Having written a bunch about the two competing formats for situation comedy, I thought I would dig a little farther into a question that interests me: why is it that, in the ’80s and ’90s, virtually all U.S. sitcoms were shot with multiple cameras? This is not the natural state of things; the current situation, where most sitcoms are one-camera with a few producers preferring the other format, is closer to the way TV used to be. So while I can’t answer the question of why the multi-camera format used to be so dominant, I wanted to try and get closer to answering it for myself.
When TV started, there were two ways to do a TV comedy series: do it live, or film it. The live shows naturally used an audience, the way radio comedies did. The filmed shows were, just as naturally, done like movies. (The laugh track was invented to make it clear that these shows were, in fact, comedies.) Then, famously, Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball decided to combine the two formats — live and filmed — by doing I Love Lucy with three film cameras in front of an audience, creating the format which has remained unchanged to this day (except that now they use four cameras instead of three).
After the success of Lucy, some shows took up its format, particularly the ones that were built around successful comedians who wanted to maintain their usual, audience-dependent timing. Danny Thomas chose the multi-camera format for his vehicle Make Room For Daddy. When Jackie Gleason spun The Honeymooners off into its own show, three-camera film was perfect for him: he didn’t like doing things over and over again (or even rehearsing).
One thing about three-camera that has always appealed to performers is that the hours are much shorter than single-camera. (And there’s a lot less travel time, waiting around on location, and so on.) So if you want to get a star to do a sitcom, the multi-camera format can be an enticement. Betty White explained a few years ago why the hours are so much easier:
But multi-camera didn’t catch on quite as widely as one might have expected after Lucy. In fact, Betty White’s early signature show, Life With Elizabeth, was shot one-camera without an audience (though the laugh track sounds like they played it back to an audience for responses; no laugh track is that obnoxious). One reason for this is that many shows were making use of film studio resources and studio equipment, and most studios weren’t set up for Lucy’s format. An artistic reason, then as now, is that some shows needed to be able to shoot outdoors, like Leave It To Beaver, which often needed to show us Beaver walking home, or at the park.
And a financial reason, which sounds strange today, is that the multi-camera format was probably more expensive than single-camera. Single-camera shows back then were shot very fast, so fast that some of them could have the same director every week (something that is impossible for any modern single-camera show, of any kind). Most of them didn’t spend a lot of time on lighting or setups. So multi-camera sitcoms had the extra expense of two extra cameras — and film wasn’t cheap — plus other expenses that Sheldon Leonard, the master sitcom producer (for Danny Thomas, Dick Van Dyke, Andy Griffith) described to the New York Times in 1963:
It costs from $4000 to $6000 per half-hour show to have an audience in the studio. The set construction is more expensive, we have to pay overtime because we re shooting at night and we have to supply dinner for the cast and crew.
Another possible reason why multi-camera sitcoms couldn’t sustain their initial popularity: some performers liked working in front of an audience, but others didn’t, and the pressure of trying to please an audience could be very wearying to the writers and performers alike (which defeats the purpose of the shorter hours). This happened to The Phil Silvers Show. For most of its first two seasons it was three-camera in front of an audience. Then the producer Mike Todd — Elizabeth Taylor’s husband at the time — showed up to do a guest shot. When he was told about the format, he replied (according to TV Quarterly) “What kind of a schmuck do you think I am? Mike Todd is not going to be a human sacrifice in front of a live audience. We’ll do it like a movie. One camera and plenty of takes.” They did it that way for the episode, and the writers and actors found it a more relaxing process: they were still doing the whole thing in the studio, but they didn’t have to worry about the “human sacrifice” aspect. So they dropped the audience from that point on. (But along with Hiken’s departure, the dismissal of the audience probably had something to do with that show becoming less funny in its last two years.)
Many writers and performers found, then as now, that with no audience, they felt better able to excercise their own judgment about what was funny; they didn’t have to dumb their jokes or performances down. The Andy Griffith Show, produced by Leonard, had to be one-camera, both because of Griffith’s laid-back style and the amount of outdoor shooting the writers had in mind. But in the Andy Griffith Show Book by Richard Michael Kelly (which I found via Noel Murray’s piece on Griffith) several people stick up for the inherent artistic advantages of single-camera. Particularly vehement is Jack Dodson, who played Howard Sprague on the show; when interviewed for the book, he’d had a bad experience on a Norman Lear show called All’s Fair, and he really tears into live-audience shows, saying “I detest them.” What Dodson says about that kind of show is familiar to anyone who’s attended a bad sitcom taping, or even some good ones:
The makers of multiple-camera comedy insist in believing that the people who come to a show are an audience, but they’re not an audience in the sense of a theatre audience, where you sit in the theatre and you look at the stage and look at the actors and you listen to what is being said and you respond. These people come in and they’re experiencing watching the making of the television show, which is different from being an audience. They’re warmed up and they’re told, “We need your laughter, folks.” All these people are wonderfully cooperative — too much so — and every time you open your mouth, they’ll either laugh uproariously, or you’ll be late in starting due to some technical hang-up, everybody gets madder than hell, and they won’t respond at all. So you either get over-response or under-response.
