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 :(