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Sitcom Death and TV Comedy Rebirth: Single-Camera, Multi-Camera, and a Breathtakingly Brief History of Comedy

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“The sitcom is dead.”

I hear a good deal of this nowadays. Indeed, I must admit that when I flip through the sitcom-laden channels of an evening, hoping against hope for a laugh, I’m tempted to say, in the same blasé slacker cool that the fedora-wielding dude in Swingers dropped on his friends amidst a crowded hipster bar:

“This place is deaaaad anyway.”

Which is an easy thing to say. Drop in on shows like Hope & Faith and My Wife and Kids and According to Jim (and we’re just talking ABC here), and you know exactly what you’re in for: there’s a family living room, a Dad, wacky kids with problems-of-the-week, or single women trying to Figure It Out, commiserating over lost loves, and learning the True Meaning of Friendship, all wrapped up in a tidy 23-minute package.

It’s safe, it’s comfortable, it’s easy. You can “zone out” to it. You’ll almost never laugh (except if you’re loopy from lack of sleep or have just come back from the pub). You may smile that tight smile of tired recognition every now and again, not because you really find anything funny, but because you’re so used to the rhythms and training of the sitcom that your brain is almost preprogrammed to catch the beats and synapses and syncopations of television comedy.

It’s dead anyway.

But if you look closer, there’s a new breed of comedies out there making their mark. It’s difficult to think of them as “sitcoms” because they don’t have that safe (and dead) feel. They actually don’t even really look like traditional sitcoms, as many of this new breed eschews the old fashioned multi-camera show for the edgier, more cinematic flavor of the single-camera comedy.

Situation: Comedy
I became attuned to the single- versus multi-camera aspect of television production while watching Situation: Comedy (Bravo), a reality show competition in the spirit of Project Greenlight that pits aspiring sitcom writers against one another in a bid to push a primetime show past the desks of NBC executives.

Two teams – two men on each as it turns out – are currently in the midst of developing a 15-minute pilot. The audience gets to vote for the one they like best, with the winners sharing a cash prize and a theoretical “shot” at getting their sitcom onto NBC’s primetime schedule (fans of Dat Phan, winner of NBC’s Last Comic Standing, need not hold their collective breaths).

David Lampson and Andrew Leeds, the aspiring duo behind a sitcom-in-development called Stephen’s Life, are obstinate and opinionated, and thus comprise the more interesting storyline (and ain’t that what it’s all about in reality TV land?). They’re a tenacious lot, however, and never more so than in their insistence that Stephen’s Life, a potentially quirky and funny concept about a Junior High kid who runs his life like a Fortune 500 company, be shot single-camera.

Traditional sitcoms, traditional yawns
This led me to think about comedy on television and the convention of the sitcom. I grew up in an ’80s-verse of classic (or “classic,” if you prefer) sitcom fare: Family Ties and The Cosby Show and Growing Pains and on and on (Silver Spoons, anyone? If you’re humming the theme song right now, we’re on the same page). In most cases, joining a family or metaphorical family (Facts of Life, etc.) in the living room or kitchen for mildly serious dilemmas solved by broad punch lines, catch phrases, and an occasional visit from the Wacky Neighbor was as ubiquitous and American as Ronald Reagan, apple pie, and eating a TV dinner nuked out of time and mind next to Mom.

By the 90s, this format began to groan. Urkel and Screech and minority-heavy and relationship-centric shows began to blot out the hope of ever finding an original storyline, let alone a laugh, emanating from the tired living room couch. Seinfeld, perhaps the funniest sitcom of all time, broke the mold and bucked the trend by famously focusing on “nothing.” The end of Friends may have signaled the end of a sitcom era: its attractive cast and consistently strong writing often gave it more of a romantic comedy flavor than that of a sitcom.

Out of the ashes… HBO
For a time, perhaps for several years in the early ’00s, it was safe to say that comedy on television was pretty much dead anyway.

Then, for not the first time, cable television came along to whoop the networks a good one. Curb Your Enthusiasm, from the misanthropic and darkly brilliant mind of Larry David, may just be the show that reinvented the comedy wheel. Largely improvised, loose, and shot almost documentary-style with a single camera, the microscopic yet hilarious adventures of Larry David (playing himself) in shallow, self-absorbed Hollywood rewrote the rules of what a half-hour of comedy on television can do.

The trailblazing has continued, to more or less positive effect. Da Ali G Show, with its real life subjects being conned and put on by the multiple and wacky personas of star Sacha Brown Cohen, often feels more like a tensely played out art experiment than a “traditional” comedy. For that fact alone, perhaps, it should be given credit for pushing the bounds of television comedy.

