Thursday, May 18, 2017

The current trend in network comedies

Deadline Hollywood, the online industry website, posted an interesting article recently about single-camera vs. multi-camera sitcoms. You can find it here.

They accurately point out that this year networks pretty much bought reboots of popular retro multi-cams but practically all new comedies were single-camera.

So what does this mean, trendwise?

At this point I must pause for a disclaimer. I have no favoritism in this discussion. I’ve worked on both single-camera (MASH), and multi-camera (CHEERS, FRASIER) and love them both. Additionally, I have no plans to develop pilots for the networks in the near future so I don’t have a dog in this race.  All I ask is that a comedy be funny.  Use two cameras or shoot it on a surveillance camera.  I don't care.   End of disclaimer.

The article suggests that multi-cam shows are on the way out. Three current multi-camera series were cancelled – LAST MAN STANDING, 2 BROKE GIRLS, and DR. KEN. The first two for monetary reasons, the latter for humanitarian purposes. And NBC’s multi-camera offering, THE CARMICHAEL SHOW, airs in the summer, which is like a professional baseball player only getting to play in winter ball in Venezuela.

Nellie Andreeva, wrote the article, and I don’t disagree with anything she says. Multi-cameras are out of favor and young writers don’t want to write multi-camera (although many of these same young writers have never done it and maybe can’t write multi-cameras) so they don’t pitch projects of that genre.

But I think there’s more here to analyze. TV genres run their course and die. RIP Westerns and sayonara Variety shows. They faded for a good reason. People stopped watching them. So you would assume the same would be true for multi-camera comedies. But it’s not. Most of top rated sitcoms are multi-camera. THE BIG BANG THEORY, MOM, KEVIN CAN WAIT. What does CBS know that the other networks don’t? (CBS, by the way, did pick up a couple of new multi-cams.)

For all the single-camera shows on the air, how many of them are really big hits? I don’t mean time slot hits, or gaining .3 share of 18-34 women when Live + 7 Day totals are in – I mean a top ten major impact hit.  (MODERN FAMILY years ago but now it's just hanging on.)  And that’s not to say that there aren’t terrific single-camera shows (and conversely, truly terrible multi-camera shows). But when Westerns were dying, BONANZA wasn’t a top five show.

I always contend that viewers don’t select their comedies based on number of cameras. They don’t know the difference in most cases. They watch THE BIG BANG THEORY and FRIENDS and SEINFELD because they’re genuinely funny. When networks say they need to program a multi-camera show to compliment another multi-camera show I say why? Who gives a shit?

When Fox says it can’t launch a multi-camera show I say what comedy show that isn’t a cartoon CAN you launch? NEW GIRL? That was six years ago and despite its tepid numbers for years they still renewed it. Fox must really have been disappointed in their comedy development this year.

Certainly there is the nostalgia factor in rebooting shows like WILL & GRACE, ROSEANNE, ONE DAY AT A TIME, and FULLER HOUSE. But there is also the fact that they’re proven entities at a time when networks make all decisions based on fear. The fact that these reboots happen to be multi-camera, how many big hit single-camera shows have there been in the ‘80s and ‘90s? MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE maybe? Now it’s MALCOLM IN MIDDLE AGE.

And if these reboots work, what will it teach the networks --that multi-camera is still a viable form or they need to reboot SILVER SPOONS? What do you think?

There would be more multi-camera shows on the air today if networks put more of them on the air. Period. End of story. CBS gets that. You could argue that one of the new shows CBS bought is the YOUNG SHELDON spin-off of THE BIG BANG THEORY and even that’s single-camera. But it has to do more with storytelling. You want to see young Sheldon out and about in the world. You don’t want to see him stuck in his room. So of course it’s a single-camera show.  And I bet you it'll be damn funny

I think you stand a better chance of breaking through the clutter with a new multi-cam because you’re held accountable. The show has to get real laughs. And if you can pull it off (it’s not easy) you’ll stand out. And you know the TV business. If another FRIENDS comes along and is a sensation the next year there will be fifteen multi-camera shows on the air. 

But how can you find that next FRIENDS or FRASIER or SEINFELD if you don't develop multi-camera shows?

In fairness, though, I will say this:  When a single-camera show is bad it's usually just flat or boring.  When a multi-camera show is bad it's painful to watch.  And the forced canned laughter just makes it worse.   So it's riskier and risks are something networks are petrified of.  So it's not enough to develop multi-camera shows, you have to develop GOOD ones.  You have to hire writers who are skilled in the form.  Hey, it ain't Shakespeare.  They're out there. 

