In this essay I will be talking about single camera techniques used in Film and TV production. I will be explaining the advantages and the disadvantages as well as what popular genres use single camera techniques. I will be comparing some of the techniques to multi-camera production explaining how they are different from each other. Lets get started!
As you can tell from the title a single camera production involves only one single camera. Because a camera is used to draw an audience into the frame / the action within the scene there are many opportunities to become creative with different angles and shots. With this creativity, it can create a more realistic and intimate feel to it making the footage more enjoyable for the audience as it will draw them into the diegesis. If a film or TV show has a certain genre like Horror, then certain conventions need to be considered and may only require one, single camera. However, using a single camera in a production may appeal to one person but not another which can cause some issues on set.
Having a single camera in a production can be an advantage for a Director as it will allow them to focus on one camera in each scene, giving them more control on the shot they want. The lack of multiple cameras also allows for more room on set. This can be an advantage for a a production as it allows more room for different shots and angles without the issue of other cameras or equipment in frame.
Single Camera Set Up:
Multi-Camera Set Up:
In film and TV, the scene or frame of shots need to look realistic unless a certain convention is being used. One way to do this is through the lighting you use in the scene. Having a well light scene can add to the realism to a production. However too much can look fake and noticeable to the audience. In single camera productions, lighting is easier to control as a scene can be lit according to the shot type or angle. This then makes the entire scene more realistic according to its narrative.
Like TV shows and News programmes nearly every area that is shown on camera is saturated by light. This may be accomplished by three-point lighting. Three-point lighting is when three lights (Key, fill and back) are used to cover all of the dark areas of the subject or object. This minimizes the shadows shown on screen.
In multi-camera productions it can be difficult to obtain the correct lighting for each character or subject due to the single take from multiple cameras. Using too much lighting at this point can make the footage look fake and amateur.
Depending on what you want to get out of your production, high or low key lighting can be used. If you are trying to portray the conventions of 'Film Noir', then low key lighting is needed to create different effects like chiaroscuro, which can create shadows that could portray certain meanings.
Example Of Chiaroscuro / Film Noir in the film 'Double Indemnity':
A simple lighting set up for single camera production:
Another main convention that film requires (or doesn't) is sound. This can range form diegetic to non-diegetic and can help simply a certain meaning or feeling towards the audience that are watching. Dialogue can also be important to an audience as it may contain content that is important in moving a narrative forward. Sound can be recorded in many different ways from muff microphones to shot-gun microphones.
In some TV and film productions, the dialogue used may not be from that footage / take. For example in an over-the-shoulder shot, the dialogue used may be from another take but is not shown on screen as you can't see their face. This can be the same for cutaways and any other narrative restrictions. This is done so that the correct and best-quality audio is collected, adding to the quality of the production.
Once the filming is complete the production then moves to the post-production stage, which is the organization of footage in order to create the correct narrative structure for that particular production. Looking through all of the footage from the production and collecting the best ones can be a time consuming process, especially if the production is over an hour long.
In single camera production filming every scene multiple times can give you a lot of footage. Filming with multiple cameras can also give you a lot of wasted footage but can be less time consuming and will be a lot cheaper in terms of how much time you spend filming.
Like 'Britain's Got Talent' and 'X-Factor', multiple cameras are used to help in capturing both the judges, contestant and audience. Cameras can easily be switched from one to another using a vision mixer. This is the same for live sport, like football. This can not be achieved in single camera production which can restrict some productions in creating live content.
One way to speed up the process of looking through an endless amounts of footage is by creating a 'shooting log'. This allows the editor to understand what shots were good during production and have details on the file name as well as the scene and what was good about the scene. This then allows the editor to immediately go to that file and use it in post. This saves a lot of time of looking through different pieces of footage to get the correct one.
Genres and FormatsWith single camera production, there are many genres within the TV and Film industry that use only one camera. This could be because the Directors are trying to portray certain meanings or do not have the budget to obtain multiple cameras. Single camera production can be more common in some genres than others.
The five common genres within single camera production are:
Period Drama - 'Mad Men' (2007 - present) AMC - Set in the 1950's - 60's, costumes are needed in order to make the historical information correct. Using a single camera can allow the actors to develop and get into their characters as they have to repeat the scene over and over again. This is because one camera is needed to film different angles. Choice of locations is broader as one camera can fit into a location better than multiple cameras.
Behind the Scenes Of 'Man Men'
Behind the scenes of Breaking Bad:
Opening Sequence to Halloween:
Comedy - 'The Inbetweeners' - (2008 - 2010) - Most shots in the show are shot on real locations and only require one single camera. By using single camera techniques, the choice of locations are broader. Also the actors are given the opportunity to develop and get into their roles as the scene is repeated over and over again. Also lighting can be adjusted to each shot / angle.
