Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Problem with Multi-Camera Shows


After several years of being out of favor, multi-camera shows are having a renaissance this season.  But I caution the writers -- the reason they went out of fashion is the joke rhythms became 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.  And more and more this season I'm starting to see these shows fall into old ruts -- even the new shows.  

So here are some over-used joke forms to watch out for:  

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.  Since BIG BANG THEORY is going into syndication this year, the pilot is airing a lot lately. 

The show opens with Sheldon and Leonard at a sperm bank. They return home to find smoking hot Penny 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 eventually die, it may indeed be too stupid to live.

61 comments:

Jonny Morris said...

There should be a moratorium on 'Are you high?'

Oh, and having a scene which is exciting/violent/hugely character significant, which then turns out to be a dream or wish-fulfilment fantasy. 'Included to look cool in the trailer' syndrome.

Dave Mackey said...

Small wonder, then, that I find the single camera format much funnier. I don't miss when a studio audience or the Charley Douglass laugh machine needs to tell me "this is funny" - I'm forced to rely on my own sense of humor. I have to THINK.

KG said...

I love Multi-Camera shows. Almost all comedies I love were Multi-Camera shows. For me it's just THE classic format for a comedy.

John Trumbull said...

The one that always drives me nuts is when Character A has news for Character B, and tells them so. Character B says, "Oh wait, before you say that, I have news for YOU," tells Character A something that completely undercuts their news, and then goes, "Now what did you want to tell me?" Sitcoms have been doing this since at least the 70s, and it was tiresome THEN.

sephim said...

A form I'm quite fond of is where a small group of people are saying bad things about a particular person and the last thing said doesn't carry as much weight as what has been said prior...

First: She doesn't believe in Evolution.

Second: She doesn't believe in vaccinations.

Third: Yeah and she's really FAT.

(The two look at the third - pause)

Multi-Camera Fan said...

You should print out a copy of this blog post, attach it to a brick and throw it through the window of the executive producer of Two Broke Girls.

ajm said...

It would therefore be useful to study scripts from something like The Odd Couple, which began as a one-camera show with laughtrack and then became a multi-camera show before a studio audience. Would a script from a one-camera episode have worked before a studio audience?

Anonymous said...

David Lee here. Guilty of all the above at one time(or two or twenty) or another. The one, though, that I really hate is the "What?" response.
A character says something outrageous, others stare at him, and after a beat comes the response, a befuddled "What?" Not remotely humorous, I think it wins for the most overused cliche, but gets double points for being a "joke" while not funny.

Anonymous said...

Variation on the "What?" response that is equally overused: the "Wait... what?" Character says something outrageous, other character at first continues as if nothing strange happened, then pauses, then returns with "wait...what?"

Max Clarke said...
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Max Clarke said...
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Mac said...

It would be a shame if Multi-Camera shows died off. The "mock-doc" format seems very tired now. The "awkward pause" as much of a cliche as those you've mentioned - where someone says something inappropriate and everyone's too embarrassed to respond.

Ricky Gervais is just about to launch another one (Life's Too Short"). I'll keep an open mind until I see it, but I'm hoping it's going to be more than people being insensitive (to a degree that they generally aren't in real life) and everyone looking akward.

Andy Ihnatko said...

When the only relationship that the characters have with each other is to hurl insults at each other, it's clear that this show is D-O-N-E. It means that nobody in that writers' room has any remaining interest in the characters or the concept and that they're just there to fill the order.

Which isn't to say that characters need to be all hugs and warm cocoa. But with "Friends" and "Seinfeld" and "Raymond" and so many others, you just wonder why the hell any of these people walk into that room when they know that they'll be bombarded by the most cold and mean-spirited things.

I think "Frasier" might be the only long-lived sitcom that escaped that disease. "Big Bang Theory" is starting to wobble in that direction.

DanTedson said...

