Is It Time For Sitcoms To Go Back to Videotape?


Yes, it’s another “what’s wrong with the multi-camera sitcom?” post. (Nobody ever gets tired of those, since we TV-analyst types only do 34 of those a day.) This is something I’ve been wondering for a while, as far back as the late ’90s when sitcoms were still popular: why don’t some network sitcoms go back to using videotape?

To explain this quickly: most “story” shows like dramas and comedies are shot on film, or digital formats that look like film. More ephemeral shows that aren’t intended to be re-run forever and around the world — variety shows, news shows, reality — are usually shot on videotape, which is cheaper and has a harder, brighter look. In the early ’70s, Norman Lear made the unusual decision to shoot All in the Family on videotape, partly because the British show it was based on was also shot on tape (the BBC was doing most scenes on tape at that time, using film only for location work), but also because Lear wanted the audience at home to feel as if they were watching the show live with the audience, instead of the more distanced, canned effect of film. For the next 20 years after that, all of Lear’s shows and many other American sitcoms were shot on tape; a few companies preferred film, but the majority of multi-camera sitcoms were done on tape, both in the U.S. and elsewhere (Fawlty Towers, King of Kensington). Because tape was cheaper and easier to edit, there was a lot of pressure on sitcom producers to use tape; Ken Levine tells the story of how the struggling Cheers was asked to experiment with the idea of saving money by switching from film to tape.

Anyway, there were many reasons for producers to dislike tape: as Levine notes, it made sets look fake and tacky (film lighting can make everything look more “real”; on tape, everything looks like a studio set); it looked cheap because it was cheap, and it made a show look disposable. In the ’90s, film became cheaper to edit, an extra camera was added to multi-camera film crews (removing an advantage of tape, which used to have four cameras to the three of filmed shows), and eventually digital technology made it possible to create a film “look” without actually having to use film. All these things together helped to eliminate the use of videotape for network sitcoms. Seinfeld, Frasier, Friends, Raymond, all the big sitcom hits of the mid to late ’90s were on film, and the creators of Frasier would actually get kind of huffy whenever somebody referred to a “taping” of the show — it’s not taped, they insisted, it’s filmed.. Today the only North American sitcoms shot on tape are cable sitcoms for kids, like Hannah Montana, and even those shows have the videotape processed to make them look as much like film as possible (it’s a process that was used for a while in the early ’90s on shows like Blossom, and then as now, it actually made videotaped shows look worse, not better).

With the backstory out of the way, I think the networks might benefit from reconsidering the use of videotape — undisguised, cheap-looking videotape — for sitcoms. Now, nobody is going to watch or not watch a show based on the format it uses; for most of us, the difference between tape and film is a subconscious thing. (When we watched NBC in the ’80s, we knew there was a difference between the look of Cheers and the three videotaped sitcoms that surrounded it — Night Court, Cosby Show, Family Ties — but we didn’t know exactly what it was.) But viewers have become frustrated with the phoniness and predictability of the modern multi-camera sitcom, and I think part of that can be traced, subconsciously, to the use of film or film-like substances for all sitcoms. Film is distancing, it’s softening; it’s not as in-your-face as tape. And while this is a benefit for a drama or a one-camera comedy, it’s a real problem for a multi-camera comedy with an audience. The “canned” look of a filmed show, and the extra sense of realism created by film lighting, can sometimes work against the whole point of doing a show in front of an audience: making us feel that we are watching a stage play with an audience. On a lot of filmed sitcoms today, the setting looks too glossy, the photography too pretty, and the audience laughter sounds really phony, and the show doesn’t have the kind of theatrical, stagey energy that a sitcom needs. None of these things have to be true of a filmed show (Everybody Loves Raymond was on film, and it still felt theatrical, broad and had audience laughter that sounded real), but as Norman Lear proved, it’s easier for a taped show to mimic the feel of a live performance, because tape looks like a live broadcast.

Also, today’s audiences just seem more accepting of live-audience comedy on tape as opposed to film. Networks say that young audiences don’t respond to multi-camera sitcoms, but young audiences do respond to The Daily Show, shot on tape with a cheering and whooping audience, or The Colbert Report, ditto, or (still) Saturday Night Live, which is live and therefore looks like it was taped. Part of the reason for moving toward tape in the ’70s was exactly that: viewers were more willing to accept the broad style and enthusiastic audience reponse of a sitcom on tape, because the show looked and felt like the comedy/variety shows that they were already watching.

