T-shirts emblazoned with this nonsensical word, the catchphrase that The Big Bang Theory’s lovable nerd protagonist Sheldon Cooper uses whenever he’s kidding about something, line the shelves of novelty t-shirt stores. Unfortunately for The Big Bang Theory, the popularity of this catchphrase has not been enough to sustain the show’s ratings in the midst of critically acclaimed prestige TV and the streaming service phenomenon.
In reality, CBS’s The Big Bang Theory garners the highest ratings of any sitcom on television and was the most-watched series of the 2014-2015 television season. The show, which follows the daily lives of four scientists and their neighbor Penny, has maintained its popularity by appealing to a wide-ranging audience of young and old viewers since it debuted in 2007.
Yet despite initial success among TV critics, the sitcom has not collected much critical praise of late. Like CBS’s other long-running ratings bonanzas NCIS and Blue Bloods, the show is a popular boon but a critical bust. Its multi-camera format, in which several cameras simultaneously record one scene usually shot in front of a studio audience and with a fake laugh track, seems to be falling out of critical favor as well. Gone are the days when NBC’s multi-camera smash hit Seinfeld and hourlong whodunnit Law & Order respectively dominated the sitcom and drama fields, and here are the days of prestige TV.
HBO’s The Sopranos ushered in an era of highly regarded dramas, a trend that AMC’s Mad Men and Breaking Bad brought to basic cable. During the original Golden Age of Television in the 1950s, viewership expanded as more people could afford to buy TV sets and access the then-limited number of network programs. The second Golden Age of Television—defined by the “prestige TV” that rules today’s airwaves-—is a revolution not just in quantity but quality of programming. Much ink has been spilled over the causes and effects of TV’s turnaround, but lost in the praise heaped upon compelling dramas is the revitalized TV sitcom. Sitcoms have been transitioning from network TV to cable and the web, from multi-camera to the more familiar and often cinematic single-camera, and from a lowest-common-denominator family-friendly brand of comedy to one of a more biting political edge. Amidst all of this, fewer multi-camera sitcoms are impressing critics. In October 2014, Eric Adams of the A.V. Club wrote that three sitcoms could “restore multi-camera’s reputation” by harkening back to the format’s early days. Those three shows were CBS’s The McCarthys, ABC’s Cristela, and Fox’s Mulaney. All of them have since been canceled.
A closer look at stand-up comedian John Mulaney’s eponymous Fox program—another installment in a long series of stand-up comics leading sitcoms about their everyday lives—reveals that the multi-camera format (and the network TV formula more generally) struggles to fit into the currently saturated television environment. Indicative of a larger trend in multi-camera sitcoms, Mulaney struggled to capture its creator’s zany comedic voice. By contrast, the sharpest, most critically praised sitcoms—including NBC’s Parks and Recreation, Comedy Central’s Broad City, and HBO’s Veep—are filmed in the single-camera format. Sitcoms such as these, with biting and unique comedic voices, have used the single-camera format to take the sitcom from the domain of the laugh track to a venue for prestige television. More than simply a different conception of the sitcom, the single-camera format allows for sharper writing, more creative and open-ended visuals, and more control over a show’s tone.
Perhaps if Mulaney filmed his sitcom in a single-camera format like fellow stand-up star Louis C.K., he could have more narrowly focused and developed his brand of comedy. Controversial or edgy programming is difficult to find on network TV, and even more difficult to find on multi-camera sitcoms. As a mostly observational comedian, Mulaney rarely ventures into potentially edgy areas like politics or cultural criticism. But when he does delve into controversial or strange territory, the multi-camera format restricts his tone. For example, an old Mulaney stand-up routine about lying to a doctor in order to get Xanax falls flat when translated to the multi-camera format. Imagining Mulaney’s awkward handling of the situation better suits its self-deprecatory tone than watching Mulaney explain the story to a friend as extras throw confused glances at the pair from the background.
Louis C.K. first developed Lucky Louie as a multi-camera show for HBO. The show received mixed reviews and was canceled without fanfare. By contrast, the much lauded single-camera Louie has offered comedy’s biggest star the opportunity to write, direct, edit, and star in his own television show. He stamps his warped worldview on every frame, and the show exhibits expert command of its absurdist tone. For example, in an early episode Louie leans in to kiss a woman who resists his advance. Suddenly, the camera cuts to Louie’s perspective and pans to reveal a helicopter. The woman jumps in, the helicopter takes off, and Louie is left sitting on a bench after an absurd turn of events that could have just as easily happened in a Buster Keaton film. The single-camera format brings hyperbole to life.
