3/24/2008

Notes on Single-Camera Comedy


Judy Greer in Miss Guided

For a paper I'm giving next month at Console-ing Passions in Santa Barbara, I have been doing research on single-camera television comedies and on the rise of this format as a rival to the traditional multi-camera sitcom. I thought I would share some of my ideas here as I develop them. (Previously I have blogged about 30 Rock and similar shows as "anti-sitcoms" and about Jezebel James and its much-reviled laugh track, and have also been part of a discussion of shifting sitcom aesthetics at In Media Res with Jeremy Butler, Tim Anderson, and Jonathan Gray.)

I will not rehearse the difference between multi and single cam shows here, as I have done that already at the posts linked above. (Even so, this post repeat things I have already said a little bit, which might be in the nature of blogging.) What I want to get at here is more of a sense of the valuation of these styles, the idea that one is superior to the other, and the implications of this hierarchy for the television industry and media culture.

The most important thing to know about sitcoms today is probably that they are not as popular as they used to be. The top-rated show in America has not been a half-hour comedy since 2002 (Friends). This is in contrast to the ratings in previous decades, when sitcoms like I Love Lucy, All in the Family and The Cosby Show were perennial favorites (see the yearly winners at Wikipedia).

Last season, the top-rated sitcom was Two and a Half Men at #19. (This ranking is a bit confusing, since different iterations of reality programs--American Idol's Tuesday and Wednesday nights, the third and fourth installments of Dancing With the Stars--each count. All of the following ratings data come from the Hollywood Reporter.) The next sitcoms on the season-end chart are King of Queens at #33 and New Adventures of Old Christine at #40. 2.5 Doodz, KoQ, and Christine are all made in the old-fashioned multi-cam style. The highest rated single-cam show is My Name is Earl at #58. It is followed by How I Met Your Mother (multi) at #61 and the short-lived Help Me Help You (single) and The Class (multi) tied at #65. Just to name a few more rankings of single-cam shows you probably like more than the proverbial average viewer: The Office was #68, Scrubs was #87, 30 Rock was #102, and Everybody Hates Chris was #137 (Chris is on the CW but still they can't be happy with that). Meanwhile, single-cam shows can also be found on premium cable channels, which don't worry in the same way about ratings as the ad-supported channels (Weeds is on Showtime and Curb Your Enthusiasm and Flight of the Concords are on HBO).

So what we have here are a bunch of shows in the new style that critics and upscale audiences tend to like, but which have not caught on in a big way with the network audience previously known as mass. The single-cam style is supposed to mark an improvement on the traditional sitcom, but the traditional sitcom was a crowd-pleaser by comparison. Single-cam shows are often described as smart and edgy, but a lot of people don't get their humor. This is probably one of the things these shows's audiences appreciate. Arrested Development requires a high degree of getting it, and there is abundant pleasure in that.

One way that these shows appeal as "quality" is by seeming less like television and more like cinema. Everyone who tries to explain the difference between multi and single styles resorts to the cinematic analogy: shooting single cam is like shooting a movie. Each shot gets its own lighting setup. You can do more visual humor and use editing to insert jokes. The absence of a laugh track is likewise supposed to be more cinematic, and is offered as a gesture of respect to the audience: we know you're smart enough to know when to laugh. Never mind that the typical single camera comedy makes just as obvious its comic intentions with goofy musical cues and absurdist breaks in the narrational flow.

Why have television shows turned to this new format in the 2000s? I can think of a number of explanations. First is the perennial truism of the TV biz: nothing succeeds like success. Comedies were thought to be a dying breed around the year 2000, but the show that broke out that year as a new hit sitcom was Malcolm in the Middle, a wacky single-cam show that broke the fourth wall and just seemed different from everything else on television. Following this success, the networks were happy to consider single-camera shows.

Other influences would include Ally McBeal, which won an Emmy for best comedy in 1999 and seemed cutting edge with its fantasy and musical sequences and visual imaginativeness. Sex and the City, another non-traditional sitcom, won the Emmy in 2001, offering another model for an alternative to the multi-camera show, with voice-over narration and real (or realistic) locations. The cartoonish qualities of many sitcoms owe a debt to The Simpsons and other animated comedies, and perhaps as well to Raising Arizona, a movie that anticipates many of the single-cam conventions including ironic narration, aggressively noticeable comedic scoring, bright, surreal visuals, larger-than-life characters, and using editing for humor.

