The television sitcom is rarely discussed in terms of its production aesthetics. In fact, academic analysis of television style in general is thin compared to studies on film and radio. Perhaps this dearth of material can be blamed on the wealth of analytical studies on film and radio and the idea that television is, according to Rudolf Arnheim, “a mere instrument of transmission, which does not offer new means for the artistic interpretation of reality – as radio and film did”.[i] When Marshall McLuhan announced that “the medium is the message”, academics began to focus on the reception of television and how the audience related to the presence and content of the medium. Most analysis in this vein tends to focus on the soap opera or commercial advertising, though, ignoring more popular genres like the sitcom.
In the last decade, however, there has been a radical shift in the style of the network sitcom. While network dramas have been experimenting with style since the early days of television, such as the film-noir heavy Peter Gunn (1958-1961), and have been lauded for their heightened visuals and integration of cinematic techniques, as was the case with Miami Vice (1984-1989), the production aesthetics of the network sitcom have remained relatively static and close to what John Caldwell referred to as “zero-degree style”.[ii] Many of the network sitcoms of recent years indulge in a cinematic style that rivals that of the dramatic series, but when did this stylistic shift occur? What defines the new cinematic style of the network sitcom? Where did this style originate within the genre? The following study traces the aesthetic history of the network sitcom and locates the genesis of the new cinematic style within the stylistic advancements of the genre and the series Seinfeld (1989-1998), in particular.
What is the Cinematic Style?
Since the 2000-2001 television season, the presence of sitcoms incorporating a cinematic style has increased on the networks. The most prominent of these shows are; Malcolm in the Middle (2000-2006), The Bernie Mac Show (2001-2006), Scrubs (2001-2008), Undeclared (2001-2002), Arrested Development (2003-2006), My Name Is Earl (2005-2009), The Office (2005- ), 30 Rock (2006- ), Ugly Betty (2006-2010), Parks and Recreation (2009- ), Community (2009- ), and more recently with Raising Hope (2010- ) and The New Girl (2011- ). What similarities do these sitcoms share stylistically? What defines this new sitcom aesthetic? In regards to similar stylistic developments in television drama in the 1980s, John Caldwell defined the cinematic style as “televisuality”: “The new television does not depend upon the reality effect or the fiction effect, but upon the picture effect”.[iii] Jeremy Butler adds to this definition, “this is style for style’s sake. It does not denote, express, or symbolize anything other than style itself”.[iv]
The new sitcom has separated itself from the aesthetics that dominated the network sitcom for the previous five decades. Specifically, the cinematic style uses precise framing, similar to the single-camera film, and a greater emphasis on close-ups and extreme close-ups. The camera is more mobile (dollies, steadicams, and handheld) and moves freely within the set. The new style incorporates a greater variation of lenses to accomplish deep and shallow focus, as well as variable speeds. Z-axis movement is utilized as well as x-axis movement, and extreme low and high angles are often used. While most of these sitcoms still shoot on sound stages, they have done away with the studio audience and often make use of exterior shooting. Since these sitcoms rarely shoot with multiple cameras, there is much more flexibility in the creative use of low key lighting. These sitcoms are often post-dependent, and incorporate visual effects as well as creative editing (montage, jump cuts, POV cuts) and a much faster pace. Without the studio audience, the new style has done away with the laugh track, and often incorporates voice-overs and popular music for mood and comic effect. Everything within this new style points to a greater emphasis on the creative role of the director, and, most importantly, the comedic effect of the aesthetic. Butler expresses the cinematic style or “televisuality” as the purest form of the single-camera televisual schema: style as a source of humor or carnivalesque pleasure.[v]
How does this new aesthetic represent a radical shift in the style of the sitcom? It is important to place these new sitcoms within the context of the genre. The next sections will focus on the history of the network sitcom and the development of the sitcom style.
A shot from NBC’s 30 Rock is a good example of the cinematic style. In a fantasy sequence, an animated figure appears with the performers, which could only have been achieved in post. The shot is constructed as a POV of the character who has just given birth to the animated figure.
