Thursday, January 21, 2016

As if TV pilots weren't hard enough...

Here’s another FQ that became a whole blogpost.   I'm trying to get to as many of your questions as I can.  I may even have some bonus days of FQ's in the weeks to come.  You never know with me. 


It was reported recently that CBS has asked the writers of several of their pilots to convert them from single-camera to multi-camera or a hybrid (a la HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER – multi-cam but with no studio audience.).

Jeff read that and asked:

This article from Deadline says that CBS has bought several new single-camera comedy projects, but asked for some of them to be reworked into a multi-camera format (or a hybrid of both styles). How hard is this to do? It seems like, after spending god knows how long creating a new project, changing something fundamental like this would be very frustrating and difficult. And since the project has been bought, can the creators push back, or refuse?

Well, it depends on the project obviously, but it’s generally very hard to convert one from the other.

Single-camera shows (shot like a movie) and multi-camera shows (four cameras and a studio audience) have very different tones. Multi-camera depends on bigger jokes (they require actual laughs). Single-camera shows are more realistic. They can be very funny (THE MIDDLE, MODERN FAMILY, 30 ROCK) but often times they’re not. They’re more… amusing in a wry way. But they don’t have to adhere as much to familiar rhythms as do multi-cams.

Having spent extensive time in both genres (MASH for single-cam, CHEERS and FRASIER for multi) I see value in both and believe you can create exceptional shows in either format.

So for me, it really boils down to the premise itself. Which format best allows you to tell your story and realize your vision?

Obviously, if you do a show set in a mobile army surgical hospital in Korea it’s probably best to do it single-camera (like a movie). Good luck getting a chopper pad on a soundstage for a studio audience.

But if your show centers on a family or a workplace office situation, a multi-camera format might better serve your needs. If most of the action takes place indoors in a house or office and is constructed more like a stage play, do it with an audience. The other advantage of multi-cam shows is that the live audience response can energize a cast and boost their performance.

So you sell your show, write a great single-camera pilot, and the network asks you to convert it to multi-cam.   Can you?  Well, remember, it has been done. Successfully.

THE ODD COUPLE and HAPPY DAYS are two series that began as single-camera and ended up multi-cam. But most of the action of the ODD COUPLE took place in one apartment. And it was inspired by a play, so those joke rhythms were in the show’s DNA. And most of the scenes in HAPPY DAYS took place either in the Cunningham house or the diner. So the conversion was easy. If HAPPY DAYS was more about cruising the streets and drag races (like AMERICAN GRAFFITI), they’d be forced to re-think the entire concept of the show if they had to become multi-camera.

Writer/producers are in a bind. If they don’t feel their show should be converted then they’re basically asked to jam a square peg into a round hole. They’re fixing something that isn’t broke.

But if they refuse, or even fight too vigorously, the network can kill the project altogether.

I don’t know any of the pilots CBS is asking to convert; I haven’t read any of them. So I have no way of knowing whether some or all or none would benefit from the change.

But the message it sends is that CBS still favors multi-camera comedies. And if I had an idea for a multi-camera show, which network do you think I’d run to first? And that’s a factor. When writers are devising these pilots, they usually get hooked up with non-writing producers. The producers, writers, studio, and everyone’s representatives strategize. Which network would be most receptive to this particular idea/tone/style? My guess is had these writers sold these pilots to one of the other networks they would not have been told to convert. They went to CBS. Maybe they had a deal there, or didn’t sell their single-camera idea elsewhere, or perhaps when they saw that they had picked up a single-camera comedy (LIFE IN PIECES) they figured CBS was finally open to that format. Oops.

In fairness, CBS is not the only network to do this. It happens all the time.

Look, writers focus on the creative end of pilots and networks focus on their programming needs. What shows would be compatible with other shows? What type of show would best fill this hole in the schedule? What show will likely attract Millennials?

And sometimes those needs change – mid-course.

Writers who’ve been in the business for any period of time (ten minutes) understand this. It’s the world we live in. But there are probably many inspired pilots that got crushed because networks decided they wanted to go in a different direction. And made those decisions on a whim. 

The only time this practice worked out for me personally was one year we sold a single-camera family show to CBS. They ultimately passed (because it was the only single-camera comedy they bought and felt it was not compatible with anything else on their schedule). So we took it to ABC. They wanted to buy it but make it a multi-camera show. We said to do that would require a complete overhaul. Same characters but whole new story and tone. They said fine and paid us for an entire new script. So we had to convert it, but we got paid twice. (ABC ultimately passed because they had too many family multi-cams including one they were committed to make. But they told us, if it was any consolation, that ours was better.)

