Thursday, November 01, 2012

UP ALL NIGHT switches to multi-camera format

NBC announced this week that UP ALL NIGHT was changing formats and going from a single-camera show to a multi-camera show. Single-camera means it’s shot like a movie. Multi-camera means it’s shot like a play with four cameras in front of a studio audience. To give you some idea – MODERN FAMILY is shot single-camera; THE BIG BANG THEORY is shot multi-camera.

To flip from single to multi is not unprecedented. They did it for THE ODD COUPLE and HAPPY DAYS and maybe one or two others I can’t recall.

But I find it telling that this decision was made after ten single-camera episodes were filmed for season two. What this says to me (and it’s just a guess) is that those ten shows weren’t working. They had already made some pretty drastic premise changes going into season two.

The decision to make the switch was executive producer Lorne Michael’s. It has been viewed by some as a way to save money and others as a way to inject some more energy into the series. My sense is it was both.

NBC chairman Bob Greenblatt said: “We know what the multi-camera audience does for the live episodes of 30 Rock, plus after seeing both Maya and Christina do SNL within the past few months, we knew we had the kind of performers — Will Arnett included — who love the reaction from a live audience.”

So that’s what they’re saying now. Multi-camera shows provide energy and excitement. A few years ago it was “Multi-camera shows are stale and tired.” If you came to a network other than CBS with a multi-camera show you were considered retro and out-of-touch. Now shows are switching to them mid-stream.

Here’s what generally happens when a single-camera show goes multi – the shows get way funnier. Happened with both THE ODD COUPLE and HAPPY DAYS. Why? Because writers and actors had to now earn their laughs. They couldn’t just say this was amusing enough, they had to actually get laughs from real human beings. It’s amazing how much tougher you get on material when accountability is hanging over your head.

And it poses a question – well, if multi-camera shows are funnier, why aren’t there more? That’s a excellent question. With few exceptions (MASH, MODERN FAMILY, ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW), most of the classic comedies over the last sixty years have been multi-camera. I LOVE LUCY, THE HONEYMOONERS, BILKO, DICK VAN DYKE, ALL IN THE FAMILY, MARY TYLER MOORE, GOLDEN GIRLS, TAXI, CHEERS, SEINFELD, FRIENDS, FRASIER, RAYMOND to name just a few were all filmed or taped before a live studio audience. It’s not the form that’s tired, it’s the execution.  So why not more of them?  They're not cool.  But let me ask -- do audiences watch shows because they're cool or because they're entertaining? 

Getting back on topic, how will UP ALL NIGHT fare? First off, the showrunner is Tucker Cawley who I know. He’s an excellent writer and comes from a multi-camera background, having spent years on RAYMOND. He’ll be fine at the helm. Plus, it’s only five episodes.

Make no mistake, the series will have to be drastically re-configured. How you tell stories will be very different. You’re restricted by the number of sets. With single-camera shows you have a lot more flexibility in where you can shoot and where you can put the camera. You can be more visual. But UP ALL NIGHT is basically a domestic show. It’s a lot easier converting that premise than say MASH.

And as Mr. Greenblatt stated, the cast has experience performing in front of audiences. And they’re all accomplished comic actors. They’ll be fine.

One concern I would have if I were showrunner is how to change the nature of the dialogue and still be true to who the characters are and how their speech patterns have already been established. That might be tricky. Because multi-cam has a different rhythm. It’s more set-up/punch-line. You’re going to have to walk a fine line. But again, it has been done successfully before. No reason why UP ALL NIGHT can’t pull it off too.

I wish the show luck in its new format and look forward to seeing it. Hey, they had to do something. And it's not like the old days where you just start filming the shows in color. 


Murray said...

"But let me ask -- do audiences watch shows because they're cool or because they're entertaining?"

For myself, "entertaining" wins hands down.

For a lot of people...I suspect a vast majority weigh in heavily on "cool". People who have no particular motive to watch a show except they're terrified at appearing clueless to the crowd in the break room. And/or Oprah said it was her favourite show.

Brian Phillips said...

That's not all the something that they did! They got rid of the Ava Show, which, if they are switching formats, now looks like a smart move as opposed to just "let's shake things up a bit". I have enjoyed the show to this point, but the jury is still out for me regarding losing Ava's raison d'etre.

Thanks for the news, I look forward to seeing the show.