Preach it. So many cliches out there, you can't get away with it when audiences nowadays are TV savvy by age 10. You tip your pitches, you lose the element of surprise. You lose that, you lose the funny and we're all speaking German. Is that what you want?

Mark said...

This post took me totally by surprise. I just saw the Big Bang pilot for the first time, in reruns, and the sperm bank scene was missing. First time in memory that a syndication cut improved an episode.

David said...

It's funny that you cite Big Bang Theory, because to me they do a great job of turning old clams (to use Jane Espensen's term) on their head. Although you're right about the pilot.

Michael said...

I'll go back to radio. Jack Benny, who may have been the greatest comic craftsman in the history of that medium, was friendly with a comic named Jack Pearl, who played a Baron Munchausen character whose big line was, "Vass you dere, Charlie?" One time Benny mentioned to him that the line would go over bigger if he didn't use it for a couple of weeks. Pearl said, no, that was his bread and butter. He was soon off the air because that was the only line anybody waited for. By contrast, think of all of Benny's classics: the Maxwell, the vault, the train leaving on track five, etc. He used each one a couple of times a year and avoided getting tiresome.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

Of course, nearly all of these also turn up on single-camera shows, along with newer clichés like the wacky flashback. But a cliché joke is more cruelly exposed on a multi-camera show because the audience response and the rhythm somehow brings home the tiredness of the joke for us, even if (sometimes because) it worked for the studio audience.

A single-camera show can throw stuff away -- even a single-cam like M*A*S*H, which had a laugh track, could toss away a punchline in a way that a multi-cam can't. So the multi-cam show had better make sure its punchlines are good or, like Seinfeld, just find an alternative to the punchline form.

The good news is that when a multi-cam really works, it won't settle for cheap jokes and it also won't settle for non-jokes, which single-cams sometimes find it easier to do (since they don't have to get the material past an audience). So a really good multi-cam show is packed with "hard" jokes that are not clichés. I don't know there's a current show that fits that description, though Big Bang Theory in its second season certainly felt fresh because it had big, broad jokes that were also kind of fresh. They've lost some of that since then.

Anonymous said...

As someone that likes "2 broke girls", I still agree with the poster above who pointed out that they pretty much do all of these things. But maybe thanks to the dearth of multi camera shows I'm willing to give them a pass. Plus Kat Dennings is adorable and makes any stale line seem funny.

By the way, "Seinfeld" never felt like a multi camera show for some reason.

John said...

I've always found it interesting to contrast and compare the two Garry Marshall shows from the 1970s that went from single-camera to three-camera formats, "The Odd Couple" and "Happy Days". Watching them in syndication, and with the ratings completely factored out, I think it's safe to say most people feel the former show got better in the three-camera format, while the latter got worse when it went before a studio audience, even though both shows in large part shared the same writing staffs.

I think the problem was that while "The Odd Couple" had a cast that knew how to play to a live audience, "Happy Days" ended up overplaying to the audience. Combined with the mid-70s phenomenon that was 'The Fonz', you ended up with a show that took the easy way out in front of the studio audience, because it didn't have to work to earn its laughs. Just throw in the developed catch phrases each character was given, and (as time went by) plop in the proper cartoonish villain or "What have we learned today?" moral, and the live audience of the day (and to be fair, a lot of people at home) would just eat it up.

The Lenny & Squiggy entry gag on "Laverne & Shirley" followed the same formula. You didn't have to work for the laugh in the same way coming up with new lines for Norm entering the bar at Cheers required some thinking -- just borrow the old way the writers on "Dobie Gillis" used to have Maynard G. Krebbs enter a scene -- in a single-camera show -- with his "You rang?" line and you were in cheap laugh heaven. The problem on L&S being once the phenomenon wears off, future syndication audiences can't figure out what's supposed to be so funny that the studio audience is going wild about (and don't even get me started about how ramped up the laughs were on some of Norman Lear's sitcoms when the character's stock lines came out -- maniacal audience laughter on videotaped three-camera shows was even worse than on their filmed cousins).

charlotte said...

