Upgrading the Situation Comedy

I presented the following at the Console-ing Passions conference at the University of Oregon in Eugene on April 24 as part of a panel called Distinguishing Television: Television Genres and Cultural Value.

Despite frequent declarations of the death of TV comedy and the absence of “Blockbuster TV” sitcoms in recent Nielsen ratings, the past decade has seen a new movement in the American sit-com that has found many champions. Comedies such as Scrubs, Arrested Development, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Office, 30 Rock, and Modern Family have explored forms of audiovisual style and storytelling rarely seen in American TV comedy before the year 2000. These are usually called single-camera shows for short to contrast them against the multiple-camera format of traditional sit-coms. Although rarely big hits, these shows win awards and accolades, appeal as Cult or Quality TV to upscale audiences, and have found some enthusiastic viewers in popular press critics like Time magazine’s James Poniewozik who admire them for being “more ambitious” than traditional comedies and television scholars who praise them for “reinvigorating the sitcom format” (Thompson, 63) or for “resurrecting” the genre through their “stylistic innovation” (Butler, 19). In discourses of television criticism both popular and scholarly, the style of these new programs is positioned as an upgrade on a lowly and exhausted formula -- as a welcome improvement to a genre often denigrated as unoriginal and inartistic.

I want to talk today about this idea of upgrading the situation comedy in terms of television historiography, and in particular in terms of our understanding of the history of television aesthetics. The upgrading I have described is part of a wider process of discursive legitimation of television which positions some forms of TV as more respectable than others, and contrasts putatively more aesthetically advanced contemporary TV against shows of the past. The idea that single-camera comedies are an improvement on the traditional sit-com rests on some questionable assumptions about television history and aesthetics, which I wish to interrogate. Most importantly, I want to insist that if TV scholars are to turn to questions of aesthetics (which I think is a really good idea!), we do so in a way that appreciates all of television history in aesthetic terms rather than just the most recent Quality TV that appeals to folks like us, and that we do so in a manner attentive to the cultural functions of aesthetic discourses.

I’m assuming this audience is pretty clear on what I mean by single-camera and multiple-camera shows, but just to be sure here’s a quick comparison. The traditional sit-com like All in the Family is shot on a three-wall set in front of an audible studio audience -- a production style Jeremy Butler calls the “multiple-camera proscenium schema,” which comedies share with soap opera, another genre with radio origins.

This format allows for the main stylistic emphasis to be placed on verbal and physical comedy, and on the comedians’ performance. Single-camera shows, by contrast, have no invisible “fourth wall” and no audible live audience (or laugh track). They use camerawork and editing much more prominently than multi-cam shows, often as sources of humor, as in punch-in flashback or fantasy shots (think “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah”). They are filmed "like a movie," allowing the camera to penetrate the space of the scene and to shoot from any angle. And as an alternative to the laugh track, many of them use music to punctuate scenes and set a comical tone, or in cases of comedy verité like The Office, awkward silences (Mills 2004, Thompson).

The contrast between multi- and single-cam styles in popular and critical discourse is often quite explicitly framed in terms of value and aesthetics: the newer style is positioned as an advance, and as a marker of television’s newfound artistic and cultural legitimacy. The old style is figured as primitive and unchanging, a relic of an earlier era of TV as mass medium but not as art. Specific characteristics of the old style like verbal setup-punchline/one-liner humor, dramatic entrances and exits, comedic performance style regarded as excessive, and the laugh track now might come off as corny or passé, good today mainly as something to laugh or sneer at – as an example of this attitude, consider the critical reception of The Return of Jezebel James (Newman). Advanced taste has shifted away from traditional forms of TV comedy. Thus the valuation of single-cam style depends on a historical progress narrative, a way of seeing TV history as leading up toward a more perfect present against which we can judge the failures of the past. This is often how histories of the arts proceed especially in the modern era, by figuring the new as a reaction to and improvement on the old. But TV scholars especially must be wary of hastily recognizing present-day Quality TV as the medium’s height of achievement without considering how aesthetic judgment and valuation function culturally to reaffirm social distinctions, especially those of class. The multi-cam shows with their historical mass appeal are the negative example against which the new single-cam shows with their upscale niche audiences are understood. Additionally, we must be wary of assuming that we can understand the historical significance of the present. Often the celebration of recent and contemporary TV aesthetics risks promoting the current shows, their audiences, and the industry’s strategies of marketing to them, rather than advancing a serious historical understanding of the medium and its forms and functions.

This presentist discourse of the newfound sophistication of television comedy ignores the place of the sit-com in the history of Quality TV. Today the paradigm of Quality is heavily serialized drama shot in a style often called “cinematic.” The single-camera comedy has arisen to its place of high status in the context of this reigning paradigm, and it is no coincidence that single-cam comedies share many traits with the legitimated dramas – not only production norms but also storytelling practices, as comedies also have become more serialized. But we must not forget that in earlier periods of TV history, the traditional multi-camera sitcom was central to conceptions of Quality. In the 1970s, when MTM and Tandem were the production studios most closely identified with programming of high cultural value, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and All in the Family were among the medium’s most respectable programs. In the 1980s and 90s and early 2000s, NBC’s must-see TV lineup combined serialized dramas like Hill Street Blues and ER with traditional sit-coms like Cheers, The Cosby Show and Friends. Praise for the stylistic innovations of the single-camera sit-com often implicitly – or even explicitly – slights the value of the multi-cam show as such without regard to the aesthetic achievements – and cultural significance – of these earlier shows. In celebrations of the new sit-com, the style of old multi-cam shows is sometimes described as an impoverished antistyle (Caldwell), but the positive aesthetic appeals of these shows are generally ignored.

