Friday, October 10, 2008

In defense of multi-camera shows

Practically every great sitcom for the last 60 years has used some version of the multi-camera format. Yes, there are exceptions like MASH and WESTWARD HA! But for the most part, series that we all (younger, desirable viewers included) watch and relish are all multi-camera.

Networks claim we’re tired of the form. We’re tired of bad lazy writing. We’re tired of old predictable rhythms. But we’re sure not tired of…


And three or four of your favorites I forgot to mention.

Don’t blame the four messengers.


Unknown said...

"Arrested Development", "30 Rock" and "The Office" are single camera and I love them.

For me, it's not a question of number of cameras. It's the laugh-track. Not using one makes it harder to be funny and maybe I like intelligent jokes but I think it's ok that I can decide on my own when to laugh and when not to.

The reason why I still couldn't force myself to watch M*A*S*H is the laughtrack.

I totally love Cheers and Frasier and even though I know that the "live studio audience" sometimes is absolutely fake (e.g.: laughs taken from another part of the show and inserted elsewhere) I love the feeling that I am part of a crowd that laughs and not laughing with a machine.

Unknown said...

The M*A*S*H laugh tracks have bothered me since I was a kid. The laugh track is awful. Where was the audience while there filming outside. Behind the bushes.

Do yourself a favor buy or rent.the DVDs. Any season will do. It's not a largely publicized feature, but you can watch every episode with and without the laugh track. And it is awesome. You actually get to decide what is funny. I'm usually laughing at some clever Hawkeye remark that was decided wasn't funny for the general population. It is so much better to watch it this way. It's pretty awesome.

Ger Apeldoorn said...

The anology I always use is that the four camera set-up refers to theatre and the single camera set-up refers to film. Younger audiences aren't as familiar with theatre as older audiences were.

Sebastian's comments not withstanding, I'd say mot single camera shows fail because there aren't enough dumb jokes. Good experienced comedians, a life audience and a camera crew that is involved all help to remind the writer that he shouldn't show off his intelligence, but hide it. Look at the recent movie hits and ask yuourself if you want to make that. If not, don't expect to make a hit show.

I love Scorsese's quote in his movie documentary series that a good creator is a smuggler, giving the audience what they want, while secretly smuggling in the stuff he knows they need.

Anonymous said...

It's not the number of cameras OR lazy writing. It's the studio and network execs and they're incredibly moronic notes. They have single-handedly ruined television. The fault lies 100% with THEM.

Anonymous said...

Oops, I meant to say "their" instead of "they're". Sorry about that.

LouOCNY said...

It is interesting you put BARNEY MILLER on that list - Barney started out as a standard multi-camera shoot with an audience, but by its third season (which somebody should put a gun to the head of Sony's DVD division until he/she puts it out on DVD- simply one of the funniest seasons of any show, EVER) had gone to a single camera show - and was much better off for it...

Anonymous said...

Ken, may I presume/correct you...are you in fact referring to the 1960 series GUESTWARD HO!, about a young couple and their comic struggles in operating a dude ranch?

Dimension Skipper said...

I understand why many folks do not like a laugh track. As daniel put it in re to M*A*S*H... Where was the audience while they were filming outside? Behind the bushes?

I've sometimes had the same thought occur, but only when a scene is either not funny or not as funny as the overly loud laugh track would have you think.

However, I still seem to be in the minority in that I'd rather have a laugh track (with the caveat "used well or judiciously") than the tricks that the so-called more intelligent single camera shows without laugh tracks use.

It's my opinion that shows without laugh tracks just substitute other, perhaps slightly more subtle or at least less noticed, cues telling the audience when to laugh or be amused. These cues are typically the quick-cut whooshing edit (possibly for a quick character side comment, then whoosh back to the moment or other times just for that jarring effect), odd camera angles (or lens effects), or a certain type of music which at times may amount to nothing more than an almost cartoon-like sound effect. Oh, and sometimes they might even use actual cartoon sound effects.

"Worst Week" (as a musical example) uses upbeat jazzy music when the main guy is getting in deeper and deeper and realizing it and yet can't pull out of the spiral. "Desperate Housewives" uses this annoying (to me) plink-plink-plink (is it harp or bass strings being plucked?) to signify some awkward moment or something which is supposed to be amusing.

