Saturday, May 19, 2012

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.

Single-camera sitcoms are more in vogue.   Networks claim we’re tired of the multi-camera 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.

Comedy, a live audience and multiple cameras -- put them together and you have the uh... Big Bang Theory of sitcoms.


Birdie said...

Not to mention a multi-camera/live audience can also energize and truly make a show - case in point The Odd Couple. There are a few dissenters but most concur that it truly hit its stride when it switched to the multi camera live audience format (and is, IMO, the best AND most underrated sitcom of the 70s). Of course the fact the the show was based on a play made it a natural for this format, but nonetheless...

Pamela Jaye said...

I wonder how many Cameras Community has...
Really, I heard that only 1 sitcom wasn't MC, but not told which and always wondered. HIMYM?

How many aren't *now*? (this dead spacebarthing is really shortening my posts...)

Birdie said...

I'll also chime in that many of us still haven't tired of Three's Company - it has had more staying power than most of those listed, actually. I'm sure that surprises a lot of people, but, along with Lucy and Golden Girls, it's one of the few "old" shows whose DVDs actually sell.

Christopher Attrill said...

What happened to them though? Single Camera is in vogue because that is where all the good comedy writing has gone. People who blame the format of multi camera as being hokey aren't really paying attention. It's the shows. It's the writing. THAT is what has gotten stale. If multi camera is ever going to have a resurgence a true game changer of a show needs to come along. Something REALLY radical. We need a new Norman Lear or someone to really shake up that format.

Karl Freund said...

This idea of "in vogue" does puzzle me, though. The critics and the Emmy voters have turned away from multi-camera shows in a mistaken exodus, but ratings for multi-camera comedies are, on average, significantly higher than for those of single-camera shows. Also, multi-camera shows are still far more successful in syndication.

Brian said...

The multi-camera format keeps you honest because if 200 people are laughing, it's funny... and if 200 people aren't laughing, it isn't. The problem with single camera comedies is there's no one there to show you that it's not funny. The studios and networks love them because they don't know what's funny in the first place. With one or two exceptions like MASH, I think single camera shows can generally breed lazy writing because no one lives in fear of standing on the stage and having an audience not laughing. And the flip side of that is, there is no better feeling as a writer than hearing big laughs coming from something you all wrote in the room the night before.

Tom Quigley said...

These days, an economic decision that I'm sure must also be involved (that maybe no one else may think of) in going to single-camera and no live audience is networks telling producers "We don't want to pay contractors to find and book audiences for your show," which can run into several thousand dollars each filming night, not to mention paying the warm-up comedian to keep them entertained for several hours. It may seem like a minor expense compared to cast members' salaries, crew costs, studio rental etc., but over the course of a full season it can add up to several hundred thousand dollars, and as frugal as networks seem to be right now, is something they figure can be eliminated.

Thomas said...

There are good single camera shows and good multi-camera shows. Why can't we just enjoy what's good, rather than trying to say one side is better?

Personally, I am not a fan of any of the shows in your list. But I wouldn't tell you my favourites are objectively better either; people have different tastes, and humour is subjective.

Posts that say things were better in the old days makes me think of the old guy at the bar who still thinks the Eagles were the greatest band ever. It's subjective.

VP81955 said...

One of those you forgot to mention was "Hot In Cleveland," which works because it has terrific actors, great writing and smart direction -- sitcom pros all over the place, all of whom know what they're doing. (Next Wednesday at 8 Eastern, TV Land is running a "Hot In Cleveland" marathon, so if you've never seen the series, check it out for yourself.)

This multi-camera vs. single-camera debate misses the whole point...which is it's not how it's done, but that it's done. While there are certainly cases where single-camera is a necessity (series set outdoors, or those that use plenty of special effects), excellent sitcoms can be achieved through either format. On the other hand, if you have terrible writing, it frankly won't matter which format you use.

Keith said...

I'm a fan of single-camera sitcoms because I like subtle writing. You simply can't do an Arrested Development script in front of a live audience because so many of the jokes are not telegraphed.

I think each style has its place. The perfect balance, in my opinion, was Barney Miller. It could have worked as either single or multi camera.

RCP said...

"Networks claim we’re tired of the multi-camera form. We’re tired of bad lazy writing. We’re tired of old predictable rhythms."

They sure didn't ask me (though I won't defend bad lazy writing - including my own.) At any rate, I enjoy shows in both formats - with a preference for multi-cam. Something I noticed in the All in the Family clip you posted the other day - the energizing element of the live audience. I don't know if it was later augmented, but it was wonderful to hear laughter that sounded genuine and uncanned.

