Wednesday, September 8, 2010

"A Difference of Opinion"

I was going to open with a quote from Ken Levine’s spectacular and very TV savvy blog,, and then disagree with it. But when I went back to look for it, I couldn’t find it anymore.

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.


Guy Nicolucci said...

Thank you for writing about writing. It's always a pleasure to learn something from you.

Dimension Skipper said...

I agree. I find the lack of story and relatable characters to make most sitcoms unwatchable. Not to mention the unfunniness of the jokes themselves.

And I find single camera shows to be mostly just annoying. Most folks I know who like them cite the lack of a laugh track as a major reason why they like'em and don't like traditional multi-cam shows. Personally, I think they just substitute music cues and jump cut edits with whooshing noises. I'd just as soon have the laugh track as those. Because if the show's funny, I'd be laughing anyway and the laugh track would be truly incidental. It's only when the jokes aren't funny that the laugh track becomes annoying. (Granted, that's a very large percentage of the time anymore, but the laugh track in and of itself is not what makes a show unfunny imo.)

Also, I used to be a big fan of The Simpsons, but haven't watched it in years now. Somewhere along the line (probably around the turn of the millennium) I realized that the early shows actually had stories with plot and characterization, but over the years it shifted to disjointed (though often predictable) jokes. Generic example/template: Homer, Bart, whoever hears something, then we see into their thoughts as to what they're imagining from what they just heard.

Many episodes by the end were unrecognizable from any point near the beginning and in between they'd have taken umpteen right-angle turns from the initial starting point. Each episode ended up looking like a drunk man's walk of comedy and I just don't find drunk men walking to be all that funny.

Oh, and another thing... Can "we" retire the supposedly novel "making a documentary" contrivance already. It's just become a big distraction for me and therefore useless as a device. I mean, in Modern Family, they don't even try to explain anything about the documentary (at least that's what I read once on Alan Sepinwall's blog, I think), the basis for it being done and all... it's just, well, there. I give special dispensation if a show wants to do it for one (and only one) episode to tell a story to unique effect, showing the characters in a different way from usual. But that's it.

Finally, maybe it's just me, but I think it's time for shows to stop being about nothing and get back to being about something resembling a story and characters to laugh with, not at all the time.

Kathryn Hartog said...

It seems to me that you don't like single-camera comedies, and are now thinking of reasons for why that is. Since you obviously value a show that can land a huge joke, I wonder if you watch any dramas.

Andrew said...

I think that, as an insider, you are attributing too much to the difference between single camera and multi-camera comedies. My favorite single camera comedy of all time was Malcolm in the Middle. When I first started watching it, I didn't notice that it was single camera until a read an article about it.
There are certain techniques that work great with with single camera and are impossible with multi-camera, and vice versa. What really matters is the writing.

Greg Morrow said...

On Scrubs, normally a single-camera show, they did an episode where a patient's hallucinations made the show appear to be a three-camera sitcom. It was mostly satirical, playing on the "all for the cheap laughs" stereotype of the three-camera shows, and, as I recall, it had a downer ending, again constrasting with the reset button/everything all right stereotype of the standard sitcom.

I find single-camera comedies to be willing to try something new far more often than three/four camera, and I value novelty in structure and storytelling and technique far more these days when I am a middle-aged curmudgeon.

So I adore Better Off Ted and I am immensely bored by The Big Bang Theory.

Mostly, the shows I like get canceled.

James said...

I always thought 3-camera shows were livlier and faster.

Two examples of the same show that used both formats: The Odd Couple and Happy Days. Both started out the first year or two as 1-camera film. Both transitioned to 3-camera stage-play style. I think both of them looked livlier and faster in the latter iteration.

Funny, I was a kid when Happy Days began. I enjoyed it, but it was very much a gentle comedy. Then they shifted to 3-camera and it became more sit-commy. My friends and I thought it was a lot funnier and enjoyed it more.

Later on I rediscovered the first couple years and thought it was a far better show. It was much more realistic, and the humor seemed to come naturally rather than from witty dialog.

But the 3-camera versions are still seem like they were higher energy to me.

mark said...

Thanks very much for this post.

Looking forward to Friday's breakdown.

Erika @ Health and Happiness in LA said...

I like single-camera comedies and I love Modern Family and find that it goes very quickly. But I do agree that there's often a problem now with sacrificing the overall story of the show and the characters for jokes and gags.