Question of the week: do you prefer multi-camera or single-camera comedies?

On Friday, in response to my review of Whitney, Mark asked “What’s wrong with single-camera comedies?” (or something like it). Okay, let’s set out some definitions. Here’s 30 Rock as a single-camera comedy.

And here’s 30 Rock as a multi-camera comedy.

You’ll notice, for starters, that the multi-camera comedy

  1. Is shot on video, looks cheaper and is over-lit
  2. Has a studio audience guffawing at almost everything
  3. Has performances geared towards a guffawing studio audience and ensuring that the people at the back of the studio can hear what’s being said
  4. Largely is stuck indoors
  5. Not as funny

Okay, you might not be able to tell those last two instantly from those clips, but my points stand. Nevertheless, for much of sitcom history, multi-camera has been the way things have been done, single the rarity, so some might prefer it to single-camera.

So today’s question is:

Do you generally prefer single- or multi-camera comedies?

  • Hmm. Well that’s hard one I think. My favourite comedy shows are:
    Arrested Development, Seinfeld, Spaced, How I Met Your Mother, Community, Parks and Recreation and The Office (USA)
    That’s a pretty even split between the show styles, but I think I’d have to give the nod to the single camera shows.

  • Eesh, why on Earth did I say ‘pretty even split’ I clearly prefer single camera shows.

  • Mark Carroll

    Oh, “multi-camera” means basically “shot on stage in front of an audience”? And that without that constraint, there’s just no point in having multiple cameras, so it becomes single-camera?

  • SK

    There’s still a point to having multiple cameras, which is that you get things done faster as you don’t have to do things as many times (with a single camera and two characters talking to each other, you will probably go over the same conversation a least three times: once with the camera over character A’s shoulder pointing at character B, once vice-versa, and once to get both of them in the same shot. If you want to do anything funky you’d have to do it a fourth, a fifth, etc.
    With three cameras you just stick them in the right positions and go through it once.
    For this reason most of studio Doctor Who was shot with multiple cameras with no audience.
    The disadvantage of doing it that way is basically the lighting: you have to place the lights so that every camera has enough light to see the thing it is pointed at. So unless you’re very clever, that just means flooding the whole area and hoping for the best.
    With a single camera, on the other hand, you can light character B to their best advantage while you’re shooting over character A’s shoulder — in a way that might totally ruin the shot with both of them in.
    But that takes a lot longer, because not only are you doing everything multiple times, you have to break between every shot to change the positions of all the lights. Which means more paying for crew time, so it’s massively more expensive, and it means you can’t use an audience (whether this is a good or bad thing depends on your point of view: some people think comedy performers really need the energy of a live audience to give their best).
    I do on the whole prefer single-camera shows, though I hate that I do because I think it makes me sound like a snob. But on the other hand some of the best comedies of all time, like Father Ted, are multi-camera and come alive because of it (by all accounts* Dermot Morgan was not a natural actor, but was a brilliant performer, so it probably wouldn’t have been half as good if he hadn’t had the audience to play to). So it’s very much a question of what suits the style of the writing.
    * ie, that documentary on last year

  • bob

    Ugh, that second 30 Rock clip was awful.
    For single-camera fans out there I will ask you this one thing: Was Red Dwarf improved when they went to single camera?
    Obviously it has its advantages but badly done single camera work is incredibly distracting. If the shots don’t match when the perspective changes, it ruins the entire thing. Now and again you can get scenes where the performances don’t match up because the shots are from so many splintered takes.
    Of course it tends to be done well nowadays but still I often find myself noticing hair or clothes changing from shot to shot.
    In multi-camera work, the actors are really responding to each other. There is only one performance (typically- obviously retakes are possible) and that immediacy lends to it a sense of realism.
    Of course I prefer single camera shows. But there is a lot to be said for well done multi camera shows. A friend of mine waxes lyrical about HIMYM’s camera work. I don’t watch it because I find it painfully unfunny but I have to admit that the filming has never bothered me. It is well done and I doubt it would be better as a single-camera show.

  • It could have been improved, had the scripts been good.