For over fifty years, since it was pioneered by I Love Lucy, the multi-camera format – three walls, four cameras, taped before a live studio audience – was the beating heart of television comedy. Today, if anyone took a poll of critics, the likelihood of any multi-camera sitcom that debuted after the millennium ranking among the greatest comedies of the century so far would be close to zero.
Multi-camera comedies are still popular, of course, but they’re almost uniformly terrible. This is especially true in the last several years, thanks to the domination of the multi-camera genre by amorphous blob monster Chuck Lorre, not just in shows he created (Two and a Half Men, The Big Bang Theory), but in shows that ape his shitty shallow comedic sensibilities (Rules of Engagement, 2 Broke Girls), as well as the meagre resistance offered by those few family multi-cams that have escaped Chuck Lorrification, largely by being inferior clones of The King of Queens, a show that was just a smidge above average in its time, but plays like gold compared to Last Man Standing. We are well and truly in the era of the single-camera comedy, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Most of our favourite comedies are single-cam shows. But an entire genre has either lost its soul or disappeared altogether, and the only thing worse is that no one really seems to care.
A friend recently remarked that the worst thing about Chuck Lorre is that his shows are adept enough at manipulating the multi-camera format that he starts to convince you that multi-camera shows have always been this way. This goes a lot of the way to explaining how we’ve reached a point where the casual dismissal, or virulent rejection, of multi-cams as a genre and a form of art has become second nature to more and more people, especially millennials. Even professional critics, who know better than to outright slam the form, aren’t exactly clamouring for its big comeback. The uncritical and unthinking rejection of a type of television that, by any reasonable measure, constitutes almost the entire body of outstanding television comedy borders on terrifying. Not only because it denies the multi-cam’s place in the history of television, but because the abandonment of the multi-camera format has also caused the abandonment of approaches to comedy that aren’t necessarily intrinsic to multi-cams, but have been rejected along with multi-cams in contemporary comedy television.
Multi-cams aren’t just sitcoms that happen to be filmed with some extra cameras. They’re a genre and an art form, and as with any form of art, the formal arrangements of a multi-camera sitcom make it more likely to produce certain creative outputs. If there was an abundance of sitcoms that had all the things that make multi-cams special, but happened to be shot in single-camera style, that wouldn’t matter as much. If the mockumentary format died, it wouldn’t be devastatingly sad, because the main format innovations of the mockumentary sitcom – talking heads and actors looking directly into the camera – have been successfully integrated into non-mockumentary shows when tonally appropriate. Parks and Recreation after season one is an example. It would still be a bit sad, because the mockumentary style can do interesting things (Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping was the funniest film of last year), but if a lot of its value could be absorbed, it wouldn’t be as big a deal. But that isn’t what happened to multi-cams. Single-camera comedies are very stylistically different from their multi-cam forefathers, and fair enough. But meanwhile, multi-cams are produced less and at a lower quality. So all the stylistic quirks that make good multi-cams great fall through the cracks.
Multi-cams are fundamentally character-based in a way single-cams rarely are. That doesn’t mean that single-cams can’t have great characters. But the humour in multi-cams generally comes from the characters rather than plot, in large part because of the physical constraints imposed by the limited number of sets – a constraint driven by cost in the early days of the multi-camera format that grew in time to become one of its core formal elements. A single-camera comedy can take a little longer to figure its characters out, because it can give them a plot that drives the comedy instead. The first seasons of The Office US and Parks and Recreation aren’t very good, but because they were driven by (often multi-episodic) story arcs, it was easier to reboot the characters a bit. It’s easier to accept that Michael Scott is a much nicer person when there’s continuity about potential downsizing going on. If most multi-cams tried to do the same trick, it would seem much more like a new show altogether. Of course, multi-cam characters change over the course of their shows, whether that be through development or distortion, and often quite a bit in those early days when a show is figuring itself out. But it would be a lot more noticeable if, half a season into Friends, Monica was no longer interested in being clean and organised. In multi-cams, character and relationships are the meat and potatoes, and the only kind of continuity you have room to care about.
That might sound like a weird defence: multi-cams are lacking something that single-cams have. But when you have 22 minutes a week at your disposal, plot and character often have to become a choice. You’ll always have some plot and some character-based stuff, but which one is driving the story? There’s personal preference, but character-driven story makes more sense from a comedy standpoint. If you wanted to be caught up in what exciting thing would happen next, you’d probably be watching a drama.