Quick behind the scenes footage:
Soap Opera - 'EastEnders' - BBC - (1985 - present) - One of the most well known soaps, and is shot using real locations, but with multiple camera techniques. In the video below it shows a great example of multi-camera techniques and how they are needed for certain shots like stunts. This way they can capture every angle they need. Multi-camera techniques is very popular in shows like EastEnders as the filming can be completed in time for a Monday to Friday release (one episode shown a day). Also lighting can be adjusted for one scene. Locations are limited.
Behind The Scenes:
There are also three common formats within single camera production which are commonly seen in TV rather than feature film. These are:
Series - Strike Back Series - Sky One (2010 - present) - This TV show has a main plot through each series but has sub narratives within each episode, some running over more than one episode.
Serial - Hollyoaks - Channel 4 / E4 (1995 - present) - This specific TV programme runs continuously and never for a period of time. Like EastEnders, Hollyoaks uses multi-camera techniques.
Single Drama - 'Murder' - BBC Two (2012) - Aired as a single drama and is now being commissioned as a full series. It won the '2013 TV Single Drama Award' at the BAFTA.
Video of the awards for 'Murder' - http://awards.bafta.org/award/2013/television/single-drama
SummaryAdvantages of single camera productions
- Actors can improve their acting skills as the scene is repeated over and over again.
- More of the location can be used as there is only one camera, and other equipment using up the room.
- The director can have more control over each shot as there is only one camera.
- The audience can be submerged into the diegesis as the production will feel more personal.
- Less film is used / wasted, depending on how much is shot and how long the production is.
- Filmmakers with tight budgets can make single camera productions due to purchasing only one camera.
- Lighting can be controlled on each and every shot, allowing for the perfect shot.
- Master shots can be created as well as individual shots from the same scene, making it easier in post-production.
- Filming takes longer.
- The lengthy filming can be costly compared to multi-camera productions.
- Continuity errors are more common.
- Action that is recorded can be stop and started. This can become aggravating and appear stunted.
- Other people may not agree with the choice to have a single camera production rather than a multi-camera production.
Example Of A Film That Uses A Single Camera
Different Types Of Microphones - http://www.desktop-documentaries.com/different-types-of-microphones.html
Top Ten Period Dramas - http://www.theguardian.com/culture/gallery/2011/jan/09/ten-best-costume-dramas#/?picture=370333435&index=8
Breaking Bad Behind The Scenes Video - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9lai55d2BuQ
Breaking Bad Photo - http://www.washingtonpost.com/rf/image_606w/2010-2019/WashingtonPost/2013/08/10/Web-Resampled/2013-08-10/97b3426b-d07b-1f18-a631-6d8b38144a42_AMC-Breaking_Bad-5_1789--606x404.jpg
Halloween Opening Video - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ELF1DCf1ChA
Halloween Picture - http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/8/87/Halloween_cover.jpg
Inbetweeners Behind The Scene Video - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=heM0Dm-FDk0
Inbetweeners Picture - http://whatculture.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/inbetweeners.jpg
EastEnders Information - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/EastEnders
EastEnders Behind The Scenes Video - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g2Y0Of3YJf4
EastEnders Picture - http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/a/ac/EastEnders_Title.png
Strike Back Picture - http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/5/5d/Strike_Back_title_2011.png
Hollyoaks Picture - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hollyoaks
Single Drama Awards Video - http://awards.bafta.org/award/2013/television/single-drama
Murder Being Commissioned Information - http://www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/latestnews/2013/murder.html
Man Men Picture - http://beyondthemarquee.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/mad-men-1.jpg
Mad Men Behind The Scenes Picture - http://images.amcnetworks.com/blogs.amctv.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/MMS1ep105_BTS_3237.jpg
Mad Men Behind The Scenes Video - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FnIYJF-drak
Mad Men Behind The Scenes Video Two - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CqUsiphxnn4
Double Indemnity Picture - http://steren93.qwriting.qc.cuny.edu/files/2011/10/DI8.jpg
Shotgun Microphone Picture - http://www.creativeplanetnetwork.com/dv/uploadedimages/Rode_NTG-2ShotgunMic.gif
Audio Systems For Film Production - http://cdn.shure.com/publication/upload/403/us_pro_audiovideoproduction_ea.pdf
Lavalier Microphone Picture - http://images.gizmag.com/inline/smartlav-5.jpg
Editing Suite Picture - http://www.workinentertainment.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/video-editing-bay.jpg
Shooting Log Video - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7LAxfBfj94c
Zirus Episode One Video - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-u22tYwpNLc
Zirus Episode Two Video - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hy7t4_-r_KU
Zirus Episode Three Video - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_5tShXhRddg
Boom Operator Information - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boom_operator_(media)
Boom Mic and Boom Operator Picture - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boom_operator_(media)#mediaviewer/File:Tournage_de_film.JPG
Three-Point Light Picture - http://rouletterevolver.files.wordpress.com/2010/12/three-point.jpg
Paranormal Activity Information - http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1179904/
Stage 24 on the Warner Bros. lot, in Burbank, California, is a sand-colored, pyramid-like hangar identical to the many stages that surround it, as though the pharaohs had developed an air force. Some time ago, Stage 24 was designated the “Friends” Stage, in honor of the decade-long residency of Rachel, Phoebe, Joey, Chandler, Monica, and Ross, and their improbable Manhattan apartments. According to an engraved plaque near one of the entrances, “Blade Runner” was filmed there, too, in 1981. So was the ABC sitcom “Full House,” which ran from 1987 to 1995. The ghosts of actors, directors, and audiences past linger in these curious structures, and, when a new show is assigned its stage, cast, crew, and visitors alike can sense them.