The discourse of the sit-com's reinvention presents a “before” and “after” of TV comedy, and I argue that the “before” is figured as a primitive form. In art history, primitivism is often identified as naïve, unsophisticated, and lacking tradition or stylistic development; the artistic movements that come after primitive stages are generally seen as bringing welcome innovation and advance, i.e., progress (Errington). In the case of TV comedy, the primitive multi-cam style is not only figured as banal and artless, but as having no significant stylistic history. This meshes with the idea that network-era television can be characterized as “least objectionable programming,” essentially unremarkable and aesthetically degraded, a characterization attributed to TV network executives from decades ago which some contemporary TV scholars still find acceptable (e.g., Lotz). The multi-cam shows are seen in the discourse of aesthetic progress as more or less homogeneous, the better to distinguish the new single-cam style. But this presentist celebration overlooks the diversity of the history of American television comedy and paints all sitcoms in the “old style” with a single brush to emphasize their uniformity.

Consider the variety among these shows, all of which are sitcoms predating the rise of the single-cam: The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, The Andy Griffith Show, All in the Family, Bewitched, The Dick Van Dyke Show, M*A*S*H, Soap, Cheers, The Wonder Years, and Friends. Andy Griffith and Dick Van Dyke are black and white, but later shows are in color. Many of these shows were shot on film to give a polished look of high production values, while others such as All in the Family were videotaped to produce an effect of immediacy and liveness. Not all were shot in front of a live studio audience; some, like Bewitched, relied on special effects that could not be accomplished with typical live studio audience setups. Not all have laugh tracks; Dobie Gillis and The Wonder Years have voice-over narration. Not all are shot with the “three-headed monster” originated by Karl Freund for I Love Lucy; Andy Griffith and M*A*S*H were shot single-cam, and M*A*S*H aired without a laugh track in some countries. Not all multi-cam shows were shot with three cameras; Cheers and most multi-cam shows since the early 80s have been shot with four, an innovation of James Burrows beginning with Taxi which allows for larger ensembles, more expansive sets, and arguably more fluid editing. The traditional sit-com’s storytelling is quintessentially episodic, with every episode beginning as though the narrative has been fully reset and characters having no memory of previous events. But some traditional multi-cam sitcoms do have some serial aspects to their storytelling, like the relationship arcs on Friends. Of today’s multi-cam shows, not all are uniform in style either. As Christine Becker has written, How I Met Your Mother is shot with multiple cameras on a three-wall set, but without a live audience, a choice she argues makes for a more restrained performance style in contrast to shows that film before an audience. The point is that multi-cam shows are hardly uniform and static in style, but themselves have a stylistic history continuing through the present time.

I want now to go into more detail in considering the way that scholarly discussion of the new sit-com frames the new style in relation to the old style, and the implications of the terms this scholarship adopts for addressing TV style. In particular I’m talking about Jeremy Butler’s Television Style, which relies extensively on two sources for ideas about visual representation: David Bordwell’s work on film form and style, and John Caldwell’s Televisuality.

Much of Butler’s book is concerned with understanding how TV style in recent years has been become more prominent and aggressive, similar to the style of contemporary Hollywood movies that Bordwell calls intensified continuity, which is characterized by fast and aggressive editing, incessant camera movement, and shooting with very long and very short lenses. In some respects, this use of prominent visuals meshes with John Caldwell’s concept of televisuality to describe TV since the 1980s, which Caldwell terms “excessive” and “exhibitionistic.” Butler also borrows a term of Caldwell’s to describe the style of pre-televisuality/intensified continuity movies and TV: “zero-degree” style. Zero-degree denotes a lack of style – Caldwell defines it using the words “empty” and “meager” – or at least a style that isn’t noticeable or interesting. Critics of classical Hollywood cinema often describe its visual style as invisible or transparent, the better to focus the audience on the realism of the diegesis. (In Bordwell’s terms, “zero-degree” is roughly the same as “classical continuity,” though in The Classical Hollywood Cinema he rejects the term “zero-degree.”) In Butler’s argument, the multi-cam sit-com is the zero-degree sit-com, and the single-cam sit-com is the televisual sit-com. Butler celebrates the televisuality of the contemporary single-cam sitcom and even confesses that it brings him “pure aesthetic pleasure.” (216) “In the televisual schema, style is aggressive, roughened, and opaque, not smooth and transparent. It carries meaning. It makes jokes. It might call attention to itself.” (197) Butler discusses many aspects of Scrubs to offer evidence of this, including the show’s staging, shooting, editing, and use of sound.