Character-driven jokes just work better – not to beat a dead horse, but if we compare similar jokes in 1984’s Ghostbusters and 2016’s Ghostbusters, the difference is pretty clear. In the original, Bill Murray gets covered in slime when a ghost goes through him, and is understandably grossed out and annoyed, while Dan Aykroyd says, “That’s great! Actual, physical contact!” The joke is about how they react differently, because of their personalities. In Ghostbusters (2016), a ghost vomits slime all over Kristen Wiig. The joke is that she gets covered in slime. Which is fine, and probably funny to someone, but in the original you get that “joke” plus a richer layer of character-based humour.
When plot drives a story, especially in a comedy, there can be a tendency to forget about character altogether. You now have two different things that you can sell a character out in favour of: plot and humour. Any comedy show is capable of undermining character development for a joke; it’s one of the biggest problems with post-classic Simpsons. But when plot and humour are both placed ahead of character, the chances of one them totally overriding character jump up. The first season of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a really funny, clever character study about a mentally ill woman and her relationships with friends and love interests. The second season of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, especially in the back half, is so concerned with having a twisty, exciting plot that it seems more like a soap, and manages to, for long stretches, forget that the protagonist is mentally ill.
In a multi-cam, character has to come first. Of course multi-cams can lose sight of what they were supposed to be: there are plenty of multi-cams that went into sharp decline. But when a multi-cam jumps the shark, it’s usually an overabundance of silliness – more actually jumping over a shark in Happy Days than Jake apparently forgetting that Charles is his best friend in Brooklyn Nine-Nine. When it comes to character distortion, it’s more likely for a character to be reduced to one or two of their main traits than for those traits to disappear altogether.
By using plot sparingly, rather than as the driving force, it becomes more impactful. “I take thee, Rachel” would be a lot less of an iconic moment if every episode of Friends ended in a cliffhanger, and Friends is one of the more plotty multi-cams. Every dramatic Niles/Daphne moment in Frasier’s run will tear your heart out of your chest and leave you in tears, in a way that nothing from Louie, a truly great show, does. It’s easy to call to mind a dozen amazing dramatic moments from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, a show that doesn’t have arcs and wasn’t even that good for half of its six seasons, but you might struggle to recall even a handful of similarly impactful moments – dramatic or otherwise – from Silicon Valley.
Multi-cams have done this forever. Partly this is because a lot of the best ones were made when distinctions between comedy and drama on TV were a lot more rigid. Breaking down those distinctions has been a good thing, absolutely: we love Bojack Horseman as much as anybody. But surely breaking down those distinctions is supposed to lead to more kinds of art, not the obliteration of old ones. A lot of the praise heaped on a certain breed of comedy-dramas – mostly half-hour shows which are billed as comedies but aren’t purely so – aren’t about things unique to that format at all. Pure comedy-comedies have always been capable of dealing with contemporary social issues – Norman Lear’s shows like All in the Family were inextricably about social problems and politics, and Roseanne and Friends both aired episodes with gay weddings in 1996, before marriage equality was legal anywhere in the world. The assumption that only dramas – or part-dramas – are capable of commenting on society does comedy a huge disservice, and isn’t borne out by reality. A show doesn’t have to stop being funny to start being serious. Even formal elements like Louie’s approach to continuity – where there’s only as much continuity as is necessary within each episode and some actors have played multiple characters over the show’s run – are just the standard conventions of the multi-cam (Paul Schaal played not just four characters in The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but a further three different characters on each of the show’s spinoffs) but they’re often talked about as major innovations. An AV Club review of Atlanta bizarrely said the show “morphed into something like a loosely-connected episodic anthology set in the same world, with the same characters.” In other words, surely, a sitcom?
But besides lack of genre hybridity, the reason multi-cams tend to be character-driven is that they were never built to tell long-form, continuous stories. Outside of fairly simple relationship continuity (will-they-won’t-they’s and on-again-off-again’s, themselves an extension of character), most multi-cams can be watched as one episode in isolation by any casual viewer jumping in when they flip past it on TV. They tell weekly, largely self-contained stories in constrained environments. On Community, a bottle episode is high concept. On Cheers, it’s every episode.
There’s something incredibly valuable in a show having around three sets (apartment/apartment/coffee shop, work/coffee shop/apartment, apartment/bar, work/living room/bedroom, whatever). Multi-cams frequently stray from their limited locations, but they always end up in the same familiar three-walled rooms, from the same familiar angles. There’s a joy in it. It’s partly due to comfort in familiarity, but it’s mostly about seeing the writing and acting shine by itself. When you’re hanging out with good friends, it doesn’t matter that you’re going to the same place again. All the better to focus on the conversation.
