Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Multi-camera shows are not dead!

And neither is Kal Penn but that's a different story.

The same network honchos who said multi-camera sitcoms were a tired obsolete format are now heralding them as the savior of comedy. What a difference two years of no new hits, a failed economy, and the BIG BANG THEORY can make. This pilot season is loaded with standard traditional (formerly tired, obsolete) multi-camera comedies. Suddenly family shows, workplace shows, and buddy comedies are fresh instead of hackneyed. Makes you wish you saved those bell bottom pants, huh?

As I’ve said often on this blog in between AMERICAN IDOL recaps and Natalie Wood tributes, with rare exceptions every great enduring American sitcom has been multi-camera – from I LOVE LUCY to THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, BILKO, the HONEYMOONERS, the MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, ALL IN THE FAMILY, MAUDE, ODD COUPLE, BOB NEWHART SHOW, TAXI, CHEERS, FRASIER, FRIENDS, RAYMOND, to SEINFELD.

It’s not the number of cameras. It’s the quality of the execution. It’s the writing.

But that’s not why they’re once again in vogue. It’s because they’re CHEAPER. They cost less to produce than single-camera shows like 30 ROCK. Yes, multi-camera shows like BIG BANG THEORY and TWO AND A HALF MEN get ratings (despite networks’ earlier insistence that they no longer would) but that’s just gravy. THEY’RE CHEAPER!!!

Networks now contend that in these tough economic times viewers once again have an appetite for comedies. That doesn’t explain why they also had a healthy appetite for them in the prosperous 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s but still. We’ll take whatever rationale suppliers have for commissioning comedies. People want to laugh during El Nino years – sure.

My very best wishes to all the young writer/producers who have multi-camera pilots under consideration. I hope you create the next great wave of comedy. I hope you bring fresh voices to the table and introduce us to new hilarious worlds. But I offer one piece of advice. And this is from a guy who’s ecstatically happy with his current job hosting baseball shows on that cutting edge of technological communication, AM radio – multi-camera shows are hard to do. Harder than you think. And there have been very few opportunities for young writers to learn how to do it. But there’s good news. The writers who DO know how to do it? They’re still alive. They’re still out there. They’ve written and produced all those great shows that inspired you to want to be a comedy writer. They’re now at Starbucks. They’re the men and women in the corner saying, “Fuck that Brett Butler!”

Hire one or two of them.

You don’t have to hire them all. You’re going for a new attitude, a different tone. Which is great. It’s what you should be doing.


When you and your young staff are at a runthrough and something doesn’t work can you identify just what that something is?

And how to fix it?

Can you and your young staff rewrite an entire script overnight?

Can you come up with that big joke at 3:30 AM that gets you out of the act?

Do you know how to deal with temperamental actors? (“Fuck that fill in the blank!”)

If you know your show is going to be long can you watch the quad split and know if you have the proper coverage to make the necessary lifts?

Can you budget your time between the writing, editing, casting, politics, and hand-holding required to turn out 22 episodes in about 30 weeks?

Can you get a tee-time at Riviera?

The experience these “veterans” provide will prove invaluable. And the Brett Butler stories alone will be worth their hire.


Anonymous said...

I wish Kalpen Modi, aka Kal Penn, had done a PSA for Suicide hotlines to be aired after House in order to diffuse this stupidity. (Sorry for being off topic.)

Corey said...

That was extremely humble and gracious of you to offer that advice to help people you can't know. Pardon my spelling but (as I understand it)that was a good example of "Yiddish-Kite" ... loving to do loving things. I hope more of you rubs off on me.

Anonymous said...

Ken, production is down 50% in LA... networks and studios are reluctant to make anything... Showtime passed on ALL their comedy pilots... TV audiences have shrunk to historic lows... the internet, video games, etc are stealing eyeballs... this is a long way of saying even if multicam shows are cheaper to produce, who is going to produce them and who is going to watch them? Yes, I know every ten years everyone gets negative about the prospects for sitcoms (perhaps TV in general), but surely the factors today are different. Sitcoms will still be made. That's certain. But it seems inevitable that all those sitcoms will be made for the web. And they won't be more than five minutes long. How is this NOT the future?

Anonymous said...

I had a meeting about two years with a fairly powerful TV writer who said he didn't like multi-camera comedies because he didn't like being told when to laugh. Since I was trying to get a job from him, I didn't say, "Would you have said that 10 years ago when SEINFELD was the most popular show on the air?"

In my experience, people in the television industry are incapable of remembering anything that happened before lunch on any given day.

Rory L. Aronsky said...

Totally and hopelessly off-topic: Dancin' Homer is on Fox 11 in L.A. right now. I assume your half-cent royalty check will be arriving soon. ;)

Unknown said...

I guess you have insider knowledge Ken about how many new multi-camera pilots are in development.

If you can please write the names down and write another post in the fall about how many of those got picked up.

It would be nice to find out how many of them got picked up.

What I'm getting from your post here is that you think the new showrunners/writers are young and detached from the people who previously ran shows, which irritates me a bit since the one show you named as a success is by Chuck Lorre.

Is it so that the studios/networks are ordering pilots from newbies who don't know how to work these shows? Are too many of your old collegues out of work at the moment or just ignored by the other, younger writers? Has a generation really passed without work and is the detachment that high? Has the drought for multi-camera shows been so long that there's not enough networking going on anymore?

Dave said...

Ken, what's a "lift"?

Anonymous said...

I live in a rather modest town in Northern California with a small comedy club. Brett Butler recently did a show there. I didn't attend although I was tempted, not because I am a big fan of hers, it was because of all the thinly veiled comments Chuck Lorre makes about her. Now I see he is not alone.

