Sunday, October 12, 2008

why multi-camera shows are no longer in favor

One reason I contend multi-camera shows are out of fashion is because the joke rhythms are tired and stale. For a long time they worked, and the jokes themselves may be funny but audiences have grown weary of their predictable form. Here are some examples.

The “No…(blank)” joke.

COACH: They call me Red.

CUSTOMER: Oh, cause you used to have red hair?

COACH: No, cause I once read a book.

The problem is you’re asking the customer to set up the joke by saying something she probably wouldn’t say. Straight man seeks clarification by asking the seemingly obvious only to learn it’s something else. Plus, it usually makes the set up person seem incredibly dumb.

The “Lenny & Squiggy”:

Named for those two characters because of how they entered every scene.

LAVERNE: Who would be stupid enough to drink sewer water?

LENNY & SQUIGGY ENTER.

LENNY/SQUIGGY: Hello!!

An alternate version of this is the “Flip scene”.

MOLLY: I wouldn’t sleep with you Fred if you were the last man on earth!

CUT TO: MOLLY IN BED WITH FRED.

The trouble here is you can see the joke coming from nine miles away. A third version of this is the “Stan Daniels Turn”, named after one of the funniest comedy writers ever, who used this form to perfection. Character rattles off a list and does a 180.

LOU: She’s brash, she’s obnoxious, she’s rude… I’m in love.

Again, thirty years ago this was a fresh form. But now you’re waiting for that turn.

Stock comic characters are also tiresome. The wise-ass precocious teenager you just want to smack into next Tuesday, the “sassy” housekeeper, the befuddled foreigner (complete with fractured English), the wacky neighbor, and the oversexed oldster (“Once you’ve had an octogenarian, honey, you can never go back. Hoooo hooo!)

Punch line catch phrases can send you scrambling for the remote as well. “I’m too stupid to live!” “Oh, did I say that out loud?” I’m sure you can find ten others – just by watching TVLand tonight.

And my main pet peeve: characters not acting the way real people act. The “No…(blank)” is one offender. Here are more:

Ever notice how in traditional sitcoms no one ever leaves a room without a joke? And if people insulted each other right to their faces like they do in sitcoms half the population would be walking around with black eyes.

Which brings me to my final point – one character saying something completely inappropriate and the other character conveniently ignoring it. Here’s an example. I like BIG BANG THEORY. There are always some good laughs. But they did something in the pilot that drives me crazy.

The show opens with the two genius nerds at a sperm bank. They return home to find a smoking hot girl has just moved in across the hall. Smitten, they clumsily engage her in conversation. So far so good. Lots of funny lines. They invite her to lunch. She accepts (why, I don’t know but that’s another story). As they’re crossing the hall she mentions that she’s had a rough day unpacking, then asks what they did that day, and one says, “We masturbated into a cup for money”. She just nods and follows them into their apartment. Huh??? What??? She wouldn’t be horrified? Or shocked? Or completely puzzled? She just accepts this as if he had said, “Oh, we went to Starbucks for coffee”? And she still enters these weird guys’ apartment? Ten minutes later she uses their shower and enters the room wearing only a towel. I’m guessing most women on the planet would not do that if placed in the same situation.

BIG BANG THEORY can get away with it (sorta) because the jokes are generally very sharp. But heap unreality with bad, forced humor and you have a comic form best put on display at the Museum of Natural History.

And here’s the thing: multi-camera shows don’t have to be formulaic. SEINFELD wasn’t. RAYMOND wasn’t. COSBY (in its early years) wasn’t. All it takes is good writing, fresh ideas, and a desire to take the art form further. Otherwise the form may die, it may indeed be too stupid to live.

30 comments:

Rory L. Aronsky said...

The wise-ass precocious teenager you just want to smack into next Tuesday

Dear head-up-the-ass network executives,

No Juno-type sitcom. K?

John Trumbull said...

One that never fails to drive me nuts whenever I see it: Bob has bad news to tell Sheila. He starts to lead up to it, but Sheila says, "But first, I have something to tell YOU" and proceeds to give Bob some piece of info that makes Bob's bad news 100x worse. And of course, she finishes up with, "Now, what did you have to tell me?"