And come to think of it, of all the folks I've ever heard or read complaining about laugh tracks and in particular how they "beat you over the head" telling you where/when to laugh... I don't recall even once having heard one of'em also complain about incidental music either as a substitute laugh track or as an emotional heightener in almost every show or movie being made.

Quite often I notice the over-use of incidental music in shows (comedy or not) before I notice a laugh track. Maybe through the years I've simply grown used to laugh tracks, but I just think if you're gonna quibble about laugh tracks, then you gotta also quibble about the use of incidental music. In short... Where's the violinist hiding? Behind the Bushes?

Dimension Skipper said...

I can't think of any single camera shows I actually like. I prefer my sitcoms traditional. And saying all the sitcoms I like are traditional is not the same as saying I like all traditional sitcoms. If it's funny enough then I feel like I'm laughing WITH the laugh track, not because of it. If the characters and jokes are funny enough then I'll ignore the laugh track just like most folks ignore the incidental music in shows. If not, then yeah any amount of laugh track usage is too much.

VP81955 said...

The laugh track is like umpiring: It works its best when you don't notice it.

Keith said...

LouOCNY, you're mistaken about Barney Miller. I've watched up through season five recently and it's still a multi-camera show. It went to eight seasons, but I don't recall it ever being single-camera. There's some season six episodes on youtube and some up to season four on hulu.

Anonymous said...

Another classic one-camera-The Andy Griffith Show. And something that points up what everyone seems to be in agreement about. Andy Griffith, Lucy and Dick Van Dyke among others all came from the same place, Desilu studios, where (from what I've read) three camera was invented. It's not the method, it's what's on the page.

Anonymous said...

i respectfully disagree with sebastion. not using a laugh track (more specifically a studio audience) makes it easier to funny, not harder.

without having to make an audience laugh out loud, the writer of the single camera show gets to mine all levels of funny -- he can put in a joke intended to get a smile, a chuckle, or a guffaw.

a multi-cam show is locked into using only jokes that get big laughs. something that's only "wryly amusing" has a place in single cam, but it'll bomb in multi-cam. the home audience would see the humorous line being delivered and then hear the audience NOT laughing. (you can't hear a smile). it looks at home like the joke bombed.

therefore, the pressure is on all the material in a multi-cam sitcom to elicit an audible response. try writing a story that makes sense, feels "natural" and occasionally moves people with that kind of pressure.

Anonymous said...

I've been to 3 sitcom tapings over the years -- a forgotten Fox effort called The Show, the 100th episode of Everybody Loves Raymond, Dharma and Greg -- and I came to realize that I am the sitcom producer's worst nightmare -- the silent laugher. I'm not saying I NEVER laugh out loud, but I guess I subconsciously reserve it for things that truly crack me up. And it's hard to fake it.

And of course you're constantly being reminded to whoop it up as audibly as possible, even if it's the fourth take of a gag you didn't find particularly amusing the first time around.

Having grown up with the laugh track, I find it fairly easy to ignore, at least as long as I'm actually amused. It's only annoying when you're sitting there stone-faced, wondering what all those canned idiots are laughing at. And dimension skipper is right to compare it to incidental music. We don't notice it if we're engaged by the story.

LouOCNY said...

LouOCNY, you're mistaken about Barney Miller. I've watched up through season five recently and it's still a multi-camera show. It went to eight seasons, but I don't recall it ever being single-camera. There's some season six episodes on youtube and some up to season four on hulu.

One of the few legends surrounding the production of BM is the idea that Danny Arnold was a perfectionist, and demanded many, many retakes and camera adjustments - resulting in perhaps the longest shooting day in television. It got to the point where no audience would ever stand for it, and they simply just eliminated it. When BM was (briefly) on TVL, they had some of the cast talking about 10-12 hour shoots!

This change shows up in several ways - there is a definite 'live' feel to the first couple of seasons, that does not exist in the later ones. Also in the first couple of seasons Abe Vigoda had a habit of mugging to studio audience whenever he had a good bit - that stops with the third season. It is a testament to the brilliance of Arnold, Noam Pitlik, and the other directors, that the 'illusion' of there being an audience is there is maintained. There is also an episode from the last season where the laugh track was accidentally (?) left off (bless me, I cant remember which one!)- the contrast is startling to say the least!

Barney might have had multiple cameras, but the audience did not stay very long....

LouOCNY said...

Another classic one-camera-The Andy Griffith Show. And something that points up what everyone seems to be in agreement about. Andy Griffith, Lucy and Dick Van Dyke among others all came from the same place, Desilu studios, where (from what I've read) three camera was invented. It's not the method, it's what's on the page.