When Mulaney returned to his primary format—stand-up comedy specials—he returned to form, indicating the importance of stylistic command in comedy. His November 2015 Netflix special release, The Comeback Kid, showcased his mix of oddly specific pop culture references and brutal self-deprecation and produced another hour of his trademark observational comedy. One A.V. Club critic hailed it as a “triumphant” homecoming for the comedian. The multi-camera approach had inhibited a performer who had proved his comedic chops before and after the sitcom’s run.
Outside the Network Structure
The multi-camera format’s close relationship with restrictive network TV has in part kept it from developing the best new shows. In her positive review of Mulaney, Grantland’s Molly Lambert argues that a “false binary has emerged” between “experimental and smart” single-camera sitcoms and “successful and shitty” multi-camera shows. The dichotomy exists in the TV viewer’s mind because it reflects the reality of how TV shows tell their stories. So-called family-friendly sitcoms have tended to use the multi-camera setup, whereas more ironic or otherwise experimental shows have tended to use single-camera. The thought of creating a multi-camera sitcom on network TV about a struggling comedian with zany friends would not occur to a showrunner-to-be nowadays. Instead, that comedian would likely follow in the footsteps of Mindy Kaling, Aziz Ansari, Tina Fey, Louis C.K., and others who opted for single-camera. When asked why he chose Netflix for his hit show Master of None, Ansari cited the lack of typical network barriers such as a pilot or development process, the need to edit for commercials, and more freedom regarding “content issues.”
In a surprise move, the more veteran Louis C.K. opted to film his Cheers-esque sitcom Horace and Pete in the multi-camera format. However, it is by no means a typical multi-camera show. It is not filmed in front of a live audience, there are no commercials (it’s streamed on the comedian’s website), and its brand of humor is decidedly cynical. Sitcom creators like Ansari and Louis C.K. no longer have the patience to tolerate the dog-and-pony show that is the network TV development process. There are content producers that will allow them near-absolute freedom, and if no streaming services will pick up their show they can release it on a personal website for a per-episode charge. With so many content development opportunities, the network TV format that nurtured the multi-camera sitcom has gone out of date.
Two shows in particular demonstrate how the single-camera format, divorced from network TV, allows for sharp writing and otherwise unavailable visual elements to form unique tones: Veep and Broad City. Neither show would work in the multi-camera format. Imagine a Veep wherein lowly White House liaison Jonah Ryan enters President Selina Meyer’s office, like Kramer enters Jerry’s apartment in Seinfeld, to thunderous applause from the studio audience. The show could not achieve its desired level of cynicism if it were taped in front of a crowd, nor could it rely on the rapid-fire laughs that its tautly edited vulgar back-and-forths generate.
Similarly, Broad City could not exist in the multi-camera format. The show began as a web series, until Comedy Central executives offered co-creators and co-stars Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer a slot on the cable network. How exactly would Broad City’s directors have filmed Jacobson dancing naked around her apartment and singing Lady Gaga’s “The Edge of Glory” if the multi-camera format had restricted them? This vintage Broad City vignette relies on the camera’s movement around the constrained space of the apartment, non-diegetic music, and cuts between aspect ratios. A multi-camera show could never convey the tone this scene represents—the tone that is so key to Jacobson and Glazer’s bizarre brand of humor.
One Clear Path
If multi-camera shows could overcome their family-friendly stigma and feature honest, edgy comedy, then the format could perhaps endure. The A.V. Club’s Molly Eichel praised NBC’s The Carmichael Show, starring co-creator and stand-up comic Jerrod Carmichael, for its willingness to comment on police brutality and the state of the current civil rights movement but wrote that “[the show] feels oddly confined in the multi-camera format, and even when the show is highlighting its star’s unique perspective, it’s mired in the tropes of lesser sitcoms.” By contrast, when ABC’s single-camera Blackish dedicated an episode to police brutality, it better captured the issue’s somber reality. With no studio audience and the ability to incorporate real-life images from the news, Blackish was more equipped to tackle the issue.
In the era of prestige TV, Blackish represents what sitcoms can be, and The Carmichael Show represents what they were. Single-camera shows display better command of tone, more polished writing, and more creative freedom. By contrast, multi-camera sitcoms and the network TV process that perpetuates them stifle visual creativity and tone.
The Big Bang Theory adheres to network conventions and rarely strays from inoffensive themes and storylines. Such an unimaginative show is not the future of comedy on television. In the eyes of viewers and critics, TV can achieve and has achieved great visual storytelling feats normally reserved for the medium of film. Catchphrases like “Bazinga!” are cute and sell t-shirts, but sitcoms have so much more to offer than novelty clothing. When we assess the state of the sitcom, we should look to shows like Veep and Broad City to see not just what the state is but what it can be.
Image source: Wikimedia/CC By 2.0/Public Domain