First of all, I love that David Lee posts in your comments thread, Ken! I shouldn't even be allowed to write anything on the same internet as the both of you...

A Friday question related to today's post:

Do you think that the many Disney & Nick multi-camera sitcoms of the past decade are able to not only get away with but thrive using and abusing all of the tired old joke formulas you mentioned and more, because, while they may be overused-from-decades-past and therefore boringly predictable to adults, they're brand new to kids who not only have never heard these joke constructions before, but are still learning the language itself, so get a kick out of jokes that play with language, cadence, plays on words, misunderstanding words, etc. Not to mention that kids love repetition, routine, predictability.

I guess my real question after rambling is: Is the classic primetime sitcom form that has worked for decades but can fall into staid joke patterns if not careful, working so well for children now for the exact same "weaknesses" in the writing that adults have outgrown?

John said...

I've always found it interesting to contrast and compare the two Garry Marshall shows from the 1970s that went from single-camera to three-camera formats, "The Odd Couple" and "Happy Days". Watching them in syndication, and with the ratings completely factored out, I think it's safe to say most people feel the former show got better in the three-camera format, while the latter got worse when it went before a studio audience, even though both shows in large part shared the same writing staffs.

I think the problem was that while "The Odd Couple" had a cast that knew how to play to a live audience, "Happy Days" ended up overplaying to the audience. Combined with the mid-70s phenomenon that was 'The Fonz', you ended up with a show that took the easy way out in front of the studio audience, because it didn't have to work to earn its laughs. Just throw in the developed catch phrases each character was given, and (as time went by) plop in the proper cartoonish villain or "What have we learned today?" moral, and the live audience of the day (and to be fair, a lot of people at home) would just eat it up.

The Lenny & Squiggy entry gag on "Laverne & Shirley" followed the same formula. You didn't have to work for the laugh in the same way coming up with new lines for Norm entering the bar at Cheers required some thinking -- just borrow the old way the writers on "Dobie Gillis" used to have Maynard G. Krebbs enter a scene -- in a single-camera show -- with his "You rang?" line and you were in cheap laugh heaven. The problem on L&S being once the phenomenon wears off, future syndication audiences can't figure out what's supposed to be so funny that the studio audience is going wild about (and don't even get me started about how ramped up the laughs were on some of Norman Lear's sitcoms when the character's stock lines came out -- maniacal audience laughter on videotaped three-camera shows was even worse than on their filmed cousins).

Matthias said...

One thing I do enjoy about clams like these is the opportunity they offer for mockery. With regard to the Lenny & Squiggy, for instance, I give you "Family Guy":

LOIS: "I mean, what kind of lazy, narcissistic, irresponsible moron would even consider doing something as unbelievably foolish as getting liposuction? Who, I ask you? WHO??"

We know exactly what happens next, because we've been well-trained by years of sitcoms. And that's the point.

Matthias said...

Oh, yeah, and here's a crappy video of the clip.

Pat Quinn said...

the phrase, "I just threw up in my mouth a little" was funny in 2003 but it got old fast even though it is still over used.

jbryant said...

Even dramas sometimes use "the flip" (which I usually think of as "the Gilligan flip." BREAKING BAD had one recently (Marie forbids Hank from going to the DEA to interview Hector -- cut to you guessed it).

I'm always amazed when the one-millionth iteration of a played-out line pops up on a show; stuff like "I just threw up in my mouth a little," or "He's standing right behind me, isn't he?" A variation of the latter is in a current commercial.

jbryant said...

Pat: Great minds thinking alike - your comment wasn't there when I was composing mine. :)

Anonymous said...

As great as MASH was, I always thought it was very unrealistic the way Hawkeye could insult someone right to his face(a visiting General for example) and he would just let it slide or show no reaction. I would LOVE to get away with that in real life!

Devin McCullen said...

