Friday, August 19, 2005

Sitcom Death and TV Comedy Rebirth: Single-Camera, Multi-Camera, and a Breathtakingly Brief History of Comedy

"The sitcom is dead."

I hear a good deal of this nowadays. Indeed, I must admit that when I flip through the sitcom-laden channels of an evening, hoping against hope for a laugh, I’m tempted to say, in the same blasé slacker cool that the fedora-wielding dude in Swingers dropped on his friends amidst a crowded hipster bar:

"This place is deaaaad anyway."

Which is an easy thing to say. Drop in on shows like Hope & Faith and My Wife and Kids and According to Jim (and we’re just talking ABC here), and you know exactly what you’re in for: there’s a family living room, a Dad, wacky kids with problems-of-the-week, or single women trying to Figure It Out, commiserating over lost loves, and learning the True Meaning of Friendship, all wrapped up in a tidy 23-minute package.

It’s safe, it's comfortable, it's easy. You can "zone out" to it. You’ll almost never laugh (except if you’re loopy from lack of sleep or have just come back from the pub). You may smile that tight smile of tired recognition every now and again, not because you really find anything funny, but because you’re so used to the rhythms and training of the sitcom that your brain is almost preprogrammed to catch the beats and synapses and syncopations of television comedy.

It’s dead anyway.

But if you look closer, there's a new breed of comedies out there making their mark. It’s difficult to think of them as “sitcoms” because they don’t have that safe (and dead) feel. They actually don’t even really look like traditional sitcoms, as many of this new breed eschews the old fashioned multi-camera show for the edgier, more cinematic flavor of the single-camera comedy.

Situation: Comedy
I became attuned to the single- versus multi-camera aspect of television production while watching Situation: Comedy (Bravo), a reality show competition in the spirit of Project Greenlight that pits aspiring sitcom writers against one another in a bid to push a primetime show past the desks of NBC executives.

Two teams – two men on each as it turns out – are currently in the midst of developing a 15-minute showcase (basically half of a pilot episode) that will air during a live finale. The audience will then get to vote for the one they like best, with the winners sharing a cash prize and a theoretical "shot" at getting their sitcom onto NBC's primetime schedule (fans of Dat Phan, winner of NBC's Last Comic Standing, need not hold their collective breaths).

David Lampson and Andrew Leeds, the aspiring duo behind a sitcom-in-development called Stephen's Life, are obstinate and opinionated, and thus comprise the more interesting storyline (and ain't that what it's all about in reality TV land?). They’re a tenacious lot, however, and never more so than in their insistence that Stephen’s Life, a potentially quirky and funny concept about a Junior High kid who runs his life like a Fortune 500 company, be shot single-camera.

Traditional sitcoms, traditional yawns
This led me to think about comedy on television and the convention of the sitcom. I grew up in an 80s-verse of classic (or "classic," if you prefer) sitcom fare: Family Ties and The Cosby Show and Growing Pains and on and on (Silver Spoons, anyone? If you’re humming the theme song right now, we’re on the same page). In most cases, joining a family or metaphorical family (Facts of Life, etc.) in the living room or kitchen for mildly serious dilemmas solved by broad punch lines, catch phrases, and an occasional visit from the Wacky Neighbor was as ubiquitous and American as Ronald Reagan, apple pie, and eating a TV dinner nuked out of time and mind next to Mom.

By the 90s, this format was beginning to groan. Urkel and Screech and minority-heavy and relationship-centric shows began to blot out the hope of ever finding an original storyline, let alone a laugh, emanating from the tired living room couch. Seinfeld, perhaps the funniest sitcom of all time, broke the mold and bucked the trend by famously focusing on “nothing.” The end of Friends may have signaled the end of a sitcom era: its attractive cast and consistently strong writing often gave it more of a romantic comedy flavor than that of a sitcom.

Out of the ashes… HBO
For a time, perhaps for several years in the early '00s, it was safe to say that comedy on television was pretty much dead anyway.

Then, for not the first time, cable television came along to whoop the networks a good one. Curb Your Enthusiasm, from the misanthropic and darkly brilliant mind of Larry David, may just be the show that reinvented the comedy wheel. Largely improvised, loose, and shot almost documentary-style with a single camera, the microscopic yet hilarious adventures of Larry David (playing himself) in shallow, self-absorbed Hollywood rewrote the rules of what a half-hour of comedy on television can do.

The trailblazing has continued, to more or less positive effect. Da Ali G Show, with its real life subjects being conned and put on by the multiple and wacky personas of star Sacha Brown Cohen, often feels more like a tensely played out art experiment than a “traditional” comedy. For that fact alone, perhaps, it should be given credit for pushing the bounds of television comedy.

Entourage, Executive Produced by Mark Wahlberg and starring a stunningly perfect cast including Jeremy Piven and Adrian Grenier, may well be pointing the way forward for the next generation of television comedy. Both Entourage and Curb Your Enthusiasm do an excellent job of blending comedy with a realistic and improvisational feel. Whereas Larry David and Curb lean on Seinfeld-brand nothingness for inspiration, Entourage gives us a brilliant and original glimpse into what it might be like if an old pal from the neighborhood (in this case, Queens, New York) made it really, really big in Hollywood.

Showtime is now trying to capitalize on the trend by way of two promising shows: Weeds, starring the great Mary Louise Parker, which is a dramedy about a mom who sells marijuana to make ends meet, and Barbershop, based on the film franchise, which utilizes single-camera but feels very much like a well produced sitcom.

