Sunday, May 21, 2017

Multi-cams require multi-skills

Lots of TV-related posts these last few weeks since it's the Upfronts time of the year. Here's another one:

As discussed, there are not that many multi-camera shows on at the moment. And a lot of young sitcom writers have never worked on a multi-cam. So the question is, can those young writers adapt and write in the multi-camera format?

And the answer is: of course they can... IF -- and it’s a big “if” – IF they are really good writers and really funny. Yes, there may be some adjustments in style but so what? Talent is talent.

However, for a multi-cam to succeed you need experience at the top. You need someone who has been through the wars. And for young writers, you need these mentors. “Why?” you might ask. “If I have the talent and a fresh voice and all the Red Bull I could drink why couldn’t I just run a multi-camera show?” Maybe you can. But can you answer yes to all of these questions?

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 (although this skill or masochistic tendency applies to any format)?

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 the hand-holding required to turn out 22 episodes in about 30 weeks?

And finally, can you turn out a product that you’re proud of? That doesn’t depend on canned laughter?

That’s a lot of stuff. Unless you’re a writer, did you even realize how many requirements went into that job? I’ll be honest, when David Isaacs and I joined the Charles Brothers to produce the first year of CHEERS, our background had been primarily single camera (MASH). Theirs was multi-cam (TAXI and various MTM shows). And they were solving problems we didn’t even recognize as problems. A couple of years before that we had a multi-cam pilot for NBC that didn’t get picked up. Once we saw what it really took to pull off showrunning a multi-cam we thought to ourselves, “We would have been buried if NBC had picked up that show. We were nowhere near being ready.” It was a humbling experience (one of many in our long career).

All young writers have growing pains and need to learn their craft. But I do think that young writers schooled in multi-cam have a steeper learning curve. And as a result are better equipped to take on anything. Those horrible late nights may be worth it after all. (Keep this post on file for when it’s 4:00 AM and you’re stringing Red Vines together to hang yourself.)


Sam said...

I was working as an assistant on a multicamera show for a cable network and I thought that I could make a multicamera show that was just as good. Using an email chain for aspiring TV writers, we crowd sourced a writers room and met at a Denny's every Tuesday for two years. Ultimately, we produced a show that was featured by Variety as the first live-audience sitcom web series. You can check it out at I'm not sure if the writing holds up, but it sure does look pretty.

I was lucky to have worked as an assistant for some very experience sitcom writers who were mentors. I learned so much from them, both as a writer and a producer. We tried to run our show as much like a professional sitcom as possible, with table reads, run-thrus, preshoots and live tapings. I'm not sure we would've been able to pull it off without intimately understanding the multicamera process.

For anyone who wants to simulate a sitcom environment to practice skills, I encourage having comedy work performed in front of an audience, either as a stand-up, a play, or even just a table read. For anyone who wants to simulate being a showrunner, create a web series. Doing both can only help you be a better comedy writer.

John Hammes said...

>> “If I have the talent and a fresh voice and all the Red Bull I could drink why couldn’t I >> just run a multi-camera show?"

Probably would result in the Ernie Kovacs/ Edie Adams "Sweet Mystery Of Life/ Naughty Marietta" opera routines ( no Red Bull, just supposed green inexperience ).

Probably would also be more fun to watch... in a "Gong Show" sort of way...

Melissa C. Banczak said...

I just read that a show that was going to be single camera will now be multi. I can't remember which show but I hope they know what they're doing.

VP81955 said...

The transition can be made. Nick Bakay, whose sports background is similar to Ken's, wrote for the single-cam fantasy sitcom "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch" during its seven-year run -- he voiced Salem, the animatronic cat, and also voiced on the animated "Angry Beavers" -- then joined the writing staff of the underrated multi-cam "The King of Queens" before Chuck Lorre hired him to produce and write for "Mom."

Gary said...

This has been mentioned before, but the switch from one format to the other can have very different results. The 1970's Odd Couple series was blah in its first year as a single-camera show, then came alive in multi-cam with a live audience. But the opposite happened with Happy Days -- it started life as a warm, funny single-cam show, then switched to multi-cam and gradually became far too broad and abrasive.

Anonymous said...

What were the problems being solved for multi-cam that you were unaware existed? I still don't quite grasp the differences between single and multi-cam the way most do.

MikeN said...

Ken, how do your questions apply specifically to multicam shows? Wouldn't any new writer have the same issues with single cam?

Andy Rose said...

@VP81955: My recollection is that Sabrina was a multi-cam show, although it was shot without an audience because of technical considerations.