Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

TV Critics and the Modern Sit-com

“De gustibus non est disputandum”

In the real world -- where people crawl home after a long day of beating their heads against the brick walls of a job they're grateful to have, yet hate in so many ways -- there will always be a place for clever escapist entertainment designed to distract us from work, politics, life in general, and the increasingly dismal state of a world lurching inexorably towards the abyss.

Every now and then we all need a mental time-out of one sort or another. Each has our own preferences when it comes to zoning out in front of the Toob, but over the last decade, so-called “reality television” – mutant bastard-spawn of the ancient Candid Camera show – shouldered aside the traditional multi-camera sit-com as the media opiate of choice for vast numbers of television viewers.

I don’t much care for the genre. From “Survivor” and “American Idol” to the odious “Housewives of Orange County” and their mindless young cultural kin along "The Jersey Shore," “reality television” remains a bleak wasteland of shame and humiliation. Still, a lot of people I know and respect are fans of these shows, and since there really is no accounting for taste -- what we like is not who we are -- I won't pass judgment on their viewing habits.

Despite drifting out of the popular spotlight, the old-fashioned multi-camera sit-com never really died. Kept alive by the astonishing success of “Two and a Half Men” (until Charlie Sheen’s recent meltdown, anyway) followed by “Big Bang Theory,” the flickering flame of sit-coms is burning brighter these days thanks to a resurgence on cable led by Betty White’s return to center stage in “Hot in Cleveland.”

For an old dog like me -- with work boots firmly planted on the turf of sit-coms in making my Last Stand in Hollywood -- that’s a very good thing.*

Two very eloquent critics of the medium recently addressed the state of the modern sit-com. Writing for The Hollywood Reporter, Tim Goodman discusses the “unexplainable surge in good sitcoms” currently on TV, while Robert Lloyd –- to my mind, the LA Times most thoughtful TV critic –- dissects the evolution of sit-coms over time, both as a genre and the manner in which an individual hit show tends to morph into something very different over its five-to-ten year life on screen.

Any student of modern media culture will find both columns worth a read.

My only quibble with Goodman and Lloyd is in their habit of lumping single camera comedies in with the traditional multi-camera shows under the term “sit-com.” This seemingly minor detail may just be a pet peeve of mine, but for anyone involved in making television, the term “sit-com” refers to a multi-camera show accompanied by an enhanced (“sweetened”) audience laugh track. Single camera comedies are typically shot out of sequence on stage or location in the time-tested, grind-it-out, 12 to 14 hour-a-day process pioneered long ago by feature films. Multi-camera shows couldn't be more different -- after a full week of lighting and rehearsals, most are shot sequentially in front of a live audience over the course of three to four hours. Nobody I've talked to in the biz (from producers and writers down to grips and juicers) considers single camera comedies to be “sit-coms” -- but TV critics remain stubbornly oblivious to this. The differences between these two forms of televised comedy are profound -- translated to the animal kingdom, one would be a Zebra and the other a Wildebeest; both four-legged ruminants that live and die on the veldt, but there the similarities end. I just wish our TV critics could wrap their undeniably talented brains around this notion.

Yeah, I know what you're thinking -- get a life, Mike -- but it's a little late for that...

* Not that I watch sit-coms any more than "reality TV" -- which leaves me in the rather awkward position of rooting for the success of genre on which my livelihood depends, but that I don’t actually, uh, "consume." From my point of view, "reality TV" is a highly exploitative medium based largely on the cruel dynamics of personal humiliation, while a quality sit-com is a balanced, well-crafted comedic effort worthy of professional respect, at least. Still, making such a show is one thing – tuning one in at home is something else altogether. In a world of limited time, choices must be made...


John the Scientist said...

So you're saying you are engaging in a misery market? :D

Nathan said...

I think you're discussing a distinction without a difference. Or, to be clear, the difference means everything when you're working on one or the other, but next to nothing for a viewer. And critics are talking to viewers, so there isn't much incentive to differentiate.

Let's put it this way...for me, it means working under a different DGA contract. For the viewer, it's (supposedly) live audience reaction vs. laugh track.

Incidentally, I'm working on one of the ones you don't identify as a Sit-Com. We'll have three cameras working at all times.


Michael Taylor said...

John --

Maybe so -- I'd never heard of that term. But I like it...

Nathan --

True enough -- although this is just a meaningless thorn under my metaphorical saddle, it's more than semantics. The difference isn't so much a matter of camera coverage (multi-cam sit-coms use four cameras unless a particular swing set is too small to accommodate so many), but the mode of shooting in front of a clapping, hooting, screaming live audience -- a world apart from the nature of single-camera work.

rhys said...

It may not be just semantics to YOU and other people in the biz - but it is just semantics to the average viewer. That's just the reality of it.

I am fairly certain most TV reviewers know the difference - but the difference is not generally relevant to the subject matter of their articles.

Michael Taylor said...

Rhys --

I'm sure you're right about that, but this blog is an expression of one person's POV from inside the belly of the beast (semantics and all) -- NOT the view of the average viewer or television critic.

I don't expect every reader to agree, but simply to hear me out.

Thanks for tuning in and adding to the conversation.

Crystal said...

I can't stand when people call single-cam shows sitcoms in their analysis of the genre. I read articles on why a single camera show is different than a multi camera show and always think, well duh. They aren't the same f-ing genre.

Robert Lloyd said...

Hi, Michael -- I'd just point out that multi-camera and single-camera comedies have developed side-by-side over TV's many decades. "Ozzie and Harriet," "The Andy Griffith Show," "Get Smart," "Bewitched," and on and on, were all single-camera shows. Indeed, in the '60s, there were more more single-camera comedies -- which everyone called sitcoms then, and would now -- than multi-camera comedies. (The live-audience model returned in a big way with Norman Lear and the MTM shows, around the turn of the decade.) The significant change, to my mind, is the disappearance of the laugh track from the single-camera comedy (standard in the '50s and '60s), and how the rhythms of these shows changed when they weren't farming for laughs every other line. But the situation in situation comedy, or the sit in sitcom, ultimately refers to a narrative idea, that of returning to visit the same characters in the same place show after show. And, of course, it's not just critics who lump single- and multi-camera comedies together (and most of us, I think, make that distinction when it feels necessary); the TV Academy doesn't have separate categories for "The Big Bang Theory" and "30 Rock."

And thanks for the compliment.

best, Robert

Michael Taylor said...

Robert --

You're right about the history and semantics, of course -- the term "situation comedy" provides a big enough tent for single and multi-camera shows. Still, there's a huge difference between shooting single camera -- where each episode is cranked out one shot at a time, usually out of sequence, over the course of a week or more -- and a multi-camera show, which rehearses for four days before shooting the show sequentially in front of a live audience in three or four hours. The multi-camera experience is much closer to theater than any single camera show.

As for the TV Academy, their opinions and classifications have dumbfounded people a lot smarter than me for a long time now. That they don't recognize the difference between singld-camera and multi-camera shows is to me just another indictaion of how out of touch they really are.

This is just a personal peeve, I supppose, but I can tell you with a degree of certainty born of experience: whenever you hear the term "sit-com" used on any studio lot where the TV sausage is made, the speaker is talking about a multi-camera show 99% of the time.

Thanks for tuning in, and for your terrific reviews in the LA Times.