Like I said, you learn to live with it.


Carol said...

I totally can't remember if I brought this up before - but you mention of the multi-camera shows being more play-like made me think of it.

I read an article a few months ago about several 'big name' actors using ear pieces in stage shows because they can't remember their lines. As a stage actress this annoyed me considerably. The challenge of live theatre is knowing what to say, in the order you're supposed to say it, and if you screw up, to be able to come up with something, in character, to keep the show going and not leave your acting partner high and dry. If you can't do that, don't be on stage.

That being said, I have a suspicion that the actors in question have difficulty because their whole career involved being able to stop the action, get the line, and then start again without any damage to the story as a whole.

My question is this - in multi-camera shows, do you think the actors are better and remembering what they are supposed to say because it IS in front of an audience? And as a director/writer if the actor forgot and just made something up that worked, do you mostly keep it, or make them do it again? Do you encourage actors in a multi-camera show to try to treat it like live theatre as much as possible?

(Incidentally, it is one of my life goals to ask a question that takes up a whole post. Don't think this one is it, though.)

Joey Smallwood said...

Hi Ken,

I'm watching Season Two of Frasier, and I see that you and David Isaacs wrote several episodes. In the closing credits of those and other episodes, you are listed as Creative Consultants. So is "written by" tied to an episode, and is "creative consultant" more generally tied to a season/series? Just curious.


MellaBlue said...

A potential Friday question....
How/why is the decision made to keep a character completely offscreen? I'm thinking of characters like Vera Peterson, Maris Crane, Stanley Walker. Is the decision made right away that we'll never see these characters? Is it that the character gains a life of its own and defies easy casting? Was there ever a temptation to actually let us see Vera or Maris?

Frank Beans said...

I have a sort of follow-up question to today's:

How much does single vs. multi-camera production affect casting choices, if at all? I mean, are there different skill sets actors need to have to work in one format or the other more effectively, and do writers and producers take that into explicit consideration?

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Is it so horrible for sitcoms to have the sounds of laughter these days? Honestly, this is one of the reasons I can't really get into single-camera sitcoms: foregoing laugh tracks makes them come off as ghastly and unfunny . . . and no, laugh tracks don't tell you what's funny, or when to laugh, they simulate watching a comedy with other people as opposed to by yourself - Si Rose even said that a funny show without laughter is a handicap.

But you know what the irony of all this is? CBS was the one who forced M*A*S*H to include a laugh track against the wishes of Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds.

VP81955 said...

I'm glad CBS is favoring multi-camera sitcoms. So many single-cam shows I watch these days are enamored with their own smugness.

Anonymous said...

...In general, I've always preferred the single camera comedies (MASH, Munsters, Bewitched, Hogan's Heroes, I Dream of Jeannie, House Calls...). Among other advantages, they can utilize close-ups...which I enjoy because expressions can be very comedic. I much prefer the single camera seasons of Happy Days, both for the reason mentioned above and because it seemed more realistic. I thought Happy Days became sophomoric when they went to multi-cam with an audience. As with other such comedies, everyone plays to the audience in decibels and action, to an annoying degree. The one exception, for me, is The Odd Couple. For whatever reason, I prefer the multi-cam seasons with an audience.
...To poster Joseph Scarbrough, I finally found someone who shares my view. I'm 50, consider myself reasonably intelligent, like quality comedies but INSIST on a laugh track. As you stated, it's not because I don't know when to laugh, but laugh tracks (which require no more suspension of disbelief than background music or allowing one's self to get involved in "any" fictional show) make you feel like you're watching with others, as opposed to by yourself. What I used to tell myself, as a kid, was that they simply screened these single cam shows in front of an audience, and taped their laughter. METV occasionally airs an early episode of MASH without a laugh track, and I refuse to watch. What's worse were many latter episodes of MASH, where they toned down the laugh track so much, that you'd hear what sounded like 3 people chuckling at any given joke. It sounded pathetic.
I don't care for most modern TV comedies. King of Queens was one exception. While multi-cam/studio audience (for most of the scenes) was used, they did try to do close-ups now and then, to capture expression. But, that is one show I believe would have been even funnier if it were single cam, allowing for many more close-ups to capture expressions of Kevin James and Jerry Stiller, which were hilarious.
One thing I could not stand about most (but not all) 70's multi-cam sitcoms was the use of cheap looking videotape. Barney Miller and all the Norman Lear shows...all had that cheap look, while looking like a stage play that just happened to be recorded on cams. This is one thing that bugged me about the last 4 years of MASH. I know it was still film, but "something" changed, in my opinion, and while the picture was sharp, somehow it resembled super sharp videotape to me.
There's a John Wayne western from, I believe, around 1960. Great movie, but not one close-up. Every time I watch it I find myself leaning in at certain point, going, "C'mon...give us a close-up". So, the fact that most multi cam shows are shot like a play, devoid of expressive, telling and comedic or dramatic close-ups annoys me.

