A Character Study: Sitcoms Characters! They’re Just Like Us!

written by Sarah McLean

When we think of sitcom characters our minds automatically head toward the words broad, one-dimensional, generalized and unrealistic. With this default thinking we fail to recognize that these characters are reflections of ourselves and therefore have a variety of emotions, thoughts, feelings, traits and intentions that are always happening under the surface.

In comedy, writers have a tendency to pinpoint and focus on one (or a few) major aspects or defining traits of a character and continue to heighten them to a point that’s, for lack of a better term, a few stops short of crazy town (more overtly in sketch; more subtly in sitcoms). How far can we push this one thing while still making the character believable? Think of it as the live action equivalent of an artist’s caricature: Jay Leno’s elongated chin, David Letterman’s tooth gap, or President Obama’s large ears. All are exaggerated and all stop short of going too far to be believable (or recognizable).

This doesn’t mean their plethora of other characteristics have fallen by the wayside, they’re just not as prevalent. And what we think of as the “uncharacteristic” characteristics usually come out to play for specific (comedic) reasons, e.g., a one-off story arc, to set up or pay off a joke. The longer a sitcom is on the air the more we get to see these “other sides” of a character on a more frequent basis.

Let’s use the cast of Friends as an example. Considered one of the best comedies of all time, the writers deftly crafted six layered yet unique characters that still felt like real people, but not only that, real people that were identifiable in our own lives. Certain traits resonate more with an individual than others but all are a part of every person. In Ross we see our super nerdy, dorky, neurotic side; in Monica, our hyper neurotic, perfectionist, controlling side; in Joey, our sweet, jovial, innocent side; in Rachel, or narcissistic, shallow, vain side; in Phoebe, our offbeat, shameless, unconventional side; and in Chandler, our charming, self-deprecating, sarcastic side.

I can hear you now, “But wait! You said Ross and Monica are both neurotic! So that means they’re the same, not different!” Not exactly. Yes, they are both neurotic, siblings from the same family tend to have similar characteristics (Frasier and Niles Crane, Bo and Luke Duke) but, like diamonds and snowflakes, no two are alike.

While each Friend is known for their one “thing”, that’s not all they are. If Rachel is only self-involved the show and her character would get boring very quickly because she’d be a one-note, uninteresting-to-watch-after-one-episode character. We would know everything she’s going to do and say before it happened. There would be no fun, comedic surprises to engage and entertain us. Her moments of generosity, sincerity, and playfulness are what add to a well-rounded character and are what makes her more likeable and real.

This extends to any sitcom character we’ve seen (especially those that have lasted more than one season). Yes, we can quickly describe them in one word or phrase to efficiently sum up who they are or to make a point, but that wouldn’t be doing them justice. Saying, “Joey is the dumb one on Friends” negates his pure sense of joy, his love of women, his nurturing side, his optimism, or his sense of wonder – all of which are still alive inside of him while he’s being truly naïve. Sitcom characters, just like real people, are complex, unpredictable and more than just broad, sweeping generalizations. So, the next time you’re about to play a “What ‘Friend’ are you?”-type game on Facebook you can save your time and respond, “All of them.”

What other sitcoms have multi-layered characters that feel like real people? Who’s your favorite sitcom character? Why? Let us know in the comment box below!

Single-Camera Vs. Multi-Camera

written by Sarah McLean

I’m surprised how often I hear people say they don’t like sitcoms. They are often described by the following terms: not realistic, too jokey, not funny, simple, and stupid. What people usually end up meaning is they don’t like multi-camera sitcoms. They do like some sitcoms but prefer the “smarter” comedies of the single-camera world. Multi-camera sitcoms tend to get a bad rap because of their use of laugh tracks. Our minds also can’t seem to move past the overly schlocky premises of some 1980s sitcoms. These haters somehow forget about the eye-rolling single camera shows that have been televised. What they also fail to realize is that single and multi-camera sitcoms have many similarities and that their differences tend to be in the technical side of things and not in the quality of the material.

Let’s dispel some of these rumors about single and multi-camera sitcoms.

Multi-Camera shows are not realistic like single camera shows.

All sitcoms (single and multi) play in a heightened sense of reality. Multi-cams are not bigger and broader in tone or acting than single camera shows, they are more theatrical because they play in front of a large, responsive audience. Single camera shows are just as big, broad, silly and goofy (Arrested Development, Better Off Ted, Scrubs, The Office, New Girl, The Goldbergs, Modern Family, Fresh Off the Boat, The Muppets, Brooklyn Nine-Nine) as any multi-camera show, but we don’t immediately recognize them as such because we don’t hear an audience reaction. We aren’t prompted with a response that indicates, “What he just did was crazy!” Instead, we are left to our own devices to react how we choose, and more often than not, we’ll respond the same way would have if it were a multi-camera. We assume single camera shows are more realistic because they are written and shot with an intimate and cinematic feeling (no live audience, tight shots); however, multi-camera shows are as equally realistic but their theatrical quality makes it seem less real to those people who feel like they are being told how to react.

Multi-Camera shows are jokey whereas single camera shows are not.

All sitcoms are based on jokes, be that spoken or visual. While single camera shows often have fewer written jokes per page than multi-camera shows, they can sometimes have just as many overall jokes in a show because of the rapid fire delivery (no holding for laughs) and the ability to add visual jokes due to the way they are shot. Single camera jokes tend to be more nuanced and subtle but they are always there. Multi-camera shows are joke-heavy but also have limitations because of the necessity to hold for the live audience reaction. They often rely on the ‘set up-punchline’ format for humor, which is why they are perceived as “jokey”. You can argue that the single camera’s version of the multi-camera’s ‘set up-punchline’ style is its constant use of the flashback. Watch any high quality single and multi-camera shows and count the number of jokes each has in the span of its ~20 minute run. You’d be surprised in the closeness of the final tally.

Single-Camera shows are smarter than multi-camera shows.

All sitcoms are based on a simple and basic story structure: conflict that is diffused and/or escalated using humor and jokes, which climaxes then resolves itself. How each individual show chooses to attack this simplicity with their storytelling is what makes them smart, not whether they are single or multi-camera. Examples of smart multi-cam shows are Cheers and Frasier. Examples of smart single-cam shows are Veep and Episodes. I wouldn’t necessarily say either single camera example is smarter than the multi-camera ones. Single camera shows tend to be labeled “smarter” because they can do more with the camera and in the editing room than multi-cameras since they are shot like a short film, which makes the viewer think it’s more high brow than a show shot in front of an audience.

Single and multi-camera sitcoms are different but mainly in their execution of similar material. This difference may seem major but it’s only one part of the sitcom as a whole. It’s like comparing a college sport to its professional counter part. Some rules will be slightly different, some in-game strategies and tactics will vary due to these differences, but in essence, it’s still the same game. And for you non-sports literate readers, let’s use cooking as an example. You can have two recipes for the same dish, and while the main ingredients will be the same, there will be different spices or add-ons that give each dish its own flavor. I’m not saying you can’t like one more than the other, just know what the differences are before arguing your case.

And because pictures are fun, here is a Venn diagram comparing and contrasting single camera and multi-camera sitcoms in a bit more depth to include how it affects actors and writers.