Thursday, January 22, 2015

In defense of multi-camera sitcoms

The multi-camera format of sitcoms has become the gluten-free section of the TV menu. It’s offered but only begrudgingly and the assumption is it will only appeal to a very few. When networks announce their development slate, the first thing they say about a project is whether it’s single or multi-camera. And if it’s a multi-camera, half the time they quickly add that it’s a hybrid, so it’s not REALLY a multi-cam. It’s like multi-camera shows are on a quota system.

The multi-camera shows currently on the air tend to be either family comedies, tween comedies, or raunch. Other than MOM and BIG BANG THEORIES (two big hits), I can’t think of another exception currently on the air on a major broadcast network. THE NEW ODD COUPLE debuts soon but the verdict is still out since no one’s seen it.

Before MULLANEY premiered there were big articles from the folks responsible claiming they were doing something really daring by committing to a multi-cam format. The show itself is terrible and has been unanimously rejected by America, but trust me, it’s not because of the number of cameras.

Was anybody bothered by the fact that CHEERS was multi-camera? Or FRIENDS? Or FRASIER? Or SEINFELD? Or ALL IN THE FAMILY, THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, or THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW? You get the idea.

The fact that the bar has been so lowered by shows like 2 BROKE GIRLS doesn’t mean quality shows can’t be mounted. Networks just have to buy them and writers have to write them.

The swing away from multi-camera shows has been such an over-reaction. It’s as if theater owners no longer staged plays because movies gained in popularity. No one wants to just watch actors relate to each other on a stage when they can see giant explosions and special effects on a screen.

Obviously there’s room for both.

In terms of comedy, some of the sharpest, deepest, and funniest endeavors have been for the stage. From Kaufman & Hart to Neil Simon to Chris Durang, Paul Rudnick, and a host of other sparkling scribes – playwrights have created inspired work. And they've been held accountable for the comedy. Audiences have to laugh. (And unlike a TV taping, there’s no warm-up guy pleading for the audience to laugh). So you better bring your A-game.

Why can’t that be translated to today's television? I’d like to think if Noel Coward was around in the ‘90s he’d be writing for FRASIER.  I'd probably be squeezed out to make room for him. 

With a few rare exceptions, every great iconic sitcom from I LOVE LUCY to SEINFELD has been multi-camera.

Networks just have to once again embrace them. And I’m not just speaking to major broadcast carriers. Premium cable networks and streaming services -- this goes for you too. Who subscribes to these services? People with money who can afford them. Grown ups. The same grown ups who grew up on quality multi-camera shows. God forbid Amazon or Netflix or HBO would air a new series in this format.

There aren’t comedy writers currently toiling on middling single camera shows who wouldn’t kill to do their own CHEERS? There aren’t network executives who would love to be proud of their comedies and not have to justify them with bullshit excuses or niche numbers?

It sure seems worth doing... and not just because they feel obligated to toss in a couple of gluten-free items.   Oh, and another thing – multi-camera shows are CHEAPER. So really, what’s the big downside?

UPDATE:  But if you're a big fan of single camera shows, I have one for you to check out.  It's DOWN DOG, one of the Amazon pilots currently under consideration.  It was written/created by Robin Schiff who co-created ALMOST PERFECT with us and wrote ROMY & MICHELE'S HIGH SCHOOL REUNION quite nicely without our help.   Here's where you go.  And if you like it, please give it a whole bunch of stars.  Thanks.

46 comments:

Anonymous said...

Ken, I believe you mean 'gluten', not 'glutton'.

Terrence Moss said...

I love the multi-cam format. I laugh at "Mom". I find this new mindset that single-cam is inherently better because the critics have gotten behind it to be idiotic.

I have no problem with the single-cam format. I love "The Middle" and laugh out loud at it.

But "The Middle" isn't a better show because it's single-cam any more than "2 Broke Girls" has become a dumb show because it's multi-cam.

Daniel said...

I think the issue is that multi-cam=laugh track, and laugh tracks are distracting for viewers who have gotten used to not having them.

