To say that WandaVision—Marvel Studios’ first original series created for Disney+—defies expectations would be an understatement. That’s also par for the course with Marvel Studios, with their feature film output ranging from the gritty Captain America: The Winter Soldier to the bonkers energy of Thor: Ragnarok. But there’s still a structure, a unifying rhythm in place even across the spectrum of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. WandaVision flaunts all of that by being something that we truly never, ever expected to see: it’s Marvel’s very first sitcom.
And it’s not just a sitcom, either. That’s been done before, like in NBC’s short-lived Powerless and the various adaptations of The Tick. WandaVision stands apart from those modern shows by being a thorough—and we mean thorough—homage to the entirety of sitcom history. The show, jumps from decade to decade, dropping Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda Maximoff and Paul Bettany’s Vision into barely off-model recreations of the living rooms of the Petries, Stephenses, Bradys, Keatons, and (presumably) more. And just to really sell the vibe, director Matt Shakman and head writer Jac Schaeffer dug into the history of the most enduring TV formula and brought what they learned (and what they loved) to the small screen, creating a TV show unlike any that has ever existed before.
What follows is a step-by-step look at how the cast and crew of Marvel Studios’ groundbreaking WandaVision made sitcom magic in their own words, combining quotes from the WandaVision press conference as well as Decider’s exclusive interviews with director Matt Shakman and actor Kathryn Hahn.
When looking at the grand total of sitcoms throughout history, the WandaVision team immediately figured out a way to whittle their options down.
Matt Shakman: The key reference points are family sitcoms. There are so many legendary sitcoms throughout time, but Taxi doesn’t really relate to [WandaVision]. Brady Bunch does.
That led them to draw direct inspiration from specific family sitcoms from each decade, starting with The Dick Van Dyke Show (but not just The Dick Van Dyke Show).
Shakman: We have tried to be clear that we based it on so many different shows and we weren’t trying to faithfully recreate one show at a time. It was always WandaVision in that era. We would take what we could from [a show] and we were also looking at what are the shows that make us laugh that are timely and timeless, that worked as well back then as they work now. Mary Tyler Moore is amazing [on Dick Van Dyke]. That performance is extraordinary. [Bewitched’s] Elizabeth Montgomery, extraordinary, [I Dream of Jeannie’s] Barbara Eden… and I Love Lucy of course… We were also looking at strong, central female characters as well.
WandaVision’s cast also pulled inspiration from various sitcom legends.
Elizabeth Olsen: I think [my performance] was like an amalgamation of Mary Tyler Moore and Elizabeth Montgomery, and I think I accidentally threw in some Lucy in the ’70s just because there’s so much physical comedy.
Paul Bettany: Initially as I read the script I was like, “Wow, this feels so different. How do I keep [these different Visions] the same?” And then I realized [that Vision is] always becoming something else. You know, he’s JARVIS, he’s part Ultron, he’s part Tony Stark and he’s omnipotent but he’s also this sort of naive ingenue. And then I realized, well, I’ll just throw a little bit of Dick Van Dyke in there, a little bit of Hugh Laurie. I think what Vision is is decent and honorable and exists for Wanda.
Kathryn Hahn: For The Dick Van Dyke Show [episode] it was Millie. I mean, there’s a neighbor in all of those [shows]. Gladys [from Bewitched]. There are so many of them. You could go down the line and you just see that this trope is just there. It’s just so well-trodden by such incredible performers. Ethel [from I Love Lucy], Lenny and Squiggy [from Laverne and Shirley]. There are so many people that are all of a sudden in your lead character’s house and you don’t really know anything about their history, no one ever follows them home, but they are always kind of around.
Pre-production involved doing a lot of research—seriously, a lot of research.
Shakman: We tried to be Indiana Jones, you know, sitcom archaeologists. We did look at old prints of the shows [to see] what the show really looked like. What did the people who made that show intend for it to look like? Because we see it now through DVDs and who knows how well they’ve been cared for and how many transfers of transfers or transfers led to what we watch now.
