It’s two days before taping, and something isn’t quite working about this episode of NBC’s The Carmichael Show.
The lively, issues-driven sitcom is both one of TV’s funniest and one of its most under-the-radar; it will film the penultimate episode of its third season a little over 48 hours from now, and the show’s writers have gathered to go over notes from the run-through that just took place on soundstages across the Fox lot. (The show usually rolls out new episodes in the summer, when much of the TV world curls up for a long nap.)
The Carmichael Show, about a young man and his family full of people who love to argue the issues of the day, a.k.a. a premise as old as TV itself, is at the forefront of a wave of really good, really political traditional sitcoms that have hit the airwaves in the past five years. They all look at a deeply fractured America and see room for humor —modern-day All in the Family-style shows that see every argument between right and left as an opportunity to tweak the foibles of both. What’s more, they express America’s racial, economic, and political diversity better than a lot of other TV genres.
But even if Carmichael were the only show of its type on the air, it would suggest that within its very classic, artistically conservative boundaries, where audiences laugh and stories are mostly confined to the family living room, lies the secret to how to talk about the difficult topics that tear us apart in real life. Can the classic sitcom save America?! Probably not — but shows like Carmichael might make you hope they could.
Today, though, the show’s writers must first decide how to keep politics from taking over the episode they’re about to film.
This episode is really good, I think, having just watched the run-through. The Carmichael Show is centered on comedian Jerrod Carmichael — the series’ star, its creator, and one of its writers — and this half-hour hits on the twin poles of the series, digging into a persistent social issue through the very personal lens of the show’s opinionated characters.
In this case, the characters are wrestling with the question of whether women can ever find empowerment through stripping, or if it’s an inherently demeaning act. (Trust me, they find the humor in that seemingly dry topic.)
But the writers aren’t yet satisfied, and drill down into what feels off about the episode. It’s hitting the right beats when it comes to the sociopolitical aspects, but it’s not personal enough. The various members of the Carmichael family don’t have enough investment in the week’s story, which revolves around a guest character we’ve only just met. The story can’t be all politics. It only works if it finds a way to dig into why those politics are deeply personal — and vice versa.
The writers suggest solutions to this problem to showrunner Danielle Sanchez-Witzel, who furrows her brow and thinks them through. (I can, in fact, almost see her turn over each and every idea in her brain, isolating what works and discarding the rest.) There isn’t much conversation — this is a time for thinking — and as the group circles a solution, Sanchez-Witzel turns to Carmichael for a series of gut checks. Does this work? Does it fit the show’s voice and vision?
Slowly but surely, they find their way out of the conundrum, without blowing up the script and starting over from scratch. When I see the show taped a few nights later, before a raucous live studio audience, it’s hard to say what alchemical magic has been performed — a few lines tweaked here, a few reactions tightened up there — but everything really is that much better.
The writers watch the action from the floor. Above them, the audience laughs, or doesn’t.
In the lulls, new jokes will be written for a later taping. (Alone among sitcoms, The Carmichael Show tapes twice in one night, with the first taping unfolding like a stage play with cameras and the second used to make needed adjustments and alterations. The show’s editors will take what they need from both tapings. I wrote more about this here.) There’s a definite electricity to a tape night, a high-wire act where the week’s script either flies or flops, with minimal time to smooth out the problem spots.
I have attended many, many episode tapings like this while living in Los Angeles, and there’s nothing quite like their weird blend of TV and live theater. Many of the greatest TV series of all time — I Love Lucy, All in the Family, Cheers, Seinfeld — were filmed in this fashion, before a live studio audience. And yet the idea of a sitcom that contains audience laughter has become a bit of a punchline itself in recent years. Aren’t those shows hackwork?
In a word, no. This sort of sitcom is a uniquely American art form that’s been out of favor for nearly 20 years, but is finding its way back into fashion for one simple reason: In a country where our politics divide us more than ever, sitcoms filmed before a live studio audience are one of the few places where we can all still get together and argue about what would otherwise pull us apart, without wanting to kill each other.
The multi-camera sitcom uses humor to let you try on different political viewpoints, to see if they make sense for you
When you think about the great TV shows centered on genuine political conflict — by which I mean shows where two characters have very different political views and want to argue about them, shows like All in the Family or Maude or Roseanne — almost all of them use a format known in the TV industry as the “multi-camera sitcom.”
