Directorial Touches In TV Comedy

Last night’s episode of  The Big Bang Theory had some nice examples of how the show’s regular director, Mark Cendrowski, has helped keep these characters from becoming cartoons. One bit that I liked was after the Elmer Fudd speech-impedimented Kripke makes a crude pass at Penny. Howard, who’s usually the one making the crude passes — that was the subject of last week’s episode — walks by Penny, leans over to her, says something like “Suddenly I don’t look so bad, do I?” and then keeps on walking. As he walks away, Penny laughs at what he just said. I thought the way the actors played the moment was a nice call-back to last week’s episode, as well as a quick reminder of why Howard really isn’t such a bad guy to hang out with. (And I like it, in general, when characters actually laugh when another character says something that’s intended to be amusing. A lot of shows will have every single wisecrack followed by complete seriousness from the other characters, even in light moments.) It wasn’t a big moment, but the little moments are what make TBBT work even though the stories sound generic when described; the best moments of almost any episodes are the small ones, like the three non-Sheldon guys whistling “Sweet Georgia Brown” last night. And Cendrowski, who directed most of the first season and all of the second season so far, clearly deserves some of the credit for executing these seeming throwaway bits so well. Directing the series is not a glamour job compared to directing the pilot, but in some ways it’s more important; once the series gets going, the regular director — if there is one — is overseeing the development of how the actors play their characters and how they function as a unit. It’s his job, in other words, to make them better than they were in the pilot.

The position of a multi-camera sitcom director is an odd one, because he can simultaneously do both more and less than the single-camera director. The visual opportunities of a multi-camera show, compared to single-camera, are absurdly limited; lighting for four cameras and shooting in front of an audience pretty much takes away any ability to do anything interesting with camera angles, composition, etc. (This is why you will often see long, complex takes in a single-camera show, but almost never in multi-camera. The single-camera director can plan the shot and maneuver the actors and the camera and lighting to get the whole thing in one take. The multi-camera director can’t do that because he or she has to make the actors visible to the audience as well as the home viewer, and the set and lighting are locked down; all he or she can do is make sure we see the face of whoever happens to be talking.) The upside of directing multi-camera is that because it’s all shot in the studio, it’s possible for one person to direct every episode, or almost every episode, of a multi-camera show.

On a single-camera show, there is no such thing as “the director.” There may be a director who also produces and sets the visual style of the series, like Tommy Schlamme on Aaron Sorkin’s shows, but no one can direct every episode of a single-camera series, because there’s so much preparation involved; someone else has to be shooting the current episode while a director is getting ready to direct the next one. (The exception is a single-camera show like Green Acres, which was done entirely in studio and shot in about three days. Richard Bare, who is now in his ’90s, directed 160+ episodes of that series.) A multi-camera show has the option of hiring one person as the regular director, to guide the actors week after week; in single-camera, they’re more on their own. Some multi-cam shows have been able to use that to their advantage, to compensate for the visual limitations of multi-camera by having the actors more at ease and consistent than they might be with a rotation of directors.

Many current multi-camera shows do exercise the option to have one regular director. TBBT and How I Met Your Mother, I think, both benefit from having one person doing most episodes: Cendrowski on most TBBT half-hours, and Pamela Fryman on all but one episode of HIMYM. But not every show will have a regular director for a season, sometimes because
the producers prefer shaking things up, sometimes because the cast can’t get along with directors, sometimes because they just can’t find one really good director who’s available for 20 episodes a season. (Fryman was sole director of the 2004-5 season of Two and a Half Men before leaving to do HIMYM; since then, the show has been bringing in veteran directors for what might be called multi-episode arcs, a batch of episodes directed by one guy, then another guy.) But I get the impression that actors on these shows usually prefer having a regular director. On the NewsRadio DVD commentaries, the actors frequently talk about how disorienting it was to have a different director every week in the second season, and how relieved they were when Tom Cherones signed on as the regular series director for the rest of its run.

Of course, any TV director is a prisoner of the material, and that’s true for multi-camera or single-camera shows: a director who only tried to work on “quality” shows would not work enough, so every experienced TV director has good and bad shows to his credit (or bad seasons of good shows). Because so much of the work, including working with the actors to develop their characters, is done by the producer, the director can’t usually make a huge, noticeable difference to the show. What he can do is make a difference, put his or her own stamp, on the little moments, the bits at the margins. (He can’t make an unfunny scene funny, but he can add something to make a good scene play better.) Cendrowski is likely one of the reasons why TBBT is a show that does well at the margins.

Update: The original version of this post typo’d the abbreviation “TBBT” (The Big Bang Theory) as “TBBH.” Weirdest typo ever.