Anonymous said...

If you get the chance, listen to the commentary on the NewsRadio dvd's. The show was 3 camera show, created by Paul Simms. He was a writer on The Larry Sanders show and had only written for a one camera show.

In the commentary he says the show never really hit its stride until they hired Tom Cherones as the director. Cherones had directed Seinfeld and taught Simms how to write for the set. The comedy had to flow from one part of the set to another. Also when certain scenes were shot away from the audience, they seemed to fall flat since the audience was looking at the monitors and not the actors.

It's something anyone going from one camera to 3 should listen to and watch.

growingupartists said...

Well, you ALMOST didn't talk about baseball. Getting better. I must be losing my mind, I could've sworn I just saw you over in Earl's comments, pretending you didn't know Larry King.

Hmm. Could be that multi-thought problem I can't seem to get rid of for the life of me. Oh well, until the diagnosis, I'm just a bad writer like the rest of ya.

Debbie said...

Well, I love sitcoms and always have and always will. If Big Bang and Two and a Half Men and other sitcoms are cheap, more power to them. I love both of those shows. Long live tv. Sure the internet is good, too. But what do we need to do to increase film and tv production in LA?

Cap'n Bob said...

Why is Brett Butler so unpopular? I admit I rarely saw her show or comedy act, and know little about her. What's the dirt?

Mary Stella said...

can you watch the quad split and know if you have the proper coverage to make the necessary lifts? Perhaps it's just my dirty mind, but this reads like a naughty suggestion wrapped inside innuendo. And I liked it.

wv=sagotim -- Joanne Worley, pumped with collagen, trying to say "Sock it to him."

Joe said...

Took me a while to see what you were driving at, Levine. Very clever how you did that.

You made your point.Yes, OK, fine. Send me your résumé and we'll talk about bringing you aboard that show about Don King as a Banker I've been working on.

PS Can you also get tee times at PGA West?

By Ken Levine said...

Uh Joe, didn't I make it clear that I am not looking for a job? That I have a job?

Zach G. said...

It was an incredibly useful post. Thanks.

I wish I had those skills. I also wish I knew people who had those skills.

I was delighted also to see in this week's Entertainment Weekly a House promo about Kutner's suicide and Penn leaving to work for Obama. I'm positive there is no subtext.

ed said...

If the script is good, I really don't care how many or how few cameras cover it. Everyone knows that 30 Rock is about the best there is, so that's what's selling.

Big Bang is hilarious too, but too often I see multi-camera shows that have the old-fashioned joke rhythms where you can see the punchline coming a mile away. Back to You is a recent example. Those set-ups and jokes are just not as imaginative as the newer stuff.

UncleWalty said...

is there something about Brett Butler? I used to her love her show. It was funny as hell. Am I missing something?

Anonymous said...

As a young writer I think every show should have a couple of veterans on the writing staff.

It's usually the vets who have the experience to handle the pressures of play-offs - just like in sports.

Ref said...

I liked Brett Butler's show, too. They must have had some good writers and she has undeniable talent, but I've also read that she has some major demons and a tendency to go off the wall. I know there were drugs involved, and I recall a story about her exposing her breasts on the set to one of her young co-stars.

John said...

Oh come on, Ken. Brett Butler was a heck of a lead-off man for the Braves, Indians and Giants in the 1980s. I don't see why you sitcom writers are being so hard on him (the on-set drug- and alcohol-induced rages nonwithstanding).

As for three-camera shows, I agree most of the best sitcoms have been done before live audiences, but you've got to be careful not to "sweeten" the audience response too much, and if a supporting character somehow catches on and becomes a pop icon (the Arthur Fonzerelli Syndrome), watching the re-runs and hearing the live audiences of the day go batshirt crazy over anything the character says or does can be the comedy equivalent of fingernails on the blackboard.

Joe said...

And here I was thinking you were just a shrewd, hard negotiator, playing hardball.

Joe said...

P.S. Was that a "no" on the tee times at PGA West?

Tom Quigley said...

I know Brett Butler got a bad rep during the last couple of years of GRACE UNDER FIRE, but having known her when she was just starting out in New York City in the '80's, and having stayed in touch with her off and on over the last few years (post-GRACE), I can say that what happened to her might well have happened to anyone who got thrown into the spotlight and pressure that Hollywood brings without being fully prepared for for it -- and then beng abandoned by people you might have trusted and thought were your friends. I heard all the stories about her behavior too, but she had a vision and a viewpoint for her show to go along with a stubborn determination to make sure those things weren't ignored; as a rookie in the sitcom business, I'm sure it didn't win her any friends, and ultimately it cost her dearly in terms of career and personal well-being. I still think she's the funniest female stand-up comedian I've ever seen, and I hope she continues with the stand-up gigs, if not TV.

wv: mooki -- Game 6 hero of the '86 World Series.... (Levine, how do you manage to arrange these?!!!)

Anonymous said...

what's so hard about operating a laugh-track machine?

Anonymous said...

"multi-camera" is a bad name for the style, since most people can't really tell how many cameras were used to shoot something, and they get confused. They should change it to "laughtrack infested".

Anonymous said...

Multi camera set ups are awful.

Scrubs, Malcolm In The Middle, 30 Rock, etc. Thats how a sitcom should be produced. Instantly adds some credibility to any show...

Anonymous said...

When are people going to wake up to the fact that one camera crap are called Mockumentary Comedies, not Sitcoms? There's a distinct difference.

I'm sick to death of old school sitcoms being pulled through the wringer by hipsters that can't stop sucking at the nips of 'The Office' and '30 Rock'. OMG A laugh track... I'm scared, Mommy.