Tuesday, June 21, 2011

In the Sitcom World: Single-Cam v. Multi-Cam

This question has plagued creators and producers in the sitcom world for some time now. In the past ten years there has been a resurgence, or renaissance if you will, of single-camera comedies. At first glance, it would appear that the single-camera comedy might be winning the war, but this could be just smoke and mirrors. The single-camera comedy is still experimental and will most likely continue to evolve until it finds its most comfortable format. I don't think the newness has wore off yet as an overwhelmingly amount of new sitcoms are introduced to us as single-camera comedies. The ratio of failure then reflects this phenomenon with a large number of single-camera comedies cancelled within its first season, leaving the number of successful multi-cam and single-cam shows about even. Hence, "The Paul Reiser Show," "Running Wilde," "Mr. Sunshine" versus just "Better Together."

If you were able to deduce my opinion on this argument, I prefer multi-camera comedy, especially with a live studio audience. I feel like a old man saying it but, I think for someone who wants to be a writer in the television industry, the writer can heavily benefit from having a live studio audience present. It is the instant gratification that is most thrilling to writers and show staffs. The writer instantly knows if a joke they wrote works with an live audience or not. Depending on the degree of laughter attached to a certain joke, the writer can determine how much to ratchet it up to get a more satisfying laugh. I think the experience is also beneficial for the actor who has scenes to perform in front of the audience. Each scene is taken a couple times until they get just the right one where the actor displays impeccable timing, high energy and is in sync with the audience. 

Some notable elements of a single-camera comedy is of course the use of single camera instead of three or four. A major absence for single-camera comedies is the laugh track and a live studio audience. In the usually mockumentary style concept of many successful single-camera comedies, a live audience would not make sense. Often characters of this genre directly reference the camera because in their world, they know that a documentary is being filmed about their life. So, for a documentary's sake, it wouldn't make sense to also reference a random group of people laughing at them! But, then again, it doesn't make sense in the multi-camera world either. The notion that there's a group of unseen people laughing at jokes told by a cast of characters that don't know they're there is absurd! The benefit of a single-camera comedy is namely the freedom of camera angles and movement. These shows have a much more "in-your-face" feel. Sometimes a certain angle or motion can convey a story plot point, reveal or even be the punchline for a joke. The camera becomes another member of the family, one that's intrusive and bombarding, but also available when a character needs to vent their angry or cry their eyes out, in private and seemingly without judgement. This idea is innovative, unique and very effective in story telling.

Of course, no matter what format of sitcom is used, it helps as a writer to be surrounded by a staff of other writers where ideas are continuously thrown against the wall until something sticks. Both genres of sitcoms have a staff and above all, that is most important for any writer. However, the virtue of a live audience for multi-camera comedies have that Classical Greek and Roman feel that is undeniable. Performing in front of a live audience is an institution and should be preserved as such. It's hard to really say which genre is winning right now, CBS is one of top networks in the Nielsen's and the network produces solely multi-camera sitcoms. But, on the other hand, ABC has received a much-needed resurgence from their single-camera sitcoms. I think both genres will continue to perform their dance while fighting to lead until they finally draw a line in the sand and agree not to cross it. Yes, you can find relief in the fact that one day both genres will live harmoniously and fluidly as one in TV land!  

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