Not to say that those scenes can't be funny sometimes, but the setup is always SO contrived that it irks me.

Gnasche said...

The good thing about the single-camera shows is that you can still do the setup/punchline jokes, only as throw-aways. Arrested Development and 30 Rock have tons of broad humor, but they go by them so fast it doesn't have the "mugging to the audience" feel of the multi-camera shows.

I think viewers are just tired of being winked at and asked, "get it?".

Rory L. Aronsky said...

I think viewers are just tired of being winked at and asked, "get it?".

Though in reruns, when an audience is roaring with laughter, it's fun to watch the actors hold hold hold hold hold hold hold.....next line.

J Johnston Jacob said...

When people say "multi-camera is out, nobody likes the format anymore" I feel just like when Disney said that traditional animation is out and people only want 3D : it's not. The format is not the problem.

Bad characters are. Bad stories. Bad punchline jokes, bad setups, bad premises.

I saw "Do not disturb" and I couldn't believe this was produced in 2008. Even ten years earlier this would have been incredibly old-fashioned (not in a good way). But here we are, nervous white guy meeting sassy black busty chick, chubby-but-pretty-on-the-inside girl next to oh-funny-I'm-gay sidekick and all-too-pretty supermodel. I was devastated.

The audience wants to be entertained, to root for characters, to have a good time. Genre and format are overrated. Check the numbers of Seinfeld reruns. It's all about good comedy.

Tim W. said...

The problem with a lot of multi-camera shows is that the comedy is incredibly predictable. You know when it's coming and how it's going to come. Set-up, punchline, wait for laughs. Set-up, punchline, wait for laughs. It's why Larry Sanders was a revelation when it was on. They weren't telling jokes (except for the monologue), they were just saying funny things. That's life. That's funny.

Jude said...

Newbie question: what does the number of cameras have to do with the joke formats used?

sonderangerbot said...

The Nanny was another drab attempt based on nothing but these jokes.

I get the feeling that most multi-camera shows get made by default, like it's something the studios know pretty well how to fail miserably at on their own, where "successful" shows like Arrested Development, 30 Rock, The Office etc clearly have a single visionary force behind them. It doesn't seem very likely that anyone would be given that sort of creative freedom today on a multi-camera show, as I imagine Seinfeld and Larry David had for example.

Anonymous said...

Jude brings up an interesting point, the fact that the number of cameras is tied to the kind of writing/characters/jokes the show will have seems to indicate that it's a formula.

for a great example of people acting unnaturally, check out the episode of "8 simple rules" right after John Ritter died, it was a funeral, full of hillarious sitcom jokes (yes, I'm being sarcastic), but the laughtrack was never added (probably somebody's idea of "respect"). So the actors would make the jokes and pause for a couple of seconds, creating this constant uncomfortable silence. It's pretty horrible.

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

OK. Toss the proscenium. Perform and shoot in the round before a live audience. Four maybe five cameras to cover.

...what the hell.

Why, it'd be new, different, refreshing and, of course, a possible disaster but hey, it just might be swell.

Tiggy said...

You could set up a drinking game based around those devices. You'd be drunk as hell by the end of Two And A Half Men.

I guess 'bad' sitcoms sell because they're safe. Networks need to make money and keep their audiences, not experiment with new ideas and take risks.

Thank goodness there are shows out there that do take risks and stamp all over tired formats (The Office, Trailer Park Boys etc). And they have become successful in their own right.

Mark said...

Ken:

Right on!

A sincere thank you for helping us to understand why the classic sitcom is dying.

We need you, Phil Rosenthal, Norman Lear and James L. Brooks to kick some hollywood a** and start producing solid sitcom entertainment.

By the way, don't forget point-of-view, another much needed aspect, missing from todays sitcoms.

Mark

yatesy said...

"i am too stupid to live" might be a cliched line, but the way that Kirstie Alley delivered it with her head on the bar was hilarious. i think you can take alot of cliches and if you spin them just right with good actors, they still work. this is not to say that new ideas won't or don't work, but there is a reason they don't go away.

jbryant said...

