Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Why people dislike multi-camera shows

This is going to be a long winding road to my point, but hopefully it will be worth it. Grab a sandwich if you get hungry. Here we go.

Improvisation is hard to sell on film. No matter how brilliant the sketches might be the audience is always thinking in the back of their mind that it’s fake, staged, scripted.

Same with magic. Did David Copperfield really make Chicago vanish in thin air or was it CGI? If he could really make things disappear then why is Donald Trump still on the planet?

But improv is particularly tricky. Shows like WHOSE LINE IS IT ANYWAY? are edited way down. You don’t see the sketches that were meh. You don’t hear the lines that bombed. You don’t know whether they performed the same skit six times, refining and improving each time.

When you’re in the theatre and see for yourself that what the performers are doing is completely spontaneous then you can really appreciate their artistry.

I bring this up because of a new movie I saw recently called DON’T THINK TWICE. It’s about an improvisation group in New York and how time and ambition chip away at an idyllic time in young peoples’ lives. The critics are over-the-moon crazy for it. I thought it was very pleasant and enjoyable.

But the improvisation seemed fake. If you’re doing a movie about baseball and the baseball scenes don’t ring true the movie suffers. And this one did for me.

Now you could surely say the problem is I’m too close to the subject matter since I’ve been doing improvisation for years. That would be a good argument. Let’s extend it to my baseball analogy. When I first saw BULL DURHAM I was broadcasting for a minor league team. Me and a bunch of the players went to see it one afternoon on the road. I loved it. So did the audience. But as we left the theater one of the players said, “What a piece of shit!” Surprised, I asked him why. He said, “Because the catcher asked for a slider with a 2-1 count. He would never do that.” (He might’ve actually said “change up” or a 2-2 count – the particulars are not important.) But I don’t think this ruined the film for the general public.

Now back to DON’T THINK TWICE. I saw it in a full theatre. The improv scenes were clearly scripted. Everyone was a walking zinger machine. And you know a number of those actors don’t do improv: certainly not to that level of expertise.

In the movie they did their scenes for an audience in a small club and that audience was absolutely in stitches. This was the funniest material they had ever heard.

Except it wasn’t.

Not really.

Because the audience watching the movie –200 or 300 of us-- sat there in silence. You could hear crickets. What we were watching was fake. It wasn’t that funny, it wasn’t that spontaneous, and the yakkers on the screen were only acting. Unlike the pitch selection in BULL DURHAM people noticed.

Why do I bring this up? To nit-pick at a modest movie that’s heart is in the right place? No. I thought writer/director Mike Birbigia did the best he could, considering. I mention it because I believe that’s the reason audiences are turned off by multi-camera sitcoms these days.  They hear the studio audience roaring with laughter while they sit at home and think, “What are these idiots laughing at? This isn’t funny.” It suddenly becomes fake.

Multi-camera shows can still work. But they need to be better. There’s no trickery involved. Scripts just have to be smarter and funnier. There’s no reason why the home audience can’t be laughing too.

So that’s how I got from DON’T THINK TWICE to a rant on television. If DON’T THINK TWICE is playing in your town, it’s worth checking out. There are some genuine laughs in it – just not when they’re trying to be funny.


Carol said...

In defense of Who's Line, I saw a stage version in London with most of the original cast and they killed.

That said, I totally agree with what you said.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

When it's fake or phony, people can smell that a mile away.
Doesn't matter if it's improv, comedy, music, acting, or even friendship.

BUT, people LIKE being apart of a crowd/audience and sharing an experience.
People PREFER multi-camera shows...BECAUSE of the audience. It's the same reason people like to go to concert or baseball game or the theater.

but the game, the show HAS to be worth it.
No one goes to see a last place team who strike out every time.

No one watches a lame TV show (multi or single) or an unfunny improv/comedy show.

Doesn't matter the Medium.

Andrew said...

But is this a new phenomenon? I remember growing up in the 70's and 80's, watching numerous shows, and having the same reaction. "Why is the audience laughing hysterically? It wasn't that funny."

Anonymous said...

It all comes down to the writing. And most studios don't want to pay for a good writer.

Pam, St. Louis

Brian Phillips said...

Your comment about the scripted improv scene reminded me of the novelization of Neil Simon's "The Goodbye Girl" by Robert Grossbach.

In the movie, Eliot (Richard Dreyfuss) gets panned after a badly received interpretation of "Richard III" and he then joins an improv troupe, which is seen by a movie director that wants him for a role in his new picture. The audience knows that it went well, because we see the actors celebrating a good performance.

In the book, the same thing happens, but the book features a bit of the improv that Eliot is in. It's OK, but the movie was wise to leave it out as the book was wise to put something in. Had the book preceded the movie, it might have been funny, but it would have disrupted the flow of the story.