Hahn: I know Matt [Shakman] describes it as our “sitcom boot camp,” and it was exactly that, where we were able to watch a bunch of episodes together and break them down, episode by episode, just break down the formula to see what stuck out to us.
They even went to a living legend to find out the secret behind making sitcom magic.
Shakman: [Marvel Studios president] Kevin [Feige] and I had this amazing lunch with Dick Van Dyke and it remains one of the great afternoons of my life. And we asked him what was the governing principle behind The Dick Van Dyke Show? Why did it work so well? And he said, “If it couldn’t happen in real life, it can’t happen on the show.” Right? So it’s grounded, it’s real, and it’s resonated with everyone’s experience at home. You can do crazy things, you can tumble over ottomans, you can be goofy, you can be anything, but as long as it’s grounded in real life, that makes it work.
To write WandaVision, head writer Jac Schaeffer had to figure out how to capture the very specific comedy styles of each decade
Jac Schaeffer: It really was almost like doing like a period piece or something like that, especially with the ’50s and ’60s. We would compile these big lists of sayings of the era… And then as we move forward, I mean, you know, the setting becomes the ’80s and that’s just that’s just burned into my actual DNA. That was not so much of a challenge.
Shakman: We also worked with a fabulous dialect coach that worked on how people would sound in that era, how they would move—we just did everything we could to make it as authentic as possible.
Then there were the special effects. After all, Wanda Maximoff and Vision are Avengers. The crew had to figure out how to translate their very CG-driven superpowers into this new medium and era.
Shakman: One of the best discoveries I had was when I had a meeting with Dan Sudick, who’s the special effects maestro who handles most of the Marvel movies and has many Oscar nominations and is an amazing guy who could build any spaceship or blow anything up. I sat down in my first meeting with him and I was a little bit sheepish because I was like, “Dan, I really think you should know, for a good chunk of this show, I need you to use wires and rods and magnets and whatever other stuff you can come up with. I really want it to be Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie.” I was expecting him to roll his eyes, and he said, “No, I love that. I would love to do that. And in fact, I came up under the guys who did Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie. I used to do that stuff.”
Olsen: To watch our special effects team that usually, you know, blow things up and set things on fire, create wind, create smoke—these guys became puppeteers with things floating in the sky and dealing with magnets in different ways to make things spin.
Shakman: It was like you’re finding an old instrument that nobody remembers how to play and figuring out how to play it. We would shoot these scenes in the kitchen and there would be special effects people hanging from the rafters and hiding behind the island and the cabinets or whatever, making it all work. That stuff is charming… I have to say, we earned so much respect for people who did those shows. That stuff is hard. It’s hard.
The most recognizable trick involved actors freezing, changing something on or around them, and then resuming to make it appear as if an object or outfit appeared out of nowhere. Bewitched and Jeannie viewers know this trick well.
Shakman: Elizabeth Montgomery was famous for being really good at [freezing in place]. So we came up with our own system where Lizzie would freeze and her stand-in would run up and copy the pose right in front of her so they would mirror each other. And then we would put some C-stands, some grip gear, under her arms to measure where her arms were and things like that. Then Lizzie would run off, do a quick change, run back on, get ready, line up opposite her stand-in so they were in the right exact pose, remove the C stands and go.
But really, the most intense special effect was capturing the magical energy provided by performing in front of a live studio audience. WandaVision accomplished that by… filming the first episode in front of a live studio audience, just like they did on The Dick Van Dyke Show.
Hahn: Matt Shakman, our director, comes from the theater, and we really did rehearse—especially that first one, [which was filmed] in front of the live audience. We rehearsed it like a play. I mean, we really rehearsed it like a play. Oh, and then we had our dress rehearsal like, I mean, we really did the whole thing. I would say most of that is us literally running behind the sets to get to our next cue, someone shoving props at us, Lizzie doing a quick change. All this stuff, it was really like putting on a play.