I suppose when shooting before a live audience, especially one that's likely composed of excited tourists who are primed to enjoy themselves, it's considered best to have formulaic, "comfortable" joke structures that any fool can understand. You want the audience to get the joke right away, so they'll laugh reflexively even if it's not the greatest gag in history.

I also think that such predictable set-ups make certain audience members feel smart. They see the joke coming and congratulate themselves for getting it by laughing out loud. As mentioned in the other thread, smiles, low chuckles, silent laughs and knowing nods aren't of much use to the live sitcom. Gotta get those LOLs!

ed said...

Ken - you just explained to me why I had a tough time watching "Back to You."

You could tell when the punchlines were coming a mile away. And they must have used the "Stan Daniels" twist eight times an episode.

30 Rock has the set-up and punchline, but you don't realize you're being set up - makes the joke funnier

D. McEwan said...

"Barefoot Billy Aloha said...
OK. Toss the proscenium. Perform and shoot in the round before a live audience."

I hope you were joking, Barefoot. There is nothing worse than performing, let alone shooting, in the round. Did you see last year's Emmys? Avoiding the pitfalls of the multi-camera-shot sitcom by shooting in the round is trimming your toenails by severing your body at the waist. I've done a number of stage shows in the round; it truely, truely sucks.

But for audience members, in-the-round is certainly egalitarian, because every seat is a bad seat.

"John Trumbull said...
One that never fails to drive me nuts whenever I see it: Bob has bad news to tell Sheila. He starts to lead up to it, but Sheila says, "But first, I have something to tell YOU" and proceeds to give Bob some piece of info that makes Bob's bad news 100x worse."

I'm in total agreement John. And not just on sitcoms. I was indefensibly addicted to the over-the-top silly soap opera PASSIONS, and for nine years, they used that gimmick at minimum twice an episode.

About the Coach "Did you have red hair?" No... joke. I happened to see the episode that one comes from within the last three weeks. It can just scrape by as believable conversation because Coach's hair was white, and Diane had only kown him a short time (It's a first-season joke if I'm not mistaken), so it was just barely legitiamte for her to ask if he had had red hair back before she knew him.

"sonderangerbot said...
The Nanny was another drab attempt based on nothing but these jokes."

Worse, it was based on those formula gags BEING SPOKEN BY FRAN DRESCHER!

The horror. The horror.

Regarding Anonymous's 8 SIMPLE RULES example. While I understood not wanting to compound the Ritter tragedy by throwing everyone who worked on his show out of work, nonetheless, when a show is built SOLELY on the appeal of a single, unigue performer, and that performer dies; that show is over. Period. If Carol Burnett had died suddenly in 1974, continuing on with "The Carol Burnett Show Without Carol" would have been absurd. Now, if Mary Tyler Moore had died suddenly in 1975 (Stop grinning, Ken), continuing THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, perhaps as WJM NEWS!, could have worked, because it was an ensemble show, and Mary was the most expendable character in the cast. 8 SIMPLE RULES needed to admit the fact that John WAS the show, and have just gone away, rather than extend the tragedy by extending the show's death throes over a season.

"Tiggy said...
You could set up a drinking game based around those devices. You'd be drunk as hell by the end of Two And A Half Men."

If I wasn't already drunk before it began, I wouldn't be watching it in the first place. Life is too short to spend any part of it watching Charlie Sheen.

Jeff_Grubb said...

Lenny and Squiggy? Surely that joke is much older - I'm thinking of Maynard G. Krebs and his "You rang?" Can we push this further back?

ugtv.org said...

Comedy more than any other art form has an expiration date. That's because a big part of comedy is the surprise. A lot of these surprises come in the form of formulas, and once that formula is beaten to death, the formula is no longer funny.

I love analyzing comedy. And no, I'm not kidding.

benson said...

Ugtv...I very much agree with your point, and it also makes me think, tangentially, that this may apply across the board in entertainment. In my business (radio) I think part of the its appeal used to be the surprise factor, but as you say, it's been so beaten to death (in our case, with over-researched product), that now many a listener figures if I have to put up with the lack of surprise element, I might as well listen to an ipod.