There are exceptions, of course, but if you’re going to have characters come to loggerheads over LGBTQ rights, or racial division, or the income tax rate, having the leavening agent of the live studio audience somehow casts a spell that other shows can’t manage. It’s as if the laughter reminds viewers that we can talk about this kind of serious, personal stuff and still find it funny.
The presence of that “live studio audience” (which we’ll return to in a moment) is the easiest way for a viewer to separate a “multi-camera sitcom” from a “single-camera sitcom.”
Multi-camera sitcoms are typically staged like a Broadway play, on a deliberately artificial-looking set, with no fourth wall. An audience files into the soundstage to watch and laugh, and a number of cameras, usually four, capture every scene from a variety of angles, to allow for more options in editing.
Single-camera sitcoms are usually filmed more like a movie — often on location or on more “realistic” sets — and, as such, they don’t have an audience present to laugh at the jokes. (The “single-camera” designation is a bit of a misnomer, since most of these shows are also filmed on multiple cameras at once — they’re just staged very differently.)
All of this technical definition is, to many viewers, unimportant, and yet there’s some indication that viewers notice it, perhaps subconsciously. It’s rare, for instance, for a network to air a single-camera sitcom and a multi-camera sitcom back to back and have both series thrive.
The result is that more and more multi-camera sitcoms have been marooned on their own nights in the weird hinterlands of their networks’ schedules. Single-camera sitcoms — though often lower-rated than multi-camera sitcoms — are trendier. Multi-cams don’t pull in strong reviews or Emmy Awards; they feel purposely old-fashioned in a way that the era of Peak TV often eschews in favor of the new.
But in recent years, more and more good multi-cams have crowded onto the air, often with a bent toward social issues and telling stories about how those issues divide us. The first was probably CBS’s Mom, starring Anna Faris and Allison Janney, which debuted in 2013. It was quickly followed by The Carmichael Show in 2015, and then the Netflix duo of The Ranch (2016) and One Day at a Time (2017). These four shows — all very good to genuinely terrific — are just the tip of an iceberg of new, socially conscious comedy that wrestles with big issues and tells stories about populations rarely seen on TV, from lower-class recovering addicts to Cuban-American families to rural ranchers.
And that’s to say nothing of shows like ABC’s recently canceled Last Man Standing, which certainly wasn’t perfect but was one of TV’s few shows to center on a conservative character and take his point of view more or less seriously (even if most episodes ended with him failing to change the more liberal characters’ minds).
Multi-cams don’t just offer a safe space to talk about political issues that have us at odds; through their stuffier and more artistically conservative format, they create a world where all sorts of ideas across the political spectrum can come into play and be considered by all sorts of people. They offer a place where viewers can try these ideas on for size — and sometimes adopt them.
Indeed, the two most exciting things happening in TV comedy right now, to my mind, are the more experimental and auteur-driven cable and streaming comedies that explore particular points of view (often through filmmaking with a dose of surrealism, à la Atlanta or Insecure or Master of None), and the recent swath of terrific multi-camera sitcoms, which are using the inherent limitations of the format as a kind of challenge. Can you do anything new with this format? Should you even try? These shows answer, week after week, in the affirmative.
But I’m betting you’ve read a lot more about the world’s Master of Nones as of late.
Many multi-camera sitcoms are among TV’s most popular shows — just not the best ones
Attending a multi-camera sitcom taping is a wholly unique experience in American pop culture. It’s a TV show, but not quite; a stage play, but also not quite. There’s usually a comedian in the audience whose job is to keep the crowd laughing between takes, and then coax them into immediate silence once it’s time to shoot again, quietly reminding everyone of where they are in the plot.
When a taping clicks, there’s nothing like it.
Early on in working on this story, in February 2015 (on the very night BuzzFeed posted about “the dress” and left the entire internet pretending to understand color theory), I attended a taping for the short-lived ABC sitcom Cristela, in which comedian Cristela Alonzo starred as a young Latina woman trying to balance an overly involved home life with her first few days of work at the lowest levels of a law firm. It was a good show, sort of like if someone crossbred The Dick Van Dyke Show and Better Call Saul, and more importantly, Alonzo was clearly a TV star, charismatic and quick with a punchline.