Entourage, Executive Produced by Mark Wahlberg and starring a stunningly perfect cast including Jeremy Piven and Adrian Grenier, may well be pointing the way forward for the next generation of television comedy. Both Entourage and Curb Your Enthusiasm do an excellent job of blending comedy with a realistic and improvisational feel. Whereas Larry David and Curb lean on Seinfeld-brand nothingness for inspiration, Entourage gives us a brilliant and original glimpse into what it might be like if an old pal from the neighborhood (in this case, Queens, New York) made it really, really big in Hollywood.

Showtime is now trying to capitalize on the trend by way of two promising shows: Weeds, starring the great Mary-Louise Parker, is a dramedy about a mom who sells marijuana to make ends meet, and Barbershop, based on the film franchise, utilizes single-camera but feels very much like a well produced sitcom.

Reality check
Before I dive completely off the deep end and insist that every comedy should be shot single-camera, I should add that there are two very large and daunting reasons that most of the comedies on the television dial remain standardly and boringly multi-camera: time and money. These were the reasons, in fact, why the fledgling network sitcom juggernaut Stephen’s Life was forcibly switched from single- to multi-camera production. If single-camera looks and feels more like a film, it’s because the process and the expense are closer in line with feature-length productions.

From that standpoint, multi-camera makes sense and it stands to reason that the old standby ain’t heading completely off into the sunset anytime soon. Four cameras, a living room, a zany kid brother who has a penchant for barging in when the older sister’s making out: go!

The networks strike back
Just when you thought it was safe to never watch a sitcom on the networks again, along came a show that completely reinvented and happily imploded all the rules. Arrested Development combines oddball characters, expert single-camera production work, and inventive use of flashbacks and cut-aways. It helps that the writing is daring, smart, and off-the-charts funny, of course. But it’s important to remember that we’re basically dealing with the story of a family here, if an award-winning dysfunctional one. If Arrested Development had been handcuffed by multi-camera from the outset, it’s likely that it would have been a mildly pleasant but largely neutered affair.

Scrubs is another example of how single-camera adds a level of freedom and a spirit of invention that elevates a show from yawnable to consistently good.

Bucking the trend?
The one multi-camera sitcom currently on the air that consistently bucks this trend is That ’70s Show. It certainly helps that the writing and acting on the show is top notch. But one of the reasons that That has had the run its had is because it layers elements of non-traditional camera work into its production. Anyone who’s seen one of the trademarked sit-around-the-table-and-get-stoned sequences knows what I mean. Flashbacks and occasional musical montages (the latter of which I can sometimes live without, quite frankly) give the show a level of sophistication and playfulness that a Hope & Faith could only, well, hope for.

Basic cable trends single-camera
FX, which is rapidly becoming the best place on television to watch drama (Rescue Me: the best show on television at the moment, The Shield, Nip/Tuck, Over There) is now branching headlong into the single-camera comedy game.

Starved and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia both aim their twisted tentacles at a generation of TV-weaned hipsters who have lost interest in traditional sitcom inanities. While at first appearance the shows are rather different – Starved is about yuppies with eating and relationship-disorders, It’s Always Sunny centers on four slackers who run a bar and get into hijinks in Philly – it becomes clear what’s going on under the prism of single- versus multi-camera.

Single-camera: more expensive, more time, but edgier, more cinematic, more inventive.

Single-camera dreams: better comedy, better television, better (or at least more) viewers, more ad and subscription revenue.

See the trend, be the trend.

Maybe this place ain’t so dead anyway.

For more on this and every other topic under the sun, check out:

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  • http://draven99.blogspot.com Chris Beaumont

    Interesting. Good read… Sorry I don’t have much to add.. perhaps later.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    Thanks Chris, glad you enjoyed!

  • http://breathoffreshink.blogspot.com Chris Evans

    Great piece, Eric. Being an aspiring sitcom (or dramedy) writer myself, it concerns me that the television sitcom is now considered to be dead, although I can see why it is. Friends is gone, and Will & Grace, which was in my opinion the only other excellent sitcom on television, has gone to the hounds. Too many gratuitous guest stars, predictable jokes, and unpredictable but also unbelievable plotlines. Please someone help! Maybe hopefully by the time I graduate college (in 4 years) this drought of good television comedy will have passedl. If not, heh, maybe that just leaves a spot open for me to bring something new and fresh to American television viewers.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    Thanks very much, Chris. I hope my piece illustrated that innovative and funny single-camera shows are beginning to break out of the malaise of the multi-camera sitcom quagmire.