And just in general, I think the sitcom needs an infusion of broad, wild, improvisational humour, and for some reason that seems easier to bring off on tape. (I don’t expect anyone except me to be a fan of the Tom Hanks/Peter Scolari Bosom Buddies show, but that show had a pilot on film and switched to tape for the series. Hanks and Scolari were good in the pilot, but it was a pretty controlled, carefully-produced pilot like most of Paramount’s filmed sitcoms. When the show switched to tape, the two young actors’ improvising and ad-libbing became much wilder and freer, with the cameras and mikes of a tape crew more free to follow them around than a film crew would have been, and they saved the show’s often-uneven writing with their ad-libbed antics.) I find it hard to imagine The Cosby Show becoming as huge a hit on film as it did on tape, because the appeal of that show was, at the beginning, that instead of seeing a canned, pre-planned sitcom, Cosby almost seemed to be making the thing up informally. You can’t get an informal feeling into a filmed or filmed-looking show. The messiness of tape is needed to bring the messy feeling of Daily Show type comedy to the sitcom, which desperately needs it.

The one show recently that really tried to bring back the videotaped live-audience sitcom was Louis C.K.’s HBO sitcom Lucky Louie, which was his deliberate throwback to All in the Family or Roseanne type of domestic comedy. It only lasted a season (though I think HBO probably now regrets giving up on it so quickly; that was back when they thought they had all kinds of awesome super-hits coming down the pipeline), but the tape look was a good idea — as Louis C.K. put it, “when you watch something on videotape, it feels live, like you’re really there” — and I think gave a hint as to how a multi-camera sitcom might actually gain a little more cred by using videotape and accepting the artificiality and staginess of the sitcom format.

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Is It Time For Sitcoms To Go Back to Videotape?

  1. Videotape’s “live” feeling can also be a drawback when the producers and/or director try to do what Lear did with many of his late 70s/early 80s sitcoms, and “sweeten” the audience reaction by adding canned laughter.

    Just as film tends to make the images look softer than tape, there’s also a subtle softening of the audio as well. Crank up the fake laughs too much, as Lear’s people did on shows like “The Jeffersons” or “One Day at A Time”, and the sound turns into the same type of annoyance as that really loud person in the movie theater whose reactions take you out of watching the show (you can over-saturate the laughter in a filmed show too — Garry Marshall’s late 70s stuff did the same thing Lear did — but the one-step-removed-from-live feeling made those audiences slightly less annoying to the people watching at home).

  2. I loved Lucky Louie. That show really deserved more seasons, and for the reasons you mentioned here. It really did the multicam videotape sitcom better than anyone currently does.

  3. Personally, I’ve always loved the look and feel of old 2″ B&W videotape. High bandwidth analog can blow even the best modern digtal video away for sharpness and contrast. Thanks for the link to the Ken Levine article… I didn’t know that about Cheers!

  4. I think you’re on to something, though I can’t imagine anyone trying this in the rush to embrace HD. “Realism” is a tricky thing to get right in comedy, which has to balance relatability with the kind of distancing abstraction that allows us to laugh at, instead of sympathize with, the characters.

    And you’re right that the mode of presentation can play a big part in setting that real/unreal balance. One reason The Simpsons was such a revelation when it first appeared was that, as an animated show, its manifest UNreality reset audience expectations about our relations with the characters and the vantage point from which we watched things happen to them. It wasn’t a step toward play-like immediacy (like Lear’s shows, coming after a decade of canned, filmed sitcoms), but it shook up the prevailing “realism” conventions in a similar sense.

  5. Great article, for years I wondered what happened to the taped sitcom. I mourned the loss, and never really understood why, but you articulated it beautifully. I am far more likely to laugh out loud at a sitcom if I feel like a "part" of the live audience, and taped shows generally do a better job at that (if the show is a multi-camera, non-animated show). True, some live-audienced filmed shows also succeeded in that ("Seinfeld","Cheers", "Friends","Raymond"), but those were the exceptions. Even a classic like "Newhart" surprised me when, many years later, I caught a few of the rarely-rerun 1st season episodes, which were done on tape! And you know what? They worked even better than the subsequent filmed episodes (and I was a fan of "Newhart:"). That was an unusual example of a series that has examples of both types of recording where you really can compare it side-by-side, and it really convinced me that video is (usually) the better choice for live-audience sitcoms.

  6. I very much agree that "the difference between tape and film is a subconscious thing."

    Great and pleased to see the wide knowledge of the author.

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