The show was buried within ABC’s Friday night schedule, but it held on to enough of its Last Man Standing audience to have a decent shot at renewal. And on this night — when Tim Allen’s Last Man character would cross over to meet Cristela (for one scene only, which was taped beforehand and shown to the audience on monitors) — spirits were high. The main story, about Cristela’s struggles to have a love life in the midst of everything else, was strong, and the jokes were working. Even the weaker ones could be pushed over the finish line by a cast that was clearly gelling.
Showrunner and co-creator Kevin Hench came to me, lurking on the sidelines, beaming. “This is really working tonight,” he said. It often takes a while for a sitcom ensemble to get comfortable enough with each other to play well in front of a studio audience, but Cristela’s ensemble had gotten there and knew how to use the audience to push punchlines from “pretty funny” to “hilarious.” The audience was laughing. The writers weren’t making many changes. Everything was going smoothly.
And then, a few months later, the series was canceled.
Cristela’s fate is the peril of the multi-cam right now. Ratings-wise, the biggest comedies on TV tend to be multi-cams — like The Big Bang Theory currently and Two and a Half Men before it — but the good ones tend to toil in semi-obscurity. Even the highest-rated show I’ve mentioned in this article, Mom, lags significantly behind Big Bang in terms of viewership.
The Carmichael Show has carved out a niche for itself in the summers, while One Day at a Time and The Ranch are doing about as well for themselves as any Netflix show (which is to say we have no idea how well they’re doing, but they keep getting renewed). But generally, the public attention turns more toward shows that are well past their prime (Big Bang) or actively terrible (Netflix’s Fuller House, one of the few shows the streaming service will allow is a genuine sensation).
This makes tape nights a strange bubble for multi-camera sitcoms to exist in. When I attended that taping of The Carmichael Show, the audience was eating out of the cast’s hand, as well they should have been — Carmichael’s ensemble is one of the most well-calibrated on TV. But it’s usually not clear whether most of the people in the room have ever watched the show outside of the single episode they were shown before the taping, to familiarize them with the characters and relationships.
I watch as they laugh, and some are obviously fans. But others are clearly just here because they like one of the actors (Loretta Devine or David Alan Grier, perhaps, who play Jerrod’s parents and both have fans, though LilRel Howery, as Jerrod’s brother, has seen his fan base grow in the wake of a notable role in Get Out). Still others probably got the tickets as part of a group outing, or just thought it would be interesting to see how a TV show is made.
I’ve attended tapings with senior groups and military members on leave and “sitcom lifers” — people who try to see as many tapings of as many shows as they can. I know one showrunner who tells me he can sometimes pick out individual laughs from these lifers on the sound mixes of his shows, because they’re so distinctive.
I suppose this sounds depressing in some ways — all of these people locked together in a room and urged to laugh on cue. And it can be. (I once attended a taping of the famously terrible Fox sitcom Dads, so boy, do I know it can be.) But when it works, it’s fascinating to observe how everybody in the room performs a specific role in a kind of ballet, one that will end up on TV.
The cameras glide and pan and tilt, and between scene setups, they move to film another set, in an elaborate, unspoken choreography. (Multiple sets are placed right next to each other on a multi-camera soundstage, so the audience can see all of them at once.)
The writers huddle between takes to spruce up jokes, then call in their changes to the actors, hoping a new line will get a bigger laugh. (Only multi-cam affords this luxury in the TV space — if a joke bombs, it can always be replaced.) The actors experiment a little, playing around with the safety net of an audience that will laugh or not laugh at appropriate times. It’s a kind of game, waiting to see if something will fall, or how long you can suspend your disbelief even though all the trappings of making TV are right there in front of you.
And then, against all odds, against the weight of the 60-plus years of sitcom history, something happens that you weren’t expecting, and you laugh.
The multi-camera sitcom’s artistic conservatism has helped Americans grow more comfortable with diversity — just look at Will & Grace
The thing that most intrigues me about the multi-camera sitcom is that for its intense, artistic conservatism — it can never do anything too crazy, because it’s bound to a soundstage and a very specific set of parameters — it’s also the TV genre that’s most often pointed to when it comes to questions of pop culture helping Americans grow more comfortable with diversity and outside points of view.