By contrast, Bonnie Hunt's "Life With Bonnie" show made it clear that her "reports" were not scripted and for me, they were the funniest parts of the show, even if they were edited.

As skilled as she was and is (she's a Second City alum), she and her staff happily allowed Jonathan Winters to do what he did best, as evinced here.

Brian Phillips said...

Correction: It was the Bonnie Hunt Show that featured one improvised segment per show.

Steve Bailey said...

I've heard this complaint before, and when I hear it, I always think of Groucho Marx's half-hour quiz show "You Bet Your Life." It was no secret that the show filmed well over a half-hour for each segment and then whittled it down to the best material. I've heard basically the same thing about "Whose Line Is It Anyway," and it doesn't make me laugh at the show any less.

David Das said...

I've attended several Whose Line tapings, and in defense of the show, it is 95% what you see on TV, with the last 5% being the occasional jokes that didn't land, or lines that were inappropriate for broadcast. In other words, yeah, it's real.

They tape for three hours, but then produce multiple episodes out of them. Can you blame them? That's efficiency.

Also, the pre-planning is fairly minimal. For example, song styles are dependent on the musicians having that style of music ready to go within a second. So the song style is pre-chosen. But the titles and themes and so on are not.

In some ways, it's *more* of a tightrope walk than traditional standup comedy, because in standup comedy most comedians do a fair amount of planning and pre-writing. It's more akin to jazz improvisation.

Rashad Khan said...

I hate improv. I mean, I REALLY hate improv. This is not a knock on the art, on its practitioners (including yourself, Ken) or on its admirers, of which there seem to be many. But it's just not for me.

Brian Phillips said...

Correction: It was the Bonnie Hunt Show that featured one improvised segment per show.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Ken, at the risk of being a nuisance, I was just curious to know if you ever took a look at my SINGLE CAMERA SITCOMS: THEN & NOW YouTube short I shared with you on Facebook a while back? I was rather interested in critique from those actually in television, whom I felt would probably better understand and appreciate the short than the layperson may.

Unknown said...

At Warners from 1992 to '95, we begged Les Moonves and the gang to let us try a single-cam show, thinking of the great 70s and 80s Brit comedies: The Good Life, Fall And Rise Of Reggie Perrin... Impossible: "Audiences don't like single-camera for comedy." A few years later came Malcolm, Earl, etc. I wrote a book about this, including my Warners years, and got comments from people in many occupations in many countries, always the same story whether it was a teacher in Romania or a physicist in Brazil: the people in charge are dumb and scared. Lacking a guiding intelligence, they follow. Any iterative algorithm with output boundaries in which decisions are based on following the "current success" will output a sine wave: a cycle. They'll repeat their mistakes in attempting to create success. Which doesn't make it easier when you're being to told to duplicate Friends, but "without the young people or the apartment..."

Todd Everett said...

I was already planning on seeing it this afternoon (senior matinee), and you've given me second thoughts. Maybe third thoughts, as I really hate improv as a spectator sport, for the reasons you've suggested. But it still sounded interesting.

On the other hand, it's only $5 (and a half-hour), so what the hell.

Diane D. said...

I agree totally with Bumble Bee that people like being part of an audience and sharing an experience; therefore they like multi-camera, because of the audience. I speak as someone who is not in the business, and I know most of you are. Is that who Ken is speaking of when he says "people" don't like multi-camera? Most of the people I know don't even know the difference. They just know they prefer hearing an audience laugh with them.

The only problem I have with an audience is when they laugh inappropriately during a dramatic scene (of which there are always some in any good sit-com). I would love to know why those laughs are not removed for the television audience. That question has been asked several times but never answered. Does anyone know the answer? It can sure ruin a wonderful scene.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@Andrew Ah yes, to quote Uncle Lloydie Kaufman, "Can you say, 'Devil-Worshipping International Media Conglomerate'?"

Bruce Kane said...

I once worked on a single camera sitcom that took place in outer space. The network insisted on a laugh track. We could never figure out what asteroid the audience was sitting on.

MikeK.Pa. said...

What's wrong with calling a change-up on a 2-2 count? Speaking of baseball, the Phils are playing in LA for the last time with Vin Scully at the mic. Phils' broadcasters talked on air about how the Phillies' young players wanted photos with him, especially those who grew up in Southern California, and how gracious and appreciative Vin was each time. I was hoping the Phils TV broadcast would cut over to the Dodgers's for a half-inning, so that Philly fans could hear how great Vin is, but doesn't look like it's going to happen.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@Bruce I'm just curious, was it that sitcom from the late 70s/early 80s starring Beeson Carroll (the first Donald Penobscot) that was supposed to be some kind of a send-up of STAR WARS? That's the only outer space sitcom with a laugh track I can think of.

Oliver said...