Odd coincidence - yesterday I was at the Museum of Natural History having a conversation about The Big Bang Theory. (Well, not surprising since it was after we watched the movie about the Big Bang, but still.)

LouOCNY said...

Then there is BARNEY MILLER, which went from a multicam studio audience to a single cam show. In the earlier shows shot before an audience,the whole cast - ESPECIALLY Vigoda - play and overplay to the audienece. Many times you will see Vigoda turn to face the audience to deliver a line. Once Danny Arnold started lengthening the taping sessions and basically eliminated the audience, the performance on Barney are much tighter and true ensemble atmosphere occurs.

WV: 'mightho' - what Lindsey Lohan might ponder someday...

KG said...

Andy Inhatko said:

" But with "Friends" and "Seinfeld" and "Raymond" and so many others, you just wonder why the hell any of these people walk into that room when they know that they'll be bombarded by the most cold and mean-spirited things."

What?! Have you ever seen Friends or Seinfeld?

BigTed said...

I loved the way "Seinfeld" often managed to be a commentary on traditional sitcoms as well as a sitcom itself.

They took on the catch-phrase punch line (as on Jerry and George's show-within-a show: "He's MY butler!").

And they made fun of the idea of always leaving on a joke -- George reversed that by committing to leave the room every time he got a laugh. ("That's it for me... I'm outta here!")

Tim W. said...

You pretty much explained why I don't have much patience for most multi-camera shows. One thing I have to add, though, is that the difference between the Cheers joke and the "I wouldn't sleep with you..." joke is that the Cheers joke was actually original (and funny). The format is certainly overused, but a well written joke can make up for a tired format. The problem is that most jokes in this format are not well-written and you can see them coming. A deadly combination.

Anonymous said...

The brick with the print out should also be thrown into Whitney's too. Oh wait, It's the same producer.....

cshel said...

Ken - Love this post. Please do a part 2.

David Lee - Yay! Thanks for dropping by.

I've tried to watch 2 Broke Girls and I just think it seems so stale and unfunny. I feel like I'm watching a really old sitcom that doesn't hold up. And it just sounds like they're reading out the lines. (beat) What? : )

Tom Quigley said...

One of the things that a comedy writing instructor/mentor of mine, Danny Simon (Neil's older brother) always emphasized was that if you knew your characters well and could draw the comedy out of those characters and the situations they found themselves in, you wouldn't have to resort to falling back on cliches and tired stock gags. I think that shows that have remained favorites all these years, both multi-camera and single camera (I LOVE LUCY, DICK VAN DYKE, MARY TYLER MOORE, ALL IN THE FAMILY, CHEERS, FRASIER, BARNEY MILLER, THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW AND M*A*S*H to name a few), all did a better job of that than anything else that has appeared on TV under the genre of "Sitcom". Unfortunately, whether due to lack of character development, network interference, writer inexperience in the format, or a combination of all three, it seems that this isn't happening for the most part in today's current offering.

BTW, in a related note, WGN America showed the full CHEERS episode of "An Old-Fashioned Wedding" the other day -- talk about a comedy writing clinic!... And while it bordered on being a classic French farce, it has remained one of the funniest sitcom episodes I've ever seen (credited to David Lloyd, you guys still must have had a ball doing a rewrite on the pantry scene!) -- not to mention the fact that my favorite CHEERS actress from the last couple of seasons the show was on, Jackie Swanson looked absolutely stunning as Woody's bride!....

DanTedson said...

British shows are notorious for catchphrases. Even their sketch shows can't get away from them for chrissakes. Their older sitcoms are well known for it, but even the newer ones seem to have the dividing line. The romantic in me wants to think they're fighting for the soul of British comedy, but in reality they'll probably both be around forever, in the same way people who prefer Leno to Conan will be around forever, providing they can find someone to feed them.

Anyone that hasn't seen "Extras" should check it out. Gervais and Merchant pretty much dedicated the entire second series to panning Britain's beer-goggley love affair with catchphrases.

