The Evolution Of The Sitcom: The Age of the Single Camera

A scene from New Girl

Zooey Deschanel, Jake Johnson, and Max Greenfield in The New Girl, one of the many single-camera sitcoms that now dominate primetime.

If you don’t know what a single-camera sitcom is, you’ve almost definitely watched one at some point. While it’s been around for quite some time (Get Smart, The Andy Griffith Show, Doogie Howser M.D.,) it’s only become prevalent in the last ten years or so. As opposed to the three-camera setup found in most TV studios, single-camera is shot like most films, with traditionally cinematic shots and angles storyboarded like any movie. While this one characteristic is what separates the two classifications of situation comedy, their differences lie far beyond how many cameras are used to film them, allowing a different type of screenwriting to take hold.

For one, the more cinematic style of shooting lends a more, well, cinematic style to the sitcom. Many can resemble low-budget independent films (even the biggest sitcoms’ budgets pale in comparison to feature films). Single-cameras, because of the way they are shot, typically don’t have live studio audiences and most eschew a replacement laugh track. Without a laugh track to tell you where the punchlines are and when to laugh, and coupled with the slower, quieter filmic approach, the humor of single-camera sitcoms presents itself in a completely different way.

As a viewer, you have to actively find what’s funny within a scene. Just as good characters in comedy can be indicated by lines that are only funny because they were spoken by that particular character, the single-camera environment sets a tone and becomes a place where jokes are only funny because they were specifically said within them. This is usually what people mean when they say a location in a script is a character in itself (unless they say New York is its own character, then they’re just bullshitting.) This also allows the humor to be more subtle—the slightest roll of the eyes can be caught in a close-up reaction shot and sell the same kind of laugh that a character hammily mugging to the audience in a three-camera sitcom would make.

Single-cam in action:

Single-cam comedies don’t have to be calmer and quieter, however. Rather than feel like an independent film, single-camera sitcoms can resemble screwball comedies. The 2003 cult favorite Arrested Development is a prime example of this and did what The Simpsons and other animated series (shows allowed to bypass three-camera setups without raising any eyebrows) discovered they could do fifteen years earlier—the rapid-fire delivery of jokes and scenes and locations. A standard episode of a show like Arrested Development or 30 Rock has an incredible amount of scenes when compared to a three-camera sitcom like Friends. These shows in effect become live-action cartoons, embracing and indulging in the lack of boundaries a three-camera set inhibits on scripts.

Why are three-camera setups inhibiting and typically averse to subtle forms of humor? It helps to remember that three-camera shows aren’t defined by the fact that they’re shot with three cameras (and conversely, many single-cams like Arrested Development are always shot with two or three cameras simultaneously). Rather, it’s better to think of them as recorded stage plays, performed on very limited sets for flesh-and-blood live studio audiences. This is a fundamentally different storytelling medium than the much more cinematic single-camera style. YouTube is full of clips of multi-cam shows like The Big Bang Theory with the laugh track edited out and they are fascinating to watch.

You might not have noticed when watching a multi-camera show because as viewers we’ve become so accustomed to its form, but actors pause between jokes and actually hold and wait for the audience’s laughter to subside before resuming their lines. As the YouTube clips amusingly convey, talking like this in real life would make you sound like a crazy person. But three-camera actors must perform this way, and three-camera writers must likewise conform their scripts. Not only can more subtle humor be easily lost on an audience seeing everything at once several dozen feet from the action (as opposed to being merely inches from a close-up viewed on your screen at home), but a joke’s timing—one of its most crucial components—has to be set and predicated by this staccato hold-and-wait type of performance.

Three-cam without laugh track:

The limited locations of a three-camera sitcom also derive from its theater-like stage. Only so many sets can be built and fit into a single studio. That’s one of the reasons the three definitive sitcom genres exist—workplace comedies take place in the workplace, family comedies in the home. Usually there is a bar or a diner in a friends (and often, workplace and family) comedy where everybody hangs out, just to keep things visually interesting. A show could also employ a limited exterior set portraying the outside of their house or bar. Sometimes they might throw in some B-roll second-unit shots of exteriors to make it feel like the show is really taking place outside the studio and in the real world, or at the very least, make it feel like it’s being shot on location. (For instance, Seinfeld’s classic apartment window exterior was neither Seinfeld’s apartment—which was a set—nor actually even in New York.)

