Disney+’s first TV series launch, the nine-episode WandaVision combined a wholly original premise that somehow felt familiar by its blatant homage to classic sitcoms that the witch Wanda conjured to mask her grief in losing her soulmate, Vision, to a brutal death we all saw in Avengers: Infinity War.
Having Wanda mask her grief by creating a world steeped in sitcoms that gave her comfort as a child was an idea hatched by Marvel chief Kevin Feige, and turned into a workable concept by the show’s creator, EP and writer Jac Schaeffer. At Deadline’s Contenders Television: The Nominees awards-season event, Schaeffer, director/EP Matt Shakman and series stars Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany and Kathryn Hahn – all Emmy-nominated – discussed the unusual series, and how it was helped in finding its inner sitcom laugh track courtesy of Dick Van Dyke, whose self-titled show was a pioneering effort given a homage in early episodes.
“I asked him for the secret sauce, what made that show work so well, and he said, if it couldn’t happen in real life it couldn’t happen in the show,” Shakman said. “Carl Reiner would gather everyone around the table on the first day of rehearsal each week and say, so what happened this weekend? He would take it all down and put it in the show. That left room to trip over ottomans and be silly but emotionally engaged. Everyone believed in that relationship between Mary Tyler Moore and Dick Van Dyke as a couple. That’s what we needed too.”
Shakman and Schaeffer were so taken with his other suggestion that they shot the first episode before a live audience. “They did it in front of a live studio audience but they didn’t go back like we do today on modern sitcoms…back then they did it like a play,” Shakman said. “They rehearsed it. Curtain up, and the laughter you hear was the laughter in the audience. And they were done. It had a real lightning-in-a-bottle feel. We did that for our first show. You are holding hands and jumping off a cliff.”
Olsen, Hahn and Bettany said it was difficult to start off the series shoot before a live audience. While Bettany said that after believing he was fired after his Vision character was killed in Avengers: Infinity War, he was only too happy to throw in with Feige’s initial idea and Schaeffer’s execution of it. But he drew the line with the live audience.
“When Matt said we’re going to do it in front of a live audience, I thought, no we’re not,” Bettany said. “But he was right. It gave us a project quality that feels very similar to that era, which I don’t think I was clever enough to achieve, to be somebody who works for an audience.”
As for the prospect of retiring his Vision character and ending a run in Marvel superhero movies that began when he voiced Jarvis in Iron Man, Bettany said WandaVision was a wonderful way to wrap up his work with Olsen.
“It was a beautiful culmination for all these things Lizzie and I have done together,” he said. “We really found a lane for ourselves, and this was different in tone from those movies. But you never know with Marvel, whether you’re done, or not. So I don’t want to call it the end yet. This was one of the most creative experiences of my life, joyful and free, making this show. To see it embraced by an audience the way it was, was so wonderful.”
Check out the panel video above.