    The challenge will always be that a studio will have to invest more time and money into a single-camera pilot, whereas the multi-camera option will always be “easier.”

    But success (read = ratings) will always breed success, so here’s hoping…

  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    i laugh a lot at That 70’s show..mostly because it does indeed ‘get’ what it was like back then.

    what’s kinda interesting is how every once in a while even a lame, cliche-ridden show can make ya laugh….i remember watching (i wish i could remember the name) that show with brooke shields (the one with kathy griffin on it maybe?) oh wait! it was ‘suddenly susan’!

    anyway…brooke’s character is laying in bed watching a rerun of the second generation of mary tyler moore…when they get to the “your gonna make it” part of the theme song, brooke’s character flings her hand in the air (just like mary) but ends up tossing her remote control in the air…which ends up konking her in the head.

    maybe you had to be there, but i laughed out loud.

    (or maybe i’m just easily amused)

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    I think That 70s Show does a great job with the period, but its the writing and character-development that has kept it strong over a fairly long run now.

    I never watched Suddenly Susan, but I’ve heard good things about it from the oddest of places. For example, an old friend (and NYPD cop) sheepishly admitted to me once upon a time that he watched it with his girlfriend… and very much enjoyed it.

  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    i also liked “herman’s head”, which didn’t stick around too long.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    From what I remember, that was pretty good as well. Is that the one where there were like four dudes who were pieces of his personality, that would chitchat and argue throughout the story?

    I could definitely see where that one would lose steam after a bit though.

  • http://draven99.blogspot.com Chris Beaumont

    A show I think left TV too soon: Titus.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    Titus was all about the use of the flashback — it pretty much thrived on it, didn’t it? That would put it closer to That 70s Show in terms of attempting to be something of a hybrid.

    My wife liked it. I didn’t at first, but recall it growing on me around the time it was cancelled.

  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    i also liked “cop rock”.

    oh wait…that wasn’t supposed to be funny.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    Yes, innovation in of itself does not a great show make…

  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    it was so bad that i was embarassed for them while watching it.

    hmmm…i’d kinda like to see it again, not that i think of it.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    As we’re veering into aside-land, I actually thought the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was outstanding. Great music, great story.

  • http://draven99.blogspot.com Chris Beaumont

    Yes, Titus had a good deal of flashbacks in it. It did a good job at taking a slpsticky look at some serious dysfunctional family issues without seeming to make fun of it, per se.

    Another good one that falls under the comedy umbrella is Monk.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    I thought Titus and crew were overly angry at first, but as I said it grew on me a bit.

    Monk is a really hard show to categorize (which is usually a great thing for a TV show!). It’s an hour-long detective show with strong comedic elements.

    For me, Monk gets dull when it loses its comedic footing and gets too procedural.

  • Baronius

    Eric – Very good article.

    I would suggest another factor in sitcom quality: the laugh track. The track reinforces the rythym you mentioned. In doing so, it restricts the type of jokes that are possible. Nearly every show you listed as alive has no laugh track; nearly all the dead ones do.

    Take Spin City and Scrubs, both produced by the same people. Spin City wasn’t funny at all, but it was hard to notice, because so many of the actors had amazing comic timing. Richard Kind could get a laugh reading the phone book (and not just because phone books are funnier than Spin City scripts). Scrubs employs the techniques you discussed to create off-tempo humor. You couldn’t put a laugh track to it.

    One last example: NewsRadio. A great show, but one that always underachieved. It had the mistimed writing and a laugh track, which don’t work well together. NewsRadio episodes are much funnier on a second watching, just following the dialogue:

    LISA: “This job… this job… I didn’t know it was going to be so…”
    DAVE: “… Bill-intensive… Bill-centric, Bill-a-licious, Bill-esque…?”
    LISA: “No, it’s like Billbastic.”
    DAVE: “I don’t follow.”

    You can’t time that for a laugh track.

    OK, one last example. Cartoons. The Simpsons and (ick) Family Guy also take advantage of their freedom to time jokes as they want to. Cartoons can set up a gag for a long stretch, or bludgeon you with high-speed sight gags. They use flashbacks and “camera” work that feel more like Titus than Family Ties.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com/ Eric Berlin

    Fantastic comments, Baronious — I’m tempted to do an entire stand-alone piece on the laugh track now!