Daniel said...

KEN: Regarding multi-camera vs. single camera, how do you write a show like "The Simpsons"? I'm guessing that because of the ability to have the characters visit many "locations" that it has more similarities to single-cam, but is animation so unique that it presents its own challenges and opportunities at the writing stage?

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@Mark O'Neill Yes, yes, yes, on all accounts. I agree, the main reason I too prefer single-cam to multi-cam is all of the different angles and shots you can achieve which give the show a cinematic look to it that multi-cam lacks - but at the same time, I also agree with you on THE ODD COUPLE: the first season is kind of bland and generic, nothing really stands out about it, but once they went to multi-cam with an audience, the show took on so much life, and the spontaneity of Tony Randall and Jack Klugman playing off of each other became so much fun to watch as opposed to them strictly just acting their parts in the first season. As for M*A*S*H, I must admit, the writing was so strong and the actors were so engaging that there's been times where I didn't even notice an episode omitted a laugh track until somebody pointed out.

Regarding laugh tracks, they actually had personalities all their own back in those days: I'm among a small group of self-proclaimed "laugh track nerds," we can actually identify specific laughter from these shows, and even have names for them. As comedies evolved, audiences seemed to as well - sophistication increased and as such, laughter in general became more subdued because comedies became more intelligent and less wacky and offbeat. It's gotten to a point now where apparently audiences are almost afraid to laugh at anything, whereas back in the old days, people were having a good time and you could hear it in their laughter. As a producer myself, I not only tend to film single-cam as well, but I also utilize the same laugh track from the 60s and 70s.

I also agree with you about videotape: videotape was so primitive back then, and as such, shows that were shot on tape have not aged well at all. What really hurt is that Sid & Marty Krofft often created this bright, vivid, technicolor worlds in their shows, but after H.R. PUFNSTUF (which was filmed and looks fantastic on DVD), they taped all of their shows, and the production design suffers as a result. Tape didn't seem to improve until the late 80s or so. But now, we have problems with digital and so-called "HD": motion blur, pixelation, digital artifacts . . . I'm sure like tape, it'll eventually improve as well now that we've got thinks like 2K and 4K coming into vogue

benson said...

Mark and Joseph,

I agree with you. It's not the format. It's the audience. Happy Days' audiences would go bonkers when Fonzie entered. There are any number of other shows with similar experiences. (And not that it's anything new. Watch any scripted show from the early days of television, and the audience gives the star a big ovation. Not sure if the blame should go to the producers or audience.) Totally takes you out of the reality of the piece.

And, another thing that always has taken me out of the moment, is when a phone number was mentioned...555- or KL5-, as soon as I heard that, boom, I'm back to reality.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@Benson Tell me about it. As much as I love SANFORD AND SON, the audience would go bonkers anytime any of the actors entered the scene, prompting them to just stand there and wait for the audience to settle down before resuming the scene. Can you just imagine what it would be like if there was no audience?

FRED: (Enters) Lamont!

Awkward silence.

LAMONT: (Enters) Hey, Pop!

Awkward silence.

FRED: Well, speak, dummy!

LAMONT: (Shrugs) Why do we always do this?

FRED: Do what? I don't do nothin'!

LAMONT: We always just stand here in silence whenever we walk into a room. Why do we do that?

FRED: Beats me, I just figure somewhere out there, there's people who want to bask in my great junk empire!

LAMONT: (Rolls eyes; sarcastic) Yeah, somebody out there likes you.

KNOCKING at door.

FRED: I'll get it. (Yells) Come in!

Esther ENTERS. Awkward silence.

FRED: Lamont? I think I understand what you mean about us standing here in silence.

LAMONT: How's that, Pop?

FRED: Why would we wanna just stand here and look at King Kong's sister over there?