In a sequence from FOX’s Arrested Development, the CU of Maeby is juxtaposed with a graphic of a chart illustrating her thought process.
In NBC’s Community, variable film speeds are often used for comic effect. The show makes effective use of low key lighting and stylistic parody, as well.
The Multi-Camera Sitcom
While it is generally thought that I Love Lucy (1951-1957) invented the multiple-camera style of television shooting, Jerry Fairbanks introduced the technique for The Silver Theater series for CBS in 1950.[vi] Subsequently, Amos n’ Andy utilized multiple cameras when it made the transition over from radio. However, Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, along with cinematographer Karl Freund, did perfect the method for I Love Lucy.
I Love Lucy was filmed on a sound stage in front of a live studio audience using three 35mm cameras. Multiple three-walled sets were lined up side by side, with the open side facing raised bleachers where the studio audience would view and react to the performances. The reaction of the audience was recorded simultaneously with dialogue, allowing for a more authentic laugh track than the artificial tracks used by previous sitcoms. The use of three cameras allowed scenes to be performed in sequence, as a play would be, and eliminated the need for audiences to view a scene multiple times. This method of live performing was essential in creating the comic energy that I Love Lucy’s physical comedy became famous for. Karl Freund, a German who shot the films Nosferatu (1922) and Metropolis (1927), developed an extremely even, high key method of lighting sets so that all three cameras recorded the same quality of image and the adjustment of lights during shooting was unnecessary.
Originally, as radio programs made the transition into television, programs were broadcast live from a proscenium-style theater with a live audience in standard stadium seating. This method of performance only allowed for the use of a single camera, which was centered to capture the entire action of the scene. As Jeremy Butler notes, “in their mode of production and their overarching aesthetic, these programs owe more to American vaudeville and British music traditions”.[vii] The Goldbergs (1949-1956) was one of the most popular sitcoms to use this proscenium style. The shift from the proscenium-style theater to the television studio allowed the cameras to be placed in between the audience and the sets, as well as at the same level as the sets. This innovation led to greater freedom in the variety of angles and movement of the cameras. However, the camera was never able to break into the sets to shoot reverse angles, as the studio and audience would be exposed, maintaining a proscenium look to the image.
In a typical scene from I Love Lucy (“The Fur Coat”, Season 1, Episode 9), the multiple-camera aesthetics are evident. The master shot (A) is broken by reverse medium shots (B & C). High key lighting, flat space, and loose framing are evident. The entire set is visible in depth, and space and time are continuous.
The Single-Camera Sitcom
The success of I Love Lucy, and later The Honeymooners (1955-1956), encouraged other sitcoms to adopt the multiple-camera and live studio audience style, and by the mid-fifties the aesthetics, mode of production and fundamental technology of the sitcom had been firmly established.[viii] In the late fifties and early sixties, however, the single-camera sitcom became popular as well.
While many sitcoms have recently shifted away from the multiple-camera style to a single-camera style, it is easy to forget that the single-camera mode of production was often used by the sitcom, predominantly in the 1960s. Leave it to Beaver (1957-1963) was one of the first sitcoms to break away from multiple cameras and the live studio audience, and The Andy Griffith Show (1960-1968) became one of the most popular sitcoms to employ a single camera. The move to the single camera accompanied an increase in technical standards within the network sitcom, including larger casts (The Andy Griffith Show), a greater number of interior and exterior locations (Gilligan’s Island, 1964-1967, and Hogan’s Heroes, 1965-1971), and, most significantly, the integration of visual. Programs like The Addams Family (1964-1966), Bewitched (1964-1972), and I Dream of Jeannie (1965-1970) frequently centered on magical appearances and disappearances, and actors performing dual roles on screen at the same time. The editing and optical techniques used to create such effects would not have been possible with the multiple-camera mode of production.
