This isn’t exactly a current topic, but when we look back on the modern history of the traditional sitcom, I think two flop shows will stand out as key moments in preventing it from coming back as strongly as many of us expected. (Yes, this is another of my attempts to puzzle out a puzzling subject: why the old-school sitcom has been getting rarer even as it continues to produce the most popular examples of the half-hour comedy form.) One was Lucky Louie, the other The Return of Jezebel James. I don’t want to lump the two together exactly, since Lucky Louie had a lot of promise and probably would have developed into a very good show, while Jezebel James was always half-hearted and pointless. But those were two shows whose reception — particularly their critical reception — seemed to announce that anyone who valued their reputation should stay away from the studio-audience comedy form.
I’ve talked about Lucky Louie before so I won’t spend too much time on it here. Suffice it to say again that a lot of the response to it was not simply critical of the show itself (which is a right and good thing to criticize) but of the format. As Louis C.K. noted in frustration, even though he used the “taped before a studio audience” announcement, people kept telling him, in print and in person, that they didn’t need a laugh track to tell them when to laugh. As so often, it’s very doubtful that a majority of viewers felt this way: the show was actually getting pretty good viewership numbers. But the critical reception, and the open hostility of many critics to the presentational, artificial, audience-laughter format, probably helped scare HBO away from the form. HBO had announced in 2004 that they were looking for multi-camera shows, and it made perfect sense: in the ’90s, when all the broadcast networks did multi-camera exclusively, HBO specialized in single-camera (Larry Sanders, most memorably). So why shouldn’t they respond to broadcast’s lack of multi-camera shows by doing some of their own, free from censorship restrictions and with fewer limits on what a performer could do in front of an audience? But HBO depends on critical accolades: if it doesn’t have a prestigious “brand,” it doesn’t have anything. So the network seemed to realize that any further investment in multi-camera shows would hurt its brand, irrespective of whether people were watching or not. So they gave up on it. Meanwhile other cable networks, except Disney Channel and now TV Land, are pretty hostile to multi-camera: John Landgraf of FX has said that though he wants lots of comedies he’s not in the market for multi-camera, because audiences are too sophisticated or something, I forget. So Lucky Louie kind of killed off the possibility of cable jumping in to pick up the slack from the networks.
Meanwhile, on the broadcast networks, many of the biggest and most important successes had come from people who had not done much multi-camera sitcom work before, or had their roots in some other medium. (Bill Cosby, for example, had done stand-up, movies, light TV drama and a single-camera comedy — with, at his insistence, no laugh track — before he finally agreed to do a videotaped sitcom with an audience.) NBC’s two biggest hits of the ’90s were created by people who did not have a great deal of experience in four-camera situation comedy. Larry David, most famously, didn’t really know the rules of sitcoms so he rewrote the rule book. But Friends was created by David Crane and Marta Kauffman, who were best-known up to that point for creating the single-camera, somewhat formally innovative Dream On for HBO. Wanting a more mainstream hit, they went to NBC to do multi-camera shows, and did the cult flop The Powers That Be before coming up with Friends. Though not a hit of that size, NewsRadio was created by a Larry Sanders writer-producer who wanted to do something more mainstream that his parents would enjoy (and, let’s not kid ourselves, that would have a chance of more syndication money than a single-camera laugh-track-free show would ever command). Though Larry David originally wanted to do Seinfeld single camera and was wisely forbidden from doing so by NBC, there was no real shame in any of these people doing a multi-camera show, and critics either liked the shows or they didn’t, without reference to the format.
But when Amy Sherman-Palladino did the weakish script for The Return of Jezebel James, much of the critical reaction was centred around the so-called laugh track and how it was single-handedly ruining everything. Because Sherman-Palladino’s Gilmore Girls was a critical favourite, a number of critics and fans were disappointed that she would even be returning to traditional sitcoms, and the tone of the reviews often suggested that what was wrong with the new show was the format itself. Alan Sepinwall’s review was typical, though at least he was willing to allow for the possibility that the jokes weren’t very good, and that the audience laughter was jarring because of that (also that maybe the more forgiving single-camera format of Gilmore Girls let certain weakish jokes seem more tolerable). Other reviews seemed to suggest that a talented, acclaimed creator had no business doing a multi-camera show in this day and age.
I don’t think the reaction to Jezebel James was in itself the thing that scared creators away from trying multi-camera. But it may have helped contribute to the current situation where interesting or quirky creators don’t want to try the format, even with the enticements of a potential syndication payoff if it’s a hit (it probably won’t be, anyway). The fact that critics now attack the existence of audience laughter, or say that it screws up the timing — it doesn’t, but it’s a different kind of timing than you use on a closed set — means that if creators went from HBO to a multi-camera comedy the way Kauffman and Crane did, they would be critically savaged. It was another step in the process by which “respectability” all rested with the single-camera format. And while this was great news for Sherman-Palladino — who managed to escape a bad television show with her reputation undeservedly intact — it’s not such great news for traditional TV comedy. You’ll notice that the multi-camera shows that got picked up this year are all from people with tons of experience in the form: the Chuck Lorre factory, the Kohan-Mutchnik Will & Grace team (Shat My Dad Says) and a former Friends writer (Better With You). The people who could bring something new to the form — the Larry Davids and Kaufmann-Cranes of today — are mostly not going anywhere near the form.
I say “mostly” because there’s something that compounds the problem, which is that networks tend to be so insecure about multi-camera shows that they’ll only pick up shows whose creators have “credentials,” which often translates into them doing the same old things they were doing in the ’90s. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the only three multi-cam shows that were picked up this season were all directed by James Burrows; he’s not the director he once was but his very presence makes network execs feel comfortable. Meanwhile NBC has done some good work in trying to get multi-camera pilots from people who aren’t over-experienced and jaded, like their multi-cam pilot from the creators of Reno 911, but then they keep refusing to actually pick up any of these pilots (the Reno 911 guys have gone over to FX to do semi-improvised single-cam instead). Which kind of leaves the form waiting for someone to come along full of actual enthusiasm for it.