Abed from Community called bottle episodes “wall-to-wall facial expressions and emotional nuance.” This is why often multi-cams are slow to get off the ground – you need to hang around with these people for a while to find the rhythm of their humour. Kramer coming through the door, or everyone shouting Norm when Norm walks into the bar, or that weird sad way Ross says “Hi,” are funny at first, but over the course of those shows they gain more meaning and, by extension, humour. Kramer is a weirdo. Norm is an alcoholic. Ross is melodramatic. Those facts aren’t the joke. The joke is physical comedy or vocal intonation. But they colour the joke.
That’s a crucial point – we’re not saying that having well-written characters is an excuse for not writing proper jokes. Quite the opposite. In multi-cams, character informs the joke, but it isn’t the joke. In multi-cams, characters are allowed make jokes, not just have jokes happen to them. Characters are allowed to have wit, instead of just being stupid, awkward or weird. In single-cams, laughs are hardly ever from a character, in-universe, telling a joke. They’re more likely to come from something happening – like someone saying something inappropriate followed by an awkward pause. That’s fine. That’s great! But wit as a style of comedy on TV seems to be disappearing. There’s something lovely to one character trying to make their friend or family laugh, and there’s something wonderful about the kind of razor-sharp comeback that you wish you were able to come up with in real time. A show like Frasier was wall-to-wall wit. Chandler was constantly cracking wise in Friends. The characters in Seinfeld and The Mary Tyler Moore Show would laugh at one another’s jokes, which was actually really nice. Jokes that involve something happening onscreen are good, and all shows have them, but wordplay and wit are even more fundamental, and in decline. There’s a reason this clip from Canadian show Letterkenny, one of the few single-cams with a realistic setting to truly understand that all the silence where laughter used to be could be filled with jokes instead, feels like such a breath of fresh air. There’s no reason single-cams couldn’t bring wit back from the dead, but the multi-cam format essentially requires wit in order to work – the absence of wit is what makes pretty much every multi-cam that debuted in the past fifteen years so appalling.
Which brings us to the most reviled aspect of the multi-camera sitcom: the laugh track. People hate studio audience laughter to a sometimes absurd degree. The on-site reviews of Netflix’s new multi-cam One Day at a Time (a Norman Lear reboot) range from “My only gripe is I’d rather not hear the laugh track” to “the laugh track is awful, plain awful, who had such a stupid idea to add it, grow the hell up.” These reviews seem split between thinking it’s an awful show because of the studio laughter or thinking it’s a good show in spite of it.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, one of our favourite shows ever, recently did an episode that repeatedly said the purpose of the laugh track is to tell you when to laugh. It seemed like a set up for a subversion that never really came. It was a good episode, but it stuck in our graw a bit, especially since we’ve heard that so many times before. It’s a silly idea that seems mostly based on saying something enough until it becomes true.
Laugh tracks don’t tell you when to laugh. You’ll know when to laugh, and you will or you won’t depending on if you think it’s funny. Bad jokes – maybe even more so than good jokes, sometimes – are very recognisably jokes. They have set ups and pay offs. Maybe those two parts don’t connect properly or maybe there’s incoherence or clutter around it, or maybe it’s in bad taste or there are underlying assumptions that are wrong or unclear. But you’ll be able to recognise when jokes are occurring. Those clips of Two and a Half Men or The Big Bang Theory with the laughter edited out don’t make it seem like there aren’t any jokes. The jokes just aren’t to your taste, or are plain bad, laugh track or not.
One of the main features of a multi-cam with a studio audience is that the performances are different. The acting is closer to the theatrical than it is to the naturalistic. A multi-cam is, in a fundamental way, a play on TV. In an episode of Frasier, Diane literally writes Cheers as a play and the set is identical to the Cheers set: a beautiful illustration of how Cheers, especially in its early years, was a series of half-hour plays on TV. The performances are big: big gestures, big voices, flamboyant and stylised, feeding off live reaction. On The Office, making a face to the camera can get a laugh, but on a multi-cam, you have to do something the whole studio audience can see. One of the more fascinating things in Top of the Rock, an insider account of NBC’s Must See TV era, when it produced a good 25% of the greatest sitcoms ever made, is how every single actor, writer and director credits the interaction with the live studio audience for making their shows better. This applies even or especially to show creators who originally objected to a live studio audience until they were talked out of it, usually by Jimmy Burrows, the iconic sitcom director. Many contemporary multi-cams still use live audiences (though it seems pretty likely that most of them are sweetening the laugh track with canned laughter), but bad multi-cams in the past also used live studio audiences, and like bad multi-cams now, the problem isn’t that they’re multi-cams, it’s that they’re written and performed by bad writers and bad performers who are uninterested or incapable of using the audience to improve.