However, the overall style of these programs often replicated the multiple-camera style. The single-camera sitcom of the 1960s made heavy use of the master shot, counter shot set-ups of the multiple-camera sitcom, although these sitcoms were able to make greater use of their sets. Artificial laugh tracks, also, were always laid over the final cut. While many of these programs exemplify cinematic values, “they do not contain the stylistic exuberance required for Caldwell’s televisuality”, notes Butler.[ix] Thus, the single-camera sitcom of the late 50s and 60s and the cinematic style seen today do not necessarily correlate.
All in the Family and the Live Studio Audience
All in the Family (1971-1979), adapted by producer Norman Lear from the British series Till Death Us Do Part, was the first network series to be videotaped in front of a live studio audience. It was also the most popular program of the 1970s, ranking #1 in annual Nielsen ratings for five straight years from 1971-1976.[x]
The immense success of All in the Family changed the landscape of the network sitcom. The networks, attempting to recreate the success of the show, started producing sitcoms that centered on family dynamics, whether in the home or in the workplace, and nearly all sitcoms returned to the multiple-camera live studio audience mode of production. Most of these sitcoms, as well, were being shot on videotape, which proved cheaper and more efficient than film. The Odd Couple (1970-1975), a popular sitcom that had been produced with a single camera in its first season before All in the Family premiered, switched to the multiple-camera style for its subsequent seasons. Videotaping sitcoms in front of a live studio audience came to dominate the network sitcom through the 1970s, the 1980s, and well into the 1990s. Popular sitcoms like The Jeffersons (1975-1985), The Cosby Show, The Golden Girls (1985-1992), and Roseanne (1988-1997) all followed All in the Family’s model.
There were two network sitcoms during this period, however, that defied the prevalent All in the Family aesthetics, M*A*S*H (1972-1983) and The Wonder Years (1988-1993). M*A*S*H used the single-camera style, much like the sitcoms of the Sixties, primarily due to the large cast and large number of locations. It was shot on film due to the large number of exteriors. The single-camera aesthetics of the program also owe much to the source material, Robert Altman’s feature film M*A*S*H (1970). However, the series rarely steps away from the typical, zero-degree aesthetics of the sitcom. The few moments where M*A*S*H does indulge in style are during the operating scenes, which are never played for laughs. The laugh track, which is often abrasive in comedic moments, is dropped during these dramatic operating scenes. The Wonder Years, unlike M*A*S*H, often indulges in a cinematic style, but rarely calls attention to itself. The series was shot on film using a single-camera and completely dropped the laugh track, making heavy use of a voice-over, instead. While The Wonder Years shared some similarities with other sitcoms – mainly its running time and primetime slot – it had much more in common with other network dramas. The Wonder Years was a poignant coming of age, period comedy-drama, but, like M*A*S*H, did not drastically influence the stylistic landscape of the network sitcom.
FOX’s Parker Lewis Can’t Lose (1990-1993) utilized a story and style heavily influenced by the film, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1988). While the show generally sticks to single-camera aesthetics reminiscent of Sixties’ sitcoms, occasionally the show incorporates stylistic flourishes closer to the cinematic style of today. However, the show was never popular during its initial run on FOX, which was in part due to its high-school material and in part because FOX was still struggling for an audience, having launched in 1986. The show did garner a cult following in syndication on USA, and undoubtedly influenced shows like Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000) and Undeclared. Also noteworthy are the HBO sitcoms, Dream On (1990-1996) and The Larry Sanders Show (1992-1998). While this is a study of the network sitcom, the influence of HBO programming on network programming can’t be underestimated, though their audience was generally low. Dream On memorably used black and white cinematography to punctuate the main character’s thoughts and feelings. The Larry Sanders Show, one of the most critically acclaimed sitcoms, mixed videotape and film but rarely incorporated heightened aesthetics. These shows were ultimately more influential in terms of content. The stylistic influence of The Simpsons (1989- ) on the animated sitcom is worth noting as well, as even The Flintstones (1960-1966) maintained standard sitcom aesthetics.
However, the most important and influential program in developing the cinematic style of the network sitcom was also the most popular sitcom of the 1990s.
