Wednesday, May 22, 2019

EP124: In defense of Multi-Camera Shows

Multi-camera shows shot in front of a studio audience are much maligned, unfairly so.  99% of our classic sitcoms are multi-camera.  Ken explains what it takes to do a good one and why many fall short.  If you’re a fan of TV comedy this is the episode for you.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!


VP81955 said...

Splendid defense of the multi-cam, and thanks.

I've attended four episode filmings: one for "Frasier" at Paramount in March 2000, one for "Hot In Cleveland" at CBS Studio City in December 2014, and two for "Mom" at Warners in 2014 and 2015. All four sessions lasted less than two hours, probably because all featured experienced professionals in acting, writing and production. The jokes likely already had been placed into the scripts and refined during table reads. And you're right -- actors indeed feed off audience energy. Anna Faris, whose multi-cam background had been limited to a few final-season eps on "Friends," has said as such.

Great sitcoms are gold; mediocre sitcoms, such as the oft-cited "2 Broke Girls," are fool's gold and exude the odor of iron pyrite.

Jim S said...


You make a lot of good points, but I do think you're being unfair to filmed comedies. I will defend "I Dream of Jeannie" until the cows come home, because they got the farce part right.

Recent successful and funny filmed shows include Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Scrubs, Community (though that one was more of a cult and I appreciated its efforts more than I actually laughed), Modern Family, The Goldbergs, 30 Rock.

All of these shows are smart and well written. Some enjoyed more success than others, but you can't say they aren't good comedies.

Stephen Marks said...

Great podcast. Anybody who can pull "Blansky's Beauties" out of thin air automatically gets a thumbs up. Ken made a great list of muti-camera shows that worked so let's make a list of single camera shows that didn't:

"Days and Nights of Molly Dodd": Remember that one? It is, in fact, one of those "hey I remember that one" shows that wasn't bad but for some reason just didn't work. Starred Blair Brown. If you don't remember Blair Brown just watch Debra Messing. Messing ripped off Blair Brown to do Grace Adler and added an important component.....overacting. Whatever happened to Blair Brown?

"Hopperman": This one was supposed to break John Ritter free from that "Three's Company" straight jacket and launch him into superstardom. It didn't. Hopperman's only claim to fame was being the first show to be called a "dramedy." Problem here was both the comedy and the drama stunk.

"Annie McGuire": I know you guys don't remember this one. This was a single cam sitcom starring, drum roll.............Mary Tyler Moore! That's right folks your favorite multi-cam lady starred in a short lived single cam sitcom about Mary being somebody who is married to somebody and they both do something with the help of some kids and some parents. Oh and it also had some neighbours. Lasted twice as long as Big Wave Dave's but was considerably less then half as funny. Pretty sure it gave Mary cancer.

"Cougar Town": This was a single cam mess. Like Bruce Jenner, it could never find an identity and stick with it. This piece of shit was all over the map, changing broadcasting times and days, forever doing stunt casting, adding then removing a laugh track. Never found an audience no matter how hard Monica shoved it down our throats. This piece of shit was on life support so long they should have called it "The Terri Schiavo Show". Too soon? Don't blame Ken, come on guys.

"Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip", "Go On" and "Mr. Sunshine": All Matt Perry train wrecks. Who in Hollywood besides Billy Crystal is allowed 3 consecutive train wrecks? Oh wait, Earl Pomerantz just emailed me to remind me of "The Odd Couple", that's 4 consecutive train wrecks. Perry's whole career has jumped the shark. He should just lay down and let the Fonz water-ski over him.

"AfterMASH": It's been covered here better then I could ever do, thank fuck.

"Man Of The City": I'm ending with this one because this one should have worked. This was James Garner being a con man accidently elected mayor of a mid western city. THIS SHOULD HAVE WORKED GODDAMMIT! This should have pulled a 30 share or more, should have won multiple Emmy's and should have been in the top ten of sitcoms. Ken and Earl, why didn't this work? Instead we got Garner in "The Notebook." I had to pretend to like "The Notebook" just to get laid!

Jeff Boice said...

Thanks, very informative.

Sturgeon's Law applies here. When I was growing up it seemed almost all the sitcoms were single camera. Then along come the Norman Lear and MTM multi-cam sitcoms and they were great. So everyone jumps on the bandwagon, and sure enough, after awhile there are a lot of crappy multi-cam sitcoms on the air.

"Happy Days" started out as a single camera sitcom, then switched to multi-camera: its like watching two completely different shows. And then there's Andy Griffith, where the pilot was done in the three-camera format, but of course the series was single camera.

J Lee said...

"Happy Days" as a contrast and compare to Garry Marshall's previous ABC sitcom, "The Odd Couple" is a really good education in the advantages and pitfalls of a three-camera show, using many of the same writers and directors on both series.

The single-camera first season of "The Odd Couple" is restrained and in many episodes lifeless. Moving it from single-camera to three-camera for Seasons 2-5 was a huge upgrade in the quality of the episodes, because the leads were used to playing before live audiences and the others picked up energy from the audience's reactions.

"Happy Days" in contrast, got too energectic, in part because of the Fonzie phenomenon. The audiences were too 'up' and would laugh and cheer at anything by the end of Season 3, and the result seemed to be the cast and crew didn't really work as hard at being funny -- just throw off a few buzz words or catch-phrases that would get the audience shrieking with laughter, and you were good to go.