In general, though, ninety percent of a given multi-cam episode will take place in the same handful of sets. Single-camera shows can shoot on location, or at the very least use different angles to make the same set feel fresh. So not only are they capable of several more scenes than their three-camera counterparts, they can place these scenes in a multitude of locations. This can expand the sense of the world the show occupies and ground it, or inversely add to its cartoonish energy. A comedy like Arrested Development could take place in a California apartment complex, Iraq, on a boat, in a magic shop, at the beach and in Reno, Nevada, all in the same episode

More scenes also allow for more storylines, and more storylines allow for more characters. While a three-camera sitcom’s primary cast is usually limited to six or less, a single-cam sitcom like The Office can boast an ensemble of fourteen or more. Similarly, a multi-cam script might include a primary A-plot, a secondary B-plot, and perhaps a tertiary C-plot, whereas a single-cam could include A, B, C, D, and E plots and give them all more heft and substance.

Another trend since Friends helped sitcoms usher in the single-cam revolution: the mockumentary series. While fake-documentaries have existed in cinema for quite some time, it wasn’t until the new millennium that television decided to crank them up to eleven. Again, Arrested Development proved itself ahead of the game by employing a cinéma vérité format that had its characters lean against the fourth wall and graffiti it rather than break it. But it was even earlier, in 2000, when the original U.K. version of The Office portrayed the fictional documentary crew as a diegetic presence existing in the world itself, allowing all its characters to communicate directly with the camera like some sort of latter-day Zack Morrises.

The U.S. remake of The Office brought this style across the pond to mainstream American audiences, which then spread to both comedy and drama alike, giving television writers new tools and techniques to employ. The so-called “talking head” shot, where a character delivers their thoughts interview-style straight to the camera allowed for exposition dumps—exposition that would feel too cheap or out-of-place in traditional narratives—which in itself allowed for cramming even more plot into a twenty-minute episode. (Arrested Development’s Narrator, another documentary staple, was a similarly useful device.)

In addition, characters could be developed in their talking heads not by what they said but by what they didn’t say, which coupled with facial and body language allowed for a subtext much harder to come by in multi-camera sitcoms. The mockumentary format also gave a more voyeuristic viewpoint that could make its storytelling more realistic and grounded—with Lisa Kudrow’s The Comeback being an early pioneer of this format. While the characters frequently broke the fourth wall, audiences were drawn forth within it. This poses a delicate balance for sitcom writers—at first the American Office tried hard to faithfully depict the drudgery of working in an office, but quickly abandoned this when producers realized that people didn’t want to come home from the office just to spend their free time watching other people work.

Lisa Kudrow in the mocumentary The Comeback

Lisa Kudrow in the mocumentary-style The Comeback, which is a pioneering “talking head” sitcom.

Why have single-camera comedies only exploded now if they provide such an interesting alternative to multi-camera studio sitcoms? The biggest reason, as always, comes down to money. Shooting on tape with a handful of sets was always much cheaper than shooting cinematically. But digital video has come a long way and is now at a point where it is cheap enough and good looking enough to make single-cam as viable (if not more viable) an option as multi-cam. And while the prevalence of single-camera sitcoms highlights the changes television has made since Friends, we are currently amidst an even greater geological shift for situation comedies, a shift proving that money is and always has been the driving force for the evolution of TV production—the advent of multimedia.

Single-cam might be in but it isn’t new, it’s been around since the 50s—just ask The Beaver. And Adult Kevin was narrating to the camera on The Wonder Years long before J.D. was on Scrubs. But the Internet and smartphones and video games and digital cable haven’t been around as long as TV, and they’re introducing change in complicated and unforeseen ways.

More entertainment options means less people watching the same thing at any given moment. While for most of its existence, television has split its real-time audience between three or four main networks, there are now hundreds if not thousands of choices a viewer can make. Any given channel’s ratings are drastically lower than they were fifteen years ago, despite an ever-growing population of more potential viewers. The Big Bang Theory, television’s highest-rated scripted show, boasts numbers that would’ve been considered moderate when Friends was ending its run and would’ve been considered outright weak when Friends was debuting. Seinfeld was almost cancelled by NBC in its early seasons because it only had four million viewers, a number many sitcoms would beg for today.