Economically, the declining mass popularity of sitcoms might help explain the networks's willingness to allow more experimental and untested ideas. When nothing is working, it can be helpful to try new things. More significant, though, the single-camera shows might appeal to a small but desirable audience, one with its share of affluent young consumers, and perhaps especially those elusive young male viewers. Attracting the biggest possible audience is not always a network's strategy. The whole idea of "quality TV" is that shows with low ratings can still succeed by appealing to a "quality" audience.

Within the film and TV industry, the multi-cam aesthetic has often been though of as inartistic in comparison with single-cam productions, in part because multi-cam shows were shot on video, and in part because of the need to light a multi-cam show very evenly and brightly, which cinematographers consider totally uninteresting. For actors as well, single-cam work often seems more appealing because it's more like working on a movie in terms of schedule and technique. For instance, John C. McGinley has said he would not have taken his part on Scrubs if it had been a multi-cam show.

It is hardly surprising, then, that TV critics and scholars and upscale audiences like the single-camera shows. They have been made for people like us. But we should be wary of condemning the multi-cam style as passé when the largest number of sitcom viewers are still tuning in to multi-cam shows (if we include reruns, of course, this point becomes even stronger). At In Media Res, Butler makes the standard valuation clear when he asks: "Is the sitcom truly dead, or is it just evolving into something more interesting?" I doubt the sitcom is dead (these things tend to be cyclical), and I see no reason to assume that the single-cam style is more interesting or further along in a natural progression, either. When I watch old episodes of brilliant multi-cam shows like All in the Family and Will & Grace, I realize how much I have missed these shows' wit and timing, the physical talents of their stars. The visual limitations of the three-wall set can seem quaint and unfortunate, but these very limitations allowed for a mode of comedy that required verbal cleverness and bravura acting with the whole body to make a show a success. Being "cinematic" isn't necessarily better than that. Like the contemporary Hollywood style David Bordwell has called "intensified continuity," the single-cam style emphasizes energy and speed by using frenetic editing and camerawork; but gains in one area can mean losses in others. The presentist notion that culture progresses toward better and better forms can bias us, making us liable to ignore the losses and see only the gains.

Elsewhere in the tubes:
-Wikipdia: List of Single-Camera Sitcoms.
-Ask Metafilter: Why use a single-camera mode when shooting television?

PS I do admit, Miss Guided is better than Jezebel James :(

18 comments:

Olli Sulopuisto said...

While I can easily see the similarities between Raising Arizona and the current crop of the sitcoms, isn't suggesting a causal connection between the two somewhat overstating it?

Or have the showrunners actually said that out loud in an interview or can this be sourced some other way? I'm really curious.

michael z newman said...

Thanks for your comment, Olli. The Raising Arizona idea is mine. I see a similarity and I would be surprised if the creators of single-camera comedies aren't familiar with the film. But I haven't seen any reference to it in things they say, so I don't have a strong case to make that it's a conscious influence.

Olli Sulopuisto said...

(First off: I think I came off slightly hostile, which wasn't my intention. Sorry about that.)

Another thing that bugs me about the RA connection is the temporal gap. We'd be talking about a 15–20-year delay from movie to television, which feels pretty long. Maybe one could think of missing links in between?

Jason Mittell said...

Nice post - are you looking back into the pre-1990s history of 1-cam-com? Key shows like M*A*S*H and Andy Griffith showed the possibilities and popularity of the form, although the risks include higher production costs (I remember reading once that Arrested Development was the priciest sitcom ever, not counting cast raises in late seasons of Friends).

I do think there's a general indy-cinema buzz tied to 1-cam-coms, whether specifically Raising Arizona (which My Name is Earl definitely evokes) or just tied to other comedies that use cinematic techniques noticeably - Woody Allen seems relevant here, for instance.

And a couple of important landmarks you didn't mention: Larry Sanders Show and Bernie Mac Show, both of which played single-cam for reflexive ends.

michael z newman said...