Case in point: Will & Grace. Can anyone ever prove that the show becoming one of the most popular in America directly affected and encouraged the country’s growing acceptance of LGBTQ rights? Of course not. But the correlation between when the series debuted (in 1998) and the rise in levels of acceptance of LGBTQ Americans in opinion polls is close enough to make speculation plausible, at least.
It’s a chicken-egg question. More Americans became comfortable with LGBTQ people, because more Americans got to know LGBTQ people in their day-to-day lives. But how much did their getting to know more LGBTQ people come about because of an environment where people felt comfortable coming out of the closet thanks to TV shows, usually sitcoms, presenting LGBTQ people as just another part of the vast mosaic of interchangeable, attractive Americans who can crack jokes and draw laughs from unseen viewers?
This storytelling approach can backfire. The creators of All in the Family were rarely sure what to make of how many of their viewers seemed to empathize heartily with Archie Bunker, who frequently expressed controversial (read: racist and misogynistic) opinions, and whom they intended as a kind of sitcom antihero.
But at the same time, because the sitcom ruthlessly demands only one thing from viewers from all backgrounds — laugh! — it functions as a great leveler. So long as they’re laughing, viewers are forced to sympathize with characters they might not meet in their day-to-day lives, and that leads to familiarity, which leads to a kind of acceptance, at least onscreen.
This quality is inherent to the multi-camera sitcom. Just look at the very first one, I Love Lucy, which presented an interracial marriage as no big deal and dared Americans to keep up. Some were outraged; most just watched. It was the No. 1 show on TV.
Multi-camera sitcoms enjoyed their greatest potency in the ’70s and ’80s, the eras of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Cheers. Back then, sitcoms were not only the most-watched programs in a TV universe that contained only a handful of networks, but also routinely embraced stories of social class, race, and gender that provided a window into, say, women entering the workforce or blue-collar folks struggling to pull themselves up the ladder of Reagan’s America. And because they all had to be funny, they were able to do an end-around preachiness, whereas some of their single-camera peers, like M.A.S.H. (a show I like, on the whole) found themselves frequently devoured by self-righteous moralizing.
Of course, sitcoms are also governed by stereotypes — by the idea that humor often derives from the broadest possible version of something. (You can see this playing out in largely inoffensive fashion on The Big Bang Theory, where most of the characters are capital-N Nerds who wouldn’t have felt out of place hanging out with Screech on Saved by the Bell.) Jack on Will & Grace isn’t just an effeminate gay man. He’s the most effeminate gay man. That’s why many of these shows don’t “age well,” as any YouTube compilation of gay panic Friends jokes will gleefully tell you.
But the flip side is that the multi-camera sitcom has a unique power, one that allowed for Will & Grace to influence American attitudes, however it did. If you find yourself free to laugh at Jack as a stereotype, then when he’s revealed to have thoughts and feelings and an inner self, your guard is down. You’re more willing to accept him, because you realize that what you interpret as an extreme is actually a facade, and he’s more like you than you might have thought. By playing into stereotypes, the most skillful multi-camera sitcoms can defuse them, bit by bit.
The operative word here is “skillful,” and it doesn’t take too much scrutiny to note how few skillful multi-cams there really are.
How Norman Lear, the father of the socially conscious sitcom, remains vital nearly 50 years after All in the Family
The new wave of socially conscious sitcoms can largely trace their lineage back to one man: Norman Lear, the TV producer who brought the English sitcom Till Death Us Do Part to these shores and renamed it All in the Family. His catalog of ’70s TV series, which includes shows like The Jeffersons, Maude, Sanford and Son, Good Times, and the original One Day at a Time, is one of the most important, substantial bodies of work in American television.
And somewhat remarkably, Lear is still alive and still making TV. He’s now 94 years old, and his pace might have slowed from the days when he had seemingly dozens of shows in development, but, then, he is halfway through his 90s. Lear has bestowed his blessing upon Carmichael (who has spoken often of his affection for Lear’s work), and you might notice that one of today’s good multi-cams — Netflix’s One Day at a Time — bears the same title as one of Lear’s ’70s hits.
