John Mulaney is a likeable young comedian with a seemingly charmed life. At only 31, he’s been a successful stand-up, a major writer on Saturday Night Live, and he has a new sitcom on Fox this fall, Mulaney, produced by SNL’s Lorne Michaels and co-starring Martin Short. He has also wound up somehow with the hopes of a whole generation of TV fans riding on his shoulders: Even before the outgoing network president, Kevin Reilly, tempted fate by calling the sitcom “the new Seinfeld,” Mulaney has come to be seen as the last hope of the traditional sitcom shot with multiple cameras in front of an audience, the test case for whether the format can still produce quality work. “Comedy fans see the names attached to the series,” explains Sean McCarthy, who edits the comedy site The Comic’s Comic, “and imagine Mulaney becoming their generation’s Seinfeld on the small screen, as Mulaney the stand-up comedian already has become for them onstage.” That may be more pressure than any one show can bear.
It wasn’t so long ago that “there were a bunch of shows like Seinfeld and Friends that were smart and popular,” says Mike Royce, a TV writer who worked on shows such as the multi-camera Everybody Loves Raymond and the single-camera Enlisted. Now, he says, there’s a sense “that you don’t do smart comedy on multi-cams. That seems to be the received wisdom post-2000.” There are some traditional sitcom success stories: The U.K. comedy Vicious received attention for its casting of Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi as a gay couple, and CTV’s Spun Out recently became one of the few Canadian multi-camera sitcoms to be renewed for a second season. But in terms of quality, there’s no contest; all the most acclaimed, imitated and studied comedies on TV are in the single-camera format with no audience. A studio- audience sitcom hasn’t won the Emmy award for best comedy since Everybody Loves Raymond in 2005, and Saul Austerlitz’s recent book Sitcom, which tells the history of the form through 50 years’ worth of great episodes, doesn’t find any studio sitcoms worth analyzing after an episode of Friends from the 1990s. “There’s still a certain love on CBS for these laugh-track comedies, for want of a better term,” Austerlitz says, “but to me, personally, I find they’re increasingly threadbare.”
In announcing NBC’s only major new studio-audience project, a new sitcom for the 77-year-old Bill Cosby, NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke admitted there are few younger creators interested in doing this type of show: “Nine out of 10 writers,” she told a gathering of critics, “come in wanting to do single-camera.” That’s why Megh Wright, a writer for the comedy website Splitsider, says “it’s weird to see someone like Mulaney starring in a multi-cam show,” especially since about half of comedy fans, his target audience, seem to be “people who can’t stand new multi-cam shows.”
So why would a cool comic pick such an uncool format? Part of it may be childhood nostalgia: “I wanted to do the type of live-audience multi-camera sitcoms that I grew up on,” Mulaney told Entertainment Weekly. And he’s not the only person who’s been feeling a pang of longing for the era when almost every sitcom was shot in front of an audience. Recent U.K. sitcoms such as Miranda and Mrs. Brown’s Boys have been conscious throwbacks to the BBC audience sitcoms of the ’70s, and websites such as Buzzfeed have helped a cottage industry of tributes to the multi-camera sitcom boom of the ’90s. The Atlantic recently published a long tribute to the wacky workplace sitcom Just Shoot Me.
If nostalgia isn’t enough of an incentive, there’s the fact that successful multi-camera sitcoms are still bigger than any other kind of TV show. The most popular comedy in the world, The Big Bang Theory, is shot before a raucous studio audience. Seinfeld, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, is still incredibly profitable in reruns, while Malcolm in the Middle—the 2001 single-camera comedy that Royce said “turned everybody’s head” and made writers want to stop writing multi-camera—is mostly forgotten. Royce says a traditional comedy does well in repeats because it’s “one of the few things you can throw on; you can do something else, and you can really enjoy it because there are some funny people doing funny stuff up there.” Which means that if someone can make a new multi-camera hit, he or she will have a greater and more enduring success. That could be why Lorne Michaels, whose biggest previous venture into sitcoms was with the niche appeal of 30 Rock, is trying for a broader success with Mulaney.
But the appeal of the multi-camera sitcom can’t be just financial, especially now that the market for this type of show is shrinking. Netflix and Amazon are among the streaming outlets investing heavily in new sitcoms, but only single-camera shows. Yahoo! recently got into the original comedy business by picking up the laugh-track-free Community. “We don’t do four-camera comedies,” says John Solberg, senior vice-president of media relations for the FX network, a producer of shows such as Louie and Maron (though it does air some very cheap traditional sitcoms from an outside producer, with aging stars such as Charlie Sheen and George Lopez). “It’s just something we’ve never done. It’s an artistic choice.”
There are also artistic reasons some people might have for wanting to get into the audience sitcom business. Not only are shows such as All in the Family revered among TV writers, but the studio-audience format still commands respect for being what Mulaney has called “a pure comedy.” Royce explains that one of the things that makes an audience sitcom so hard to do well is you can’t fix it after it’s shot, and the actors can’t fake their performances: “You need the chemistry there, in the live experience on a multi-cam, and it needs to be right there in the moment. You can’t really help that in editing, whereas you kind of can in single-cam.” Furthermore, what irritates some people about audience comedy—the sound of laughter after every joke—may intrigue some performers, since every joke on a multi-camera sitcom has to be able to pass the test of whether a crowd will laugh at it. “I was used to writing for and judging stuff by a live audience,” Mulaney said in his Entertainment Weekly interview, “and I love the energy of it.”
The trouble is that even if a young writer wants to make a studio-audience comedy, he or she can’t just go out and make one. Single-camera has fewer barriers to entry: Solberg says the creators of FX’s first comedy hit, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, “shot the original pilot they pitched us on a camcorder. They made it for basically $200.” The boom in independently produced web comedy has pushed most young comics toward the single-camera location shooting of shows such as Always Sunny, or Louie, or Broad City; you can’t shoot the new Seinfeld in the basement.
All of which puts an almost unfathomable amount of pressure on Mulaney; if he can’t make it, it will push young comedians even further away from the format. Royce knows what it’s like to have the hopes of an entire genre on your shoulders; he was the showrunner of Louis CK’s Lucky Louie, HBO’s only audience sitcom and an attempt to revive the gritty style of shows like Roseanne. Though he’s proud of the work they did on the show’s one and only season, a first-year sitcom could never live up to that kind of pressure: “Expectations were that this was going to be the next big HBO show, and Louie wasn’t trying to do anything besides the thing he wanted to do. I’ve always maintained that if they put it on Saturday night at midnight and said, ‘Hey, it’s Louis CK’s thing, hope you like it,’ it would have beneﬁted from low expectations.”
Even if Mulaney eventually lives up to its promise, no one knows if it will last, especially in a TV environment where there aren’t many places to schedule a sitcom: In Canada, the Global television network has scheduled the show for Sundays at 7 p.m., not the most promising place for a new series to find viewers. In the meantime, Royce thinks it’s good to have at least one traditional sitcom getting people’s expectations up. “I hope people are pinning their hopes on him, in a way,” he says, “not because I want him to be the subject of unfair pressure, but because I want people to be saying, ‘We want a multi-cam that we love!’ ” If the producers of Mulaney’s show don’t end up making the next Seinfeld, they can at least take heart in knowing that a lot of people really, really want the next Seinfeld to happen.