Thanks for these examples, Jason. The project is about the idea of television becoming more cinematic. The other half of the conference paper will be on widescreen television. So I'm not really going to deep into TV history. But another antecedent I've seen mentioned is Bewitched, which couldn't have worked its special magic in front of a studio aud. From what I read, the choice to use video and shoot in front of a live aud for All in the Family set in place a style to follow for at least a couple of decades. I'm interested to know when sitcoms started to shoot on film again. I'm sure Friends and Seinfeld did (in addition to other single-cam shows like Wonder Years and Sportsnight).

Jason Mittell said...

Bewitched was a multi-cam telefilm show, like I Love Lucy - in the early 60s the multi-cam filmed shows did stop using live audiences a lot, but still multi-cam. The 70s saw more live-to-tape like All in the Family, but all the MTM shows and others like Happy Days (which was single-cam its first season) & Taxi were all on film. In the 80s, Cheers was filmed, as were many NBC shows. Both video & film have consistently been used throughout any given era, often delineated by network or production company.

And, interestingly, Sports Night was actually multi-cam telefilm, but made to look like single-cam by interspersing walk-and-talk sequences.

michael z newman said...

Of course, I hear Ron Howard's voice declaring: "Happy Days is filmed before a live studio audience."

Your clarifications re Bewitched and Sportsnight remind me of an important point I was going to make about the multi/single distinction: it's not just a matter of how many cameras there are, as these terms have become shorthand for two distinct styles, each with a cluster of possible conventions. Movies, TV dramas, and "single-camera" comedies often shoot with more than one camera. This has become pretty standard in the 2000s especially. And other stylistic markers such as the audience/laugh-track and the three-wall set seem just as important for the multi-camera shows as the cinematography. I think what is interesting about the contemporary moment is the idea that there are two set options--each style has its own identity--rather than a menu of stylistic choices that each show makes uniquely.

Chris Becker said...

Your comment is extremely helpful to me, Michael (and has me thudding my forehead as in "why didn't that occur to me before"). I'm working on a paper about contemporary multi-cam performance, looking at a traditional one (Back to You) and a hybrid one (How I Met Your Mother, which shoots four-camera & three-walled but across three days and with no audience), and the idea of the menu of choices opens up a more useful way of approaching the two shows than I have been thinking about thus far. So...thanks!

Fred Holliday said...

As someone who attended screenwriting classes with Greg Garcia, I have been following the development of MY NAME IS EARL quite closely (Not out of any sense of bitterness. Really. Well, not much. Maybe a little... lucky bastard!)

I seem to recall an interview from just before the show debuted in which he stated specifically that RAISING ARIZONA was a template for his series. I didn't save the interview (see above re: bitterness), but if I remember it accurately, it would seem to support both Michael and Jason's assertions about the influence of that film, at least on this particular one-camera series.

Chris Becker said...

Just did some googling and found the interview Fred is likely referring to, in which Greg Garcia cites Raising Arizona: http://www.thefutoncritic.com/rant.aspx?id=20061030

Anonymous said...

And another one:
http://tv.ign.com/articles/696/696107p1.html

Fred Holliday said...

Thanks Chris!!

oakling said...

I too remember the announcement about it being filmed before a live studio audience - and I always assumed every other sitcom was too! after all, I could hear people laughing....

fred holliday said...

One other thing if I might;

Michael, I'm sure you're already well aware of this, but SCRUBS did a very funny episode addressing this very issue. I think it was called "My Sit-Com Fantasy," and in it JD imagined his (single-camera) reality was replaced with a three-camera sitcom alternative, complete with laugh-track, high-key lighting, applause at character enterances, etc.

michael z newman said...

Hey Fred, I have read about that Scrubs episode but I don't remember seeing it. I definitely need to find myself a copy...

fred holliday said...

It's actually titled "My Life in Four Cameras." It's from the fourth season and should be available on DVD. (Full disclosure: I looked this info up on wikipedia)

And sorry about the typo in my earlier post. That's what comes from writing with a two year old on your knee!

Chris Becker said...

Also, the second series of Ricky Gervais's single-cam show Extras has a show-within-the-show that's multi-cam, and which is pretty much presented as tv for complete idiots.

fred holliday said...

Last night MY NAME IS EARL also jumped on the single-camera vs. "traditional" sitcom spoof band wagon.

Looks like your paper will be quite timely indeed.