    In doing research, I came across a lengthy defense of the laugh track in comedy, which I didn’t agree with at all (though I was impressed by the intelligence of the argument).

    I love your takes on Scrubs, News Radio, and Spin City. Particularly Spin City — you’ve nailed that show perfectly: great great acting, mediocre writing.

    I also get the sense that I gravitate toward shows with that off-beat timing (was raised on Monty Python reruns and Kids in the Hall, etc.). Therefore, I will point to Arrested Development as Pure Genius whereas others will say… “I don’t get it.”

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com/ Eric Berlin

    Just thinking… what kind of show could News Radio have been as a single-camera comedy? I’m guessing pretty damned great.

  • Baronius

    Thanks, but most of my thoughts were acquired on the TWoP boards. There, and from one episode of Scrubs: I don’t know if you saw the episode with a live studio audience, but they purposely turned the show into a conventional sitcom. Students could study that episode.

    I’m one of the people who doesn’t get Arrested Development. I expected to like it because it’s not “Raymond”, but it’s a swing-and-a-miss for me.

    I can see that Monty Python really avoided traditional comic timing. Don’t forget Mystery Science Theater! I remember watching it with friends, and we’d each miss different jokes because we’d be laughing at the previous one.

  • http://www.morethings.com/senate Al Barger

    You seem a bit obsessed with camera work here, which doesn’t seem to me like the most important part of the deal.

    In fact, this appears to be the golden age of tv comedy. Depending on how broadly you define “sitcoms” I’d say that half of the dozen best sitcoms ever are in production right now. You always have to save room for All in the Family and Andy Griffith, but very few previous shows could match, say,

    Bernie Mac
    The Simpsons
    King of the Hill
    South Park
    Arrested Development
    Malcolm in the Middle

    I’ll take this lot over the Huxtables and Michael J Fox any old time.

    Also, Tony Shaloub as Monk specifically won an Emmy for best lead actor in a comedy, if memory serves.

    Also, I second the recognition to the late lamented Titus. That show was beautiful.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    Al, my overall point was that single-camera adds a great deal to comedy on television and that, in part, is the reason that the best sitcoms/comedies are single-camera shows.

    I’ll stand by my comments on Monk — it’s not really a comedy.

    And I’ll end by saying that you’ve chosen three animated shows, Al, and three single-camera comedies!

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    Where are the TWoP boards at, Baronius? I’d like to check it out.

    I also stand by previous statements that I just can’t believe that someone doesn’t find Arrested Development funny… until I remember that comedy is massively and endlessly subjective.

    I always found MST 3k hit-and-miss, myself. Maybe it had to do with my mood, but more than that it was the film itself — some were much more condusive to laughs than others. And I never really liked the skits.

    I’m planning on doing a piece on ESPN Classic’s Cheap Seats at some point soon, which has in some ways perfected the MST 3k model. And, it’s hilarious!

  • http://www.dorksandlosers.com Tan The Man

    Nice… I bet your next article will be on the rise of science fiction and fantasy shows?

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    Thanks Tan.

    That would be tough for me because I don’t get the Sci Fi channel. I’m also a little slower picking up on the sci fi than others. For example, Babylon Five got added to my Netflix list a few months back, and likely won’t get in front of my face for quite some time.

    So by all means, go for it yourself, man!

  • Baronius

    Sorry if I got obscure: the website is

    http://www.televisionwithoutpity.com

    They have posting boards, recaps for maybe two dozen current shows, and lots of people who love to talk about how Arrested Development is the Parthenon of the Modern Age.

  • http://www.dorksandlosers.com Tan The Man

    you’ll be in for a great treat when u get Babylon 5. Make sure u watch it in order, otherwise u’ll miss the experience.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    Thanks Baronius. I don’t know about the Modern Age, but I might vote for the Comedy Age!

    Tan — The brilliant thing about TV shows on DVD is that you can watch in order on your own schedule.

  • http://www.dorksandlosers.com Tan The Man

    True, but with Netflix, they might send you a DVD out of order, don’t be tempted.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    That’s happened to me once and it drove me up the wall. During a mid-season of Buffy, I think!

    Best Netflix story that I have: the Wife forced me to go out and buy Alias: Season Two because she couldn’t bear to wait for the final couple of discs to arrive in the mail…

  • http://draven99.blogspot.com Chris Beaumont

    Another show just came to mind: The Office (either version)

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    What about ‘em, Chris? I almost wrote a bit about the UK version, but decided to keep it straight US at the last minute.

