Thursday, October 27, 2011

"Wide Ties - Narrow Ties"

At the beginning of each episode of the new sitcom Whitney, the show’s creator-star Voice-overs:

“Whitney is filmed in front of a live studio audience”

Then defiantly adds:

You heard me.”

We’re doing shows like they used to do them, Whitney boldly proclaims. The “old-fashioned” way, like All In The Family, Taxi, Seinfeld and Friends. We do jokes here, not snarky jabs, ironic “asides” or faux documentary, direct-to-camera confessionals.

That’s right. You heard me.”

We’re doing jokes!

Remember jokes, audience? Remember when people used to laugh out loud at something somebody said on a television show, rather than just smirk, or superiorily pronounce, “That’s funny”, without cracking a smile.

That’s right, audience. We’re going for that. Big-ass, hold onto your sides, milk-squirting-out-your-nose


I know why we stopped. Ken Levine (, in his October 23rth post entitled “The Problem With Multi-Camera Comedies” capably covered that ground, so I’ll leave that alone. A summary? The format got tired. (And why wouldn’t it? It had been situation comedy’s “format of choice” going back to 1930’s radio.)

Since some of my readers may not be as show biz savvy as Ken’s, I will quickly explain that “multi-camera” comedies are comedy series – as Whitney combatively explained – that are filmed in front of a live studio audience, in contrast to “single-camera” comedies, which are not.

If you are watching a comedy where there is no laughter coming at you out of your television speakers after a character on the show says something funny, that would be a “single-camera” comedy, or, though less likely, a comedy filmed in front of a live studio audience in which the live studio audience didn’t laugh at a single joke and just stared, like they were watching an operation.

Another reason “multi-camera” comedies (synonymous with “live audience comedies”) fell out of fashion relates, I suspect, to the fact that today’s writers identify more with film, which “single-camera” comedy resembles, than with theater, which is the prototype for the proscenium-style, “multi-camera” format.

Think of “single-camera” comedies as short films, and shows recorded in front of an audience as one-act plays. Writers don’t want to be Arthur Miller anymore. They want to be James Cameron. (Imagine “Death of a Salesman – 3D.”)

Anyway, now the “multi-camera” comedy is back. Or at least, more back than it has been in years.


I already mentioned one reason. Audiences wanted to laugh again rather than just smirk. Laughing is cathartic. Smirking is – though I’m not a doctor and I may be wrong about this – constipating.

You may want to check with an actual doctor for confirmation, but it seems to me a smirk is a laugh that was not… fully… realized. Also – and you may want to check with a sociologist on this one – during tough economic times, people hunger for the full-out release that can only be delivered by an anxiety-relieving belly-laugh.

Also – since I can’t write about television without taking at least one swipe at executives – “single-camera” comedies are not as easy for executives to control. “Multi-camera” comedies are recorded over a few hours on a single night. Executives can stand behind the cameras watching each scene being shot, and, after the director yells, “Cut!” they can say, “I didn’t like that”, and require producers to shoot the scene again, or even rewrite it on the fly.

By contrast, “single-camera” shows are recorded over a number of days. The only “single-camera” episode I ever wrote was filmed over three. It is impractical for executives to stand around for three days overseeing the filming of a single episode. These are busy people. They have other shows to ruin.

Absent full-time supervision, when an executive calls in to complain about something in a “single-camera”-recorded script, the producer can legitimately explain, “It’s too late. We shot that yesterday.”

Eager to maintain their dominance, executives, therefore, prefer the “multi-camera” format. And look at that – it’s back!

There is also a money issue. Before digital, “single-camera” filming was more expensive; ergo, the network preference for “multi-camera.” Now, I don’t know, though it seems to me that “multi-camera” productions may still be cheaper, because, the digital process notwithstanding, “single-camera” filming still takes longer, so the film crew budget would be higher.

Finally, there’s the issue that serves as the title of this post.

“Wide Ties – Narrow Ties.”

What does that mean?

People who wear wide ties for a while eventually get tired of wearing wide ties, and they start buying narrow ties. Then, time passes, they have their fill of narrow ties, and they go back to buying wide ties again. This phenomenon also seems to apply to short skirts and long skirts, and women’s hairstyles, which I know nothing about, except for an awareness that once in a while – and for no apparent reason – they change.

The “multi-camera” comedy is back, at least to some degree, because the audience inevitably got bored with its replacement – the “single-camera” comedy. And, like wide ties and narrow ties,

Those are the only choices we’ve got.

No ties?

I suppose. But then,

How would you know when you’re dressed up?


Mac said...

The two biggest recent shows in the UK were multi-camera. Miranda - not my thing but harmless, daft fun, and Mrs Brown's Boys - you don't want to know.

This was after a load of single-camera shows, some of them so subtly ironic they were indistinguishable from drama. Quite a few of them were mock-docs, hoping to find the next "The Office," which seems to be setting yourself up for a fall.

I miss the old hyper-smart but populist stuff like Frasier. That live audience laughing at really sharp jokes is as good as it gets.

PG said...

Except I don't find Whitney even remotely funny, no matter how many or how few cameras they use. To kill some time, I just watched a recent episode of the other big 'hit' 2 Broke Girls and I actually cringed a few times. Sorry, no can watch! They just stand around delivering very unlikely setups and punchlines, most of which are just in plain bad taste, for shock value, I guess.
Where are Mary and Rhoda when I need them?
Earl....maybe your tie will come back in style and save the day!

Frank said...

I'm still anxiously awaiting the day Hot Pants come back in fashion!