By the way, I believe that Jack Klugman and Tony Randall not only thrived in multi-camera, but lobbied for it, because they both hated the laugh track. I did, too. The first season is good, but the laugh track is annoying, but the subsequent seasons are even funnier. Not only did they get rid of a couple of elements (such as the Pigeon sisters), but the live audience really does add that extra something.

Friday question: On the first season of Cheers, you and David Isaacs are credited as "Co-producers" on the "Coach's Daughter" episode. You made a small mention of why there is no "showrunner" credit, but what are the roles of the various producers, Executive, Assistant, Co-, etc.? I gather that they vary greatly from show to show. I even read in one case that an actor got a producer credit in a movie even though their sole contribution was, "I just saw ____. It would be a great idea to remake it."

Johnny Walker said...

I think MULTI-CAMERA shows became "uncool" because something about them started to become predictable. Single camera shows allow you to use more dramatic film language, which allows for more intricate and subtle humour... but most importantly it was different.

Would a show like Arrested Development have been the same with half the studio audience sitting in stony silence? It may have forced the writers to be more crowd pleasing, but I love Arrested Development the way it is.

There are downsides to both formats, from what I can see: Multicamera shows can rely on familiarity too much, and Single camera shows can disappear up their own backsides.

I suppose at least with multi-camera shows you have an audience making sure that what you put out is at least to them.

Which was the point of this post, wasn't it?

Ignore me!

Anonymous said...

I was looking forward to watching this until I saw the words of death - "Will Arnett". Maybe it's just me, but he sucks the comedy right out of anything he's been in since Arrested Development.

Matthew said...

Whoops, forgot to not be anonymous.

404 said...

I'm glad to hear this. I liked Up All Night at first, but as season one ended and season two began I found myself caring less and less, putting off watching recorded episodes until I had nothing else to watch, etc etc. Maybe this will change it up enough to make me interested again. With few exceptions (Arrested Development being the main one) I prefer the multi-camera format hands down.

MacGilroy said...

Interesting. And this brings to mind a "Friday Question." Whenever I see a list of "classic sitcoms" that include somewhat recent shows such as "Seinfeld," I wonder what you thought of "Mad About You." Maybe I'm in the minority, but that's always on my list and I rarely see it mentioned. Was that not critically respected? Did it have an attitude or style that didn't click for you? Behind the scenes issues? Seriously curious.

chuckcd said...

All men are seduced into believing they're marrying nymphomaniacs.

The great problem is, after a few years, the nympho leaves....

and the maniac stays on.

Nat Gertler (Sitcom Room alum) said...

As we note the shows that switched from single camera to multicamera, I can't help but note that one of them switched away from the "live audience" aspect of it; for its final year, All In The Family dropped the live audience. They'd record the show, then play it to another audience (as warm-up to the taping of another sitcom) and add in those laughs. This change continued for the four years of AfterALL... er, Archie Bunker's Place.

ScottyB said...

I don't know nuthin' about producin', but it always just seemed to me on the face of it that shooting multi-camera would save a whole mess of basic scene-acting time since you don't have to shoot one actor's lines from one angle, then stop and reshoot a second actor's lines from another angle, and so on and so on. Just seems pretty tedious when you could just do the whole scene in one shebang simultaneously. Does that in itself make a show "fresher" or more interesting? Nope. Only good writing accomplishes that, methinks.

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ScottyB said...

@Nat: I remember when I was a kid and 'All In The Family' changed the disclaimer during the closing credits to something like "AITF was shot on tape and played for live audience response" and me going, "Huh?" And thanks to Ken's blog here, many of my nagging questions have been answered.

Ken said...

I thought the AITF "for live responses" was an Archie Bunker malaprop until recently!

For UAN to be popular these days, they need to perform before an empty studio audience.

Oliver said...

I don't think this will work.

I don't like the show, largely because I think its writing is incredibly lazy, but it's going to be a completely different show as a multicam.

I am generally suspicious of retooling. I don't think it works. I think you're far more likely to alienate your existing audience as attract new viewers.

And this is the 3rd network retool of the show (including one during the pilot).

InstaFlicka said...

Multi-camera shows are as stale as laugh tracks. I do not watch any multi-camera shows. I hate the rhythm of them. Also, most seem lazy and poorly-written.

Dave Arnott said...

I'd like to answer the trivia question: Tattinger's.

benson said...

@MacGilroy Just my opinion, but I loved the first three seasons of Mad About You. But it jumped the shark with the pregnancy storyline (and subsequent stunt casting of Carol Burnett and Carroll O'Connor). I know it'd be the natural progression of most married couples, didn't work for me, though the Uncle Phil (Mel Brooks) episodes are classics.