  • http://sterfish.blogspot.com Sterfish

    Great post, Eric. The only thing I want to add is that although I enjoy many of the single camera comedies currently on (in fact, I’m a fan of every single comedy Al Barger listed in his comment), I am worried that creators will assume that the single camera style will mask the problems that their comedy has. A good example of this, so far, would be Barbershop. Despite the use of many of the techniques that are unique to single camera shows, it is still horribly unfunny. I hope that most single camera comedies stay funny, interesting, and on the cutting edge but the pessimist in me thinks that one day, we will have a glut of unfunny single camera shows thinking that they are funny just because of the way they are shot.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    Thanks very much, Sterfish. Yes, of course single-camera is no panacea. Shows will always come down to writing and casting and acting. Let’s face it: Larry David talking about toe cheese in front of a cardboard wall will always be more interesting than 95% of the comedy that’s out there.

    Comedy is a really really hard game to pull off. Single-camera production gives the best ones a chance in many cases to be truly special.

  • http://none.com Bob A. Booey

    The comedy that really started and innovated the single-camera visual style and influenced the others to come was (surprise) Malcolm in the Middle.
    Curb Your Enthusiasm is my favorite show on TV, but it came much later.

    All the good, intelligent comedies on TV now are single-camera comedies with no laugh track. Unfortunately, all of these wonderful comedies (Arrested Development, Scrubs, Bernie Mac) struggle for ratings, with the possible exception of Malcolm because of its appeal to kids and adults. America doesn’t seem to be willing to give up the traditional, cheesy wacky family sitcom like you’ll find on CBS or ABC. But even these have ratings nowhere near the level of NBC’s comedies of the 80s and 90s. Everybody Loves Raymond was the last big traditional family sitcom of its kind, possibly forever.

    That 70s Show has always struck me as slightly above average, mediocre but with a little more effort, but it’s clearly “jumped the shark” long ago. They’re trying to milk it out for one more season with a skeleton cast, but the show’s never been a huge critical or ratings success. It’ll be remembered slightly more fondly than a show like Becker or Dharma and Greg or Drew Carey but it’s nowhere near an all-time classic. It was probably one of the best at targeting young adults, though.

    That is all.

  • Lou

    Eric NICE article man.

    Good call with Entourage, its one of better new shows i’ve seen. Its definetly gotten much better as the season has gone on, but the gold standard on that show is Jeremy Piven. That guy is like onto a god. He is SUPERB in his role as a sleazy agent with a heart of gold that itself has a scumbag center. the young cast are ok, the lead and “E” are ok but a bit flat at times… Drama and turtle have awsome little side plot adventures thatadd alot.

    -Lou

  • http://www.morethings.com/senate Al Barger

    Eric, I would primarily say that these shows are primarily an achievement of their screenplays, rather than anything else. I’m not sure why the number of cameras involved is such a central consideration. But sonofabitch the dysunfunctionally functional family logic of Malcolm’s family really does it for me.

    You could argue over whether animated shows would count as sitcoms. I don’t know why not. Is the Simpsons NOT a classic family sitcom? Surely King of the Hill is. It’s more nearly straightforwardly realistic than any of those live action shows on my little list.

    I can see how you could take Monk as drama or comedy. Comedy really is the main selling point- as it was for Columbo. But Monk sure builds up a great head of real pathos frequently, more truly dramatic by far than Columbo.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    Bob — The original “mockumentary” for Curb aired in 1999, with Malcolm premiering in 2000 — so you’re close, but no cigar! The full season of both kicked off in 2000. I’ve seen snippets of Malcolm over the years, enough to know that it’s watchable.

    I definitely take issue with your opinion of That 70s Show and The Drew Carey Show. Both were top sitcoms in their prime on the strength of great writing.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    Lou — You are entirely right about Entourage and Piven. Ever since I saw our man in PCU I’ve been a huge follower of his. And he’s never been better than as Ari, the most realistically sleazy (yet somehow weirdly likeable) character on television. Drama and Turtle are pretty fantastic as well.

    Al — Sure, you can consider The Simpsons and King sitcoms, but I’m not really looking at animated comedies here.

    And I’m not sure if single vs. multi-camera is a central consideration, but it’s surely a very important one. It really changes a great deal about a program.

  • http://indemnification.blogspot.com -E

    In addition to camera work, I think you have to look at what it is shot on- the video vs film shows.