Which also makes me wonder if we as a society haven't been so in-tune and exposed to pop culture, that we very quickly think "been there, done that", and it is just that much harder to entertain and surprise us. Or is it just lazy writing?

I know I'm rambling here and meandering, so I'll just stop.

Anonymous said...

this reminds me of why the comedy sketches on "Studio 60" were so bad: all the setups were long winded monologs. Which works great as "regular" Sorking dialog (think Bartlet talking to the joint chiefs, a joke there takes you completely by surprise), but when you know it's a comedy, you expect the setup and punchline, and you can see the setup coming, so you just get tired of waiting.

I don't know if that's good or bad, but the comedy sketches didn't work at all (but the comedy during the regular dialog was great).

Jim said...

About the Coach "Did you have red hair?" No... joke.

I agree (it was Diane's mother played by Gwen Verdon, IIRC). It worked because Mother Chambers was a little dotty too. But then, I'm a sad cheers fanboy and I would give them the benefit of the doubt every time. Except for a few episodes in the first Rebecca season when they were trying to figure out how to use her. The Norm paints Evan Drake's house epi was a real clunker.

AC said...

One of the great things about Seinfeld is they had the discipline to set up a joke, and resolve it much later. Sometimes it wasn't even in the same episode. Most sitcoms have setup, and the punchline an instant later.

Question Mark said...

The 'No...(blank)' only works if it's someone with Nick Colasanto's delivery.

D. McEwan said...

"Jim said ...
I agree (it was Diane's mother played by Gwen Verdon, IIRC). It worked because Mother Chambers was a little dotty too."

Correct, except Diane's mother was Glynis Johns, who ends up marrying her chauffeur. Gwen Verdon would have added a little extra twist, as he was herself a famous red head.

VP81955 said...

sonderangerbot said...
"The Nanny" was another drab attempt based on nothing but these jokes.

Worse, it was based on those formula gags BEING SPOKEN BY FRAN DRESCHER!

The horror. The horror.


True, but Fran was sufficiently likable. As someone said, you can take a lot of cliches and if you spin them just right with good actors, they still work.

However, you could also turn the sound down and merely focus on Fran's legs.

Gnasche said...
The good thing about the single-camera shows is that you can still do the setup/punchline jokes, only as throw-aways. "Arrested Development" and "30 Rock" have tons of broad humor, but they go by them so fast it doesn't have the "mugging to the audience" feel of the multi-camera shows.

I think viewers are just tired of being winked at and asked, "get it?"


There's a certain "I'm a Mac, you're a PC" smugness about proponents of the single-camera format. However, I concur with Ken -- if the writing and the characters are good, format is irrelevant.

Tallulah Morehead said...

"VP81955 said...
Fran was sufficiently likable."

You must have one of those old, extremely low-def TVs, because on MY TV, there is nothing remotely likable about Fran Dresher.

My guess is you have one of those pre-1960, black & white, silent TVs, because in sound and color, she's a horror.

I'd suspect you were drunk when you saw her, but I was always drunk when I saw her, and I can't stand the bitch.

jbryant said...

vp81955: You mentioned Fran Drescher favorably in the presence of Tallulah? What else do you do for fun? Lion taming?

Anonymous said...

"Stock comic characters are also tiresome. The wise-ass precocious teenager you just want to smack into next Tuesday, the “sassy” housekeeper, the befuddled foreigner (complete with fractured English), the wacky neighbor, and the oversexed oldster (“Once you’ve had an octogenarian, honey, you can never go back. Hoooo hooo!)

You must have been watching what I was watching last night as all of these were in abundance in: Big Bang Theory, How I Met Your Mother and Two and a Half Men.

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

The epitome of overselling a bad joke/line was the character Flo in ALICE. After every line she's toss us a shit-eating grin and hold it until the laugh machine stopped. Disgusting. I saw only a few of those shows, but the shtick never varied.

Geoduck said...

tvtropes.com is a great wiki-site which lists tons of stuff like these types of jokes. Very funny, and invaluable if you're a writer-type.