Single-camera sitcoms dominated the 60s and 70s. Multi-camera sitcoms dominated the 80s and 90s. Today? The entertainment industry is torn between the two. Modern Family and 30 Rock follow the single-camera method. Each clip—each piece of dialogue—is filmed separately. The perfection of each camera angle gives these shows a “movie feel” that is very unique. How I Met Your Mother and Big Bang Theory are filmed with multiple cameras. These sitcoms snap back and forth between angles, from one character to the next, from head-on to profiles, for punchline set-up and character reactions. These are four the most popular shows on television over the last 20 years, but used completely different filming techniques to entertain their audiences. Thus raising the question: Which is better?
First off, let’s look at the difference-
From a business perspective, multi-cam sitcoms are much easier and cheaper to film. Everybody is performing together at the same time, so it involves less takes and less time. Multi-cam sitcoms also have a better lifespan on television. That’s because single-cam comedies are very risky. Not only because they are very expensive to shoot, but because they can completely flop. Each actor is filmed individually, which makes acting more difficult, and more subject to criticism. If one character cannot hold his/her own on a single-cam sitcom, it will most likely be cancelled. Whereas on a multi-cam sitcom, the angles are switching so fast between dialogue characters can often piggy back one another. The diner scenes in Seinfeld are perfect examples of effective multi-cam filming because witty banter goes back and forth between characters at a fast pace, in one take, as if on stage.
However, when a single-cam sitcom is done right, it’s success is rarely matched. Modern Family is one of the most critically acclaimed comedies on television, due to its clever dialogue, narrations, and beautiful timing. It’s filmed like a movie, with smooth transitions between clips, making conversations flow perfectly despite being shot with a single camera. Multi-cam sitcoms can fail when they become too cheesy with forced punchlines, laugh tracks, and awkward switching between cameras. Editing becomes a lot more difficult for multi-cam because they have a lot more footage to work with.
Here are what film industry executives had to say about multi-cam and single-cam shooting:
“My favorite thing about multi-cams is, they feel like a radio play… Raymond, Friends, Cheers, Family Ties, NewsRadio… I think they put funny people together and made it about cast chemistry…It's the comedy of conversation... I used to argue with my friends that worked on Seinfeld—they loved saying the show was about nothing, and I was like, "You want it to be about nothing, but unfortunately for you, people give a shit about George, and Jerry, and Elaine. They aren't watching it going, 'I don't care if bad things happen to them' -- you actually do. Whether you want it to happen or not, people care."
-Bill Lawrence, creator of Scrubs
"A lot of people are very seduced by the romance of a single-camera comedy… They're definitely harder to do.. but being able to craft and score with hard jokes -- we are particularly good at it. I think we have a very keen ability to identify those talents who can really deliver that kind of comedy.”
-Nina Tassler, CBS entertainment chairman
“We often think of those (multi-cam) kinds of sitcoms as being jokier, but really, there are more jokes per second, per page, than there are on a show like Sports Night, where there wasn't an audience, and there was no compelling reason to rewrite."
-Mitchell Hurwitz, creator of Arrested Development
"I’ve done stuff on sets without audiences, but comedy and the rhythm and the heightening of everything is really, to me, almost an engine, to help get the comedy and the pace to where I want it. I think I’d really miss not being in front of an audience. So as to why so many stand-ups have had success, I remember hearing they would only do I Love Lucy if they could be in front of an audience, because Desi Arnaz thought that Lucille Ball just needed that to go as big and as funny as she could. I imagine that’s the case for a lot of performers."
-John Mulaney, writer for Saturday Night Live
There is no right answer. It really just depends on which shows you like more. Both single-cam and multi-cam sitcoms have a place in this world, and it seems like it’ll be that way for a while. As long as we keep laughing, they’ll keep coming.