Seinfeld & the Birth of the Cinematic Style
Seinfeld debuted on July 5, 1989 and ran for nine seasons, producing 180 episodes over that span. It was the most popular sitcom of the nineties, topping Nielsen ratings in its sixth and ninth seasons and finishing in the top two every year from 1994-1998 along with the NBC medical drama, ER (1994-2009).[xi] The show was also critically lauded during its initial run, garnering 10 Emmy awards and 68 Emmy nominations, as well as in the years since with TV Guide naming Seinfeld the greatest television program of all time in 2002.[xii]
Created by comedians Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, Seinfeld set itself apart from the family and work sitcoms that dominated network primetime by focusing, instead, on the absurd minutiae of the everyday lives of a group of friends living in New York. Most critics pointed out the inventiveness of Seinfeld’s content, with one New York Times review stating that the show was “approaching the Theater of Absurd machinations of an Ionesco, who could turn an ordinary man into a rhinoceros”.[xiii] An entire show centered on waiting for a table at a Chinese restaurant (“The Chinese Restaurant”, Season 2, Episode 11), coming close to an exercise in real-time, or an episode which simply followed the characters around a parking garage in a search to locate their misplaced car (“The Parking Garage, Season 3, Episode 6) must have seemed radical for a network sitcom. As the show progressed, the content became even larger in scope, allowing full stories for each character within a single episode, and more radical, as the show began to impose story arcs over entire seasons or even using reverse chronological order to tell a story (“The Betrayal”, Season 9, Episode 8). However, the show’s progression also included a radical progression in visual style, which is too often dismissed when reviewing the show, and, most importantly to this analysis, influenced a broader shift in style within the network sitcom genre.
Seinfeld was, like all network sitcoms in the late eighties and early nineties, a multi-camera, live studio audience sitcom. The series was shot on a soundstage in CBS’ Radford lot, utilizing four cameras and, early on, two main sets: Jerry’s apartment and the coffee shop. Apparent even in the series’ pilot, however, is a filmic quality very different from most of the network sitcoms at the time, because Seinfeld was shot on 35mm film while most sitcoms were shooting on videotape. Tom Cherones, who directed all but 6 of the first 86 episodes comprising Seasons 1-5 of the series, took over as director after the pilot and recalls discussing the look of the show with the producers; “We should absolutely shoot this on film, and Castle Rock said OK. They were a film production company not a videotape company”.[xiv] Aside from the quality of the image, there was nothing in the show’s first two seasons that radically separated Seinfeld aesthetically from other network series, like Cheers (1982-1993) or The Cosby Show (1984-1992). Most scenes incorporated a master shot, two reverse angle shots usually in medium, and a fourth camera used for punch-ins. The shots often incorporated slight movements in order to keep characters and action centered. Lighting was most often high key and naturalized for locations. A breakdown of shots from a typical apartment scene in “The Pony Remark” (Season 2, Episode 2) emphasizes the multiple-camera style:
The master shot incorporates three characters (Jerry, Kramer, Morty Seinfeld) in full-shot while establishing the apartment in depth. The lighting is high key and utilizes the window and lamp as practical sources.
The 2nd camera is set on a medium shot of Kramer, in a slight over-the-shoulder of Jerry.
Camera Three takes the reverse of Camera Two, without breaking into the set of course, as Kramer is omitted. Jerry is in a medium close-up.
The 4th camera punches in for a medium close-up of Kramer to complement the shot of Jerry and emphasize Michael Richards’ physical humor. The shallows depth of field in the shot emphasizes the 35mm quality.
