Wednesday, March 14, 2012

How to Create a TV Show, Part 2: The First Three Decisions

Hour-Long or Half-Hour?  And while we’re at it: Drama, Comedy, or In Between?
Obvious, half-hours are usually comedies and hour-longs are usually dramas. Right now, they’re not so far apart.  Dramas have gotten lighter (“Bones” instead of “Law and Order”, Grey’s Anatomy” instead of “ER”) while comedies have a little bit more bite (“The Office” instead of “Friends”).  Plus, there’s an ever-increasing middle-ground: both “Desperate Housewives” and “Glee” have been nominated for best-comedy Emmys, despite the fact that both are hour-long. 

In terms of choosing what to spec, as much as I hate to say it, it’s good to head for the middle ground.  I miss the old-school no-nonsense “Law and Order” days, but you want to spec to show off your ability to craft both an exciting outer life and a complex inner life.  What’s the best compliment anyone can pay your script? “You’ll laugh, you’ll cry!”

Three Camera, One Camera, or In-Between?
If you’re creating a comedy, you have this additional question to answer.  Traditional three-camera sitcoms have always shot in large chunks in front of a studio audience.  The actors go for as long as possible as three cameras shoot the action from different angles.  Back when TV was live, a controller would cut between the cameras in real time, but now the angles are cut together afterwards in the editing room.  You can always spot three-camera shows because they have a missing fourth wall we never see. 

These days there are lots of “one-camera” show, like “Modern Family”.  These shoot like a drama in normal-looking locations (though the sets are built with fly-away movable walls to allow the camera more room to maneuver)  Then you have in-between shows like “How I Met Your Mother”, that do a lot of cross-cutting and one-camera scenes mixed in with the three-camera set-ups. 

But why do you need to know this?  Can’t you just write it and let them choose how to shoot it?  Not really. It used to be that the two types of shows used an entirely different script format (one-camera scripts were formatted like dramas, while three-camera shows used an odd double-spaced format, designed to encourage on-the-fly rewrites) but these days the old “three-camera” script format is being abandoned in favor of doing it like everybody else.  Nevertheless, the two types of shows work very differently, so you should know, in your own mind, which one your sitcom is, even if you’ll never identify it either way on the page.  
Why would you prefer one or the other?  Well, it depends on the preferences of the network you have in mind.  Louie C.K. tried to mount a three camera sitcom on HBO and he got savagely ridiculed.  He learned his lesson and re-launched the show as a one-camera on FX, where hes been massively acclaimed.  More on picking your target network tomorrow...


j.s. said...

Was the problem with LUCKY LOUIE more about the outward trappings of three camera vs. one camera or the attendant expectations of his collaborators, the network and his audience?

And yeah, I know it's another huge exception, but what about SEINFELD, which couldn't have been more conventionally three-camera when you look at the process of making it -- obviously fake standing sets and backlot street scenes, a laugh track -- and yet was more philosophically one-camera in terms of its sense of humor and the subject matter than most of the actual one-camera shows that came after and are still on today.

Matt Bird said...

Yes, but I think it's a trap to rely on the assumption that "one-camera = sophisticated, three-camera = unsophisticated" As I pointed out earlier this week, "Modern Family" is one of many one-camera shows that have grown very cliched, while there are dozens of classic shows that show how sophisticated a three-camera comedy can be.

Beth said...

But do you think Seinfeld came out before the popularity of one-camera TV shows? By the way, what show do you think started the one-camera trend?

(ps. thanks for putting up with my inane questions. Great blog!)

Matt Bird said...

There had always been a few one-cameras, such as "The Wonder Years", but America's widespread embrace of it is generally associated with "Arrested Devolopment" ("Scrubs" had been doing it for a few years before that, but wasn't as influential) I'm sure britcoms like "Coupling" and "Spaced" also had an influence.