All that said, if I were developing for a network (and again, I am not) I would definitely pitch a single-camera show. Why? Networks are more receptive, I’d have a better chance of selling it, and here’s the main reason: There would be less interference. With multi-camera shows every day there is a runthrough; the notes are endless. On the night the show is shot there are notes every second on everything from camera angles to performances to set dressing. With a single-camera show at some point you go to Simi Valley and it’s 3 AM and you just film it. That’s for me.

But to just discard multi-cameras is like a basketball team just dismissing anyone who isn't tall.  And then there's Isaiah Thomas.  

36 comments :

Jim S said...

I too have no dog in the fight. The networks refuse to take my calls, giving me excuses like "we've never heard of you" or you live in Detroit and have absolutely no show biz experience whatsoever."

Anyway, I will say this – multicam shows have a real energy to them. They can have heart and good plots, but they are very generous with the jokes. I realized this watching the famous Dick Van Dyke Show where it's a flashback to when Rob was DJing for 100 hours straight and was interviewed by Alan Brady and Mel Cooley for a writing position on Brady's show. Good funny set up. But it was filled with jokes. Van Dyke was hysterical and the jokes weren't lame. (You aren't wrong about bad jokes on a multi-cam being painful to watch). And the jokes were in service of character, plot and most importantly the funny.

And when a multi-cam is hitting it out of the park, the audience becomes almost another cast member. The energy from a truly laughing audience can be felt and improve performances, at least in my opinion.

But single cams, when done right, can really give writers options. Malcolm in the Middle is a perfect example. They have Malcolm talking directly to the camera. They were able to use things like music and editing to really create something new and different. Something that couldn't be done in a multi-cam.

Given my druthers, I'd go multi-cam as default position for comedy. But there is a place for single cams, especially when producers are willing to use the tools provided to maximum ability.

Brian Stanley said...

Possible Friday question (maybe not that good or previously answered):
With your final line about "Isiah Thomas" - I assume you're referring to the current Celtics star, but my first thought when I see that name is the Pistons Hall of Famer from the 80s and 90s...
Which got me thinking: Has any line or name you've written taken on a completely different context years later?
(Or do you know any stories of John Smith Jr. showing up because the producers thought they'd hired John Smith Sr. ?)

Brian Stanley said...

And yes, I realize Mr. Thomas and Mr. Thomas spell their names differently.

Jeff said...

Speaking to people younger than myself (I grew up watching multi-camera greats like WKRP and Barney Miller and All in the Family and the like) there seems to be a mistrust of the setup/punchline and audience laughter (real or canned) of multi-camera shows. To them, the format feels like it's trying too hard, to be pushing you to laugh. The audience laughter feels like a jab in the ribs ("Hey, didja hear that? Wasn't it hilarious, what that guy said?") and often it becomes evident when a character's line is a setup for a punchline ("Here it comes!").

I think it's fair to say that multi-camera shows are intended to recreate the experience of a stage play, so perhaps that's something a lot of viewers these days don't have, or maybe there's just something about the staging that rings more false to them.

I've seen a lot of multi-cam sitcoms over the years, some of them beautifully written, where the dialogue and laughs flow effortlessly and authentically from the characters and situations being presented. I've also seen shows where every line of dialogue is either a blatant setup or a blatant punchline, and none of it is something a human being would ever say.

As with everything, there are cycles. After a period of embracing the "greater realism" of single-camera shows, younger viewers will rediscover multi-camera again. Someone will buck the prevailing trends and get a great multi-camera show on the air that's universally praised.

And then all the networks will want one.

VP81955 said...

Does anyone know whether "Mom," my current favorite sitcom, has a syndication deal, now that it's been assured of having sufficient episodes? I'm uncertain how well it would do there, especially since it probably skews older than other sitcoms' demographics and it wasn't an immediate hit. (Remember, it came close to not being renewed after its first season.) "Mom" is proof a relatively new multi-cam can succeed.

Steve Bailey said...

This is strictly my theory and no one else's. But over the years, I've observed a number of sitcoms that hung on for years without (IMHO) ever once being funny -- DIFF'RENT STROKES, ALICE, BENSON -- and they were all multi-camera shows. If a single-camera show isn't funny, you can tell yourself that maybe it's not your cup of tea. But when a show is done before a live audience and the audience is hardly laughing, that show is dead in its tracks.