It’s a remake, yes, but one that fundamentally rethinks the original show’s concept — a single mother raising her two kids — for an era when that’s not an especially edgy hook. And if you talk about the 2017 One Day at a Time on a superficial level, it sounds like someone crammed a bunch of buzzwords into the same space and called it a TV show. It’s still about a single mother raising her two kids, but now she’s also a Cuban-American veteran struggling to make ends meet and having to deal with being a Latina woman living in Donald Trump’s America.
What keeps One Day at a Time from being a Mad Libs mashup of too many different elements is that at all times, its writers (headed up by creators and showrunners Gloria Calderon Kellett and Mike Royce) have their eye on the fact that their characters are people first, politics second. When I visit the offices of One Day at a Time in late May, the writers are trying to reorient the season two premiere to make viewers feel, more viscerally, just what main character Penelope is going through as her already crowded schedule of parenting and working full time gets even more crowded in the wake of deciding to go back to school.
This is what has always set Lear’s work apart from the many, many shows that have tried to rip them off by confusing politics for personality. The characters in a Norman Lear show — from All in the Family’s Archie Bunker all the way up to the 2017 One Day at a Time’s Penelope — aren’t constantly thinking about how they fit into American political narratives, because they’re already living them.
In One Day at a Time’s first season, Penelope isn’t thinking about the politics of deportation, because she’s witnessing the heartbreak that results when the Mexican-born parents of one of her daughter’s best friends (an American citizen) are deported. Similarly, a major reason that All in the Family became such a big hit was that it seemed like it could bridge the gap between two drastically different visions of America in the turbulent 1970s.
The most persistent criticisms of shows like this are that they soften and humanize characters who might otherwise be seen as monstrous. Many mostly failed TV shows have tried to offer riffs on Archie Bunker in the years since the ’70s, but they’ve always been careful to suggest a slight distance between a character’s prejudiced comments and what the writers believe — the, “Hey, we’re not that guy!” effect. (The terror of the think piece industrial complex is real.)
What made All in the Family work, though, was that Lear loved Archie in spite of all of the reasons he knew he shouldn’t. (He says in his memoir that he drew inspiration from his own father to create Archie.) Archie was a racist asshole with a temper, but he really loved and cared about his family. What was human about him illuminated what was monstrous about him and vice versa, and in All in the Family’s best episodes, this feedback loop (spurred on by that laughing audience) prompted the same soul searching in the audience. You, too, were like every member of the Bunker family in some way.
I think a lot about this quality of Lear’s work while listening to the One Day at a Time cast read through their second season’s second episode, which forthrightly confronts what it is to be Latino in Donald Trump’s America without ever once saying the word “Trump.” One Day at a Time is a very different show from All in the Family, in that it centers on a family that will almost always be the focus of racism, not the ones perpetrating it. But it, too, forces everyone in the audience — even self-impressed white liberals like myself — to wrestle with the part of themselves that is as old and animal as anything in any human being, the part that draws up lines between tribes and calls it rational thinking.
One Day at a Time also deals in its share of stereotypes — the over-involved activist teenage daughter, say, or the white hipster liberal dude who can’t stop showing off how woke he is — but its most potent moments are always the ones where the laughs drop out and the characters are forced to just talk to each other. The studio audience is quiet in a way where you can almost hear them hovering on the edges of their seats, and then a joke comes in that causes a much bigger laugh than might be strictly necessary, but you can tell how grateful they are to have the tension broken, for just a moment, and you feel that way too.
That still silence, that hovering at the edge of your seat — that’s where Norman Lear and the many shows inspired by him live.
In defense of the “laugh track,” which you should almost never call a laugh track
At this point, you may be wondering why if multi-camera sitcoms are so great — with so much potential to tackle America’s conflicts head on — they ever fell out of favor.
Multi-cams reached their height of popularity in the late ’90s. During the 1997-’98 TV season (the last season when Seinfeld was on the air), NBC’s fall schedule featured 18 multi-camera comedies, with full two-hour blocs on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. (For perspective, the network had but two comedies on its fall schedule for 2016-’17, and neither was a multi-camera show.) And that’s to say nothing of every other network that chased NBC’s success.