The series struggled to find an audience at first. Season One was limited to five episodes and succeeded in large part to its time slot following Cheers. Season Two featured twelve more episodes, but bounced around time slots. The show began to attract a fairly substantial audience in Season Three, and Cherones and the rest of the production crew began to experiment technically with the show’s visuals. For “The Parking Garage” an entirely new set was constructed, including ceilings, and the entire episode was shot without a studio audience (although an artificial laugh track was laid over the final edit). “It was expensive,” recalled Cherones. “We had to take the sets down, and put the new one up. We had to strike all the lights—we basically cleaned up and started over. [Tom] Azzari [production designer] built ceiling pieces for the garage. We talked about shooting it in an actual parking garage, but I knew that you couldn’t control that. We told Castle Rock how much it would cost and they let us build it. We made it look like three different floors… On each end of the studio, we put up Mylar mirrors, which made it look bigger than it was. The columns were movable and we’d change the colors to indicate different levels. We made a 20,000-square-foot studio look like an entire parking garage. The sound was much better on our stage than if it had been shot in an actual parking garage”. Stylistically, the episode incorporated heavy use of tracking shots in order to follow the characters on their search as well as enhance the labyrinthine element of the garage. In all, twenty-seven separate tracking shots were used in the final cut, some leading the characters, some following the characters, and others tracking alongside the characters. Taken as a whole, the episode looks significantly different than other early Seinfeld episodes as well as any other sitcom in network primetime.
In Season Four, Seinfeld supplanted Cheers in the Thursday, 9:00 PM time slot and the success followed, as the show finally entered Nielsen’s Top 30 ratings.[xv] The financial success of the show allowed Cherones and the writers to develop even more outrageous concepts. Season Four also saw the introduction Wayne Kennan as cinematographer whom Cherones credits with further developing the cinematic look of the show and whom went on to shoot the entirety of the remainder of the series. Cherones and Kennan together began to take more chances with the look of the series, and Cherones, in particular, was interested in making the show look more like a single-camera sitcom. “People would say, ‘Can’t you make this look more like a sitcom?’ And I’d say, ‘I don’t want to,’” recalls Cherones. “Usually on sitcoms, everything’s lit up and you don’t get pretty pictures—we avoided that. I hired old-timers who could really light a multi-camera show to look pretty good. I’ve done a lot of sitcoms that looked like sitcoms. I was happy to do a single-camera-looking show”. One episode in particular illustrates just how far Seinfeld had separated itself from the typical network sitcom. “The Barber” (Season 5, Episode 8) creates a zany, almost cartoonish, storyline for Jerry involving a particularly bad haircut, two Italian barbers, and Newman. The performances of the two barbers involved in the story are over-the-top in a manner Seinfeld would make greater use of in future seasons. Selections from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville are used to enhance the comedic elements, and the sequences involving Jerry and the barbers are edited to the music and much more quickly than the series had done up to that point. These sequences in “The Barber” represent the first attempt of the show to utilize certain aesthetics to create a style that enhances the comedy of the script. The aesthetics being used, this analysis argues, have more in common with cinematic aesthetics or Caldwell’s “televisuality”, and are very different than predominant sitcom aesthetics. Seinfeld subsequently, and more notably, expanded upon this style in later seasons.
The most important steps in Seinfeld’s development of a cinematic style occurred in Season Six. Tom Cherones left the show and was replaced by Andy Ackerman as the series’ primary director. Ackerman had strong ideas on how he wanted the show to look, “I tried to stay away from proscenium looks—as opposed to making it look like it was a play. Since I was staging for more interesting camera shots, I was trying to create more depth and mine more comedy than what was on the page”. Season Six also saw the introduction of a block-long facade of a New York street that Castle Rock added to the exterior of Seinfeld’s soundstage. “I got to break in the New York street set, which [had a] cinematic look to it. I was able to use longer lenses, more crane work for the walks and talks. I was able to create more depth when we went outside. It was just a richer look,” Ackerman recalls. To accomplish many of the shots needed to accentuate his stylistic ambitions, Ackerman would have to shoot before the studio audience showed up to the soundstage or take entire days before the live performance to shoot sequences.
“The Race”, Season 6, Episode 10, 21:23 to 22:46
This sequence from the race contains 22 separate edits over 83 seconds of screen time, comprising an average shot length of 3.8 seconds. The average shot length of the rest of the program is 4.5 seconds (282 cuts, 21 minutes 22 seconds). On the 4th cut, the sequence turns to slow motion and John Williams’ theme music to Superman: The Movie plays on the soundtrack with the diegetic audio dropping out. There is a crane shot, blending of wide angle and telephoto lenses, and in the final edit (the only use of dialogue in the sequence) Jerry breaks the fourth wall by winking at the camera.