ScarletNumber said...

The Fox sitcom with Zooey is called New Girl, with no "the".

Terrence Moss said...

You not finding something funny doesn't mean it isn't. I have the first two seasons of BENSON on DVD and laugh quite often at a great line and/or Guillaume's delivery of a line. I'm not entirely sure what you're not finding funny, but perhaps that show's more situational humor just doesn't age as well for you. Someone found it funny otherwise it wouldn't have lasted for seven years.

estiv said...

VP81955, Mom will be on local stations this fall.

http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/live-feed/mom-sold-syndication-92-percent-928832

brian t said...

To VP81955 - yes, Mom has syndication deals covering "27 of the top 30 markets" (story).

PS: I didn't know that Mom was multi-camera, it doesn't feel all that set-bound.

Andy Rose said...

@Jeff: I agree that a lot of the standard tropes of multi-cam are just played out and too predictable now. The old Stan Daniels Turn (having a character cluelessly contradict something he said in the previous line) used to get a lot of laughs because it was unexpected. Now any time a character makes an uncharacteristically sincere proclamation out of the blue, your brain already knows exactly what's about to happen. I've enjoyed rewatching Cheers over the past few weeks and getting lots of laugh-out-loud moments. But I've also found that a lot of the Carla insults fall flat because I know about three words into the setup that one is coming, and often I can guess what the punchline is going to be.

On The Big Bang Theory (which I'll admit, I don't like), it seems they've traded in the old tropes for what I heard someone call "the comedy of the familiar," where people laugh at something not so much because the joke is funny, but just because they recognize the reference. Punchlines on TBBT often turn on a random old Star Trek episode or scientific theorem that people laugh at because they think they're one of only a select few who will appreciate it. As a fan of MST3K and Community and the early years of Family Guy, I'm not above laughing at an obscure reference, but I don't think that's a substitute for actual jokes.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Speaking of MOM, I just read that the producers and stars of MOM have elected to donate their $250,000 Emmy advertising budget to Planned Parenthood, with Chuck Lorre and Allison Janney leading the way.

wg

Terence Towles Canote said...

I don't think multi-camera shows are going anywhere soon. I think it may just be the case that we are entering a cycle towards single-camera shows. I may be wrong, but it seems to me single-camera shows were big in the Sixties (think The Andy Griffith Show, Bewitched, et. al.), but in the Seventies it was the multi-camera shows that were the big thing (All in the Family, Maude, et. al.). It wouldn't surprise me if several years ago the pendulum won't swing back and someone will write a premature obituary for the single-camera sitcom.

Unknown said...

Why can't a show do both? Out of the 15 episodes, 7 are multi camera, and 8 are single? Different writing styles, but no reason they can't try the "other".
Parts of Frazier, Cheers, and others have parts of the show single camera, but then go back to the studio.

Anonymous said...

"Just hanging on" Modern Family averaged a 2.1 this year.

Kevin Can Wait averaged a 1.6 and ended its season 1.5 points (1.1) lower than it began (2.6).

Modern Family is also higher than Mom (1.4), Man with a Plan (1.24), Superior Donuts (1.18), Last Man Standing (1.15), and 2 Broke Girls (1.31).

The only broadcast multi-cam it's lower than is The Big Bang Theory.

Gary said...

My problem with recent single-camera shows is that many cannot resist winking at the audience, and make no attempt to be realistic, thereby negating the comedy. The idea of the quasi-documentary worked great in The Office and fairly well in Parks & Recreation. Modern Family started out this way, but now they use it less and less, and should drop it entirely. But in shows like New Girl and 30 Rock, all the characters seem to be in an alternate universe, and this quickly wears thin. If every character is bizarre or a caricature, it all just seems too ridiculous.

Jonathan Gabay said...

You should check out the "Launch" ratings for The Mick and Last Man on Earth. Both shows "Launched" to pretty big numbers

Terrence Moss said...

Everything is just hanging on in the woefully out-dated demo.

Terrence Moss said...

I don't believe the variety series is dead. It just requires the right talent in the right format for their talents.

D. McEwan said...

Another multi-cam just cancelled is The Great Indoors. While not immortal comedy, I did enjoy it, but I shan't miss it.

Rory L. Aronsky said...

If this works, will they give Big Wave Dave's another chance?

Matt said...

As a follower of this blog because it is funny and not because I know anything about the industry I can tell you this. Most people have no idea what a multi-camera show is compared to a single camera sho is, I certainly didn't. But I know MASH, Cheers, Seinfeld and The Office are funny. I care less about the style than the content.