Olsen: Oh, God, it was the first thing we shot. It was so nerve wracking and there was a lot of adrenaline. There were a lot of quick changes and it totally confused my brain, I think.
Hahn: In watching and studying those old sitcoms, especially coming from a loosey-goosey, a little bit of an improv-y world, the actual precision, the craft, and the timing—there’s so much rehearsal in order for it to appear as effortless and easy and relaxed as it does. Dick Van Dyke was like, no joke, he was a craftsman. There’s such precision behind the ease that you just forget—these people, like, tossing off these things and those gags and those bits takes so much precision. So yeah, there were some sweaty rehearsals, I’m not gonna lie to you.
Olsen: The idea of not playing to an audience, but feeding off an audience [was a challenge]. And I was really grateful when we added the fourth wall.
Hahn: I really did, especially after that first episode, feel like we had just put on this weird 1950s play. Like a few people saw that and won’t tell anybody about it.
By design, WandaVision’s production evolved with every episode to mimic how sitcoms were filmed across the decades.
Shakman: Doing it in front of a live studio audience, which is this weird, quasi theater/ TV thing—it really adds to it. I Love Lucy, Dick Van Dyke, you can feel the energy of that theatrical performance working with the audience. And then when you get into ’60 shows like Bewitched or I Dream of Jeannie, there is a fourth wall and all of a sudden it’s much more like doing a movie these days. And that laugh track is all canned and brought in; it changes the energy, the approach, the style, everything.
The show even dramatizes television’s transition to color, complete with a period-specific palette.
Shakman: We shot everything in color, of course, so much like Pleasantville, you’re combining an image we had turned black and white with an image that we turned to color. But the effects that you’re seeing, that’s happening as the room blooms into color, is designed to match up with an era-specific effect. We always wanted to make sure that, unless we were specifically playing with something that was an MCU effect, we were trying to be era-specific. So we were copying Bedknobs and Broomsticks and those kinds of shows in terms of what they could have done at the time.
Viewers will get to see how WandaVision plays out in the ’50s and ’60s when the show debuts, with subsequent episodes progressing through the decades. Episodes will even—surprise!—incorporate some non-sitcom influences.
Bettany: I think there is a lot more slapstick and physical comedy early on. Luckily, by the time we get to the 90s, they’ve all made me look so ridiculous that I didn’t really have to work that hard for the laughs.
Shakman: I think we were very concerned about making sure that, in faithfully recreating shows of the past, that we were as progressive as we are today, you know. And so, yes, we enjoyed sending up the, you know, the male chauvinism of some of those eras as well.
Olsen: The way the way women move throughout the decades changes so much when it comes to what society wants from them. And so Jac did write in quite a few nods to how those [views] were evolving throughout the decades. In the ’60s, she gets to wear some pants, and that would adjust how someone moves through space.
Shakman: We often talked about how when we were in our period sitcoms, that when something shifted from, say, a Dick Van Dyke or an I Love Lucy style and into something that was outside of that, that [the tone] was going into kind of The Twilight Zone. We were thinking about what were the period shows that addressed the odd and the strange, and how could we embrace that?
Schaeffer: The Twilight Zone is an enormous influence on me personally. I really think that’s actually kind of how I learned to tell stories. Matt was so incredibly deft at that turn, where you think you’re in one sort of thing and then suddenly it’s flipped on its head. And so we were all incredibly enamored of that. I think there are a lot of current shows right now, like prestige series, that are doing this very exciting thing where you watch a couple episodes and you think the show is one thing and then, by episode four or five, it flips the script.
You better believe WandaVision has plenty of tricks up its sleeve. WandaVision premieres on Disney+ on January 15.
Making Magic: How the ‘WandaVision’ Cast and Crew Pulled off the Most Ambitious Sitcom Ever The British Journal Editors and Wire Services/ Decider.