When television geeks use the phrase “single-camera sitcom,” they’re talking about a certain kind of show. People don’t generally refer to The Brady Bunch or Gilligan’s Island that way, though it’s technically correct — neither show is filmed on a soundstage, there’s no studio audience, and both have a visual style that is closer to a film than to Cheers. The modern use of “single-camera,” though, both the term and the technique, has only really been around since the mid-90s. Or, to be more accurate, since The Larry Sanders Show.
If you’re not already familiar with The Larry Sanders Show, watch a few episodes on Netflix Instant or get caught up here. I was too young to be aware of it when it first premiered, but I have to imagine it felt like a breath of fresh air. Even compared to Seinfeld, which had been on for a few years already, Larry Sanders feels risky, edgy, and real in a way that no sitcom before it had even tried to be. The bit in the pilot where Hank, completely serious, explains to Larry how to soft sell a product on the show (think about “America and everything she stands for”) is not only hilarious, but finds laughs in a place that you just couldn’t go with a four-camera setup, or even with animation. It’s not a back-of-the-theater laugh line, but it’s not a visual throwaway, either — it’s a moment you can only get from a great line teased out by great actor on film. It’s surreal but grounded — Hank really is that nuts — and it’s the type of thing that set the bar for character-driven comedy on TV. So why, twenty years later, has the bar set by Larry still never been cleared?
The most obvious reason is that Larry Sanders is just that good. And yes, it is. I don’t want to understate the show’s sheer quality; if anything, I want to emphasize it. It’s unbelievably consistent — even the episodes that don’t have you laughing constantly are usually building to something incredible by the end. There isn’t a dud in 89. The core trio (Larry, Artie, and Hank) are all deep enough to merit extensive character exploration, and there’s no weak link in the supporting cast either. The show plays a lot of different angles and gets mileage out of all of them: it’s a showbiz satire, an observation of life’s minutiae, and a screwball comedy, often all in the same episode. It has a distinct visual style that comes from the two ways the show is shot: Larry’s show-within-the-show segments are on tape in a multi-cam style (letting Larry keep one foot in the world of sitcom’s past), but the majority of the show looks like a film about a dreary office. The effect is the feeling that you’re switching between the public and private faces of Larry, Hank, and their guests, which underscores a lot of the ideas that the show is playing with.
Larry Sanders, as Harry Cheadle’s piece pointed out a year ago, is palpably patient zero for today’s sitcoms — it wants to catch you off guard with mumbled dialogue, subtle reactions, surprisingly articulate anger, and bursts of physical goofiness. The whole show seems like a diligent effort on the part of some very smart people to open up sitcoms to new ideas and ways to be funny. And it did! But now, twenty years later, it seems odd to look back and reflect that we’re still mostly being funny in the same way. No show since Sanders has been nearly as successful in pushing the sitcom as a medium forward.
Of all the potential contenders to Larry’s throne, the biggest is clearly The Office. By going even smaller than Larry, focusing on the mundane lives and tics of people who are themselves fairly mundane, Ricky Gervais’s Office and its U.S. counterpart managed to be both more carefully observed and more personally relatable than Larry. But the engines that drove both shows — and made NBC’s a ratings hit — were the long-simmering romances: Tim/Dawn, then Jim/Pam, then Andy/Erin. It’s great television, but it owes its American success more to the legacy of multi-cam couples (Sam and Diane on Cheers, or Ross and Rachel on Friends), than it does to the ground it unquestionably broke.
Networks other than NBC seem to have realized this. Outside The Office, the single-camera shows that have achieved ratings bliss are the ones that feel like cosmetic updates on multi-camera hits. Modern Family isn’t really that much more modern than Everybody Loves Raymond; New Girl is the millennial Friends. This is not to say that any of these are bad shows! They’re not — they’re very good! I like both Raymond and Friends a lot, and I like Modern Family and New Girl as well, especially with the work both shows have done to round out their supporting cast. But chop off the talking heads and cutaway gags, and both could be performed in front of a live studio audience without much further script editing. They’re single-cam in form but still multi-cam in spirit. And while both shows look nice, I’d be surprised if anyone could recall a shot from either show they found particularly funny or memorable.
