I have made this mistake before. I found my pair of “dream shoes” but I didn’t buy them. But I knew where they were. Unfortunately, when I went back to get them, I couldn’t find the store anymore, and now those shoes are gone forever. It’s the same thing that happened to Ken’s quote. I was sure I knew what post it was in, but now it’s disappeared. Either that, or it’s deliberately hiding, because it doesn’t want to be used for evil purposes.
(Clarification: I’m not a shoe freak. I have, maybe, four or five pair, the last of which I bought nearly three years ago in Rome, where they really make shoes I like. There was another pair I discovered in this shoe store window; butter soft black loafers, but when I went back later to get them, I couldn’t find….the…I’m sorry, I can’t talk about it. It’s just too painful.)
You’d think I’d learn my lesson, but I don’t.
Anyway, I have no choice now but to revert to “Plan B”, which is to paraphrase what Ken wrote in his post as accurately as I can remember. And then disagree with it. I’m a little uncomfortable about this. I prefer to use the exact words. I hope I misquote him correctly.
Meaning, I hope I retain the gist. It was a post, which he offers regularly, where Ken responds to readers’ questions. I don’t recall exactly what Ken was asked, but it led to an answer comparing single-camera comedies (e.g., 30 Rock, The Office, Modern Family) with multi-camera comedies (e.g. The Big Bang Theory, Two And A Half Men, Best of the West) on the issue of shows feeling slow and shows feeling fast. In other words, the comparative pace of the two formats.
Ken opined that the single-camera shows moved at a faster pace than the multi-camera ones. He believed that the multi-camera shows felt slower, because they took time to focus more fully on the characters. I think that was his point.
And I, respectfully, disagree.
When I watch The Office, or Community, or 30 Rock, or Modern Family, I find myself invariably glancing at the clock, amazed at how much time there is still left in the show. To me, these shows are excruciatingly slow.
On the other hand, a well-crafted multi-camera show, skillfully blending story and jokes, seemed to be over before I knew it. I’m speaking of the old multi-camera series, grounded in story and character, not today’s versions, which eschew story and rely almost entirely on jokes.
One “multi-camera”, a real old one, The Jack Benny Program, I dubbed, as a young viewer, the fastest show on television. I was just getting into it, and they were already saying good night.
To me, the culprit is the contrasting style in which the stories are being told, both in structural and joke-delivering terms.
Here’s what I mean by that. (Because that wasn’t even clear to me.)
Single-camera comedies, often involving larger casts than their multi-camera counterparts, generally tell three or more stories per episode. This requires setting up each story, servicing each story’s development, and then providing three different payoffs, as well as, in the case, of Modern Family, an overarching, umbrella payoff, where the three stories dovetail together.
First of all, that’s a lot of work, and I tip my hat to the writers. But second, it’s also a lot of work for the audience. You have to keep in your head who’s keeping a secret from who, and who forgot to do what and doesn’t want who to find out, and who has a life-long wish, and who found out about it and made it come true, but it’s not exactly what they had in mind. My head is spinning just making this up.
Maybe, if you’re an ADD person, the jumping around from story to story feels energizing, and maybe that’s what Ken had in mind – the momentum of constant movement. But these shows, at least to me, are also weighed down by the inertia of “Who cares?”, generated by not enough time being devoted to any of the stories.
The multi-camera shows I wrote on told, at the most, two stories, one of them being a “B” story, indicating that it was less important than the “A” story. The “B” story was included to gave the audience a break from the “A” story, and sometimes to offset the “A” story’s intensity, by being intentionally frivolous. With, in effect, only one story to focus on, there was more time to develop its elements. And also more time to explore the characters. Though, in my experience, you didn’t.
(Reader Alert: I am going to be contradicting myself a lot here. Be aware of that. And be aware that I’m aware of that. I’m a conflicted person, and contradictions come with the territory. Plus, I have a complicated mind.)
On the multi-camera shows I worked on, you were always being encouraged to push the story forward. (Whenever I didn’t, it was edited out.) This meant not stopping to the illuminate characters, but to do it, if you did it at all, on the fly. We called “moments”, where the story stopped to examine the characters’ inner feelings, “moments”, because they were special exceptions to the “keep it moving” rule – a full-sprint race to the finish line. And even those moments were paid off with a joke.
The multi-camera format is constructed in modular hunks. And every hunk has to be paid off with a joke. An essential element in energizing the episodes were the really “big jokes”, (in contrast to the “eaten to death by minnows” jabs delivered in single-camera comedies.)
There’s never, let’s say rarely, a time where a single-camera comedy convulses you with a laugh that is so funny, it “stops the show.” Instead, you get pot shots and glancing blows. You even, in the “mockumentary”-formatted single-camera comedies (The Office, Parks and Recreation, Modern Family) get moments where the story literally stops dead in its tracks, while a character “opens up” directly to the camera.
The “big joke” moments gave multi-camera episodes an enormous lift, propelling their momentum forward. And here’s my first contradiction. I hated those “big jokes.” Explanation? I could almost never come up with them. Plus, these “super-jokes” rarely measured up to my scrupulous standard of “reality.” However, I totally understood their value. When the show ended, people rarely remembered the story. They may not have even remembe4red the jokes. What they did remember was laughing really hard.
My second contradiction – which may not be a contradiction at all but it looks like a contradiction – is that with three or more stories filling a half hour time period, you would think that a show would move faster than if you only told one story (with a “B” story for more broad “comic relief”), but, to me at least, it doesn’t. The single-camera shows seem endless.
Why? At least according to me? One, because of the multi-camera comedy’s “Big Jokes”, which lift up the episode and, as they say in Mary Poppins, and “send it soaring.”
And two, when you’re following a single, compelling story, the viewer becomes invested in that story, and, like when they’re reading an engrossing short story, they are committed to seeing it through.
On Friday, I will go into this more fully, by breaking down one of my favorite multi-camera episodes (that I wrote), so you can see what went into putting it together, and how the story’s constructed to hold the audience’s attention.
On the following Monday, I will talk about The Office, explaining why I like the show, and why I almost never watch it.
I told you I was full of contradictions.
You know, I like writing about writing. Sometimes, I just forget to do it.
Happy Jewish New Years. Last year, this time, I was facing heart surgery. I'm here, so I guess I guess I got inscribed in the right book. Here's hoping I am again. Here's hoping we all are.