…So you come to a sure-fire joke — a joke you know is really funny, or a moment you know is really good — the camera man is adjusting his camera, and the boom man is adjusting his equipment for the next shot — the people watch that, miss the punch line, and don’t laugh. The writers go into a panic and rewrite it between the first tape and the second tape. We did that constantly [in All’s Fair]. Drove me crazy. I’d say, “My God, I’ve been doing this for twenty years. I know it’s funny. You guys wrote it. I’m doing it right, and it’s funny.” The audience didn’t laugh for whatever damn reason, but they’re not important. It’s the guy sitting at home — it’s what he sees.
Add that to the fact that many, many sitcoms in the ’60s had elaborate premises that could never have been executed with an audience present: this was the era of Bewitched, of I Dream of Jeannie, even that train on Petticoat Junction. So in the ’60s, virtually all successful U.S. shows were single-camera. After Dick Van Dyke went off the air, there were a few attempts to bring the format back: Good Morning World, another Sheldon Leonard show, and He & She, the hugely influential cult flop starring Paula Prentiss and Richard Benjamin. But by the end of the ’60s, multi-camera in the U.S. was Lucille Ball and that was about it.
But there were several things that brought back the multi-camera format in a big way. One, brewing throughout the ’60s, was that while multi-camera sitcoms weren’t big in the States, they were big in England. (As you know if you’ve seen Pennies From Heaven or other BBC serials from the ’60s and ’70s, multi-camera, videotaped drama was also a much bigger deal in the UK than in the US, where it was confined to soap operas.) Norman Lear wanted to remake British comedies in the U.S., and he wanted to use the same format they used: multiple cameras on videotape in front of an audience. Lear thought, rightly as it turned out, that an audience would give the comedy a more raw, immediate feel than the canned sitcoms that were dominant in the late ’60s.
But while Lear was doing failed pilots for his adaptation of Till Death Us Do Part, Mary Tyler Moore formed her own production company with her husband, Grant Tinker, and agreed to do a sitcom after five frustrating years making movies. Moore said at the time that the only way she would consider doing a new sitcom was in the same way she had made The Dick Van Dyke Show: three cameras, with an audience. She was used to it; she liked the assurance of the audience telling her she was funny, and above all she was frustrated with movies — with the long hours, the repetitiveness, the shooting scenes out of sequence.
“I dislike the jigsaw aspect of movies, where you shoot scenes in the order the accountant tells you,” Moore told Dick Kleiner in 1970. “The only kind of TV I would do was one like this, where you shoot it in sequence in front of a live audience.” Before Moore’s show began, a TV research magnate named Herb Jacobs predicted that her show would be an “early casualty” because most people didn’t want to see her without Dick Van Dyke. Instead, she made a go of it. And that was important because, for one thing, she wasn’t a comedian in the sense that Ball, Gleason, or Van Dyke were comedians; there was nothing in her performing style that inherently seemed to require an audience. But she was clearly much better with an audience than without. And secondly, the show was written by single-camera vets (Jim Brooks had done almost exclusively single-camera, including his own creation Room 222; Allan Burns had done only single-camera except a year on He & She) and demonstrated how you could preserve some of that quieter character comedy while still getting the broader laughs that multi-camera provided. The famous “spunk” scene from the first episode of Mary Tyler Moore had bigger and better jokes than the other girl-in-the-city comedies, and the rhythm of two actors in front of an audience was a welcome change from the rhythms of single-camera, which had become familiar and flat by then.
Then later that same season, All In the Family finally got on the air and became an instant smash. And these two shows also became the key to CBS’s new strategy of targeting young, urban viewers. (At the end of the season they canceled Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres, which appealed to less demographically-desirable viewers and which also happened to be single-camera comedies.) And of course, the networks ran to Lear and MTM and demanded more shows, and these producers created more shows in the style to which they were accustomed. They had different styles — Lear was on videotape, loud and topical; MTM on film, classy and softer, but they weren’t going to do single-camera. Bob Newhart, one of the first people MTM signed up, wouldn’t have it any other way; he said this in 1972:
People say TV is getting better. I think the reason is because the laugh track is going. Writers didn’t have to stay up half the night working on a scene to make it better. They knew they’d get a laugh from the track whether it worked or not. Now, if it’s not funny it doesn’t get a laugh.