MikeN said...

An NBA team that dismissed anyone who isn't tall really isn't missing out on much. Isaiah Thomas, Muggsy Bogues, Nate Robinson, Spud Webb. You might miss out on some slam dunk champs who didn't deserve it, but it is a better value to spend your time scouting tall players.

Ron Gilbert said...

I don't care if the show uses one, three or a hundred cameras, what I don't like are laugh tracks, even if they are real and not fake. I think that is what viewers are responding to. Single camera shows just feel different, the are paced differently. Maybe that's because they aren't live in front of an audience.

Jake said...

CBS was still promoting THE GREAT INDOORS today as "a show the critics love" - even after they cancelled it.

Not a robot... maybe a replicant, however said...

FRIDAY QUESTION - Having had your toes in so many ponds, you may actually have sufficient background to answer this.... Why does it seem like, the longer they work together, a sitcom cast tends to become a family, but rock band members grow to hate and sue each other. And how does a professional sports team stack up on that continuum?

gottacook said...

"...how many big hit single-camera shows have there been in the '80s and '90s? MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE maybe?"

Perhaps you meant "since the '80s and '90s"; Malcolm ran from January 2000 to spring 2006. Another (perhaps the other) durable single-cam series that had a good run during those years was The Bernie Mac Show.

Matt said...

Spud Webb deserved the slam dunk title.

Matt said...

You can ask Ray Allen about how much he has a family feeling for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ramon Rondo.

VP81955 said...

Hope "Mom" does well in syndication, but I wonder whether local stations will give it decent time slots or whether it will be shunted into low-viewer dayparts.

Early in 2016, I spent three weeks with my brother in Jacksonville, Fla., where I noticed one of the local channels ran two eps of "Hot in Cleveland," and from 7 to 8 p.m., too. I can't think of any LA station that carries it -- despite the presence of the iconic Betty White and fellow sitcom old pros Jane Leeves, Wendie Malick and Valerie Bertinelli -- nor do I know if it airs in any other markets. Perhaps its former status as a TV Land, non-broadcast network series blunted its syndication potential.

Paul Duca said...

Douglas McEwen...I couldn't even get past the previews for THE GREAT OUTDOORS. Don't tell me you like the concept of "Millennials are idiots and they need a real (Gen X) man to straighten them out"?

Paul Duca said...

Vincent...CLEVELAND has been running strong in Boston

McAlvie said...

I would have said the first might be economic and the last TWO for humanitarian reasons. I wanted to like Dr. Ken, and maybe if they had left out Dr. Ken I would have. The rest of the cast was great. Sorry to hear about LMS, which always made me nostalgic for the days when sitcoms knew the difference between funny and raunchy. I guess these days six years might even be considered a good run.

Young Sheldon ... I heard about this. Well, maybe they will surprise me, but I remember my first reaction to TBB - a show making fun of geeky guys with poor social skills. Didn't sound like much fun to me, but they did find their rhythm after a few episodes so clearly I can be wrong. However, let's think for a moment about a show that makes fun of a geeky TEENAGER with poor social skills. And no Penny to balance things.

DyHrdMET said...

I watch a show on TV because it's funny and has characters I can get behind. It doesn't matter if it's single-camera or multi-camera (but it tends to be multi-camera more often than not). But reading this, I also realized that I watch shows in syndication/reruns because it's still funny, even after I've seen it before. Every year, when new shows come on TV (summer, fall, mid-season), I like to give them a shot. I always like something new. And I always hate when I "cancel" a series after trying it out because it's just not good, possibly because one day, the TV networks will screw themselves over and have no good sitcoms left. I'm also more likely to stick with a new sitcom because it's multi-camera because that just feels more natural to me.

And when is the I Love Lucy reboot coming out?

DyHrdMET said...

Now, a Friday question:
Does working on a show (as a writer, director, and/or show runner) become harder when the show has a couple of kids as regular characters, and you need to work around the more limited schedule of the child actors? Is it harder to have bigger stories for the kids, or even just having more episodes that include the kids? Is it harder to write when a few of the regular characters aren't available several times a season? I've seen some shows where the audience may not see one or two of the kids for an entire episode, and sometimes it seems like that happens several times a year.

Andrew Radford said...

Friday Question:
You said some young writers "maybe can’t write multi-cameras". Since you've written for both single and multi camera shows, can you explain the difference in how to write for each format?