The result, as you’d expect, was a glut. If you weren’t already able to guess punchlines simply from hearing a joke’s setup, seeing that many sitcoms land on top of each other at once could only force you to do so. Too much of anything leads to overfamiliarity; in the case of the multi-camera sitcom, viewers were hit with a bunch of shows whose jokes were too easy to predict, and there’s nothing worse than a not-particularly-funny joke that’s followed by roaring audience laughter.
Though all multi-camera sitcoms that are filmed before a live audience tape with the writers on hand to goose jokes that don’t draw big enough laughs, there are ways to make even less funny jokes seem uproarious to the audience (as I’ve written about here). And if you’re a long-running show, well, the audience just might laugh at the mere presence of a beloved character, which can skew writers’ barometers for what’s funny.
The feeling of exhaustion brought on by the glut reached a peak as the multi-camera sitcom entered the 2000s. That’s when solid programs like Friends (which also shoulders some blame, as I’ve written about here) and Everybody Loves Raymond began to slowly fall off the schedule, and the standard-bearer for the form became Two and a Half Men. That Charlie Sheen vehicle was occasionally an interesting show — in that it actively avoided anything that might suggest its characters felt genuine human emotions. But it also existed in a kind of nihilistic, dark space that didn’t allow for revealing the ultimate humanity of its crass stereotypes in the way the best multi-camera sitcoms always had. This made it seem crasser and dirtier than it probably intended to be (though, to be fair, it was super crass and dirty).
Finally, the multi-camera sitcom format is rooted in the 1950s, where it was generally crafted by people who wanted to be playwrights. Eventually it became a form unto itself, even as it retained a passing resemblance to American stage comedy traditions. (Look at Cheers, and it’s easy to draw a line directly to any number of plays set in bars.) But in the ’90s and later, TV comedies began striving for something more movie-like, spurred by the format-breaking Seinfeld and later single-camera series like Malcolm in the Middle and Arrested Development. The allure of creating a well-crafted TV play increasingly held interest for fewer and fewer people; a weekly comedy movie seemed much cooler.
What I can hear you asking even as I write this is, “What about the laugh track?” But I would argue that “laugh track = bad” is a too-easy conflation of all of the above. In the early 2000s, at the same time that multi-camera sitcoms simply felt tired because there were so many of them, The Daily Show was pushing political humor to new places, even with that studio audience cackling away. The problem wasn’t the laughter; it was the sense that the laughter was insincere, coached or fake somehow. Except that’s not true.
Before we continue, you should know that it’s technically inaccurate to refer to the laughter of a studio audience as a laugh track. A laugh track is a very specific prerecorded track that is inserted into the rare multi-camera show that’s too hard to film in front of a studio audience, for whatever reason. (The single-camera/multi-camera hybrid How I Met Your Mother was one.) But the vast majority of times you say “laugh track,” you’re talking about a live studio audience, and the people who make these shows are bristling, because they feel the laughs have been earned from those real humans who are watching the taping.
Still: In the mind of many, many viewers, all of these factors have merged to create the sense that a sitcom with a “laugh track” is somehow less sophisticated than one without, even if you could point to literally dozens of examples from TV history that would contradict that point. (Nobody would call The Mary Tyler Moore Show or Frasier unsophisticated.) The idea, to some degree, is that audience laughter is an evolutionary dead end that tells the viewer when to laugh.
Yet every single TV comedy has, in essence, a cue to tell the viewer when to laugh. On a mockumentary like The Office, it’s usually a talking-head interview or a glance at the camera. On a show like Scrubs or 30 Rock, it’s a wild soundtrack or sound effects. Sometimes it arrives via certain filmmaking or design choices. But every network TV comedy out there has such cues — even if some are less overt than “audience laughs now.”
And here is where I will say that I’ve always found audience laughter to be more honest than many of those other methods, even when I’m not personally laughing at the joke in question. The studio audience functions as a kind of judge and jury for the program at hand; when they get quiet, we know something is up, and when they laugh, even if we think what they’re laughing at isn’t funny, their laughter helps us better understand the rhythm of what we’re watching.
Though audience laughter became a kind of unfair shorthand for the death of the multi-camera sitcom, it’s also why the form is being resurrected thanks to political storytelling. To laugh about our political differences often requires a leavening agent, and at its most basic level, the studio audience is that. We’re laughing, it seems to say, so you can laugh too. But it can also be so much more.
