the media growing familiar with it,” he recently told TV Tonight.
“You can sit there for 6 months and think something’s going to be hot or a hit in a character or a sketch script, and then you get it in front of an audience and it’s shithouse. Conversely there’s sketches or performers or characters that you don’t think are going to be big and all of a sudden they pop. That’s why the ability to grow the show is so important.”
The show debuted to huge numbers, at 243,000 in its first run Overnight numbers, well ahead of regular episodes of Wentworth and The Real Housewives of Melbourne. McKenna acknowledges the marketing team did a great job, but knows the rest of the season falls back on the show. Recent episodes have averaged around 70,000 but he is sticking to the original target of half-way through the second block.
“Our target is Episode 15 to be on-song. If it happens earlier that’s great,” he explains.
“When Fast Forward started there were no nightly ratings. It was a six-week book. So network executives had to ask, ‘Is it funny? Will we go again?’
“Today the nightly figures have made it very difficult, outside of the ABC and now Foxtel, to actually build something, grow it and for us to work it out. Whilst we’ve got experience we’re not experts. There’s no such thing as an expert who can go ‘This is a perfect script and therefore that’s got to resonate.’ That’s just horseshit.
“You never know what’s going to be right until you play it and you cant pre-write catchphrases. In the same way you cant pre-write hit characters.”
There have also been lessons along the way, some of them decided at the last minute, including whether to retain or drop its original idea of a studio audience component. But McKenna says the studio visuals didn’t match the quality of location scenes.
“We knew this show would look like a dog’s breakfast if we went with these lush location production sketches and then came into an office with a three-walled set and curtain hanging in the background,” he continues.
“The technology is so different. You’re shooting outside in location in Super High Definition cameras these days with lush scenery and locations. So the crossover into studio cameras with studio sets, when you’re trying to turn around four or five different sketches in one night, was just chalk and cheese (with) the look of them.”
There was also the question of whether a studio audience laughing to filmed-sequences still works in 2015.
“With a studio ‘laugh track’ we felt like we were back in 1995,” he says. “It wasn’t canned but they’d laugh at a live sketch then they’d laugh at five sketches in a row off tape. But the laugh track itself felt like it was canned.
“Foxtel backed our judgement and we both sat in the Editing Suite and we both knew straight away along with Paul Waldron our producer. The three of us went ‘This is weird now. Today we don’t tell people when to laugh.’”
Ditching the studio component also meant having to step up the location output. As McKenna notes, “Gaps in TV equals money.” A stockpile of completed sketches aided early episodes, but the show (originally titled Bring a Plate by Glenn Robbins) has managed to include topical material that has been strategically framed.
“We put a bunch of stuff in the can as tests and thankfully a lot of that turned out to be really useful.
“But if we wanted to do something topical for this Sunday we could.
“We found very quickly that the level of production that we were enjoying doing, meant it’s very hard to do a fast turnaround studio-based sketch. That’s where things like doing the 60 Minutes parody works beautiful because we can knock these off the same week and get them in that week’s show.”
Open Slather has also manoeuvred around the availability of cast members with other commitments.
“Some cast members have been working solely for five to six weeks and now they’re going onto a play and not available for five weeks. So we look around the other highly-experienced people and say ‘Do you want to come in here?’
“It’s a huge beast but we’re really happy with where we’ve got to at this point in time.”
With work due to continue until the end of the year, McKenna is reminded of the trajectories of other local comedies including Chris Lilley, Kath and Kim and Hamish & Andy -some of which were cut short in their infancy.
“They were all given the room to grow and given creative freedom -as opposed to research input or ratings input. They were allowed to grow and they did, and that was a big part of our mission with this show.”
Open Slather airs 7:30pm Sunday on Comedy.