Bill Taub said...

GREAT COLUMN! This one I can use for my UCLA Pilot Writing class -- with your permission. This makes up for the other one...:-)

Marty Fufkin said...

One of the most hilarious shows I've ever seen was the single-camera Watching Ellie, with Julia Louis Dreyfus just coming off Seinfeld. It stiffed in the ratings and, in a desperate attempt to revive itself, it went to multi-camera. I've never seen a comedy so devoid of laughs. I think it only lasted two more episodes.

So, it can go both ways.

I disagree that one format is more conducive to laughs than the other. Ken, you've pointed out some good advantages to multi-camera shows.

But here's why they have become tired for me. A multi-camera show consists of three sets (all of them fake with three walls): The home, the coffee shop where everyone hangs out, and an office or home of a secondary character. After 6 or 7 decades of sitcoms, can't anyone shake it up a bit? I think this is what single-camera shows are trying to do -- become more interesting or entertaining by bring some new ideas to the medium.

With a single-camera show, the real world is your set. Characters can go anywhere. That really opens up a lot of possibilities for situations and humour.

Ken, you pointed out in a recent post how all the laughs in the film Seven Psychopaths came from behaviour, not jokes. That's exactly what busted my gut with Watching Ellie. Nobody had to shout a joke to the audience or "work" for a laugh. These shows CAN be immensely funny. They just require different approaches to the writing and execution.

Maybe the problem with the single-camera shows you're talking about, Ken, is that they're trying to put sitcom writing into a feature-film format. The two styles can't be transposed.

Brian W. said...

The new Reba sitcom, and Last man standing w/Tim Allen both are multi camera shows. Multi-camera suits both stars very well.

Christodoulos said...

"And it's not like the old days where you just start filming the shows in color".

I got an awesome idea. Do the opposite. They could shoot it in black and white. After all, it worked for many great shows of the past.

And then, still traveling back in time, they could retool it and make it the first silent sitcom. Only question is, should they keep the laugh track?

Tom Wolper said...

I remember giving up on multicamera sitcoms when the audience reactions got out of hand. I was watching Married With Children and every time a character entered the set for the first time that episode the action had to stop for the screaming and applause. That and the audience going "woo" at minor maudlin plot points broke up the rhythm of the show and took me away from the characters and their lives.

Dean C said...

"Here’s what generally happens when a single-camera show goes multi – the shows get way funnier. Why? Because writers and actors had to now earn their laughs. They couldn’t just say this was amusing enough, they had to actually get laughs from real human beings."

COULD NOT DISAGREE MORE. It's not much of a challenge to entice an audience to laugh at the stupidest most predictable jokes when the yokels that show up to studio tapings have already been primed with a love for the show and some standup.

And the consequence is the performances and the style of humor are driven entirely by the necessity of having to wait for the laughs to finish. There's no room for subtlety, hidden jokes, multiple layers, or reviewability that makes shows like The Simpsons/Arrested Development legendary, and 30 Rock/Community infinitely better than the drivel that is The Big Bang Theory

Lee said...

Later seasons of All in the Family and Archie Bunker's Place may have been filmed without an audience, but they were still being done multi-camera. They didn't switch to a single-camera format. The difficult part of doing a show like that without an audience and playing it back to one to get a "live" response is that you have to leave pauses for anticipated audience response, and it's impossible to do that with 100% accuracy. It was a technique popular in the 1950s, before entirely fake laugh tracks became the norm, one that Norman Lear remembered and revived when the cast of AITF demanded the show be done sans live audience. I Married Joan, My Little Margie, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, Amos 'n Andy and earlier seasons of Ozzie and Harriet all used it. I Love Lucy even did it a couple of times when production difficulties made it easier to shoot without an audience.

Phillip B said...

Has anyone ever done a multi camera show "live" without an audience?

The recent David Letterman shows without an audience were interesting. More intimate in many ways - with Letterman playing to the camera and the very few people in the theater.

Nat Gertler (Sitcom Room alum) said...

What I'll be interested to see is if the multicamera limitation on the number of sets is addressed by using green-screen and "virtual sets", where you can hustle a few key prop elements in front of a green screen and have a new set... not quite visible to the audience unless they watch the monitors. I wonder if it could still get the same reaction. Serious virtual sets have been in use on single-camera TV as far back as Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.

Johnny Walker said...