While this scares the hell out of the networks and their shareholders, having more options is obviously a good thing for television viewers. More venues provide more specific niches. Shows can stray farther from the norm and not be as mainstream and homogenous as they’ve been in the past—their common denominator no longer has to be as low. Types of humor that not everybody appreciates can finally find a voice. Unconventional sitcoms like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Workaholics, and Veep can now find audiences. In most cases, their numbers aren’t as large as the networks’, and pale in comparison to the ratings of yesteryear, but they no longer need to be so large. For the time being, they meet a standard that television executives have to be satisfied with. Television writers are striking while the iron is hot, experimenting in many and varied ways. Even eleven-minute sitcoms like Eagleheart can find themselves renewed year after year. While entertainment diversifies and ratings dwindle, creativity is thriving.

And we haven’t even settled into the new paradigm yet. All signs point to this just being the beginning. Innovation continues to dominate a rapidly growing and changing planet. Even if the tools we use were to somehow peak at their current point, we’re still years away from learning truly how to use them. This new wave of multimedia sitcoms, (some, like Orange is the New Black can’t even technically be called television shows) might end up seeming closer to Friends than they do to whatever comprises the entertainment landscape two decades from now. There may no longer be networks, or even TV, but don’t be surprised if the sitcom still exists in some form, about people in the workplace, or families, or—thanks to the legacy of Friends—good-looking twentysomethings just hanging out and shooting the shit. They might be on the moon or something, but there will always be friends.

Click here for the first part in our Evolution of the Sitcom series, which looks at the lasting influence of Friends on the sitcom landscape.

The Evolution Of The Sitcom: The Age of the Single Camera by

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4 thoughts on “The Evolution Of The Sitcom: The Age of the Single Camera

  1. As someone who watches very little TV (“Arrow”, “The Middle” currently) I found this very informative.

    I don’t know if it’s because of the single-camera setup but I have noticed many editing errors in “The Middle”. For example, the mom will be sitting one way one the couch … after a quick hello to someone who walked in, she’s sitting a different way. The next time we see her (maybe 10 or 12 seconds in this whole sequence), she’s back to the original position. I’ve also noticed it with a paper she was writing and tacked on the fridge — there are many examples.

    I’m guessing this wouldn’t happen with the other setup. Anyway just a minor observation but I love the show which almost always makes me laugh.

  2. While the article was informative, I did find it hard to follow. Watching the Friends clip without laughs was more akin to a daytime soap. I think many of these may be filmed and then shown to a live audience rather than the traditional laughter.

    It would have been interesting if the author had taken the time to explain, and horror forbid looking it up, who invented the three-camera set up. That would be Lucy and Desi, aka, the Ricardos of “I Love Lucy Fame.”

    What would also have been interesting would be a cost breakdown of the traditional three-camera set up versus a one camera set up, less the actors costs.

  3. It’s only touched on in the article, but I think one reason single-cam has become popular is that there’s a greater audience now for subtle humor. Most of the old single-cam sticoms (The Munsters, Father Knows Best, etc.) weren’t really written so differently than multi-cam shows. That’s why they could get away with an added laugh track: they had very definite jokes with very hard punch lines. It’s also why shows like Happy Days and The Odd Couple could switch from one format to the other without becoming drastically different shows (Happy Days later became drastically different, but not immediately).

    But can you imagine The Office in multi-cam? Can you imagine My Name Is Earl with a laugh track? It wouldn’t work because the humor is so different, and that’s something that has really come along in the past 15 years or so. These days we have jokes with softer punch lines, more of a slow burn that you can laugh as the joke plays out, rather than something like Cheers where everything is a one-liner. These days audiences don’t need ham and slapstick to find humor in a character’s reaction.

    In short, I think one big reason single-cam has finally started to become popular is that American audiences are finally ready for it to play to its strengths.

  4. It’s a shame you didn’t include The Bernie Mac Show in this. Larry Wilmore really brought the idea of single camera comedy to network TV. Before that show the only other program doing that was Malcolm in the Middle (also not on the list).

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