The kind of performances that tend to come from playing off the audience is in itself an argument against multi-cams for people who reject them. If the performances are exaggerated, it’s assumed the characters are exaggerated, or that the show is silly in some fundamental way, in the same way the Razzies constantly nominate people for great hammy performances and the Oscars almost never do (these days). It’s a weird form of snobbishness, especially against something that comes from the theatre, which is generally posh, perhaps rooted in the fact that multi-cams have spent most of their existence displaying theatrical acting for and about working class people through a popular and accessible medium. But multi-cams often have really grounded, realistic characters, who are played in a big, theatrical way (e.g. Mary Richards flailing her arms about like a rag doll). Single-cams often reverse this, and have unrealistic characters played more naturalistically (e.g. Leslie Knope is a cartoon character portrayed with complete psychological realism). Neither of those things is necessarily better than the other. But being willing to kill off a whole style of performance from television because you personally find laugh tracks annoying seems like an over-reaction to a non-existent problem. More kinds of art are good. Who wants to live in a world where Kelsey Grammar is too flamboyant to front a TV show?
Maybe that’s not a good enough reason. If laugh tracks are such an obvious evil, then surely they must be stamped out whatever the cost. But here’s the secret: lots of people like laugh tracks. They’re good at what they do, which isn’t “telling you where the jokes are.” It’s creating a sense of community.
We don’t mean you’d be crying your eyes out with loneliness if they took your precious laugh track away. We mean that the communal experience of culture is valuable. A part of that is when you talk about it with people you know, of course, but there is another part. There’s something lovely about going to the cinema, even by yourself, and in the darkness surrounded by strangers watching something together. Even if you are with someone you know, you’re both focused on the film, but there’s a sense of doing something together that feels good. When you watch a multi-cam, you hardly consciously notice the laughter. Oftentimes your own laughter drowns it out. It’s not there for you to notice. It’s there to remind you, deep down in your unconscious, that other people are watching this too. It gives you the release of laughing, because you’re less likely to laugh out loud when you’re on your own. TV, like all art, is meant to be shared.
Chesapeake Shores gets as many viewers as Westworld, but TV coverage wouldn’t have you know it. We’re in this fractured TV landscape, where everyone watches their own shows and there isn’t anything really close to a TV zeitgeist in the way there was when you had less TV channels than fingers. The sense of community a studio audience brings seems more relevant than ever, especially for older viewers unaccustomed to engaging in the rituals of fandom online. Chuck Lorre and his cohort have appropriated the corpse of the multi-camera format like that fungus that takes over the brains of ants, but they’ve been able to do it because there’s a popular demand for an artistic experience that few creators of quality have put their efforts into reclaiming. This makes it all the more sad that two shows that have – The Ranch and One Day at a Time – are streaming series, and therefore automatically limited to a smaller audience than shows on broadcast networks. Single-camera comedies are great, but most of them cater to relatively niche tastes (usually not as niche as Jam, but hardly as broad as Cheers) compared to the tastes of most people. There’s a reason the most popular single-camera comedies are family sitcoms like Modern Family, The Middle and The Goldbergs – some kinds of comedy are more universal than others. Witty character-based humour expressed through dialogue is one of the most universal, because conversation with familiar people is the way most people experience humour on a day-to-day basis, but it’s fallen between the cracks as the great schism in television comedy over the past twenty years rages on. If no one is practicing that kind of wit on television, we have to wonder who’s going to learn it from television, especially when every network and channel in the US (the first and best producer of multi-camera sitcoms) is too busy churning out original series for their share of Peak TV to show reruns, and no one born after 1990 cares about binge-watching TV shows that predate their birth.
As with any naysaying prophecy of doom, it may turn out we have no reason to worry. The rise of single-cams and decline of multi-cams happened for a variety of complex and historically contingent political, social and economic reasons that no one could have fully foreseen, and a reversal may yet come for similarly unpredictable reasons. But the trend in itself isn’t the real problem. What really sucks is that very few people seem to care.
7 thoughts on “Whatever Happened to Life in Four Cameras?”
Sitcoms were my first media love. Thank you for this article.