On a single-camera sitcom, political arguments are very hard to do well, because there are few ways to offer the pressure release valve of the audience laughing. (There are exceptions — the very good, very political single-camera comedy Black-ish comes to mind.) It’s always difficult to convey conflict in a 22-minute episode anyway, and the single-camera format gravitates naturally toward warm-hearted hangout shows with minimal arguing. And that’s fine, but sometimes you want a little conflict, a little acknowledgement that not every fight is easily resolved.
It’s helpful, then, to think of the studio audience as another character in a show you watch, not as a weird group of strangers telling you when to laugh. Pay attention to how a show milks tension from whether they will or won’t laugh — from going dramatic just when you might expect it to go comedic or vice versa.
In the best multi-camera sitcoms, in the Carmichaels and One Days and Moms of the world, this relationship between serious subject matter and tension-relieving laughter is sometimes why an episode works. Carmichael in particular walks this line in an upcoming episode about racial slurs — part of the episode’s daring is frankly talking about this stuff on TV, and thus, the audience becomes a proxy for that daring, while also helping to spur catharsis after both the characters onscreen and the viewers at home do the work of hashing out their feelings on a sensitive subject.
The studio audience isn’t telling you when to laugh. It’s not even telling you when to feel something. It’s telling you the story just as much as the characters onscreen. In a good multi-cam, the audience’s every reaction — laugh or sob or tense silence — achieves its own tension and release, its own catharsis.
The return of the multi-camera sitcom is driven in part by nostalgia — but it also points toward a new TV future
Because the mere presence of a studio audience has become a bit contentious, it’s not hard to feel just a little defensive about embracing it. The Carmichael Show opens every episode — hell, every read-through — with someone announcing, “The Carmichael Show is filmed before a live studio audience,” but that approach fits neatly within its deliberate throwback vibe, as does its choice to film two separate runs of each episode on tape nights (something that hasn’t been done regularly since the ’70s).
For other multi-camera sitcoms without that throwback vibe, like The Ranch — which takes great pride in its Netflix-derived ability to swear and show off Ashton Kutcher’s butt — the way forward is to take a form that seems stodgy and blend it with the TV innovations of the past 20 years. The people repopulating the multi-camera world, then, are a curious mix of the nostalgia-driven and forward-thinking.
You can see that exact blend in both One Day at a Time and Mom, which combine traditional sitcom storytelling with larger, serialized stories that run throughout a season or the entire series. (Mom in particular has always thrived on the idea that the issues its characters confront wouldn’t be neatly resolved in one week’s time.)
But the fact remains: Many of these shows struggle in the ratings, and networks are greenlighting fewer of them. The ones that are being greenlit are often direct reboots of older shows — like the Will & Grace and Roseanne reboots that NBC and ABC will debut during the 2017-’18 season. And while I’m excited to see how both of those projects play out, it’s difficult to believe that they’ll be as creatively vital as they were at their peaks.
The future of the multi-camera format — a vital American art form — is one that will be written by new series that speak to the concerns of right now, not the fast-fading nostalgia for the past. The multi-camera sitcom is one of the few artistic bridge builders we have left, and I genuinely believe that the more good examples of it we have, from even more viewpoints, the better we’ll be able to understand and appreciate each other.
But that will require more networks taking chances on these sorts of shows, more creators who might rather make a single-camera show trying them out (as Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld did when network executives persuaded them to film Seinfeld in front of a live studio audience), more critics and scholars who can write about the shows outside of the context of “old-fashioned with a laugh track,” and more viewers who don’t write off the form as needlessly hokey. Maybe all of that is impossible; maybe things are too far gone. But I’d like to think that’s not true.
Pop culture doesn’t change our overall culture, but it can give it little nudges here and there. The multi-camera sitcom has proved as much, time and time again, throughout TV’s history. Now it’s time to let it once again be part of TV’s future.
The Carmichael Show airs Wednesdays on NBC; seasons one and two are streaming on Netflix, and previous episodes of season three are on NBC.com and Hulu. One Day at a Time is streaming on Netflix.
Correction: The original version of this article misidentified Jody Margolin Hahn as Gloria Calderon Kellett in a photo caption.