Matthew E said...

I am kind of taken aback by the idea that I should even notice how many cameras are used to make a show I watch. And if I did notice, why would I care?

I mean, I'm sure it's of immense interest to those who are, for whatever reason, students of the craft of TV. But if I'm just watching the show, well... what of it?

unkystan said...

I keep hearing people say that they dislike multi-camera shows because of the laugh track. This is so stupid. These are real people laughing (maybe sometimes sweetened). The single camera shows of the past (think My Three Sons, Brady Bunch, etc.) had laugh tracks. Those tracks are obnoxious because these "well loved" shows are just not funny. When I'm laughing along I hardly even notice others laughing along. There is also an energy dynamic.
Usually when I hear a show start with the words "...is filmed before a live audience" I know I'm in for a good time. Is it a better show? Not necessarily but there is room for both.

Andrew Parker said...

Do actors really prefer multi-cam?

I know you get a fixed schedule each week and work less hours. But you also have to memorize a whole lot of lines quickly. And you get fewer takes to get it right. Seems like a big trade off for fewer hours worked.

MikeK.Pa. said...

Reading the comments, it seems like the issue isn't multi-camera vs. single camera as much as taping before a live audience or not. Is that correct - single camera has no audience? If that's the issues, couldn't multi-camera be taped without an audience? I wish I lived in LA so I could witness tapings myself. Also, when did this shift begin - with shows like THE OFFICE and 30 ROCK?

Scooter Schechtman said...

Multi-cam shows will disappear when the The Corporation cost cutters decide that single-cam can fudge the effects with, I don't know, mirrors and balloons? (just assuming that two cameras cost more than one)

norm said...

Wait, wait.....shows like Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction and Andy Griffith? Where they multi cams? I remember the laugh tracks and think where did they get the laughs for the laugh tracks?

Ryan Drean said...

How come they can't or don't mix the two? Do a multi-cam show (for budget and time etc) but in the single-cam style with no laugh track, more film look, and that content everyone loves so much these days.

Anonymous said...

If I am filming a pile of dung, should I use film? HD digital? 1 camera? 20 cameras? Bottom line, it's a pile of dung, doesn't matter how it is filmed, no substance, no media will improve that. Although, bad wine makes bad movies better.

hewman15 said...

The single wackiest multi-camera show ever was Lucky Louie. Filmed just like any sitcom in front of a live audience, except with hard R rated dialogue, and male full frontal nudity. Not a great show to me, but fascinating to watch in small doses.

Garry said...

Maybe these things are just cyclic. Multi-camera filming practically disappeared during the 1960s. It's said that THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW and THE LUCY SHOW were that decade's only two long-running sitcoms filmed that way. Then the multi-cam format made a big comeback in the 1970s, prompted by the success the Norman Lear and MTM sitcoms had doing their shows that way.

You could film multi-cam, without an audience, but what would be the point? Part of the appeal of shooting multi-cam is that you have a live audience to work with and play off of. I can understand the objections some people have to laugh tracks cobbled together from Charlie Douglas's old laugh machine. "Live audience response" from people who have been dead for years and who were recorded at THE RED SKELTON SHOW in 1952. But to me, there's not a thing in the world wrong with genuine live audience response, the kind you get on a sitcom taped multi-cam.

For the record, I believe the last season or two of ALL IN THE FAMILY was shot multi-cam, but without an audience. The shows were played to a live audience and their response was recorded and dubbed onto the shows. And the 1952-55 sitcom I MARRIED JOAN filmed that way. They wanted the multi-cam look that I LOVE LUCY had, but series star Joan Davis didn't want to work in front of a live audience and didn't want the pressure of having to film straight through, without stopping and starting, the way single camera shows can do. There may be other scattered examples of multi-cam shows taped without an audience. Even I LOVE LUCY filmed a couple of episodes that way, due to production difficulties in those particular scripts. But by and large, there's no reason to do that. As I say, part of the appeal of doing a show multi-cam is having a live audience out there in front of you.