Blaze Morgan said...

I'm really missing some key aspect of the industry here. What does the number of cameras have to do with, well, anything? One camera or a thousand cameras...what difference does this make to jokes, plot, characters, etc etc?

Cap'n Bob said...

On a recent channel surf I stopped to watch a new drama--forget which one. Every time a character spoke a line of dialogue he or she was shown in three different camera angles. I switched it off after two minutes.

Matt said...

I am not in the industry at all. I am just a fan of TV and your blog. So maybe I am missing something that is obvious to others, but I don't quite understand why the joke structure is different from a multi-camera show and a single camera show. Seems to me that jokes are jokes.

Could you elaborate what the difference is? Maybe in a Friday question.

Curt Alliaume said...

The pilot for "The Big Bang Theory" put me off the show for two years. If I hadn't gotten a fairly consistent drumbeat of "It's gotten much better, really!" reviews, I wouldn't have picked it back up today.

Do actors ever come back and say, "Really, is this realistic?" when something like that situation is written into the script? For "The Big Bang Theory," I doubt anyone would have done that for the pilot episode -- but say, two or three years in. Not that it's a good comparable to "The Big Bang Theory" or "The Odd Couple," but according to one of the many "Brady Bunch" books (don't ask me which) after one taping where she had to say a particularly ridiculous line, Susan Olsen (Cindy) asked her mother if her character was supposed to be retarded.

Craig Russell said...

Surprised no one brought up "2 and a half Men" (also created by Chuck Lorre from "BBT") but both shows have a pacing that is unusual from the rest of the MC shows. The unexpected. When Alan says to Charlie "you are a womanizing man whore" Charlie responds "I know! Thats what I love about me!" Not unusual for the show and the characters, but for most shows there would be some kind of disgust and incredulation. "How dare you say that about me?" Debra from 'Raymond' would say.

Thats why that show and BBT have thrived in the single camera world. I loved the comment about how "It would be a shame if Multi-Camera shows died off. The "mock-doc" format seems very tired now." Agree! Cant watch most of them.

Also think the Nick/Disney Channel comment was pretty right on too. Kids dont think about this kinda stuff...they just want to see if Sam and Freddie will kiss. And the parents know what to expect, so its all safe and familiar with them.

Hope 2 Broke Girls survives as well--while its good and has a sweet time slot, its a pretty formula sitcom. And kinda mean...but has room to grow...

Anonymous said...

John wrote: "The problem on L&S being once the phenomenon wears off, future syndication audiences can't figure out what's supposed to be so funny that the studio audience is going wild about"

That is also the case with Kramer on "Seinfeld". All he had to do was swing open the door to Jerry's apartment and the crowd went wild. It seems to mostly be the case roughly in the middle of the series though, IIRC. Maybe the crowd was admonished to stop doing it, because frankly it's kinda embarrassing seeing it now.

selection7 said...

@Anonymous 6:59 PM,
They did eventually start telling the Seinfeld audience to stop going wild upon an entrance from Kramer.

Eric said...

I know I'm in the minority, but Raymond is the most formulaic sitcom I have ever seen. How it gets praised as some kind of classic comedy is baffling to me. Stock characters like the meddling in-laws, nagging wife, jealous brother, and dorky "everyman" lead, with jokes and punchlines I can see from a mile away. I tried to watch it after reading the glowing reviews it received, and I still don't understand how people complain about the predictability of multi-camera sitcoms, yet rave about this overrated show. Of course, this is just my opinion.

Brian Berry said...

I can't understand what people see in The Big Bang Theory. I tried to watch it a few times recently and can't last 5 minutes before I'm changing the channel. The show is awful. I'd put any episode of Spaced or The IT Crowd up against it for sincere geeky laughs any day.

Arthur F. said...

