Of the six Emmy nominees for comedy series this year, only one, “The Big Bang Theory,” is a multicamera sitcom. The others — “Modern Family,” “The Office,” “Parks and Recreation,” “30 Rock” and “Glee” — are shot single-camera.
Showrunners past and present agree single-camera and multicamera have equal potential for laughs, but the Emmy nominees are symptomatic of a pendulum swing — but it’s unlikely the pendulum is going to swing back.
The current single-camera trend is opening the door for ambitious yet mainstream TV comedy, creating new conventions future showrunners can later defy.
Multicamera was initially popularized because it broke with tradition. “You look at the ’60s, and most of your hit comedies are ‘The Beverly Hillbillies,’ ‘Get Smart’ and ‘The Andy Griffith Show,’ ” says Ken Levine, who worked as a writer and director on “MASH,” “Cheers,” “Frasier,” “The Simpsons” and many others. “The ’70s (in response) became a very multicamera-focused decade.”
And the ’80s. And the ’90s. Soon, for every “Seinfeld” or “Cheers,” there were, roughly, a bajillion multicamera sitcoms that didn’t measure up. Networks were beginning to rely on the plug-and-play formula: Fat guy is to hot wife as meat is to potatoes.
“There’s a rhythm you fall into with setup-punchline-laugh, setup-punchline-laugh — it’s inherent in the form,” says “Modern Family” exec producer Steve Levitan, creator of “Just Shoot Me” and “Back to You.” “You hit the jokes pretty hard. And I’m in a mode where even on a well-written multicam, I’m finding the laughtrack incredibly annoying.
“Audiences — maybe because of reality TV, maybe because of YouTube and the Internet — are longing for things that feel more authentic and real,” he adds.
Single-camera lends itself to authenticity. It’s less like theater and more like film, employing closeups and sometimes documentary-style interviews to convey comedy at an intimate level. Actors play to the camera, not the studio audience.
Jokes can work at a purely visual level, too. Edits and closeups can elicit laughs simply for how they’re shot, and changes in locale are shown, not merely talked about.
“You can do a more subtle portrayal of human behavior,” says “30 Rock” exec producer and star Tina Fey. “It’s inherently a little more presentational than the multicamera format. You can get inside characters’ heads.”
And because these shows have so many moving parts, “They’ve allowed executives to stop ruining things,” said fellow “30 Rock”-er Robert Carlock during a panel at the Just for Laughs festival.
Execs were fearful of the form from the start. “If you ask a lot of network execs, they’ll tell you that for a lot of years, single-camera meant not as funny,” Levitan says. “It was a little more dry or clever, but it didn’t necessarily mean big laughs. But at the end of the day, a show fails and succeeds based on its characters. If ‘Modern Family’ were a multicam, I’d like to think it would still work.”
The subsequent groundswell of single-camera comedies carried with it an unexpected perk: film stars. Alec Baldwin, Rob Lowe and Elijah Wood have all found their way to single-camera comedies, and the talent pool keeps on growing.
“You can get fancier actors in single-cam because it’s more like movies,” Fey says. (In drama, too: “Good luck to Bryan Cranston in finding a feature role as good as he has on ‘Breaking Bad,’ ” Levine says.)
Television is becoming a place where actors and storytellers can practice their craft uninhibited. “The cream is rising to the top,” Levine says — it just so happens the cream nowadays is shot with one camera.
Levine can’t help but reflect on the past. ” ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ went out of its way to be absolutely old-fashioned, and that show will be in syndication for another 50 years,” he says. “Whereas ‘Community,’ a show that’s very hip, I wonder, when you look back in 10 years, if it’s going to look like a timepiece.”
So sure, there are great multicamera comedies and there are great single-camera comedies. But when Levine talks about the future, he discusses more experimentation: 15-minute joke-a-thons like “Childrens Hospital,” bold comedic video-logues like “Louie.” The camera itself becomes a vehicle for comedy in single-camera, and the industry seems reluctant to give back the keys.
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