Anonymous said...

What about Undateable and Ground Floor?

Karl said...

One of the odd things about watching a string of 1960s sitcoms on MeTV is that they all tend to have the same laugh track. There wasn't that much variation in what ol' Charlie did or apparently that wide a selection in his laugh machine. Every sitcom, some damn laugh track.

Karl said...

That should have read:

Every sitcom, SAME damn laugh track.

Dang typo's.

gottacook said...

Why are multi-cam shows cheaper to produce? I was surprised to read that. I would have assumed that multi-cam requires a larger shooting crew, a warm-up person (usually) has to be paid, audience management costs (ticketing, ushers, etc.) have to be figured in, someone in post-production has to adjust the audience laughter up or down, etc.

Scooter Schechtman said...

hewman15: Don't mention Louis CK here. Ken has only mentioned him in guarded, neutral terms, which means Hollywood Tact (praising with faint damns).
Karl: Everyone knows the famous laughtrack. Remember The Hooter?

Anonymous said...

Best is to take two cameras and cut one into halves.

Sharon said...

I couldn't agree more. When watching a comedy, my only criteria is that it make me laugh. The number of cameras has NOTHING to do with the funny. Too many of the so-called comedies these days are dramas in comedy clothing. Others are amusing but not funny to me. The only comedies that I watch today are BIG BANG THEORY and BLACKISH. One is multi-cam and one is single cam, but the reason I watch them is because they make me laugh.

Ken Levine said...

I love Louis CK.

Multi-camera shows work with a smaller crew for three normal days. Then the full crew comes in for two days. The sets are pretty much in place. Maybe one or two swing sets have to be built.

A single-camera show uses the entire crew the entire time, usually 12 hours a day or more every day. There are more sets, outside shooting, which require all the transportation, and loads of overtime and penalties.

Ryan Drean said...

Hey Ken: Since you are checking these comments out I am really curious about the following -

How come they can't or don't mix the two? Do a multi-cam show (for budget and time etc) but in the single-cam style with no laugh track, more film look, and that content everyone loves so much these days.

(Or maybe in the Friday Q's) Appreciate your time!

CamrioKid said...

and the AFTER M*A*S*H bashing continues:

http://www.hitfix.com/whats-alan-watching/review-better-call-saul-a-breaking-bad-prequel-with-promise

Ken Levine said...

They do mix the two. That's a hybrid like HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER. But as someone suggested, if you don't have a live audience and the actors can't react off of their energy then you defeat the purpose, in my opinion.

Ryan Drean said...

Oh, I didnt realize HIMYM would considered a hybrid BECAUSE of the laugh track. But I get it and thanks.

I'll throw another mention of Ground Floor on here. For me its so throwback its near cool but its just missing something. I really want to like it but there are hurdles. Don't know if anyone else likes or loves it or if it's pretty much hated?

John Mansfield said...

Single-camera filming produces a more visually interesting result, which should count for a lot in television. The multi-camera stuff often gives me a mild case of cabin fever, even with shows I enjoy quite a bit.

Canda said...

No multi-cam, because it doesn't lend itself to voiceover, which is what the writers of TV today need, since they don't seem to know how to reveal character without it.

John Hammes said...

> Karl said...
> Every sitcom, SAME damn laugh track.

Not only that, literally the "fourth wall", in plain sight, in every same "damn" single camera sitcom.

:)

Think of any favorite single camera sitcom from that era: some are still excellent, some excrutiating, some we still can't figure out...

Apparently the popular idea was to film ALL angles of what we now recognize as very familiar sitcom sets - north, west, east, south - pretty much cinema style.

Then, came post production and those awful Charley Douglass laugh tracks (may he rest in peace, from all accounts a nice man, but his laugh track collection was horrible cheesy, instantly regognizable, and a true earworm, impossible to forget.
Wait a minute... impossible to forget... maybe the man was on to something!) .