Great post! Really hits the mark with the examples. The use of a "double-take" is probably belonging on that list, but done sparingly, even that theatrical of gestures can be funny still. The same list can be made with drama, there is a whole generation of young actresses that had a set of gestures they used to the point it remains easy to parody them. You'd think they all had the same acting instructor.

xjill said...

@ Matt & Blaze Morgan...I'm sure someone WAY more savvy than me should answer this but I would say:

A multi-camera show is typically filmed before a live audience so the rhythm of the jokes and the way they are written is different than a single camera show. Because it is being filmed live multiple cameras are filming the same scene from different angles so they do fewer takes.

Ken had a great blog about when jokes "died" when they were filming and they'd have to come up with a new one really quickly. That's a multi-camera show challenge.

Rob Webster said...

I really like the flip scene. I've never actually written one, and I can't actually imagine myself writing one (which sounds so snobby that I'm making myself feel ill), but I rarely find myself dreading the inevitable cheap joke. Usually, looking forward to it.

If I were to try and dissect it I might go on about dramatic irony and how for five seconds you know so much more than the characters - the incongruity of the people on screen denying so fervently what we know to be certain - but I'd be lying out of my teeth.

I just love looking forward to the silly, tacky joke, and that's all there is to it. I can't disagree with you in principle, but in practice, I relish it every time.

Superb post!

Rob Greenberg said...

Here's my personal favorite. Two characters enter a room. One is seemingly peeved at the other. And the argument begins:

Ralph: I can't believe you did that!

Potsie: Why? What was so wrong about it?

Apparently, the two characters must have walked/driven over in complete silence!

Eduardo Jencarelli said...

As far as I know, it always comes down to the characters.

Create good characters, who have some motivation, and some reason for being involved with the other characters, and everything else should flow somewhat naturally. Even the jokes.

Anonymous said...

Rob G, you're absolutely right! A variation is when the two characters enter the house or apartment saying "That was a great restaurant (or movie, or whatever)." And I always think, why didn't they discuss that in the car on the way home?

Jaime J. Weinman said...

The convention of people discussing things as they enter the room actually doesn't bother me. We accept that most of the action takes place on these few sets, and I'd much rather see the characters discuss it there then have the show do some rear-projected car scene for the sake of realism. It's just a theatre convention, and theatre is what a multi-cam show basically is.

What really bothers me is when the conversation is phrased in such a way that the characters are telling each other things they already know. But that's just bad exposition.

Johnny Walker said...

Wow, great post. It reminds me of (I think) Sam Simon's complaint about 90% of sitcoms: Everyone is a sarcastic wise-ass. For some reason it became really popular for everyone in a sitcom to become an insult machine. In real-life you'd just hate to have those people as friends.

The thing about The Simpsons is that there's not a single character who does that. This is possibly why, 50(?) years on, The Simpsons still feels partially fresh, even when a lot of the jokes have become stale... Nobody else is doing what they're doing.

Another thing I've become tired of in sitcoms at the moment (although it's more on grounds of taste) is the notion that a "successful" male is someone who is a womanizer. Both The Big Bang Theory and Two and A Half Men do it, and so does, surprisingly, How I Met Your Mother.

The audience knows it's "naughty", and characters may chastise the womanizer, but it's all done with a knowing wink to the camera: He's the guy cool, really.

It's more obvious with Two and A Half Men: As maligned by the other characters Charlie was, the sitcom regularly painted Alan, a regular guy, single parent, as a loser... and Charlie as the successful one. Almost entirely on their "success" with (i.e. ability to use and throw away) women.

And I'm not talking about the lovably evil Barney when I mention How I Met Your Mother, either. Sometimes the show slips and Ted becomes more like Barney for the sake of an easy plot. Hell, even the female characters are shown cheering on or helping Barney at times.

Thinking about it, I guess this is why Ken loved Coupling so much: It successfully did something different with the multi-camera format.

Donald Liebenson said...

Ken:

This requires more Googling than I can do at the moment, but the Big Bang scene you mention I believe was from the original UNAIRED pilot. The scene was retooled for the broadcast version.

