Despite what Shakespeare (or whoever was writing his plays) said, the real question these days in TV sitcoms isn’t to be or not to be – the success this year of several shows prove that comedy is back in style. These days, when you’re pitching your half-hour comedy idea, the question that you will invariably be asked is, “it is a single or multi-cam?” Answering that it can be either one can show a certain amount of flexibility on your part, but consider carefully whether your idea really is better suited for a multi cam or single cam environment.
There are a few things you should keep in mind before deciding the format of your show. Type of humor, casting, and style are all key elements that should influence your choice. Knowing the difference between the two is vital to picking the right format. (While there are a few successful hybrids out there, most comedies are strictly one or the other.)
Multi-cams are shows that are shot in front of a live audience with multiple cameras shooting the scene all at once (hence the name). They usually air with a laugh track that is (hopefully) made from the actual live audience’s reaction, often sweetened and edited to make the show appear as funny as possible to the viewing audience at home. Typically they take place in limited locations (home, office, café, etc.) that are easily created on a sound stage.
The common industry belief is that multi cam shows tend to play to a broader audience. The pacing of the show tends to be a bit more set up & joke, set up & joke than a single cam. Staff writers aren’t sitting around the table writing sophisticated jokes to make each other laugh; they’re writing jokes for the tourist from Peoria who will eagerly file in to be part of a studio audience.
Because they are shot in front of a live audience, shooting time is limited to just one day, although the day can go for as long as it takes to get every single shot. Some talent will be attracted to that schedule (for instance, an actress who wants to spend time with her family) while others will either like or dislike the idea of performing in front of a live audience. It’s not a huge factor in deciding the format for your show, but being aware of it can help you avoid some pitfalls like not getting that perfect piece of casting that you wrote the entire show around.
In the past few years, multi cams were considered old-fashioned and out of style. They appeared predominantly on CBS, while “hipper” networks like Fox and NBC preferred the slicker look and feel of a single cam. This fall, however, has proven to be the come back of the multi cam. The ratings success of new shows like “Whitney” on NBC and “2 Broke Girls” on CBS may have networks rethinking their preferences.
Single camera shows are shot more like dramas. There is no live audience so typically they air without laugh tracks. They can go to multiple locations and have a greater flexibility as far as lighting, camera use, etc.
The comedy of a single cam show is believed to be a bit more sophisticated. The humor can take its time to develop; there aren’t any pauses for the studio audience laughter to die down so the rhythm and pacing of the show is completely up to the writer and director.
The shooting schedule can span over a number of days, can take place outdoors or indoors, and although ideally it will stick to a set schedule can still be grueling on talent and crew alike. Again, when casting a single cam you want to be careful to choose actors who don’t require the energy of a live studio audience to play off of in order to be funny.
In the past, single cams like “Community,” “The Office” and “Parks and Rec” had been the domain of NBC, but hits like “Modern Family” and “The Middle” on ABC and this season’s first proclaimed hit, “New Girl” on Fox have shown that there is an audience for this kind of humor across the boards.
SOMETHING TO KEEP IN MIND BEFORE YOU SPEC OUT YOUR SCRIPT…
Before you sit down to your computer and bravely spec out your comedy script, keep in mind that the two different styles have completely different script formats. Multi-cams have the dialog in 1 ½ line spacing, and often the description is written in all caps. Their page length (because of the spacing) tends to be longer, around 50 pages or so. Single cams are written in regular feature format and tend to run around 35 pages. Programs like Final Draft have templates to choose from that will clarify and simplify your options.
Thefutoncritic.com has a pretty comprehensive list of the comedies on the air and what type they are, as well as the new comedies that have been put in development.
Writeisright.com has excellent samples of various script formats.