Cinematic Style after Seinfeld
After Seinfeld signed off in 1998, the cinematic style entered an experimental stage over the next two seasons before cementing its place within the genre. The two shows central to this gestation period were ABC’s Sports Night (1998-2000) and NBC’s Freaks and Geeks.
Sports Night centered on dynamic action and rapid-fire dialogue, which necessitated hyperactive camera movement and fast-paced editing. The camera movement is the most striking aesthetic of the show, and producer Aaron Sorkin would make even better use of this device in The West Wing (1999-2006). While the camera moves about freely through four-walled sets, the first season of the show awkwardly made use of a “canned” laugh track. The second season, however, did away with the laugh track. The show was not successful, as audiences never knew quite what to make of it. Similar to The Wonder Years, the show veered wildly from comedy to drama, and was, stylistically, too much too soon for a network audience.
Freaks and Geeks probably suffered the same fate as Sports Night, in that it was too much too soon for a network audience. However, Freaks and Geeks was much more assured in its cinematic style, never once incorporating a laugh track, which was pretty bold for a network sitcom. The program only lasted one season, but developed a sizeable cult following as well as garnering critical acclaim.
While neither show was a ratings success, both received critical plaudits and affected the genre. The influence of Freaks and Geeks and Sports Night can be seen in many of the sitcoms that followed. In the preceding seasons, Malcolm in the Middle and The Bernie Mac Show debuted on FOX and Scrubs debuted on NBC, and the cinematic style became a popular and viable approach to the network sitcom.
While the cinematic style continues to pervade the network sitcom, the future of the aesthetic is in doubt. A breakdown of the highest rated sitcoms of the current season (2011-2012) reveals a return to the multiple-camera, live studio audience schema. Only four of the top ten rated live-action sitcoms (three animated shows break the list) display the cinematic style or stylistic tendencies; How I Met Your Mother (2005- ), The New Girl, The Office, and Raising Hope.[xvi] The relative expense in producing the cinematic style may be causing a drop in it’s viability as a sitcom aesthetic, the massive popularity of the reality TV genre, and the resurgence of the network drama and it’s own stylistic developments is causing a shift in the audience. However, the phenomenon of media convergence within the last decade bodes well for the future of the cinematic style as it translates better across multiple formats.
The origin of that style, however, is not in doubt. The generation who watched the original airing of Seinfeld and the generation familiar with the program through its ever-present syndication can attest to the genesis of that style. Seinfeld, more than any other sitcom before, represents what Butler defined as, “the sitcom’s visual and sound style[‘s] manipulation of the audience’s experience and ability to create meaning and humor on its own”.[xvii]
[i] Referenced in Butler, J. (2010). Television Style. New York: Routledge, p. 1
[ii] Referenced in Butler, p. 26
[iii] Referenced in Butler, p. 117
[iv] Butler, p. 197
[v] Butler, pp. 173-212
[vi] Time, 1950, retrieved from http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,858670,00.html
[vii] Butler, p. 176
[viii] Butler, pp. 193-197
[ix] Butler, p. 197
[x] According to annual average Nielsen ratings.
[xi] According to annual average Nielsen ratings.
[xii] TV Guide, retrieved from http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2002/04/26/entertainment/main507388.shtml
[xiii] O’Connor, J.J., The New York Times, retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/specials/seinfeld/sein96.html
[xiv] All Tom Cherones and Andy Ackerman quotes taken from Kronke, D. Making Something Out of Nothing, DGA Quartely, Fall 2011.
[xv] According to annual average Nielsen ratings.
[xvi] Top 100 Primetime Programs, Adults 18-49, Week 8, 2011-2012, retrieved from http://www.tvb.org/measurement/338046/495531
[xvii] Butler, p. 176