    I don’t think either really change that much more than how the writers go about writing each show. With the limitations of a single camera and/or film- there is more pressure for good writing. Because it is a waste if you use those things on a lame show. So when you can make a show on the cheap- you can get away with less compelling writing and mediocre acting.

  • http://none.com Bob A. Booey

    Drew Carey top-notch? That was definitely a show aiming for the bottom of the middle-brow barrel. I’m intentionally mixing metaphors there because I think it describes the show well — it had no real message, broad jokes, muddled storylines and blah characters. I suppose we can agree to disagree on that show, though — are you from Cleveland too, by any chance?

    Berlin, I think we have to be somewhat precise here. There are different kinds of single-camera shows. Malcom invented the quick-cutting, slightly absurdist visual style that you see today on Scrubs and somewhat on Arrested Development as well.

    While I love Larry David, that 1999 HBO special wasn’t inventive visually. The content was interesting and it was actually written (unlike the improv of the superior Curb shows to come) and well-written at that, but that pilot’s not the main influence for the current generation of single-camera shows. Malcolm has been cited in a few articles as a direct influence on how TV comedies have developed and it’s still the only single-camera comedy on network TV with any ratings longevity. I think we’ve sort of forgotten the stories and critics who wrote about how different the show looked when it first aired because our eyes have grown used to it.

    It’s not my favorite show out of the group, probably more like fifth, but it was historic in its own way.

    That is all.

  • http://none.com Bob A. Booey

    I do think Drew’s a pretty funny stand-up, a great TV talk show guest, and a pretty cool, weird guy but that show SCREAMED mediocrity.

    We should still write a screenplay together, though, Berlin. It can be like High Fidelity but less out of touch and male geek archetypal.

    That is all.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    E – I don’t agree with you at all. You’re basically saying that multi-camera basically allows writers to be lazy and mediocre? I don’t see that — I see it as a form that is limiting and that is pretty far past its prime now (with a very few notable exceptions).

    Bob – I think you’re correct in calling for precision. Curb was innovative for using the single-camera and bringing an improvisational feel to a half-hour comedy. Malcolm was innovative for going single-camera and using lots of quick-cuts, flashbacks, and so on.

    I need to see more of Malcolm to speak more about it. Unfortunately, I wrote it off at the time because I couldn’t stomach yet another family-based sitcom. But then, like with all good shows, I kept hearing good things about it.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    I stand by my thoughts that The Drew Carey Show was often funny and always above average. The writing and characters were strong, and the acting always refreshingly good. I could watch Ryan Styles read a computer manual, for instance.

    Maybe you find the show “middlebrow” because it focuses upon middle class people in Middle America? (I’m actually from New York and currently live in LA, so I’m as quote-unquote “elite” as they come).

    I look for laughs and I look for a reason to stick around when I watch a television sitcom, and Drew and crew definitely had both.

    I should also add that as a traditional multi-camera, The Drew Carey Show took lots of chances and played liberally with the form. That in itself deserves merit.

    It had a surprisingly long run (’95-04) so most of my comments relate to its first five or so years. From what I saw, it declined in the early ’00s.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    Oh, on the screenplay: I’m actually “in talks” about writing one with a friend in LA, Bob.

    And I actually think High Fidelity is an outstanding movie (based on an outstanding book — a rare feat indeed). Maybe it’s “male geek archetypal” (something most males relate to, by the way) but it’s certainly in touch as hell.

  • http://none.com Bob A. Booey

    I was kidding about the “High Fidelity” reference because EVERY screenplay written by a semi-literate guy in his 20s or 30s these days that I’ve read is clearly Nick Hornby-Lite, Kevin Smith-Lite, or Quentin Tarantino-Lite.

    I think it’s probably much easier to break in writing comedy screenplays than drama, simply because it’s easier to write comedic fiction than serious fiction. What kind of stuff do you write?

    That is all.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    I believe it on the Hornby, Smith, and Tarantino-lite.

    I’ve written short stories, almost done with my first novel (after 18 too long months cracking at it), and lots of non-fiction blog-world stuff.

    So scripts are very new to me, but it’s always something I’ve been interested in from afar. I did write sketch comedy for a comedy troupe in the late 90s in San Francisco, and the live laughs that came from stuff I wrote was about the biggest thrill I could have imagined.

    Anyway, I’m still in the process of figuring out the kind of writing that I want to be really serious about, as opposed to just mucking about.

  • http://www.midnitcafe.blogspot.com Mat Brewster

    Great article Eric! It almost makes me want to start watching TV again.

    Almost.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    Soon enough you’ll be sucked backed into the vortex, Mat…

    (and thanks!)