Phillip B, How I Met Your Mother does not have an audience/

A_Homer said...

The show has been altered quite a bit - what does Applegate have on the network that they don't just cancel and start a fresh project with her a year later? One with a better premise. Maybe she's just not full solo star material, like J.L-Dreyfuss, Tina Fey, etc. And Arnett is best taken in small doses. Is there some kind of "Til Death" contract, whereby she gets to keep making episodes until the amount needed for syndication? At least that show delivered with the crazy in their last season.

So now she will be the stay-at-home parent, not Arnett. And no more work place set for her antics. I don't think it is about the return to multi-camera format, but to stereotypical patterns.

John said...

The "Happy Days" v. "Odd Couple" situations are interesting, because they show both the strengths and the weaknesses of the multi-camera/live audience format.

Ken already went over the strengths, but the weakness started showing up in the second season "Happy Days" was in front of an audience (Season 4 overall), in that you had one character -- Fonzie -- who had developed into such a pop culture icon anything he did would send the audience into howls of laughter or applause. That in turn resulted in the same problem mentioned in the single-camera shows, in that the writers no longer had to earn their laughs; all they had to do was toss in a catch-phrase or an action like Foznie banging the juke box to start it up, and it would get roars, even if to audiences watching years later in re-runs, the laugh reaction was incomprehensible.

That's the balance a show has to maintain -- get the feedback that a live audience gives, and the work it demands to get a laugh, but don't simply rely on buzz-word shortcuts to get the laughs once you find a bit that works, because then the writing becomes trite and lazy, and (in the case of a Fonz-like situation), the wild audience reaction can become downright annoying to anyone watching at home.

Mac said...

Very interesting. There's been couple of highly successful multi-camera shows in the UK In the past couple of years - 'Miranda' and 'Mrs Brown's Boys.' For my taste, neither are watchable, but they have huge audiences. 'Mrs Brown's Boys' was described as "aimed at viewers who've been in prison since 1975." But like I say, huge audiences.

It'll be very interesting to see if US multi-camera shows can come back in a big way but with the high quality of the old Cheers/Frasier etc.

MBunge said...

"There's no room for subtlety, hidden jokes, multiple layers, or reviewability"

All things which often get in the way of being, you know, funny. The inability to distinguish between clever and funny has become one of the defining aspects of today's TV comedy.


Courtney Suzanne said...

My husband and I were fans of season one, but it was mostly because the show seemed to be about us: a couple in their late thirties having a baby (in the same month we did, no less) and the father stays at home while the mother goes to work (in television, like me).

Then, I noticed the daughter wasn't appearing in the episodes. She was always sleeping or with a sitter. Soon, there was nary a mention of her, and the focus shifted to Ava's life. That baby is the Tiger Brady of the show!

We stopped watching because the show has become completely different. It might just be better to dump the whole original concept and make a new show at this rate.

Anonymous said...

Happy Days was one of my favorite shows as a kid, and when I see episodes I still smile--even if I don't laugh very much. It feels like home. However, I have to say that the first years--the single-camera ones--were far and away the best. I don't think that's necessarily due to format; it's more due to the show before the ever-presence of Fonzie and writing that, while sentimental, was seldom treacly.

cadavra said...

With regard to the audience over-reacting on HAPPY DAYS and MARRIED...WITH CHILDREN: At any point, the producers could asked the audience to dial it down. That they didn't seems to confirm that they wanted it that way.

I prefer multi-cam, because the audience in effect becomes part of the show. Google the "Leonard Nimoy's DNA" scene from THE BIG BANG THEORY to see how the audience flips out...and not from jokes, but by knowing the characters so well (in the second season) that they're reacting simply to behavioral tics.

AAllen said...

I stopped watching TV for a while because I got tired of studio audience shows. The last ones I watched were the ones with the quietest audiences: FRASIER and NEWS RADIO. Then with the rise of THE SIMPSONS and MALCOM IN THE MIDDLE it was safe to watch TV again.

However, I still wanted to attend a sitcom filming someday, and I got my chance a couple of years ago with TWO AND A HALF MEN, which I hadn't watched until I found out I was going to go, two weeks before the show. We showed up early, sat around a while, watched the previous week's show, sat around a while. Then the show finally started and they did each scene at least twice. The very first scene was technically complicated, and they did that one at least four or five times. It was fun to watch the actors flub their lines, but by the end of the show at ten, I was exhausted. I have no idea how the audiences of other shows have the energy to overreact.