Ike Iszany said...

I'd rather have multi-camera than a show filmed like a drama like ""Modern Family". I guess I'm so used to the multi-camera format that sit-coms that aren't multi-cam feel like they are bombing to me. To me it's like watching a baseball player swing a hockey stick.

Sean Kernan said...

2 Broke Girls just tonight had this exchange

Max: "Let me see what you're drawing Johnny. A rat with a Civil War Hat. Is that your comment on how politicians view soldiers?"

Johnny: "No, it's an actual rat I saw with a hat on."

Larry said...

Bad writing is bad writing. Forumlaic writing is formulaic writing. The number of cameras photographing the writing doesn't change that.

I have no idea why single camera shows became trendy. (I had a friend who pitched a sitcom and was told to turn it into a multi-camera show.) Maybe people in Hollywood get tired of live shows, but based on ratings, the audience never did.

Both forms can be fun, but most of my favorite sitcoms were multi-camera. Maybe it's just a coincidence, but I think the actors' energy is up when they have to perform in front of an audience, and that livens up the show.

Brian Phillips said...

Great post! To further your point of people speaking unnaturally, this was the season of the horny friend/co-worker. "2 Broke Girls" (the chef), "Whitney" (Roxanne and Mark), "Free Agents" (close your eyes and point and you'd have a 50% success rate), to name a few.

Also, doesn't multi-camera breed "the reaction shot"?

As pop culture goes, so do the worn-out phrases. In the 1970's, when they aired failed pilots I remember two different shows that had characters going to the bathroom, which prompted someone to say, "Don't take anything to read!".

Here are some cliches I am glad to see gone:

- The Dr. Laura characters

- The "Iron John" parodies (even "Cheers" fell prey to that, along with "Anything But Love" and "Designing Women"(!))

- "Cut to the chase"

- "Comedy!" (i.e. "Give me that" "Here you go"[character then pulls away desired object and says] "Comedy!"

"The Heartbreak of Psoriasis" (once again, at least two shows harped on this)

Sadly, I still don't think we are rid of "(So) let me get this straight..." and its whiny sibling, "You mean to tell me..."

I wish I had a dime for every time I posted,
Brian

Wendy M. Grossman said...

To be fair to the Big Bang Theory pilot, while I agree with you that most women would not follow the creepy masturbators into their apartment (or would at least ask for clarification before doing so), one thing we soon learn about Penny is that she's very confident about her physical strength. I say it's just about plausible that our favorite Nebraska farm girl sized up Sheldon and Leonard and thought, "I can take these guys with a single kick," and decided the shower (and free lunch) was worth the risk.

My friends and I were far more bothered by the implausibility that two working physicists couldn't afford a T1 line.

wg

Wendy M. Grossman said...

@Johnny Walker: Yes, and and 2 1/2 Men (and House) also kind of behaves as though patronizing prostitutes is a cute quirk. In HIMYM, though, you have the balancing effect of Marshall, who has many times made the point that he's proud of having only ever slept with Lily and sees that as much greater success with women. And Ted's role model is very much Marshall, not Barney.

One show I imagine hardly any of you will know that went to town on making fun of sitcom tropes - in this case, the absurd coincidences that abound - was the British series Chance in a Million. It starred the wonderful Simon Callow and Brenda Blethyn in some of their earliest roles. Callow played the lead role, a man who from birth had been beset by a constant stream of strange and improbable coincidences. He is so frequently arrested that many of his local police know him so well they don't arrest him no matter what happens. He refers to his problem as a disability, and is astonished when, in the pilot, Blethyn (whom he meets by mistake at a hotel when they both have blind dates with other people) pretty much instantly goes along with whatever happens without getting too upset by it.

They made a great team, and it was a hysterically funny show. Sadly, not available commercially although the first season was at one point released on video in the US and you can still sometimes get that from Amazon. Highly recommended.

wg