ESTHER: Watch it, Fred Sanford! You old fish-eyed fool!

Anonymous said...

...Audience applause and the 555 phone numbers; Yeah, drives me I love The Rockford Files, but they get a ton a mileage out of the 555 numbers. Takes me right out of the suspension of disbelief.
...and every time a cast member first enters a scene in the multi-cam eps of Happy Days, it's applause, hoots and hollars.

Dave Creek said...

Eek! Laugh tracks on single-camera shows? Please, spare me. Many of my favorite sitcoms are multi-camera, but I love a good single-camera show, too. And one thing I like about them is that more "realistic," movie-like atmosphere. And I always suspect a lot of shows, single or multi-cam, "sweeten" their laughter.

I was glad to read about the laugh track enthusiasts above. I've heard what I thought was a lot of the same laughter on a lot of shows and wondered if it was just me.

Are the single-camera laugh track enthusiasts able to enjoy a comedy movie? Or do they miss the laugh track?

Anonymous said...

Joseph; Funny
Dave; As an unashamed laugh track enthusiast (I can't imagine watching Dick York's voice coming out of Elizabeth Montgomery's mouth, and visa versa, as a result of a spell by Uncle Arthur on Bewitched, and not hearing laughs), I can tell you I absolutely love the 3 Peter Sellars Pink panther movies from the 70's. But, I've yet to watch any of them alone, because I firmly believe that "for me", watching a comedy alone is not as much fun...and if you absolutely must, audience laughter, canned or not, makes all the difference in the world, to me. Another example; One of my loves which I'm semi-embarrassed to admit, is the cable show, Impractical Jokers. If you've ever watched, you always hear or see the other guys laugh and howl as one of them is forced into embarrassing situations. One of the big networks tried to do their own version of the show, and yet it was minus any friends laughing in the background. I found it boring, for that reason, think what you may of it.
If I had my way, I'd carry around a little sound effect recorder, and press for canned laughter every time I made a joke to people...especially those in this often stuffy New England, who laugh at nothing.

Quinn said...

Live audiences on any multi-cam sitcom are always going to have a tendency to want to react enthusiastically to favorite cast members. Whether or not the audience actually does so really depends on whether or not they're allowed to. At SEINFELD, for example, audiences were specifically told not to react when any of the cast made their initial appearance. Other times, they're encouraged to react. Audiences at MARRIED WITH CHILDREN, for example, were told to be very loud and very boisterous. Still, people will be people, and even when audiences are warned not to, you'll still sometimes get that person who just insists on clapping when he first sees Kramer or decides an actor on stage needs her shouted advice or encouragement.

Regarding laugh tracks, Charley Douglass is the guy everyone talks about when it comes to laugh tracks. In the 1970s, though, a former associate of Douglass, named Carroll Pratt, went into the laugh track business himself and eventually became the preferred "laugh track" guy in television. Picking up on industry complaints that Douglass rarely updated his laugh track library and tended to use the same distinctive laughs over and over, year after year, Pratt developed a laugh track library built around more subtle, less boisterous reactions, and worked specifically to avoid using noticeably distinctive laughs and reactions. Pratt also made it a point to keep his library constantly updated, always adding new reactions and retiring old ones, to avoid the "laugh track stagnation" that had become a problem with Douglass' library. Douglass, though, saw no reason to change what had been working for him for years, and found himself falling behind. Stereo television finally put Douglass out of business. Pratt worked to develop a library of stereo laugh tracks that would integrate smoothly into the soundtracks of TV shows recorded in stereo. Douglass, however, stuck with his old badly aging library and tried, unsuccessfully, to find ways to convert it into something that could pass for stereo.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@Dave Creek You're right: back in the day, there was only one company that supplied audience reaction for shows (either orchestrating complete laugh tracks, or sweetening audience shows) - Northridge Electronics, founded by Charley Douglass, who invented the Laff Box. The company consisted of Douglass, his son Bob, Carroll Pratt and his brother John; Northridge Electronics had a monopoly on the audience reaction business, hence why you hear the same laughs on different shows that came from different studios that aired on different networks. By the mid-to-late 70s, however, the Pratt brothers spun off into their own company (Sound One) with their own Laff Box, as Douglass' was falling behind in terms of production technology (especially where audio is concerned); Pratt was already working on certain shows like M*A*S*H, the MTM-produced shows, Garry Marshall's shows, and others, hence why many of them transitioned to a newer, more natural-sounding laugh track in the late 70s, while a few others eventually stuck with Northridge Electronics (Charley eventually retired in the 80s and Bob took over and worked on shows like CHEERS, FRASIER, BECKER, and GIRLFRIENDS). Based on the inside information that I have, I understand that Sound One still continues to do 90% of audience reaction on television today, though the business in general is hurting due to many sitcoms foregoing laughter, not to mention studios cranking out reality TV; meanwhile, evidentally Bob dissolved Northridge Electronics a few years ago.