Eerie: Karl Freund appears to be one of your readers.

Ted said...

Honestly, you could include Leave it to Beaver, Dobie Gillis, and a few other single-camera shows from the 60's and I wouldn't mind.

30 Rock is brilliant. I wouldn't add any more cameras to that show. One is plenty.

At its best, Friends had tremendous energy which I hadn't seen in multi-cam shows for years.

Jim S said...


One Friday question and one rant.

Question first. As a Detroit Tigers fan, I was watching last night's game against the Pirates and Saw Justin Verlander take a no hitter to one out in the ninth. If he had got the last two outs it would have been his second within a year. Have you ever called a game that went down in the history books? What's it like to call a game that has the potential to make history. Are you more nervous, do you get charged up more? (I guess that's like 18 questions, but you get my point?)

Now rant. I've just read Dan Harmon got fired from his own show. Both Maureen Ryan and Alan Sepinwalll acknowledge he is a jerk, but HE'S JUST SO DARN TALENTED, networks, fellow writers, actors, studio employers should just suck it up and accept this genius despite low ratings.

Am I wrong for agreeing with the suits? Not everyone can be as nice and politically savvy as Stephen J. Cannell (who left the studios to create his own, with his own money, but realized the importance of maintaining good relations with network suits, and gives credit to the contributions made by studio accountants and others for keeping his studio shows on track).

I mean when does being a jerk with talent no longer make sense for fellow writers, network suits, studio suits, etc? Am I wrong for believing a certain amount of civility is a basic requirement for producing TV even if you're a tortured genius who the world just doesn't get?

David Baruffi said...

I think there's one good multi-camera show on TV right now, and that's "The Big Bang Theory". I'll occasionally watch others, but that's the only one that's truly special. That's not to say that single-camera shows are all great, I can just point to "The Middle" to show you that. While I like good TV, one-camera three-camera, five-camera, whatever, it's clear to me that their is more you can do with single-camera, and while the lack of an audience does make it a bigger high-wire act, there's more creativity in sitcoms now, and that's really what comedy writers are looking.

And, you're actually not noticing an even bigger influence on the TV sitcom landscape, animation. These batch of writers grew up, and many of them started on, "The Simpsons," and "Family Guy," "Beavis and Butt-Head" even, and, hell, Greg Daniels, the creator of "Parks and Recreation" and "The Office," was a co-creator of "King of the Hill," before that. The freedom and success of animated sitcoms has really pushed the insistance of sitcom writers to insist on the single-camera format. I still think it's still good writing and acting reflects a show's greatness. Many great writers can work in both mediums.

Unknown said...

Here's Dan Harmon's side of him getting fired

Guess you have to keep the Clowns happy on stage and nobody cares about the Clown off stage :-)

michael said...

Has the multi-camera format worked for movies or any comedies longer than a half-hour?

I prefer the single camera because I find the multi-camera shows too "stagey" and fake.

The Milner Coupe said...

I'm not sure Laverne And Shirley and Happy Days belong on that stellar list. Happy Days started off great but lost it's heart when it went to multi camera. I feel the same about The Odd Couple.

A lot of shows with an audience do feel stagey and the actors tend to ham it up. The nuance of a lingering camera shot is lost. But I agree with most of your commenters that it's the writing and acting, not the format that makes something memorable.

Three's Company? Gad, that sucked.

gottacook said...

Some single-camera shows enable physical comedy setups and payoffs that simply couldn't have been accomplished in front of an audience. I'm thinking specifically of Malcolm in the Middle and the sorts of things Hal (Bryan Cranston) got himself involved in, or the rooftop catapult episode. Even in terms of dialogue alone, if you have the right people in front of and behind the camera and in the editing room, not having to play to an audience can yield very funny results.

I remember seeing episodes of Happy Days in early 1974 before they went multi-camera. The whole show was different - the comedy was gentle and the plots sometimes involved Richie and his friends bumping up against adulthood for the first time. After the transition the show became coarse somehow, and not just because of the emphasis Fonzie started to receive.

Paul said...

Actually, I'm extremely tired of all those shows. I've seen every episode a hundred times.

Single camera feels more modern and keeps the interest of audiences better. The multi-camera format feels dated. Give people some time so we're not so sick of them, and eventually they'll come around in popularity again.

CoronaAdvances said...

nice post , I loved your blog.

Bill McCloskey said...