Even as a kid, I could clearly see that the actors were in a closed studio, with no possible accommodation for an audience, and yet there it was - uproarious laughter on the soundtrack from an audience that clearly was not there.

True, the Douglass laugh tracks were already old yet still in use 1960s-'70s, and the general understanding/joke at that time was all those people "still" laughing were long gone. So, were the producers going with a subversive message...?


"The audience you are hearing are actually ghosts. You, dear viewer, only have so much time left yourself. Therefore, buy as many of our sponser's products as possible to make yourself happy... BEFORE IT IS TOO LATE...
We now return you to 'The Brady Bunch' ".

DBA said...

I'd argue that MOM absolutely falls into both the "raunch" and "family sitcom" categories you mentioned...

scott said...

"How come they can't or don't mix the two? Do a multi-cam show (for budget and time etc) but in the single-cam style with no laugh track, more film look, and that content everyone loves so much these days."

For the more "film" look, compare the 1st season of "Newhart" with all the rest.

Tom said...

Even as a kid, I could clearly see that the actors were in a closed studio, with no possible accommodation for an audience, and yet there it was - uproarious laughter on the soundtrack from an audience that clearly was not there

You would think that would be obvious to anyone, but I had an aunt who worked at CBS for many, many years, and I remember her talking about how it never failed to surprise her how often people called wanting to get tickets to see an episode of MASH being filmed. This was a show that made no pretense to looking like it was filmed in front of a live audience. When she first started at CBS, people would request tickets to the filming of single camera shows like THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES. She could sort of understand why they might assume a show like that had an audience. But the MASH thing never failed to both puzzle and amuse her.

That's always led me to wonder to what degree people really recognize the difference between multi-cam and single camera, or shows taped with an audience versus shows done without an audience. Informal surveys had led me to the conclusion that most people really don't give it any thought. More surprisingly, even though you would assume people would be more sophisticated about things like that these days, a lot of people I've questioned about it still make the assumption that if it's a sitcom, it has an audience, even if you would think it should be screamingly obvious that there couldn't possibly be one.

Deanna said...

I'd assume only maybe 1% of the population knows, notices or cares about single camera versus multi-camera shows. Why can't networks care that much about stories and character development?

chipkeyes said...

I believe BARNEY MILLER -- certainly among the top 25 best half hour comedies of all time-- was shot multi-camera, without an audience, then sweetened later. I don't how they added the laughs, but they never felt obtrusive. Most annoying laugh tracks are a result of over-enthusiastic producers or execs who seem to feel the home audience can be fooled into thinking a so-so joke is great because the laugh track gives it a monster response. Which is, of course, insulting and condescending and naturally engenders only resentment and contempt from the viewer.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Call it a Friday question: do you think it's easier for a show that's not recorded in front of a live audience to lose its way creatively? For example, HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER seemed to me to fall off a cliff quality-wise after about season 4 (and had some truly terrible episodes in its last couple of seasons).

wg

Dixon Steele said...

The problem is the sweetening today is Super-Sized, hitting the viewer over the head with a hammer.

VP81955 said...

I've attended three multi-cam sitcom episode filmings -- "Frasier" in March 2000, "Mom" this past November and "Hot In Cleveland" a month ago -- and I sense that for many of the actors, most of whom had at least some live stage experience, the interaction with an audience was beneficial. And as others here have stated, audience sweetening these days is relatively minimal.

Bradley D. said...

My two cents' worth: from reading comments about sitcoms on other entertainment blogs, I gather that the thing younger audiences (some of them, anyway) don't like about modern multi-cam sitcoms is their perceived lack of sophistication, i.e. shows like Arrested Development, Louie & Girls on the one hand and Big Bang Theory, Two Broke Girls, Two & a Half Men on the other, with the latter group all being regarded as extremely broad, unsubtle and middlebrow. Viewers who think this way seem to regard audible laughter (whether from an actual live audience or a supposed laughtrack - the distinction appears not to matter to them) as intrusive and crass, and associate it with lowbrow humor for rubes.

