Thursday, August 8, 2013

"Technology And Multi-Camera Sitcomedy"

“School?”  In the summer? 

Sorry.  I am the servant to whatever comes to mind. 

Recent technological advances have changed the way TV series can be watched and, consequently, enjoyed.  And I can write about that sometime.  Basically, it boils down to you can now watch shows whenever you want to, and you can watch multiple episodes at one sitting.  Great.  Now I don’t have to write about that.  That’s all I know.  Though I may at some point offer my take on how these augmented viewing options have changed things.  I mean, in the Old Days, we had to wait an entire week until…

Discipline, Earlo!


It’s summer.  We want to go outside.

I’ll keep it short.  I want to go outside too.

Thank you.

You’re welcome.  So okay, today, I want to focus on how technology affected the way situation comedies were put together, i.e., the limitational boundaries that required situation comedies to be constructed the way they were.

I shall confine myself to the type of situation comedies I was, with minimal exceptions, involved with – shows filmed with multiple cameras running at the same time attended by a live studio audience whose responses were simultaneously recorded and accompanied the broadcasts.  In fact, the primary reason the multi-camera process was invented…

Not today, Earlo.


In describing the obligatory structure imposed up0on the sitcoms of the day, I shall not deal with the significant issue of budgetary constraints.  Financial concerns necessitating limiting set construction inevitably imposed…

You said you would not be dealing with budgetary concerns.

Boy, you’re strict. 

Stick to the story or, before you know it, we’ll be turning back the clocks.

Okay!  I mean, okay.  Excuse the exclamation point.  I was just feeling frustrated.

No problem.

Okay.  Now…

If you look at shows like The Mary Tyler Moore Show or Cheers, you will notice, especially with Cheers, that the overwhelming majority of scenes take place in the bar, or that poolroom area next to the bar.  Why?  Because the bar set was so enormous, it took up a tremendous amount of space on the soundstage, leaving no room for almost anything else. 

The exception was what they called the “Swing Set”, which was a set required for the specific needs of that episode – a hotel room, a restaurant, a doctor’s office, etc.  There was available room for one of those.  But only one at most per episode.

The consequence of such spatial limitations was that the stories had to be constructed to feature the “Standing Sets” – those sets that appeared on every show and were therefore left “standing” on the soundstage for the duration of the season – as the central location in which the majority of the episode would take place. 

This structural constraint almost literally imprisoned the storytelling possibilities.  You told the bulk of the story in the cell, with occasional visits to the Mess Hall, and, if you’re on cable, the showers.  (But there was no cable.)  Maybe the odd trip to the “Visiting Room” with the wire mesh and you talked on the phones, or, if you’re on cable, to the trailers for “Conjugal Visits.”  (But there was no cable.  Though you could see how people might like cable.) 

Two “Standing Sets”, one “Swing Set.”  And it was “Gentlemen, start your engines!”

Did it feel creatively straightjacketing? You bet it did.  But that’s all we had to work with, so off we went.  (Except once, when, for my show Family Man, I did away with the studio audience, using the bleacher area for more “Swing Sets”, thereby expanding my storytelling range by allowing my characters to venture to more than three locations in one episode.)

Wait, Earlo.  What you just talked about was constraints caused by limited space.  What does that have to do with technology?

It was combination – space limitations and available technology.  Not only was there no space for more “Swing Sets”, but even if there were, the people attending the filming would not have been able to see what was going on in them.

Why not?

Because…you know what?  I’ll tell about that you tomorrow.

This is, like, a whole blog post where you never got to the point.

Well I might have, if you hadn’t kept interrupting me.  “We wanna go outside!  We wanna g…”

You’re blaming the audience?

Doesn’t everyone?

Come back, and I will tell you tomorrow what you left me no time to tell you today.

I’m not sure I want to.  You might do this again.

Not if you just listen.

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