They notoriously don't cut much out of Whose Line tapings, and the stars have done a hugely successful touring stage show for years, so that's not a great example.

I don't like multicam very much. Don't like the pacing or format limitations, which make shows feel dated. Doesn't help that audience laugh tracks seem to have amped themselves up - HIMYM's low-key canned laughter didn't bother me, while other modern shows do too.

There is certainly a "why are they laughing?" effect that hurts unfunny multicams more than unfunny single-camera comedies, but history has proven people cotton on and tune out of the latter too.

I believe modern audience laugh tracks are largely used as a way to distance the audience from the characters to allow you to laugh at them, using group ridicule to bypass empathy. The Lorre shows, like TBBT, are relentlessly mean-spirited in a way that wouldn't work in single cam. I think animation has a similar effect, which is why Family Guy became successful.

Anonymous said...

Rashad Khan said...

"I hate improv. I mean, I REALLY hate improv. This is not a knock on the art, on its practitioners (including yourself, Ken) or on its admirers, of which there seem to be many. But it's just not for me."

Improv is the mime of the new century.

UCB = Shields and Yarnell

AndrewJ said...

An entire issue in and of itself -- Movies (and TV) rarely present showbiz accurately. MRS. DOUBTFIRE had Robin Williams as a voiceover actor recording his dialogue after the animation was completed. THE BODYGUARD climaxed with the Oscars taking place in Hollywood at night. Andrew McCarthy's character in ST. ELMO'S FIRE is an entry-level journalist writing a think-piece on his generation's search for the meaning of life -- it winds up on the front page of the Washington Post. And most movies set in the theater (THE FAN, VALLEY OF THE DOLLS) have these terrible 11 o'clock torch songs getting rapturous standing ovations. Showbiz movies that get it right? TOOTSIE, BROADCAST NEWS, THIS IS SPINAL TAP and A MIGHTY WIND come to mind.

As for DON'T THINK TWICE? I liked it more than Ken, partially because I was part of a tight-knit comedy group in college and I saw myself in a few of the characters. The film kind of copped out with a sentimental ending, but I wasn't offended.

DBenson said...

I was a newsroom copy clerk when the highly-regarded LOU GRANT debuted. It was a good show, but I got picky about what I regarded as howlers:

-- A "Doonesbury"-type comic strip being delivered to client newspapers one strip at a time, the day before it runs. The real "Doonesbury" came at least one week at a time, like all strips. And while Trudeau was working on a shorter deadline than most because of the news focus, the strip still reached clients more than a week before publication.
-- A whistleblower provides a report that must be copied and returned before it's missed. Grant called for the copy clerks, but they're all out to lunch. So he and the rest of the show's stars do the copying in a thrilling montage. I can tell you, if more than one clerk was unavailable at any given time something would hit the fan.
-- During a strike, editor Grant and the managing editor are shown fumbling in a pre-pagination composing department. In fact all the editors would be neck-deep at their usual posts.

The show did take journalistic issues seriously, and they got a lot of stuff right. The biggest issue was having every newsroom task fall to the small core of regular characters, the way Joe Friday worked every beat in Los Angeles. That made the periodic errors stand out in a way they wouldn't in, say, "Lois and Clark".

Todd Everett said...

OK. I saw it.

We must have seen different pictures, though. First, I don't think the audience response in the first scenes was that over-the-top - nor should have it been.

The film makes no sense if the group (as a whole, at least) were any good. None are horrible, and some are better than others (at least as the story would have it), but this..well, they may be as Groundlings level and I just don't see it, but I don't think they're supposed to be.

And I thought the "Weekend Live" portrayal was terrific, especially the guy who plays the Lorne Michaels-type character. I give Mike Birbiglia huge props for writing, directing and acting in "Don't Think Twice." And I really enjoyed the picture.

As for the credibility of the improv scenes: does anybody really want to see 90 minutes of realistically-played improv? It's hard enough to get through most scripted shows.

gottacook said...

The single-cam sitcom with laugh track has to be Quark from the mid-1970s. I saw it once or twice. Richard Benjamin in the lead, and some character called Ficus the Vegeton, as I recall...

D. McEwan said...

A few months ago I attended a taping of Whose Line Is It Anyway? In fact, in the first episode broadcast last Wednesday, I was clearly visible in the audience. Because Wayne Brady was starring on Broadway in Kinky Boots, and they'd flown him out for two days only, they shot 8 episodes that evening over four hours. (You had to commit to stay for the entire 4 hours before they'd let you in.)

So they were shooting about 30 minutes per 22 minute episode, so not a lot to cut. And NO sketches were shot twice, though they did shoot the occasional pick-up shot.

Their batting average was very high indeed, and the first three hours were great fun. The last hour (Which included shooting all eight closing credits consecutively, so we were clapping non-stop for a long stretch) was torture, both for the audience and the actors. Most of Ryan Styles's 4th hour jokes were about murdering the producers.