Just to get picky - of those three, only LUCY was a Desilu PRODUCTION....Andy and DVD were shows who only rented space from the Arnaz family. All of the Desilu sitcoms used the 3 camera technique they invented. Desilu made most of its money after 59 or so as a rental facility. This fact frustrated Lucy so much, she went out and hired a guy (Herb Solow) to develop REAL Desilu shows - and he ended up doing just that, and gave us both MISSION:IMPOSSIBLE and STAR TREK as a result...

A lot of TV history was made at the Desilu lots, but Desilu itself produced very little of it...

Anonymous said...

Another bone of contention I have with a lot of contemporary single cammers, vs. multi-cammers. The former often go for pushing the envelope "edge"-wise, which doesn't necessarily equate with "funny." The edge becomes as obvious and premeditated as the "special" effects in movies. It becomes the tail wagging the dog.

Kenny said...

NewsRadio is a fine example of the form, and unlike Seinfeld, which was practically a model of single camera format by the end, with its various locations, frequent outdoor shoots and short scenes, NewsRadio did it within the constraints of mostly one set and longer scenes. It was also absurd and brilliant and fresh within the multi-cam format.

Scrubs is the show to look at if you want to make an example of sound effects and incidental music "cueing" you to laugh, but mostly it works well. So many pilots every year are loaded with obnoxious music forcing you to find things "fun."

I love 30 Rock, but their trick is the reaction shot. After nearly every weird punchline they cut to a shot of the listener making a confused face. The funny thing is that any character can suddenly turn into the straight man for this purpose. I remember one episode where Kenneth is talking to Tracy, and even though Tracy normally says the craziest things obliviously, he can still give Kenneth a look when Kenneth says something crazy. The cue works well, though. The Office does this too, especially with Jim's looks to camera.

Pamela Jaye said...

I actually don't love Lucy (or Raymond either, for that matter). I recently a saw a bit of Pioneers of Television which went into some detail of how much she rehearsed every detail, and that was interesting, but I've never loved her - nor the Honeymooners, which just seemed depressing, set in that one room in that tenement.

I was never a fan of Cheers, either.
MASH was good - although I didn't get into it till a certain episode.

I loved Mad About You, till they lost all their friends and Lisa. I loved Almost Perfect. I really liked The Powers That Be (hard as it was to find since our local station preempted it for reruns of the Golden Girls and then ran it in the middle of any night they pleased)

Nowadays, I like How I Met Your Mother, The Big Bang Theory and I love Scrubs.

Most of the rest of my shows are hour long.

I think the show I should probably watch of all those old sitcoms is Dick Van Dyke. I may have missed something, there.
And once upon a time, my mother said I loved Green Acres. (also Ken Berry was cute in F Troop)

Cap'n Bob said...

Not to mention the professional laughers that were planted in the audiences to stimulate others to laugh. If you listen to enough laugh tracks you can identify a few of them.

Dave Mackey said...

"Happy Days" started out as single-camera, IIRC, then went multi-camera with live audience once the show's popularity took off and people wanted to see it live. Please correct me if I'm wrong, folks.

Keith said...

Yes, Happy Days was originally filmed with a single camera. I think it had the laugh track, though. I still found it more pleasing than the multi-camera format.

Since we're listing shows we like and don't like, when I was seven I sat with my mom and watched an episode of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. After five minutes I turned to her and said, "This is the funniest show I've ever seen in my life." Dry humor just clicked with me for some reason.

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of a question--some older shows (I think Cheers was one) feature a voiceover of a lead actor saying "[Name of show] was filmed before a live studio audience." All in the Family had a kind of pretentious one with CO'C saying something to the effect it was "played before a studio audience for live responses".
Was this just to say "Hey, we aren't using a laugh track!" (Pretty obvious in shows with teen stars where actors has to wait for entrance applause and squealing to die down. And the the ever annoyng "Awwww!" and "Ooohhhhhh" that greeted any emotional dialogue.

Anonymous said...

Actually, other than Seinfeld, most of those shows seem dated and tiresome.

Unknown said...

Over here in the UK, the BBC removed the laughtrack completely from M*A*S*H. So that's how I first saw it years ago, and it did make it seem much more thoughtful and poignant than the versions I saw on Paramount in later years. Still very funny, but it definitely gave it more of an edge to remove it.