Friday question: I am looking forward to your thoughts about Dan Harmon getting booted from Community and his subsequent blog post about it. It seems to me that Dan's response would have been career suicide at one point in Hollywood and I wonder if times have changed (thinking of that book You'll never eat lunch in this town again). Can you talk about any other instances of very public career suicide.

Carol said...

Friday question.

I love the show How I Met Your Mother. The acting is great, the writing is excellent, and I really enjoyed the story arc. But the show was renewed for 2 more years, or something, and now the show feels like they are struggling to come up with ways to stretch the premise, and it's starting to diminish my enjoyment of the show.

I think of the British Life on Mars, which was amazing televison, and ran for 2 years, and 13 episodes. Any more and the story would have gotten stretched too thin, and it seems like they way they have television set up in the UK, it's more condusive to the story, not the money.

What's your take on that, as a writer? Do you think the current way television is run makes it difficult to end a show when it should naturally end?

cadavra said...

"I prefer the single camera because I find the multi-camera shows too "stagey" and fake."

I'm guessing you don't attend live theatre very often...

Chuck said...

Newbie question:
Having read this blog for over a year, I find myself constantly confused about single vs. multi-camera.

I understand that multicamera allows multiple shots of the same take, and (probably) some kind of continuity, whereas singlecamera allows for (again, probably, I'm not in the biz') easier mistake fixing (partial retakes).

But how is it that everyone, except me, *sees* this when watchign a show? How do you see that HIMYM is single and Big Bang Theory is multi?

Again, sorry if this is a stupid question, but I'm baffled.

pumpkinhead said...

Chuck, I don't know if this helps, but I determine whether it is single or multiple camera by whether it looks like a movie or whether it looks like a filmed stage play. A single camera show looks like a movie, with sets that look like they have dimension, camera angles that show multiple angles on the set, and normally no laugh track. Multiple camera looks like a bunch of cameras were set up in a line on a very static set, where the angles really don't change much - just closer and further shots - and there is usually a laugh track.

michael said...

cadavra, I can enjoy live theatre but I prefer TV and movies. I can enjoy the multi-camera sitcom but I prefer the one camera.

gottacook said...

The presence of an audience - and the cast playing to that audience, rather than just to the director and crew - matters more than the variety of camera setups possible in single- versus multi-camera.

To take a converse example from what I wrote earlier: Would David Hyde Pierce have been able to be funny as Niles if he weren't playing in front of an audience? Perhaps, but not in the same way. (As I may have mentioned, he was in the cast of The Heidi Chronicles when I saw it in NYC around 1990, just "David Pierce" in those days.)

Tv Food and Drink said...

Maude - watching the actors pause while they wait for the laugh to die down, seeing the look on their face and knowing there's even more to come. Unbeatable.

Anonymous said...

I always thought it was interesting how Happy Days and The Odd Couple both switched from single to multi-camera, but with very different results. Happy Days got too loud and shrill, became too dependent on Fonzie, and tried to start a new catch-phrase in every episode. The Odd Couple just got better and funnier. The first season of The Odd Couple (before the change)is almost unwatchable.

Ger Apeldoorn said...

Over here in Holland the single camera show has also gotten very popular with producers, because they ca shave off on ene or two days from the production - has that happenen with you guys yet?

McAlvie said...

Yep. Why take responsibility for lack of talent when its so much easier to blame audiences? Considering the popularity of networks and internet venues specializing in TV's golden oldies, it's a very lame excuse.

Jeremy Tucker said...

30 Rock, Cougar Town and Community are my three favorite shows right now, but I've loved multi-camera shows since forever and I'll watch any that's funny and has a good group of characters.

That said, Big Bang Theory is just awful.

Carson said...

I'm late to this party, but I thought I'd weigh in. This current round of "what kind of TV format/film genre/underwire bar is dying out now?" is as silly as every other time someone announces then end of something once super popular.

It's all cyclical folks. Multi-camera shows are at a low, but will rebound. hell, just a few years ago I was on the set of CHUCK (yes, show-name dropping) and was chatting with Brice Boxleitner and Zac Levi as they lamented the death of TV comedy as a whole.
"Just wait two seasons and there will be a serious uptick. Two more and we'll be inundated with comedy shows." It's four years later and we are rife with comedies again. A surprise? Nope.

The multi-cam show is like that. Trust me. Within a couple more years people will be lamenting the loss of the multi-cam sitcom. The energy and give and take an audience provides. The play-like structure of rehearsing and shooting. It'll come back. First in dribs and drabs, then BOOM. We're flush with audiences and the pages at Audiences Unlimited will have something to do again - other than get bored at Dr. Phil.