As for comedy movies, no, I don't need a laugh track to enjoy them, mainly because I grew up during a time where laugh tracks weren't such an industry standard anymore, so I heard less laughter on TV as a kid until my parents started introducing me to shows they grew up with, and I began noticing it seemed like practically everything back then: sitcoms, cartoons, Saturday Morning shows, dramedies (M*A*S*H, in this case) had laugh tracks. That astounded me

And Mark, I'll add one more to your note: while I'm not impressed with IMPRACTICAL JOKERS (I honestly kind of wish this trend of prank shows would be put to rest already), I do, however, watch WORLD'S DUMBEST... on cable (all but the last two seasons where they got rid of the original panel of commentators and retooled the show away from its original focus), mainly because I dig the sarcastic and sardonic humor that comes from these C and D-list commentators that accompany the clips of people generally being stupid. I notice they occasionally throw in stock laugh sound effects (like iMovie stuff) whenever they parody sitcoms or stand-up routines and such.

Anonymous said...

....World's I lived through the era when Leif Garret was a heartthrob. And the skater lady, who had Nancy Kerrigan did she end up on there?lol Yeah....what a bunch they are (although, I did like Bonaduce on Partridge Family.......which utilized a laugh track :)

Anonymous said...

Pratt may have done MASH eventually, but I know for a fact that they started out with Charley Douglass. That was one of the complaints Gelbart had about it. If the network insisted they have a laugh track, did it have to sound like the same damn one people had been hearing since LOVE THAT BOB?

One thing I think it's very important to point out. Shows like CHEERS and FRASIER didn't use tracks to sweeten (that is, to bulk up the actual audience's response). When you edit a show filmed in front of a live audience, like those two were, the editing process can leave the audience response sounding patchy. Maybe you had to cut this laugh short (because it was too long - it happens) or maybe you had to edit these two takes together or maybe you had to take out bits and pieces inside this scene to shorten it. That gives you an audience track that doesn't match at the edit points. Laugh tracks are used to smooth over the edits in the audience track so it's consistent. Some editors build up their own library of audience sounds so they don't have to rely on someone else's. Danny Cahn, who edited I LOVE LUCY, told me he had his own on that show. (Charley used to claim LUCY as one of his shows, but it wasn't.)

By the time CHEERS and FRASIER came along, TV had gotten away from the idea that the laugh track had to be going continuously. That was an idea Charley used to push hard to the nets and to producers, that if the laugh track wasn't going constantly, and if you didn't bulk up all your actual laughs, you'd lose the viewers.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Pratt worked for Douglass' company prior to spinning off into his own company, so while Douglass' company started out laughing up M*A*S*H, Pratt was the specific Laff Man who worked on that show. He spoke about the early days coming in and how Larry Gelbart had a major resentment against him, but that they eventually became friends. Of course, there are occasions where the editors would switch out when needed - for example, THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW and THE BRADY BUNCH are shows that Douglass himself usually laffed up, but Pratt filled in for him on a number of occasions when he was unavailable to do them. I'm sure there may have been occasions where Douglass might have had to fill in for Pratt on M*A*S*H (Season Two sounds more like Douglass' work than Pratt's anyway). Matter of fact, there's a really good interview with Pratt with the Archive of American Television on the Emmy Legends website, and he goes over a long list of shows that he worked on, even while still working for Douglass.

As for laugh intensity, true, Charley did come from a time period where "bigger was better" in terms of audience reactions, however, it's usually the decision of the producers of what kind of laughter we hear on a show (it was something that Charley often butted heads with producers about, but they usually had the final say), and Bob has spoken out about how some producers did, indeed, tend to have the laugh track overdone on the belief that the louder and more intense the laughter is, the funnier the show will be, when that isn't always the case.

Klee said...


Was it ever considered having Nancy Marchand (who played Frasier's snobbish and psycho mother) for a cameo or full episode (before she passed, of course!)? I loved her only appearance on Cheers. She was a wonderful actress!