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

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.

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.

Evolution Of The Sitcom: How Friends Invented The Hangout Comedy

Twenty years ago today Friends debuted with a pilot that might as well have been called “The One Where that Show Became the Biggest Thing on the Planet.” It’s crazy to think that it’s been two decades since Rachel first moved in with Monica, and a lot has happened since. The TV landscape that Friends was born into was a very different place from the one we live in now.

Sitcoms were still almost exclusive to the broadcast networks—the Big Three and FOX, which was just graduating from experimental outlier to mainstream juggernaut. Sitcoms themselves were barely recognizable from the form they take today. For half-hour comedies (and really, all media), 1994 was the calm before the storm, a gray area where old met new and when everything was about to change. And it was Friends that sat right in that gray space, on a leather couch with an oversized cup of Central Perk coffee.

Sitting on that precipice of twenty-first century entertainment, Friends represented both the old and the new. It was old in that on its surface it seemed like every other sitcom that graced the airwaves for thirty years previous—multi-camera and backed by a small-screen Greek chorus: the studio audience. Though it wasn’t just another brick in the wall—it was the top of the heap, occupying the same throne once ruled by Cheers and I Love Lucy. It was one of the last Nielsen megahits, before Internet and smartphones and digital cable divided ratings into smaller and smaller pieces of the pie, a water cooler show when everybody at the water cooler still actually watched the same show.

But Friends was also something new, something different a generation that had grown up on sitcoms hadn’t seen before. Friends introduced the modern hangout comedy. Now, hangout comedy is a loose term, a subgenre of sitcoms. Since the dawn of television, almost any sitcom to date can be classified in one of three categories: family comedy, workplace comedy, or friends comedy. Go ahead, try to think of a show that doesn’t fall into at least one of those three genres. Can’t do it, right? Obviously Friends belongs in the latter category, but it also introduced something more specific, something generational.

Unlike Cheers (which was more friends than workplace) or The Golden Girls, Friends allowed viewers to watch a bunch of goodlooking twentysomethings literally hang out (and one got the feeling that the screenwriters were doing the same). Just chill. Shoot the shit while sitting in a café, bouncing snappy sarcastic one-liners off and occasionally having sex with one another. Even more revolutionary, while previous sitcoms had you sit and watch these characters, Friends made it feel like you were there in the coffee shop hanging out with them, something a show could only get away with once enough of the key demographic had actually grown up with TV. It was the next logical step for the entire medium, and it was Ross, Rachel, Chandler, Monica, Phoebe and Joey that took that step.

Obviously it worked, because the show became such a phenomenon. Like any hit show, every network tried to replicate its success by directly copying the idea with new pilots. Friends suddenly occupied the same TV listings as shows like The Single Guy and Caroline in the City, both of which might as well have been titled Other Friends. Most of these shows fizzled as these attempts to recapture lightning in a bottle tend to, but the hangout comedy did become its own tried and true subgenre, finding another hit a few years later in Will & Grace and existing today in the recently departed but critically adored Happy Endings and the very much alive New Girl, among others. But while shockwaves of Friends’ explosive debut still ripple throughout the TV-sphere, twenty years is a long time. Sitcoms today are different in many ways, catering to people who grew up watching TV and made for people who grew up watching TV. Today, half-hour comedies are edgier, more meta, sometimes not even a half-hour. And most of them, unlike Friends or its contemporaries, are single-camera.

Come back tomorrow to read the second part in this series charting the evolution of the sitcom.