  • Baronius

    I hate to say anything good about Ally McBeal, so I won’t. It was a lousy show. It was the first show I recall that had the fantasy sequences, camera work, and in general screwed around with the form. You could argue that it was a lousy drama instead of a lousy comedy, but I think it was a forerunner to the kind of comedy we all like.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    Good points Baronius, and I absolutely agree. I always hated the kind of stretched out reality of that show.

  • http://www.midnitcafe.blogspot.com Mat Brewster

    It’s already happening. The wife and I just had a long discussion over regular cable vs digital cable (we can’t get sattelite here) vs just doing netflix.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    Wife and I had the same discussion a ways back. We settled on going low budget cable (about $15 / month for a goodly number of channels vs. $60 and up for the next “level”) and Netflix. We added a fairly cheap DVR into the mix this year, which I enjoy immensely.

    My biggest gripe is not getting the premiere shows on HBO and, to a lesser extent, Showtime.

    Otherwise, I’ve been able to live without The Daily Show (though painful) and Sportscenter (less painful now that my sports addiction has mostly drifted away).

  • http://www.midnitcafe.blogspot.com Mat Brewster

    That’s the option I’ve been pushing. It just doesn’t seem worth the extra cash to get a few extra channels, when netflix could provide better entertainment.

    What type of DVR did you buy. I want one bad, but no nothing about the medium to make a choice on which one to buy.

    We lived off of internet broadcasts of the Daily Show while in France

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    We get a DVR from our local cable company. It’s a bit clunky to operate (whereas I’ve heard TiVo is very easy) but it’s cheap.

    It’s really revolutionized the way I watch TV in that you never have to worry about getting to the set at a specific time on a specific day. Likewise, I can scan through political shows for content I might be interested in. There’s all kinds of ways that it makes television-watching easier and more enjoyable.

    (Did I mention commercials?)

  • http://www.midnitcafe.blogspot.com Mat Brewster

    Dumb guy question here. Can you burn regular dvds (say from netflix) with the DRV or is it just stuff from the TV?

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    I’m not sure what you’re asking, Mat. You need a computer with a DVD-ROM drive (at least) to burn video content to a DVD. A DVR doesn’t play DVDs (perhaps that’s what you’re asking) — it only records and stores and plays TV shows. You need a separate DVD player to play DVDs.

  • http://www.midnitcafe.blogspot.com Mat Brewster

    Oh, ok. Somewhere I though that the DRV would burn a dvd as well. So its basically like Tivo then eh? That’s still pretty hip for all the reasons you mentioned.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    Yep, TiVo is a type of DVR (Digital Video Recorder).

  • http://www.mondoirlando.com Aaron, Duke De Mondo

    excellent article, Eric, and i get where you’re coming from here. in Britain, i noticed the trend, too. a move away from what you have as the multi-camera, living room, teenage brat type set-up, to the likes of The Office, Phoenix Nights, Black Books, Nathan Barley. with the exception of Black Books, none of those shows have laugh-tracks, either, which is a subtle but incredibly effective measure.

    excellent stuff here. and where would The Simpsons fit in all this chaos? seems to me it borrows the trends of the “traditional” sit-com (although obviously it can do stuff live-action couldn’t) and has the biting feel of the more recent efforts, the Curb Your Enthusiasms etc…

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    Thanks Duke.

    I place The Simpsons and South Park clearly in the multi-camera camp, simply because they can and will do anything…. because it costs exactly the same to them!

    Therefore, you get time travel and going into character’s thought processes and flashbacks and trips to the White House and on and on.

    Animation is an incredibly liberating medium from that perspective, and I think that’s why we see, finally, shows that are able to harnass it for an adult audience.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    I think I’d place the laugh track alongside single- versus multi-camera as a separate area for examination. I almost universally hate the laugh track, and I’m always surprised to hear people defend it.

  • http://none.com Bob A. Booey

    Has there even been a single-camera show WITH a laugh track?

    That seems to be one of the major things the single-camera shows have rebelled against, with relatively poor results ratings-wise.

    It’s empirically proven that laugh track = ratings, which is disturbing to me but seemingly true.

    The Simpsons and South Park don’t use cameras, they’re animation. If you were to classify them visually, they’re definitely more single-camera, which itself was influenced BY animation. A show like Family Guy, for example, borrowed from the Simpsons but took it even further in having almost constant quick cuts to absurd fantasy sequences or jokes based on asides or tangential throw-away references. Visually, it’s pretty similar to what Scrubs and Malcolm try to do with live-action, but of course much more manic and random due to the creative larks animation affords.