Casey said...

I think people who read this blog are more educated and aware of the difference between multi-cam and single cam, because, like Diane D., my experience is that the average person doesn't know the difference and never gives it any thought. They just know that they like the show or they don't.

Likewise, laugh tracks -- whether originating from a real audience or a laugh box -- are something that, in my experience, the average person is never really aware of. They don't seem to really notice when they're there or when they're not. Granted, there is a VERY vocal minority who has very strong opinions about the evil that is called the laugh track, but my honest experience has been that most people are never really aware, at least not on a conscious level.

To us, because we know and understand these things, they're obvious, but to most of the world, they're not. That's why ABC ends up handling a steady stream of requests for tickets to attend a filming of an episode of a show like THE MIDDLE, which to us is very obviously shot single cam with no audience. People really don't know.

DrBOP said...

There are MILLIONS of people STILL in shock that their reality shows are scripted in ANY way shape or CAN'T be, they scream, as they apply the FOXification/Palinization/Drumpfalyzing algorithm.....up is down, threats are jokes, comb-overs are dignified, and the south won the civil what you write ISN'T true Ken.....why are you lying to everybody? (And come to think of it, where WERE you born?)

;^) or :+(

(Yeah, pretty freakin' sure it's the latter.)

Anonymous said...

Improv in film and television is too precious for words. And not in a good way. It's kind of like watching a mime. Maybe it's kinda funny, maybe it's kinda clever, but it's never emotional. And isn't emotion the force we're trying to create as writers?

I love the single cameras popping up on the baby channels. But give me a multi-camera show well written any day of the week. In the hands of skilled writers, there's nothing more powerful. Our writing talent is knowing how to harness or manipulate the power of the audience (for writer and actor, alike)l. It forces us to create tight beats with honesty and clarity and surprise. When done well, it's nothing short of magical.

I'm sick of shows being funny for funny sake. Where are the shows that bring out something deeper in us? The viewers are wondering too and why they fled from network tv. And why the networks airing the Emmys aren't winning them.

Multi-camera comedies are a lost art because executives giving notes are a lost cause. Until we have showrunners with the guts to blowback on those notes (like the successful creators I worked for), the form that gave us some of the most lasting shows may never come up for air again. ("And buy war bonds!")

Allan V said...

Man, I'm depressed at the whole idea that "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" was heavily edited. I LOVED that show and assumed they did the vast majority of it on the first take, being the comedic geniuses they seemed to be. If Ken is right, it was much more rehearsed than the premise suggested.

Donald said...

Ken, for the record, only two of the cast members, Gillian Jacobs and Kate Micucci, did not have improv experience. My one problem with the movie (and this could qualify as a spoiler) was; say I've paid to see Second City and only one ensemble member came out, I think I'd ask for my money back.

D. McEwan said...

"Allan V said...
Man, I'm depressed at the whole idea that 'Whose Line Is It Anyway?' was heavily edited. I LOVED that show and assumed they did the vast majority of it on the first take, being the comedic geniuses they seemed to be. If Ken is right, it was much more rehearsed than the premise suggested."

Allan, read my comment above on my own observations at a marathon Whose Line Is It Anyway? taping six months ago, of shows airing now. Nothing is rehearsed. Nothing is reshot, except for the occasional single pick-up line. For instance, if a truly improvised line or physical bit of business is not heard or seen clearly, a common problem with filming improv, so they reshoot the bit or line so it can be heard or seen. And they shoot about 30 minutes for a 22 minute show, so the editing is light.

Comedy Central's @Midnight is far more edited than Whose Line, and the comics' joke responses are prescripted, though spontaneity still happens. I've been to five of their shoots, and they shoot an hour for their 22 minute finished product. And they edit it fast. When they are finished shooting 3 out of every 4 episodes, they have only 4 and a half hours before it airs in the east. (1 day each week they do a double shoot, so there is one episode a week that they have a full day to edit.)

Allan V said...

D. McEwan, thank you --- I just now read your comment and that of the others who said it's actually not edited much at all. You've given me a warm and fuzzy feeling again about one of my favorite comedy shows of all time. I can breathe again.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

David Das. Great to know. Thanks for the info

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

DIANE, I wonder if that is the show runner who encourages the laughter. Or perhaps the audience is uncomfortable in the drama?
As sharp TV watchers. I think we can tell when an audience is fake or faking.

mike said...

Bull Durham is way overrated. The scene where S. Sarandon gives batting tips is the lamest of the lame.

Steve said...

Ken, you just said a couple days ago that multi-cam shows hold creators responsible for the quality of their material. How is that true if audiences are, as you suggest today, roaring with laughter at unfunny garbage?