The difference between single-camera and multicam sitcoms

I often hear TV comedy types talking about single-camera vs. multicam sitcoms. Example: NBC's Thursday Night Ratings Hang On For Dear Life.

It would really be a terrible sign for great, single-camera sitcoms on TV on any network, NBC or otherwise. As the highest-profile smart sitcoms on TV (well, Modern Family counts too, but they certainly have no issues with ratings), they're kind of the canaries in the comedy coal mines. If they fail, NBC's new bosses are likely to take a cue from the much-more-successful CBS and put broader multicam stuff on the air instead. And frankly, that would be heartbreaking.

But to be honest, I have no idea why the number of cameras matters so much to sitcoms. In case you're also in the dark, here's the 411 on single-camera mode:

Well, the reason it's film-like is because it's closer to how they make films. I can tell the difference--can't you? SCM looks more like a movie, and to me, MCM is more like watching a play. Yes, they can switch perspective back and forth, but it's watching one scene on one set unfold in front of your eyes.

If you take the West Wing, for example, one of their signature styles is to film characters having conversations while they're briskly walking through the halls of the White House. That just couldn't happen in MCM, which needs a much more open space to accommodate the different camera angles. Have you ever seen a scene in a traditional sitcom where characters walk through several halls and rooms during a single scene? If you have, you probably noted the difference in the feel, like how weird it is when a sitcom goes on location to Disney World or something. You also can't really get tight close-ups in MCM, etc. What you give up is the energy of a live studio audience, which sometimes fits nicely into a traditional sitcom. It all depends on what you're going for.

I feel wiser now. Well, less clueless at least.


Matteson said...

To make a comparison to the world of stand up: Single Camera = Alt Comedy. Multi-camera= Club comedy.

Rebecca V. O'Neal said...

THANK YOU! I had a vague sense that single cam = good shows and multi cam = bad shows, but never quite understood why the number of cameras had anything to do with the quality of writing or acting or whether there was a live audience or laugh track.

More correlation than causality, I'm sure.

The look is definitely different, but I think it's more a difference in sensibilities that makes showrunners whose sitcoms I enjoy prefer single cam to multi cam. All the sitcoms I grew up enjoying are multi cam with live studio audiences, but it does feel dated. And I couldn't imagine a show like Arrested Development being filmed that way. The cameras and the pausing for laughter feels more like tradition than anything. Like they do it because That's The Way It's Always Been Done So That's The Way We're Going To Do It. It's all very "The Lottery".

It's one of those things that I, an illiterate on matters of the technical aspects of television magic, can perceive but can't explain.

Anonymous said...

People should stop hating so hard on the multi-cam format. Yes, there hasn't been a good one in about 5 years but go back and watch syndicated versions of multi-cam shows from the last 20 years (Friends, Seinfeld, Fraiser, King of Queens and let's not forget the brief but memorable Lucky Louie) and they still hold up.

I'm not taking anything away from single-cams here but they each have their own merits. People are confusing the current slate on lame multi-cams (i.e. most of CBS's current lineup) with what multi-cams are overall (by that I mean, lame, jokey, 2 and half men style-humor). There's definitely more bad than good in the genre but when done right they can be pretty entertaining shows.

soce said...

I always enjoyed All in the Family (multi-cam).. It was a bit inappropriate at times, in a good way! Also kind of depressing if you watched too many episodes in a row.

Abbi Crutchfield said...

I used to refer to (multi-cam) shows like The Cosby Show and The Golden Girls as "soft" and (single-cam) shows like Dynasty and Falcon Crest as "crunchy".

ECN said...

I think the main differences are that multi-camera shows can't do a lot of takes, and they have to pause for (studio audience or canned) laughter, which reduces the amount of time they have to create the show and the plots.

There are certainly interesting things about the multi-camera format, but for what you get, you're losing far too much.

Matteson said...

A good break down of the difference between an episode of 30 Rock and Shit My Dad Says. Not a totally fair comparison b/t single and multi-cam, because it's comparing a great example of single cam to a mediocre example of multi, but still interesting. One thing that amazed me is that out of a 22 minute show, 4 min is taken up by laughing from the laugh track.


Kiki Kapral said...

I think it's really important for comics and actors to watch all types of comedy, single cam and multi cam. Think of it as studying or doing homework, just as a chef should eat all types of food or a musician should listen to all types of music, to learn what works and what doesn't. I work on casting for both single-cam and multi-cams (about 5 of each every pilot season) Single-cam and multi-cams are written on the page in very differently so if you’re going to go into audition, it’s really important to understand the difference. A multi-cam is almost written like a song, very rhythmic and almost lyrical. If you go into an audition and improvise, or don't have the lines down word for word, it often doesn't work. Each and every individual word is put on the page for a purpose, to move the rhythm of the show or the joke. Mutli-cam is also meant to be read a lot quicker than single cam. Single cam is allowed to be more subtle and more room for improvisation. Also, I think it’s really important to recognize how multi-cams can different between producers. A show by Chuck Lori show is going to be different than a Max Mutchnick show or a Jack and Jackie Filgo show. There truly is an art to writing and acting in multi cam multi-cam sitcoms, and even though I don’t watch any that are currently on TV (sad to admit even the shows I work on), I love and appreciate them. I read a LOT of scripts, most things never make it to a pilot or to series, but when you read a good multi-cam script, it’s something really fun and special. The most accurate way of comparing the two is live theater vs a film.

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