Emmy Watch: Comedy

Queue the laugh track -- multicamera comedies are in style again

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Declared all but dead as recently as two years ago, television's multicamera situation comedy has suddenly risen from the grave to stake its claim anew. And during this young Emmy Awards season, at least one and quite possibly two or even (gasp) three practitioners of the genre will likely receive attention from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences' voting membership. If the ever-trendy, single-camera comedy remains the 800-pound gorilla of primetime, there are unmistakable signs that a new era is about to commence for the traditional half-hour yukfest.

Consider that of 33 comedies in pilot development at the five networks this year, 19 -- or better than half -- were of the multicamera variety. Several are expected to get picked up as series for fall and midseason schedule slots, with NBC having already ordered "100 Questions," a four-camera series from "Cheers" executive producer James Burrows that represents the network's first multicam order since 2006.

Of course, the re-embracing of the tried-and-true sitcom form may be news to its competition, but not to CBS, which alone has stuck with multicamera shows despite its purported lack of the hip and trendy factor. And having failed to heed the memo that single-camera is all the rage has paid significant dividends for the network, with "Two and a Half Men" standing as TV's top-rated comedy for six seasons running and its Warner Bros. stablemate "The Big Bang Theory" breaking from the pack this year to achieve hit status as well.

Chuck Lorre, who created and runs "Two and a Half Men" and "The Big Bang Theory," is loathe to gloat that his fellow producers finally are coming around to following his lead, maintaining that "it's never about the number of cameras but how funny you are.

"The only advantage creatively that I see with multicamera is you're performing in front of a live audience, which is a tremendous source of energy for the actors. You're out there without a net. It's like a small variation on doing a stage play every week, and that high-wire act can really juice the words on the page."

Comparing multicamera with single-camera is, in many ways, an apples-and-oranges exercise. Multicamera is taped in front of a live audience and calls for an acting style that's generally broader and more excessive. It's also often, though not always, bolstered by a laugh-track. Single-camera is shot much more like a film and is driven by an enhanced visual conceit, darker or quirkier humor, and occasional interspersing of dramatic elements.

Single-camera NBC shows including "30 Rock," "The Office" and "My Name Is Earl" have presided as the darlings of the creative community the past few years, along with such hybrid hours as ABC's "Desperate Housewives" and "Ugly Betty."

The one thing pretty much all single-camera shows have in common is that none of them are cheap. And during times of economic distress, that certainly is playing a part in the sudden multicam revival, Burrows believes.

"I really think the trend back to four-camera is twofold," Burrows says. "No. 1, I think people have grown a little bit tired of the whole weavy-camera, documentary-style of single-camera. They're all underplayed. The second thing has to do with economics. With the downturn, I think we're all back to wanting a good hearty laugh instead of the insidious laugh you have with single-camera. Multicamera is also much less expensive to produce."

Kari Lizer, creator-showrunner of CBS' multicamera "The New Adventures of Old Christine," agrees with Lorre that producing in multicamera is "like putting on a play every week. And for those of us inside that process, it's a whole lot more interesting to participate in. Not only is there instant gratification when you get that audience laugh; there's also a sense of excitement and camaraderie you don't get in single-camera, where there is a lot less burden to be funny."

What's also true is that while multicamera has largely been dismissed as a tired and obsolete format of late, the overwhelming majority of great American sitcoms down through TV history have embraced it. That list includes, in no particular order, "I Love Lucy," "Mary Tyler Moore," "All in the Family," "Taxi," "The Cosby Show," "Frasier," "Friends," "Everybody Loves Raymond" and "Seinfeld."

There have also been a plethora of classic single-camera shows as well, though the list is perhaps less prodigious. Those ranks feature the likes of "Leave it to Beaver," "The Andy Griffith Show," "Get Smart," "Bewitched," "The Brady Bunch," "M*A*S*H," "The Wonder Years," "Sex and the City," "Malcolm in the Middle," "Arrested Development" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm."

Although his series is shot in single-camera, "Desperate Housewives" creator/executive producer Marc Cherry isn't surprised that multicamera is showing signs of making a comeback.

"I think it's inevitable," Cherry says. "The problem with multicamera sitcoms, and what's often frustrated me about the form, is that same rat-a-tat-tat punchline rhythm that doesn't resemble actual conversation. I think people just grew tired of it. By contrast, our show uses a much freer form of dialogue where the people talk like real people."

CBS has continued to find success with four-camera comedy, Cherry supposes, because "it has an older audience when compared with the other broadcast networks."

Going forward, Bill Lawrence, creator-showrunner for the long-running NBC-turned-ABC hit "Scrubs" (shot on single-camera), stresses that the one danger that multicamera shows need guard against is any temptation to try to emulate the stylistic rhythms of the single-camera genre.

"It would be a mistake to try to make multicamera hip and cool," Lawrence says. "The successful ones, like 'Two and a Half Men,' are the ones that don't try too hard. They don't need to be hipper or edgier, just good. Because I mean, the formula still works just fine. And those mass-appeal multicamera hits is the stuff advertisers just devour."

This is naturally music to the ears of Burrows, who has been around long enough to experience several declarations of the traditional sitcom's death.

"Oh yeah, I've been to a number of funerals," Burrows says. "Comedies were supposed to be big-time dead when 'Cheers' came on the air in '82. Then 'The Cosby Show' hit a 50 share, and they weren't dead anymore. But they'll be declared dead again, you'll see. I'm just glad to see multicamera breathing again now. I think it's good for television business and great for the audience."