    In terms of theme, The Simpsons is a straight satire of traditional sitcoms, you’re right. It started out with Homer as a Walter Matthau-type character and has evolved into a pretty interesting, twisted take on American TV family. South Park is a satire of depictions of cute kids on TV and touches on some of the same themes.

    That is all.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    I believe Sports Night may be one of the few examples of a single-camera sitcom (though it verged frequently in dramedy-territory) that used a laugh track, at least for half of the first season.

    A terrible mistake for an outstanding show.

    But you’re right in saying that the laugh track seems to be fine for most viewers. God knows why!

    In any event, you can probably make the argument that as a whole, even in 2005, multi-camera shows with laugh tracks trend more ratings then the edgier, laugh-trackless single-camera shows.

    Therefore, Arrested Development and Scrubs are getting beat down by Two and a Half Men, etc.

  • http://indemnification.blogspot.com -E

    I wasn’t saying multi camera made for worse writing, but it doesnt have the same limitations that single camera does that might push the writers to come up with better material. From my experience, it is a lot easier to shoot with a three camera set up than it is with one.

    Granted, Entourage and Scrubs are the only shows you mentioned that I’ve ever watched regularly with a little of That 70s Show thrown in.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com/ Eric Berlin

    Yes, multi-cameria is much easier and cheaper to shoot, which is why it is still the standard.

    Again, my general point is that single-camera allows more freedom for new ideas and innovation for a half-hour comedy. It still comes down to solid writing in the end, of course. Additionally, there are multi-camera shows (a few, anyway) that overcome the limitations and general malaise of the multi-camera format through a combination of outstanding writing and innovations built on top of the multi-camera main format.

  • http://counter-point.blogspot.com Scott

    “Arrested Development and Scrubs are getting beat down by Two and a Half Men, etc.”

    It’s a damn shame too. Arrested Development has more hilarity in 5 minutes than Two and a half men has in a whole season.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com/ Eric Berlin

    You’re so preaching to the choir there, Scott…

    Which in part drives my Will to keep writing about TV.

    One day… one day…

  • http://counter-point.blogspot.com Scott

    Oh yes, I realize I’m preaching to the choir here. Your love for Arrested Development is well documented. I love it too and that’s why it pains me that shows like it and Scrubs go mostly unnoticed by the general public. But, there’s the A.D. season two dvd coming out October 11 and a whole new season to look forward to. At least until it’s cut from 24 to 18 shows again.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    Thankfully AD remains on the air for now. And Rescue Me just got picked up for a third season, so there’s reason to hope that superior television can prevail… though it’s mindboggling to even consider the logic of that statement!

  • http://none.com Bob A. Booey

    I noticed Arrested Development just got picked up for syndication on our local Fox stations here. I would guess that it’s probably not going to catch fire like it deserves to and that this season is its last chance, but at least it’ll live on in syndication. We have a pretty good block of shows from 10 pm to 12:30 am that often beat the local news and the talk show hosts in the local ratings (Simpsons, Malcolm, Arrested Development, Seinfeld, Frasier).

    Is it me or does it seem like shows are getting to the Promised Land of syndication much sooner than they used to? It used to have to be that you’d have to make it through a 5th season and 100 episodes before you’d get that magic syndication money. But now I see that shows like AD and Bernie Mac are being syndicated after only 3 seasons or so.

    That is all.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    Maybe it depends on your market? I haven’t noticed that here in LA. Then again, I don’t catch very many commercials and/or repeats of shows these days.

  • http://none.com Bob A. Booey

    My mistake, it turns out Arrested Development is not syndicated daily yet. The local Fox affiliate here just played re-runs from the last season at 11 pm for a week to get people interested.

    Bernie Mac, however, is syndicated this fall.

    That is all.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    Yes, two seasons would be awfully short to syndicate. It’s so damned good, though, that I’d love to see it on the air everyday.

  • Franke

    If you guys spent as much time writing your own sitcom specs, as you do writing on these blogs, we might actually have something interesting to watch on TV! :->

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com/ Eric Berlin

    Franke — Writing this piece and watching Situation: Comedy certainly tempted me to start cranking out a pilot of my own!

  • Peter Buckley

    As a gay, im sad that will and grace isn’t any good anymore.

  • Mz.I.LuV.MaSeLf

    That’s not a bad read

  • Harry

    Awesome article, will really help for my media exam!