NBC’s post-Office offerings, however — 30 Rock, Parks & Rec, and Community — belong to some other category of innovation. Along with Scrubs, Better Off Ted, Cougar Town, and Arrested Development, they feel to me kind of like live-action cartoons. That’s exciting and different! Going bigger than Sanders is fascinating and fun in the same way that The Office going smaller is — there’s new ground to be explored, and all of these have done so spectacularly. In addition to the colorful visuals, broad characterization, and slapstick that most of these shows share, Arrested upped the ante with a mind-bendingly intricate intratextuality, and Community may be even more experimental, treating its own style like a paint-by-numbers to be filled in every episode. All of these shows have shots and visual gags that stay with me. But with the exception of Scrubs, this crop has collectively lived in near-constant danger of cancellation. Critics love them but audiences don’t flock to them. And despite the great amount of quality television on right now, it’s disheartening to me to think that the lesson to be learned here is “conform or die.”
It’s especially disheartening given the news that next year will be the last for 30 Rock, and may also be the ultimate for Community and Parks & Rec. Those three shows are probably trying more innovative things than any three other comedies on TV. NBC’s past leadership may have made poor financial decisions, but they made some great artistic ones. Whoever kept hitting the “renew” button on Community was probably throwing money away, but they were also feeding a die-hard fanbase and legacy that, like Arrested’s, will only grow in the years after it leaves the air. If NBC is really getting out of the little-watched-critical-hit-sitcom business, who’s going to pick up the slack?
Certainly not premium cable, right? Since Larry Sanders, HBO and Showtime have been creating some sort of half-hour drama that isn’t really a sitcom and isn’t really funny, but somehow goes up against funny shows for awards. One could probably argue that Entourage, Weeds, and Hung are some kind of evolution of the sitcom, but without the big laughs, they strike me as a different genre entirely. Maybe I’m just revealing personal prejudice, but I know at least some people agree with me — whatever Nurse Jackie is, it’s not terribly funny. And to me, that’s too bad. Because Larry Sanders showed that comedy on film can be gut-bustingly funny, and it certainly didn’t exhaust the possibilities. Take a look at the Conan-and-Robert Smigel-penned Lookwell, which would have preceded Sanders if NBC had picked it up, but would also feel groundbreaking if it premiered today.
Much of Lookwell’s brilliance is in the visuals — shot like a 70s procedural, the look is a perfect compliment to the Police Squad!-played-even-straighter script. Conan and Smigel are both much more famous now than the Lookwell director, a man named E.W. Swackhamer who died in 1994, but I think the pilot’s success (well, relative, quality-and-cult-adoration success) is due at least as much to Swackhamer as to its writers. Which is part of why it seemed encouraging when I noticed a small but important trend in recent TV — directors in greater positions of power. Anthony and Joe Russo aren’t names as well-known to comedy geeks as Mitch Hurwitz or Dan Harmon, but they clearly played played a large part in establishing the unique style of both Arrested Development and Community. They’re also executive producers and directors for much of Happy Endings, a fantastic show that, more so than New Girl, seems to me like many of the ideas from Friends becoming fully realized in a single-camera format. The closest thing to Lookwell on TV right now is another genre pastiche, Adult Swim’s excellent Children’s Hospital. And its creator, Rob Corddry, also directs many of the episodes.
Cartoon Network (where Adult Swim airs) is just one of a handful of cable channels that have stepped into the void created by the neglect of HBO. FX and IFC, especially, seem committed to branding themselves as comedy-friendly cable, and as a result, they’ve found themselves with shows like Louie. Small and relatable like The Office but surreal and experimental with visuals and story structure, FX’s Louie is exactly the kind of show that someone watching Larry Sanders in the 90s would hope is in the future of television. TBS’s pickup of Cougar Town seems to be another nod in that direction. Even HBO is catching on, years late to their own party: Veep is laugh out loud funny like nothing on HBO in a while, and Girls is good enough to rise above the internet chatter about it — no small feat. They’re also both helmed by writers who direct. As is Louie.
If the world of network TV ends up abandoning the boundary-pushing single-camera sitcom, there’s good reason by now to believe that those who want to take risks will still find a home somewhere. And I might end up being wrong about NBC — both 1600 Penn and Animal Practice (more Russos!) look promising. In any case, the next Larry Sanders Show is out there somewhere, I’m sure of it. It just needs someone willing to take a chance.
Rob Trump lives in Los Angeles and contributes to The Onion News Network. He can be reached at his first name, then last name, at gmail dot com. He is on Twitter here.