There’s no such thing as a single-camera comedy series, a clutch of prominent TV helmers agreed during a panel session Wednesday at the Television Critics Assn. press tour.
Comedies produced outside of the traditional multicamera stageplay-style format rarely if ever shoot scenes with just a single camera. Most of them use a hybrid multi- and single-camera format, as few showrunners would be willing to risk losing the option of having multiple choices for various shots in the editing room.
“There are degrees of single-camera-ness,” said Michael Blieden, whose credits includes “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” and FX’s “Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll.” He noted that there are plenty of single-cam shows that shoot scenes on a proscenium to mimic a multi-camera environment for actors.
Peter Atencio, director of Comedy Central’s “Key & Peele,” pointed to “Modern Family” as a show that is “a multicam show very creatively and intelligently done in a single-camera format.”
The helmers agreed that the focus on multi- vs. single-cam is “overblown” and that the most important factor is whether the material is funny.
Alec Berg, co-creator and director of HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” observed that one big difference is that shooting single-camera without an audience allows a show to milk the humor out of awkward moments of silence. “We do a lot of dryer tonal stuff on our show. When you’re doing a multicam, you do something that’s funny and silent, people laugh, and they fill the silence so it’s not silent any more,” he said.
On the other hand, the creative team gets instant feedback when shooting in front of an audience. With single-cam, which are often shot out of sequence, “sometimes you’re just going, ‘Does any of this work on any level?’ ” Berg observed. In fact, it often falls to the director to reassure the company.
“A lot of my job as the director is to do the job of the studio audience,” Berg said. “You’re a proxy for the laughs from the audience.”
The panel was presented as part of the TCA tour at the Beverly Hilton by the Directors Guild of America. Mark Cendrowski, house director of “The Big Bang Theory,” moderated the wide-ranging Q&A.
Helmers weren’t shy about saying that they would like to see directors get a little more recognition for their contributions to TV. “I always say that scripts are about ambition,” said Tristam Shapeero, helmer of Netflix’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” among other shows.
The director “comes along and decides how are we going to shoot that scene to get the funny off the page,” Shapeero said. Directors have the tricky job of bringing their ideas to the production while remaining “extremely respectful of the work,” he said.
It’s especially challenging for a director coming in on assignment for the first time on an established show. It takes homework and plenty of prep to learn the show’s protocols and conventions.
“Everybody knows so much more than you do,” said Linda Mendoza, whose credits include “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and “Black-ish.” “The only thing you can do is know your script like the back of your hand.”
The helmers spoke of their frustration at dwindling running times for shows airing on advertising-supported TV. With some half-hour series running as short as 19-20 minutes, shows run the risk of becoming “a radio play,” Blieden observed. “You cram (plot and dialogue) in so much that you’ve taken all the visual transitions out,” he said. “You’re using about half of what television can do.”
Shapeero noted that when “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” moved from NBC to ad-free Netflix, producers felt “relief” in being able to go back and insert jokes and humorous moments that had to be chopped for time when the show was bound for NBC.
Zetna Fuentes made her half-hour counterparts a little jealous in describing her working environment last season on “Jane the Virgin,” with its distinct visual style that breaks the fourth wall and adds other inventive touches. Fuentes said she had a “magical” experience working on the CW drama’s season finale.
“The showrunners are game. You really get a lot of freedom (because) visually they want to push it,” she said.