Success begets imitation, of course. And another thing that happened was that studios became more willing to let performers work in front of an audience. Sandy Duncan was signed up to do a show called Funny Face for CBS, which she wanted to do multi-camera but the network wouldn’t let her, because she had no stage experience and they figured she’d flop in front of an audience. After that show bombed, she came back with another show, The Sandy Duncan Show, and this time the network let her have the audience. (It flopped too, but that’s neither here nor there, I guess.) Also, by this time, the costs of making a single-camera show had increased, in part because most studios didn’t have camera crews and sets just lying around ready to be used. Meanwhile Lear had cut multi-camera costs to the bone with videotape and cheap sets. So instead of being more expensive than single-cam, multi-cam had become quite a bit cheaper, as it remains today.
But another thing that was going on was that the arrival of MTM and Lear coincided with the FCC’s imposition of Fin-Syn rules, which made it difficult for networks to buy shows from their own corporate family. This created a bonanza for independent producers — like Lear and MTM. Other independents sprang up in imitation of them, and they too tended to emphasize multi-camera.
Single-camera was the province of the big studios, the ones who also made movies. But of the big studio suppliers, Universal was almost solely interested in dramas; Columbia, which had dominated the single-camera sitcom market in the ’60s, hit a cold streak in the ’70s (except for The Partridge Family), and Warner Brothers, which had never been that successful in single-camera comedy, stayed out of the comedy market for a while before deciding to invest heavily in multi-camera production. Fox was still producing single-camera comedies, and came up with one massive hit, M*A*S*H, but it wasn’t producing as many TV shows as the others.
That left Paramount as the studio that was most associated with single-camera sitcoms. And the last thing that happened to the single-camera sitcom in the ’70s was that Paramount more or less got out of that business. More specifically, and famously, Paramount converted two struggling single-camera shows to multi-camera and wound up with two hits. The first was The Odd Couple, which went from a not-very-funny single-camera show to a very funny multi-camera show; it was almost an advertisement for the advantages of multi-camera. And then came Happy Days, where ABC was about to cancel it but gave it a special “test” episode to see how it would do in front of an audience. The episode, “Fonzie’s Getting Married,” was written by the team of Lowell Ganz and Mark Rothman, who had been writing for The Odd Couple; they would take over as head writers when Happy Days became a full-time multi-camera show. I asked Rothman for comments on the transition, and he said this:
It was Garry Marshall’s idea, to take advantage of Fonzie’s growing popularity, to be able to hear squealing young girls in the audience every time Fonzie entered a room. They did not disappoint. “Happy Days” was not a hit in the ratings until this move was made, and it almost immediately shot up to Number One. Live audiences force the writers to write funnier. I thought it was a much better show after the transition. I have never not worked on a live audience show. I have a theatrical background, and it’s very much like an opening night every week.
Here’s the first act of Rothman and Ganz’s test episode, which was shot on the same sets used for the single-camera episodes (which is why the characters are still sitting on both sides of the dinner table).
The Happy Days switch was a turning point: Paramount’s only single-camera success, The Brady Bunch, had been canceled by then, and from that point on all its shows would be multi-camera — and of the non-independents, it was the biggest producer of comedy.
The only single-camera comedy on the air through most of this period, the late ’70s and early ’80s, was M*A*S*H (unless you count The Love Boat, which was a bit different because it was an hour-long show). You’d think a show that was so big would have spawned more imitators. It didn’t really, maybe because not a lot of other shows based on movies were hits, and maybe because M*A*S*H was a comedy-drama hybrid — a “dramedy” as it would later be called, albeit with a laugh track — which made it harder to imitate. When Larry Gelbart returned with a new show, it was United States, a single-camera show with no laugh track, and which was explicitly neither comedy nor drama. This helped cement the idea, which lasted for a long time (maybe until Malcolm in the Middle) that a single-camera comedy was more of a half-hour drama with some jokes, like The Wonder Years or Sports Night.
So that’s, as I see it, how we got to that point in the ’90s when a single-camera sitcom was an oxymoron (and even shows that couldn’t use an audience would shoot and light multi-camera style, like Sabrina the Teenage Witch). This slowly broke down throughout the ’90s, under the influence of wacky single-camera shows that proved you didn’t need an audience or laugh track to look like a comedy; after the repeal of fin-syn, which once again allowed networks to own their own shows (and lavish the kind of money on them that would allow them to shoot single-camera — it may also be a factor, albeit a small one, that single-camera shows are easier to dub for foreign exploitation, because you don’t have all the live on-the-set audience noise to contend with); after the glut of bad late-’90s/early-’00s multi-cams forced a reaction in the opposite direction (too far in the opposite direction, I think, but it’s not hard to understand).
It just seems like a convergence of factors — budgetary, regulatory, demographic — in the early ’70s, combined with the undeniable fact that multi-camera shows had bigger, broader, funnier jokes (trading that off for a loss of subtlety), made the multi-camera sitcom an unstoppable force for over 20 years. It will never go away completely because it’s too useful a form, and has been ever since Lucy. But it’ll never dominate the way it did for those 20+ years, and shouldn’t. That combination of factors won’t come back again.