That show ended up working far better (at least in re-runs) in the first two single-camera seasons. When the laughs aren't earned, a three-camera show can actually get a little annoying for the viewer at home, because you're wondering "What are all these people in hysterics about?" It was the same thing 50s and 60s single-camera shows dealt with, with the overly loud laugh tracks of the era (which was a long-standing problem -- Jack Benny reportedly heard the laugh track levels on his first single-camera filmed episode back in 1953 and demanded the canned laughter be toned down in ensuing filmed episodes, until the show went to three-camera full-time for filming in 1959).

Frank Beans said...

Thanks for continuing to fight the good fight for multi-cam live audience shows with actual funny jokes and coherent plot lines. It seems like a lost art sometimes--it's admittedly hard.

I couldn't imagine growing up without CHEERS, FAMILY TIES, TAXI and all. FRASIER turned out to be the embodiment of everything great about this format. You hit the nail on the head: Funny and heartfelt, absurd sometimes, but identifiable and real.

Unknown said...

Stephen Marks, I disagree with a few of your assessments.
Cougar town was a decent show, since it lasted a few seasons, labeling it sh$t doesn't seem right. I think it falls into the lost in the shuffle failure. What's wrong with gimmics?
"Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip" was a good show, not sure why it failed. I think people thought it was a comedy, and didn't like the drama. I think it had enough depth that if given a chance, could have lasted more than 2 seasons. Perry did a good job in Mr Sunshine, but somehow lost his acting skills in the new version of Odd Couple, how it was renewed I never understood.
There isn't a reason why we can't have chocolate and vanilla ice cream. Depending on how each is served and when affects it's success.

Filippo said...

I guess genius and talent elevate whatever form they choose to express themselves. That's why geniuses like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and others before them elevated the novel which in itself was considered a lesser genre if compared to poetry composition.

Your defence of the multicamera form summed up at the end of the podcast (the live audience energizes the actors and the writers are held accountable, basically) seems small to me. And I loooove sitcoms.

Having seen only Scrubs in both formats, single and multi (a switch made only for fun) and not those older shows mentioned in the comments above, I would say I love Scrubs as it is, singlecamera, and I wouldn't see many reasons to watch it in multicamera.

Which brings me back to the point. It's genius and talent that elevate a form. There are no particular reasons to choose one form over another. Your two-points defense proves this.

If anything, this podcast enforces my point in that it states variously that what made those great multicamera sitcoms you mentioned great where the talented and tasteful people that happened to be working on them. "Get better writers"...

VP81955 said...

To Jim S.: If you can find a way to do "I Dream Of Jeannie" or "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch" as a multi-cam before a live audience, I want some of your magic powers.

Stephen Marks said...

Hi Unknown, about halfway down. You're right about Studio 60, it should have lasted longer, ahead of it's time maybe. It wasn't that bad. We will have to disagree on "Cougar Town." I love vanilla ice cream, in fact I'm having some right now while listening to Ken's podcast with Al Michaels. Thanks for commenting.

Andy Rose said...

I can't agree that there were only two "classic" single-cam sitcoms. The Andy Griffith Show, Leave It to Beaver, The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, Hogan's Heroes, The Brady Bunch, Gilligan's Island, My Three Sons, Ozzie and Harriet... (I realize you could argue about the quality of some of these shows, but Ken set the multicam "classic" floor at Maude, and I would argue most of these shows have been remembered by many more people than Maude.)

I think the bigger problem with single-cam is that, for whatever reason, a good show seems to run out of steam earlier than in multicam, "meta humor" shows in particular. Community and Arrested Development both had about two-and-a-half good seasons before they started going downhill. Modern Family, The Office, and Parks and Recreation held out a bit longer, but they had the mockumentary crutch to lean on.

Frank Beans said...

@ J Lee

I have mixed feelings about Garry Marshall. I don't have the opinion that the first seasons of HAPPY DAYS were genius and brilliant, while the later Fonzie-superstar seasons were much worse. I think the show was pretty mediocre all the time. Not that there's anything wrong with that! It was entertaining. Just not at the level of the best shows of the era.

I do like THE ODD COUPLE however--I think the writing, acting and directing were consistently first-rate, and a clear influence for FRASIER. I do think it's Marshall's best work.

Craig Gustafson said...

Ken - what do you think about the British practice (and I don't know if it is still used) of combining the forms - live action, three-camera shoot until they go outside, then it's one-camera. I first saw it on "Monty Python's Flying Circus," and it was very disconcerting until I got used to it. "Fawlty Towers" stayed indoors for the most part, but Basil occasionally ventured out into the mono-cinematographic world.
After the first one-camera series of "The Black Adder," they decided that being seen on horses wasn't *that* important and the succeeding series were all three-camera, live audience.

Craig Gustafson said...

From Stephen Marks: " "Man Of The City": I'm ending with this one because this one should have worked. This was James Garner being a con man accidently elected mayor of a mid western city. THIS SHOULD HAVE WORKED GODDAMMIT! This should have pulled a 30 share or more, should have won multiple Emmy's and should have been in the top ten of sitcoms. Ken and Earl, why didn't this work? Instead we got Garner in "The Notebook." I had to pretend to like "The Notebook" just to get laid!"

Maybe they should have just acknowledged the source movies and called it "Support Your Local Mayor."