I don't know how any of this factors into the thinking of modern TV executives looking for sitcoms to program, but I know it's definitely a belief that's out there. (It's not one I share, for what it's worth.)

LouOCNY said...

Actually, BARNEY MILLER started out as a petty much standard 3 camera show, but after about a season and a half or so, went to the multi camera with no audience - for a couple of reasons.

First of all, Danny Arnold started bringing in directors more used to single camera shows like Bruce Bilson and Noam Pitlik.

Second, some of his regulars -*cough*Abe Vigoda*cough* - started hamming it up in front of the audience. The difference in Vigoda's performances from the early episodes to the late 2nd season/3rd season is remarkable.

Mostly, though, Arnold started getting to be a perfectionist, and the taping days started getting longer and longer, so much so, that the studio audiences were there WAY too long, and they would end up doing half the show without them. Apparently, they would be there until 3..4 in the morning!

VP81955 said...

BTW, I hope many of you saw the "Mom" episode tonight. It was both poignant and funny.

Leon said...

Mostly, though, Arnold started getting to be a perfectionist, and the taping days started getting longer and longer, so much so, that the studio audiences were there WAY too long, and they would end up doing half the show without them. Apparently, they would be there until 3..4 in the morning!

Hmmm. Tapings that went on for hours and hours and hours never seemed to discourage the producers of FRIENDS from bringing in audiences.

Albert Giesbrecht said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Richard Rothrock said...

The comments about single camera vs. multi-camera got me thinking about "Happy Days". For the first two seasons, it was a single camera without a studio audience and the show seemed to be more about real people dealing with what it was like to be a family in the 1950s.

Once it switched to being a multi-camera in front of a life audience, the comedy got broader, the 1950s cultural references diminished, and the actors started relying more on the character schtick that got the big laughs.

For me, the show was never quite as good.

SkillSets said...

I'm enjoying the whole first season of BARNEY MILLER. Multi-cultural as well as multi-camera. Genius.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

I usually have a stronger preference for single camera sitcoms, mainly from an artistic point-of-view: there are so many different angles and shots that you can get out of a single-camera show that you can't get out of a multi-camera show. HOGAN'S HEROES and M*A*S*H are two great examples of the kind of cinematic quality a single camera show can take on (though I wonder if early cameras were incapable of zooming, as I've noticed a lot of tightenings on HOGAN are the camera physically tracking closer to the actors, as opposed to just a simple zoom-in).

That said, however, while we're still talking about THE ODD COUPLE, I actually think that show improved when it switched to multi-camera: that first single-camera season really doesn't stand out, it almost comes off as another generic 60s-era sitcom. Once it switched to multi-camera, and Tony Randall and Jack Klugman had the spontaneity of an audience to feed off of (and they were allowed to improvise and ad-lib more), the show really took off from there.

As for SEINFELD, there's no arguing that it's one of the single greatest series of all-time... however, sometimes it really doesn't even seem like a multi-camera show, particularly from about Season Six and onward: there's a lot more action going on and locations taking place that seem to break the multi-camera convention. The first five seasons are painfully obvious they're filmed multi-camera, like when Babu was being deported - we see Jerry exit stage out into the hall, and we hear Babu calling out for him and him calling back, but we don't see what's going out in the hall -- then years later, we have a sequence where Jerry is chasing Newman throughout the building: there's no way they could have done that with multiple cameras (and with an audience sitting to boot).

cadavra said...

To me, "single-cam" today means, faux-hip, smug, pretentious shows, often in the mock-doc format, that substitute attitude for jokes. You go back to the '60s, and you get shows like THE ADDAMS FAMILY, GET SMART, F TROOP and McHALE'S NAVY, all single-cam and all hilarious then and now. A single-cam show can be funny--if you want it to be.

forg/jecoup said...

Mike and Molly is quite underrated IMO. Not the funniest sitcom out there but it's pretty solid with a great cast. I like that despite her box office success, Melissa is still doing TV

ABC's Cristela is also quite nice