I see two shortcomings here in the discussion of the style of the multi-cam sit-com in particular, as well as several additional issues of concern. First, both Caldwell and Butler adopt a Bordwellian, film-centered conception of style. They take for granted that style means those things that film or video can do that are unique to -- or at least distinctive of -- them as a medium. In Bordwell’s terms, these include editing, mise en scene, cinematography, and sound, though in the history of film criticism camerawork and editing have often been especially privileged as they are in Caldwell and Butler. This idea of audiovisual style has origins in classical film theory (writers like Arnheim, Bazin, and the Soviets of the revolutionary period), which was often concerned above all with defending the status of cinema as an art form and, thus, with finding those aspects of cinema that are essentially cinematic. Literary or theatrical techniques to be found in cinema, such as dialogue, are hard to defend as “cinematic” style, and have little place in the history of film theory and stylistics. So this idea of what “television style” consists of essentially takes the prevailing conception of film style, which is a product of cinematic medium essentialism, and imposes it on TV.

Second, those who promote the single-cam shows at the expense of the multi-cam shows fail to recognize the positive style of a theatrical genre like the traditional sit-com. While the camerawork, editing, and lighting of a multi-cam show might be unremarkable, they serve effectively to support the elements of style that are emphasized: writing and performance. As Brett Mills argues, the sit-com is among the TV genres most identified with live performance on the stage (Mills 2005). Instead of regarding this as “lacking style,” we can see it rather as having a theatrical rather than cinematic style (without intending these terms to essentialize either cinema or theater -- I mean that their styles share some significant elements with prominent uses of cinema and theater). The contemporary ideal of Quality TV is thoroughly cinematized – good television is supposed to look and feel like a contemporary Hollywood movie, or even to surpass it. An ideal of television art that makes theater values more significant than cinema values seems today hopelessly out of date. And yet an aesthetic appreciation of television that is not ahistorical should be sensitive to the significance of shifting tastes over time. An All in the Family episode was meant to come off like a one-act play, and was staged and performed as such. The idea of television recording a performance, rather than using camerawork or editing as performance, is not naturally stylistically impoverished as Caldwell and Butler suggest. Rather, it follows from a different conception of style and its uses.

This scene from season 2, episode 15 of Cheers ("Father Knows Last," orig. aired January 20, 1983) is typical of the power of the traditional sit-com's style. It begins as so many traditional sit-coms of its period did with the reminder that the show was filmed before a live audience, marking its style as theatrical. Camerawork and editing are fluid and emphasize reactions, as well as contrast between the confidence of the women and the cowardice of the men. In terms of cinematography and editing, there is little difference between this kind of style and that of numerous Hollywood films of the studio era. But we might say the dominant stylistic features are in the script and the actors' performances. The editing and camera styles serve to support the verbal humor, such as Cliff's reference to women as "petunias" and his remark that they are "hot for" him and Norm, and the bit about talking out of the side of your mouth. The comical value of the scene comes from the actors' styles of dialogue delivery and movement, as when Cliff and Norm saunter over to the end of the bar and back trying to appear nonchalant, and especially in the comical high point of the scene as they stand helpless in the face of the invitation to go out with the women, unable even to utter a word as Cliff vocalizes his terror. I confess to my own aesthetic pleasure when I watch shows like this, which delight me easily as much as the best single-cam shows. The images and sounds in a show like Cheers are not best considered as an antistyle or impoverished style. They may not be “televisuality” or intensified continuity or comedy verité, yet they are part of a robust and enduring tradition of comedy on television.


Becker, Christine. “Acting for the Cameras: Performance in the Multi-Camera Sitcom” Mediascape (Spring 2008).
Bordwell, David. The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies (California, 2006).

Butler, Jeremy. Television Style (Routledge, 2009).

Caldwell, John Thornton. Televisuality: Style, Crisis, and Authority in American Television (Rutgers UP, 1995).

Errington, Shelly. The Death of Authentic Primitive Art and Other Tales of Progress. (California, 1998).

Lotz, Amanda. The Television Will Be Revolutionized (NYU, 2007)/

Mills, Brett. “Comedy verite: contemporary sitcom form” Screen 45:1 (Spring 2004), 63-78.

_____. Television Sitcom (BFI, 2005).

Newman, Michael Z. “The Return of Jezebel James,” The Velvet Light Trap 64 (Fall 2009), 77-78.

Thompson, Ethan. “Comedy Verité? The Observational Documentary Meets the Televisual Sitcom” The Velvet Light Trap 60 (Fall 2007), 63-72.


Previously: 30 Rock, My Boys, and the New Sit-Com, Hating on Jezebel James: The Laugh Track as Bad Object, and Tween Comedies and the Evolution of a Genre.


melody said...

I am teaching a Media Productions class next year. You wouldn't mind me using this in class, right? I can pay you in skittle or something.

michael z newman said...

Please use it! Let me know how it goes.

Bärbel Göbel said...

I am working on a dissertation about the use of Quality TV, the problems of the term, and its applicability in non-US PSBs. I would love to reference you, with your permission.

michael z newman said...

Sure, reference me. If you like, Bärbel, send me an email and I'll tell you more about my research and you can tell me more about yours if you like.