Reality check
Before I dive completely off the deep end and insist that every comedy should be shot single-camera, I should add that there are two very large and daunting reasons that most of the comedies on the television dial remain standardly and boringly multi-camera: time and money. These were the reasons, in fact, why the fledgling network sitcom juggernaut Stephen’s Life was forcibly switched from single- to multi-camera production. If single-camera looks and feels more like a film, it’s because the process and the expense are closer in line with feature-length productions.

From that standpoint, multi-camera makes sense and it stands to reason that the old standby ain’t heading completely off into the sunset anytime soon. Four cameras, a living room, a wacky kid brother who has a penchant for barging in when the older sister’s making out: go!

The networks strike back
Just when you thought it was safe to never watch a sitcom on the networks again, along came a show that completely reinvented and happily imploded all the rules. Arrested Development combines oddball characters, expert single-camera production work, and inventive use of flashbacks and cut-aways. It helps that the writing is daring, smart, and off-the-charts funny, of course. But it’s important to remember that we’re basically dealing with the story of a family here, if an award-winning dysfunctional one. If Arrested Development had been handcuffed by multi-camera from the outset, it’s likely that it would have been a mildly pleasant but largely neutered affair.

Scrubs is another example of how single-camera adds a level of freedom and a spirit of invention that elevates a show from yawnable to consistently good.

Bucking the trend?
The one multi-camera sitcom currently on the air that consistently bucks this trend is That 70s Show. It certainly helps that the writing and acting on the show is top notch. But one of the reasons that That has had the run its had is because it layers elements of non-traditional camera work into its production. Anyone who’s seen one of the trademarked sit-around-the-table-and-get-stoned sequences knows what I mean. Flashbacks and occasional musical montages (the latter of which I can sometimes live without, quite frankly) give the show a level of sophistication and playfulness that a Hope & Faith could only, well, hope for.

Basic cable trends single-camera
FX, which is rapidly becoming the best place on television to watch drama (Rescue Me: the best show on television at the moment, The Shield, Nip/Tuck, Over There) is now branching headlong into the single-camera comedy game.

Starved and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia both aim their twisted tentacles at a generation of TV weaned hipsters who have lost interest in traditional sitcom inanities. While at first appearance the shows are rather different – Starved is about yuppies with eating and relationship-disorders, It’s Always Sunny centers on four slackers who run a bar and get into hijinks in Philly – it becomes clear what’s going on under the prism of single- versus multi-camera.

Single-camera: more expensive, more time, but edgier, more cinematic, more inventive.

Single-camera dreams: better comedy, better television, better (or at least more) viewers, more ad and subscription revenue.

See the trend, be the trend.

Maybe this place ain’t so dead anyway.

12 comments:

The Sore Loser said...

I'm surprised that you think that having a single camera has a such a profound influence on a show's quality. Do you really think that, say, According to Jim would be funnier if all they changed were the cameras? I've always thought that what makes sitcoms funny are its writers, its characters, and the actors. Playing around with how its filmed is not going to make a bad show funny and it won't make a good show terrible. But I ain't the TV insider that Mr. Dumpster Bust is.

Eric Berlin said...

It's not the only influence, but it's an important influence -- and it can allow a good but ordinary show under multi-camera strictures to be great.

The example of News Radio came up on Blogcritics.org. A pretty good but somewhat ordinary sitcom (the whole issue of the laugh track was also under discussion, but I won't get into that here), right? But just think of how good it could have been, with that cast, under a single-camera format? It could have been gold, Jerry, gold.

Yes, of course you're right -- it always comes down to characters and writing and acting. But the single- vs. multi-camera aspect of sitcom production is something rarely discussed, so I thought I'd inject it into the mix in my Dumpster Busterish manner.

But seriously: the multi-camera format has largely outlived its usefulness. Thus the According to Jims and Hope & Faiths, etc.

Joshua said...

Tommy Lee Goes To College -
I'm from Lincoln Nebraska. I go to UNL, I saw the whole thing happen with my own eyes....most of it is completely fake. ALSO, Natalie, his tutor is taken. She's been dating Mike Stuntz (UNL QB, vs. Oklahoma, threw Eric Crouch a TD) for a while.

LadyNatasha said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Eric Berlin said...

Thanks for dropping in on the Dumpster Bust, Joshua and Natasha!

I checked out your blog, Natasha -- impressive stuff... and in the 8th grade?

Eric Berlin said...

Joshua -- I'm guessing you meant to post your comment to my story about Tommy Lee's reality show, but nonetheless I was curious to know what you meant by everything being "fake." Do you mean that scenes are staged, that people read from lines, etc. ?

Anonymous said...

sitcoms are over Adult Swim is in.

Eric Berlin said...

Thanks for the tip!

Mark Treitel said...

Hey, good post...
you can vote for Sperm Donor from situation: comedy at aol.com/situationcomedy.

Mark Treitel
www.marktreitel.com

Eric Berlin said...

Very flattered to have you drop in to the DB, Mark!

Just watched the ep this afternoon where Sperm Doners premiered for the network peeps.

Looks like it's going to be tight going down the wire!

What are your thoughts about taking your show into a pilot and potential full season on NBC?

Eric Berlin said...

Very flattered to have you drop in to the DB, Mark!

Just watched the ep this afternoon where Sperm Doners premiered for the network peeps.

Looks like it's going to be tight going down the wire!

What are your thoughts about taking your show into a pilot and potential full season on NBC?

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