Situation Comedy Supply and Demand

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Here’s something I find mildly surprising this season: the network executives knew, going in, that the demand for traditional multi-camera comedy was on the upswing (if, that is, it ever really went away, which is doubtful). This has been proven once again by the big ratings for Big Bang Theory in its post Two and a Half Men slot. Yet the development of traditional sitcoms for this season has been quite dismal. You’ve got Accidentally On Purpose, a show that, apart from not being funny, seems ashamed of being a multi-camera sitcom at all. (Since its time-jumping style is influenced by How I Met Your Mother, it makes sense to schedule the two shows together, but the juxtaposition just shows how HIMYM makes this style work and AOP does not.) You’ve got Brothers, which barely does better than Dollhouse. And in general you’ve got sitcoms that are conceived as star vehicles, often for actors who have already had a successful sitcom, like Jenna Elfman or Kelsey Grammer — a development strategy that led to disaster time and time again in the last 10 years.

Executives have said for over a year that people want comedy in tough times; the bread and butter of U.S. escapist comedy is the traditional sitcom about people the audience likes to hang out with, and when you consider that the two most popular traditional sitcoms both have some serious weaknesses (Two and a Half Men is mean-spirited and nasty; BBT, while better than its lead-in, still has to work with a lead character who is not interesting), the way would still seem to be open for a really first-class sitcom; if somebody comes up with one and puts it in the right place at the right time, it could be gigantic. And yet the comedy development slate has been very weak in that area. Especially weak at CBS, which is finding itself unable to fully take advantage of its status as the Sitcom King because it couldn’t come up with any strong new shows to go with the ones it already has. When Accidentally On Purpose is the best you can come up with for the new season…

The explanation for this lack of strong new multi-camera comedies probably just comes down to luck, though it seems like there’s also a spill-over effect from a couple of years ago when the traditional sitcom was considered “dead”: producers who would normally be making multi-camera sitcoms switched over to the single-camera kind just at the wrong moment. (Modern Family — which, I hasten to add, has hit potential, though I’m not completely sold on it yet — is a concept that could have been done with a live audience in the studio, and it’s from Steven Levitan and Chris Lloyd, two producers who have mostly worked in the multi-camera field. I suspect that if they were developing the idea this year, the network would have nudged them in the direction of multi-camera, but last year, ABC was more interested in single-camera comedy.) Back in 1970-1, when Mary Tyler Moore and All In the Family revived the multi-camera sitcom after it had been dormant for years, the independent producers of those shows — MTM and Norman Lear — were on hand and ready to supply the networks with other comedies in the same style. Now there are no more independent TV producers, and the big studios (with the possible exception of Warner Brothers) probably aren’t really equipped to come up with good new multi-camera sitcoms; it might take another year before they’ve re-learned that process.

On the other hand, this might be the year when a single-camera, laugh-track-less comedy finally becomes a mega-hit, and then the networks will go running in that direction. (Modern Family and Cougar Town did well for ABC their first time out, but so did Samantha Who; I’m not completely convinced that either one, especially Cougar Town, can be truly big) But for now I suspect that the networks either failed to understand the demand for traditional comedy or just had a bad run of luck in developing them.

And the answer to the un-asked question is: yes, I think there’s something inherent in the single-camera format that makes it harder for these shows to be hits, though I also think that the producers of these shows actively make it harder than it should be. Two big things keeping single-camera shows from being hits are a) They are extremely expensive and time-consuming to shoot and b) They tend to leave viewers smiling rather than laughing. The single-camera comedies that dominated the networks in the ’50s, ’60s and early ’70s avoided these problems by a) Keeping location shooting to a minimum and filming only on studio sets, and b) Using laugh tracks to give the viewer at home the feeling of watching with a crowd. There’s no reason that single-camera shows can’t be shot fast (The Office is the most successful of these shows and it has the most compressed shooting schedule), and at least some of them — not the mock-documentaries, but some others — probably would play better with the dreaded laugh tracks. The Andy Griffith Show was single camera, but shot every episode in about three days, using very few angles for each scene and not worrying over-much about matching shots or venturing outside the studio or the backlot. As such, it not only held costs down but managed to have some of the pleasantly messy, broad feel that audiences seem to value most in TV comedy.

As it is, though, single-camera shows spend more money than their multi-camera counterparts to make the public laugh less. And the ones that do manage to include more jokes than usual, like 30 Rock or Arrested Development (where Mitch Hurwitz said that he was aware of the feeling that “single-camera comedies are less funny than multi-camera comedies,” and wanted to do a show that would have as many jokes as a good multi-cam show) often wind up getting so heavily-plotted and frenetic that they lose the one thing a sitcom must have to succeed: a sense that these are characters the viewer wants to hang out with. (Dramas can get by with plot, with solving the mystery or stopping the terrorists. Plot is almost a secondary thing on a sitcom, where the reason most people watch is simply to hang out with people they like.) An exception, again, is The Office, which has managed to create that “hanging out with friends” feel that a hit sitcom must have. It could be that the mock-documentary format helps a show sidestep the usual problems of single-camera, which could be a good sign for Modern Family (though I have my doubts; the characters feel too paint-by-numbers to me).

None of this is to say that networks shouldn’t make one-camera shows; some of the biggest hits of all time are one-camera, though again, history shows that it helps when the show is not absurdly expensive to produce. (You’ll have better, more durable luck with a mostly studio or backlot-bound show like M*A*S*H or The Office than something like My Name Is Earl that requires many different locations, guest actors and camera angles every week.) But the current development slate shows the networks putting a lot of money and effort into a type of show that is usually no more than a niche success: the one-camera, movie-style, innovatively-told comedy. That’s usually Malcolm in the Middle numbers at best. The opportunity is still there for the next great traditional sitcom (again, BBT isn’t it in my opinion; in another era it would be a good sitcom, not state of the art), an opportunity that the networks have been surprisingly slow to seize.

For more on single-camera vs. multi-camera, here’s Aaron Barnhart’s interview with Don Reo, whose latest show, Brothers, is definitely not going to be the next Cosby or even the next Double Trouble. But his points about why single-camera shows don’t really take off are, mostly, well taken:

“That [Everybody Hates Chris] was a lot of work, let me tell you — and there’s no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,” he said. Reruns of a traditional, multi-camera sitcom like Two and a Half Men typically command top dollar in the syndication market, while a single-camera show like Chris makes far less in syndication because none has ever drawn that many viewers.

Everybody in the industry thinks 30 Rock is brilliant, but America chooses to watch Two and a Half Men,” said Reo. “Plus, with a multi-camera show you get to have a life. On those single-camera shows you’re working 12-hour days, every day.” (Not that Reo has a life — he’s juggling two multi-camera shows for Fox: Til Death, the Brad Garrett-Joely Fisher comedy about a married couple hitting middle age, is filmed nearby on the same Sony lot in Studio City.)

“Multi-camera shows — they don’t review well, but audiences love ’em,” he said. “They’re joke machines. Two and a Half Men is filled with laughs. It’s a big, funny show. As is Big Bang Theory. They’re shows that take you away from the troubles of the day. Whereas back in the ’70s, those shows were ABOUT the troubles of the day.”

Update: Revisiting this post, I felt I was being too dismissive of Modern Family. The test of the show will be whether the characters can grow from the pilot, but they certainly could; the writers have set up enough character/relationship threads that they could develop into something interesting. See also Ken Levine’s rave review of the pilot.