In my regular perch at Maclean’s magazine, I’m known as “that guy who loves multi-camera sitcoms.” Or would be, if I were known. But this certainly is not a great time to be a supporter of the sitcom shot with four cameras in front of an audience. All the Emmy nominees for best comedy are single-camera these days; among shows shot with an audience, the only one with some acclaim is The Big Bang Theory, which does some things extremely well and other things very frustratingly. There’s a very real chance that the multi-camera format will be given up as old-fashioned, even though single-camera sitcoms are actually older (with some exceptions like I Love Lucy, most ‘50s and ‘60s sitcoms were single-camera), and even though multi-camera sitcoms remain popular with adults and children alike.
It is a hard format to defend, conceptually, because there are so many limitations: few sets, an audience laughing after every joke, actors shouting to be heard in the back row. And many stalwarts of the multi-camera genre have given up on it: Larry David went from Seinfeld to Curb Your Enthusiasm, David Crane from Friends to Episodes, Bill Lawrence from Spin City to Scrubs and Cougar Town. So why would anyone yearn for that other, louder, faster, cheaper way of making a sitcom?
Well, first of all, because some of the greatest shows in sitcom history, both in America and the UK, have been multi-camera, and none of them would have been the same in any other format. (Compare the first season of The Odd Couple, which was single-camera, to the later seasons, which were done in front of an audience, and you’ll see how different the same actors, writers and characters can be in the two formats.) Multi-camera sitcom is a strange format that’s unique to television, because unlike single-camera, which is basically a little movie, multi-camera is a combination of different formats: a bit of film, a bit of radio, and a great big heaping helping of theatre. A multi-camera sitcom episode is a play, a performance. It’s where the traditions of American theatre comedy mostly migrated after Broadway decided to stop staging anything where people don’t sing and/or fall from spider webs.
Look at this famous episode of Taxi, written by Glen and Les Charles and directed by James Burrows (the three people who would go on to create Cheers). Now, you don’t have to think it’s funny or that it holds up — though I think it is and does. But it definitely is a well-made episode, of a type that is very hard to do in single-camera. The first act is one long scene of people sitting at a table and talking, where we mostly just get a character study of drugged-out ‘60s relic Reverend Jim (Christopher Lloyd). All of this sets up the three scenes of the second act, which pay off in big comedy set-pieces: Jim drugs Danny DeVito’s coffee; Jim takes a driving test; Jim takes his first drive. It’s as simple as a story can be, yet it has a very clear character arc: at the end of the episode Jim has a new place in life and has been set up as a new regular. It’s a classical theatre structure familiar from great American stage comedies like The Front Page or The Odd Couple: put characters in a room together, let them reveal themselves in conversation, then escalate things from there. We know more about Jim from the first ten minutes of this episode than we learn about many TV characters in 100 episodes, and the farcical bits are funnier because Lloyd got the opportunity to really build the characterization.
This is not movie structure or movie style. It’s very hard to have people sit at a table and talk for ten minutes in single-camera without the viewer getting antsy, because single-camera comedies depend on short scenes, snappy scenes. It’s why when Frasier did a My Dinner With Andre tribute episode, it didn’t have to explain why the characters were sitting and talking for such a long time, but when Community did it, we wondered why the hell Abed and Jeff were having such a long conversation, and they eventually did have to explain it. Single-camera is like a movie, where long speeches leave us fidgety or even wondering if something terrible is about to happen, like in Inglourious Basterds. Multi-camera is like theatre, where words and acting are enough to hold our attention. Single-camera sitcoms can have quick cutaways and short scenes, but it’s much harder for them to just let scenes play and build for a long time without losing us.
You’re out there in front of a small gathering every day, hearing what gets laughs and what doesn’t. As a result, we often think of those kinds of sitcoms as being jokier, but really, there are more jokes per second, per page, than there are on a show like Sports Night, where there wasn’t an audience, and there was no compelling reason to rewrite.
The laughter sometimes creates the illusion that there are fewer jokes, but the pauses are more than made up for by the pressure on the writers and actors do do something funny and hold the audience’s attention. Meaning that with some exceptions, like 30 Rock, single-camera shows still tend to have fewer jokes than good multi-camera shows — not that the number of jokes is the main test of a good comedy.
And no one can prove this scientifically, but I think there really is a special energy performers have in front of an audience. We know that stand-up comedy would not be the same if you put the comedians in a box and had them repeat their routines, over and over again, to no one except a camera crew. In a multi-camera sitcom, when a great performer like John Cleese or Jackie Gleason or Jason Alexander gets in front of the audience — or even someone whose name doesn’t begin with J — you can feel that special connection between comic timing and audience reaction. It also helps that the format of multi-camera requires the actors to rehearse together all week and then perform scenes straight through. You can feel them interacting and developing a chemistry with each other that doesn’t always happen on single-camera shows, which are done in bits and pieces and where one actor can wander off while the other one does his or her close-ups.
Are there any disadvantages to multi-camera? Tons! You know most of them already, things you can’t do in a studio in front of an audience. Subtlety is hard to achieve in writing or acting. The sets look fake (though I personally don’t care about that one; we’re sophisticated enough to know it’s not supposed to be real). Characters have to walk into a house talking about stuff they probably should have been talking about in the car on the way there. And if you want to do a show that is somewhat naturalistic (like The Office), or a realistic depiction of a serious situation (like M*A*S*H) or features several different houses with no single “home base” (like Modern Family) or features a lot of movie parodies (like Community) then you’ll want to do it single-camera.
But if a sitcom is a study of a few characters interacting in an enclosed space, and it’s not supposed to be a mock-documentary or something else like that, then yes, there are artistic advantages to multi-camera. It’s hard to watch Matthew Perry on Mr. Sunshine, talking to nobody in his close-ups while delivering lukewarm jokes, and not long for the days when he had an audience to bounce off of and his writers had to change jokes that didn’t work. Bad multi-camera sitcoms seem to dumb everything down for the audience, but good ones use the audience feedback to their advantage, until we feel like we are almost in the audience ourselves, watching these characters grow and develop every week. That’s why seemingly horrible characters, from Ralph Kramden to Archie Bunker to Basil Fawlty to George Costanza, can be portrayed so three-dimensionally in multi-camera sitcoms: the actors and writers know just how far they can take these characters without completely alienating the audience. Single-camera shows can be great, but they can be very insular. As a result they can easily make characters too one-dimensionally nasty, or go to the other extreme and make them too soft and cute.
But for now, single-camera shows are the ones where most of the interesting work is being done. The key term is “for now,” though. In 1969, when virtually every hit comedy was single-camera, you would have said the same thing. Then came The Mary Tyler Moore Show and All in the Family, and suddenly all of Hollywood knew that there were things a sitcom could do with a live audience that it just couldn’t do with single-camera filming. All it takes is one or two hits, one or two great ensembles, one or two fresh approaches, to remind us again that nothing can ever take the place of that feeling you get from a great multi-cam: the feeling that you’re in the audience for a marvelous play.
Jaime Weinman is a writer for Maclean’s magazine in Canada. He blogs about television here.
Photo via David Hume Kennerly.