One afternoon in mid-August, the latest production to occupy the “Friends” Stage—“Mike & Molly,” a new CBS sitcom created by Mark Roberts and executive-produced by Chuck Lorre—was having a network run-through. This is a weekly rehearsal attended by various studio and network executives and representatives from CBS’s Standards and Practices department, and it takes place relatively early in the production process. The show’s cast members were still carrying their scripts, which they had first seen three days earlier. They would finish a scene, hustle to the next set, finish a scene, hustle to the next set, all the while being trailed by equipment haulers and cable draggers. It looked a bit like speed-dating, but with a pit crew.
Watching the proceedings was Lorre, a fifty-eight-year-old man with a lean, bearded face and mussed, curly hair some stalemate shade between black and gray. He was wearing a soft-collared dark-green shirt, gray jeans, and blue-gray running shoes. On set, Lorre is unfailingly calm, but it is the intensely focussed calm of, say, a model builder or a calligrapher. Lorre is the kind of person of whom one is always aware, even in a crowd, just as one is aware of the presence of fire, even if it is far away.
“Mike & Molly” is the sixth sitcom to go on the air that Lorre has produced, created, or co-created. His two most recent shows, “Two and a Half Men” and “The Big Bang Theory,” are the No. 1- and No. 2-rated comedies in America, and have been for some time. Not since Norman Lear—who revolutionized the American sitcom in the seventies, with shows like “All in the Family,” and who, at one point, had seven hit shows on the air—has one man so dominated the genre. When “Big Bang” was picked up by CBS, in 2007, Lorre went to see Lear and asked how it was possible to do more than one show at a time. According to Lorre, “His answer was, basically, you run around like a madman.”
Once a television show has become successful, most executive producers ascend to a cloudier level of involvement. But Lorre works closely on anything that bears his name. He runs the writing rooms of “Two and a Half Men” and “Big Bang,” and is volubly present for every table read, network run-through, camera run-through, pre-shoot, live taping, and sound mixing for all three of his shows. Lorre’s daily agenda, which he refers to as Chuck’s Inferno, slots in five-minute pauses to pee, identifies potential nap opportunities, and issues a final, joking directive to go home. Most shows, “Two and a Half Men” included, operate on a Monday-through-Friday schedule. The production schedules of “Big Bang” and “Mike & Molly,” however, are compressed and staggered through the week, which essentially creates a Lorre workweek made up of nothing but Mondays and Fridays. During the month of August, he had only two days in which he was not tied up in some aspect of production.
All of Lorre’s shows are multi-camera sitcoms (also known as four-camera sitcoms). The genre is distinguished by a few core features, such as the obviousness with which they are staged, how heavily they favor the written over the improvisational, and the fact that most are taped before a live studio audience. This is in contrast to audience-less, location-shot, “one camera” shows like “Arrested Development” or “30 Rock.” If single-camera sitcoms are effectively short films, the multi-camera show is more like a short play, and it is the baseball of network television: old-fashioned, American, rule-bound, and deeply resistant to change. (“I Love Lucy” and “Everybody Loves Raymond” are, formally, about as different as their titles suggest.) The critically acclaimed sitcoms of the past half decade have tended to be single-camera shows with niche audiences (such as “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “The Office”), and many television critics regard the multi-camera sitcom as a retrograde, even defunct, form. At the same time, mass audiences have been deserting comedy altogether for shows like “C.S.I.” and “American Idol.” Twenty years ago, eight of the ten top-rated television shows in America were multi-camera sitcoms. By 2006, only one was in even the top twenty: Lorre’s “Two and a Half Men.”
The apparently unstoppable success of Lorre’s multi-camera sitcoms in an inhospitable television climate seems mysterious, but Lorre’s belief in the format is boundless. “It’s a very intimate genre,” he told me. “There’s no music. There’s no camera magic. There are no editing tricks. It’s not a visual medium. It’s about people and words.”
“Mike & Molly” is about a police officer and a grade-school teacher who meet in the pilot and, in subsequent episodes, fall in love. The show’s sets are familiar variations on the Midwest Proletariat décor of “Roseanne”: charmless diner, dreary bowling alley, knickknack-infested living room. Less familiar was Roberts and Lorre’s decision to cast as the show’s leads Billy Gardell and Melissa McCarthy, two relatively unknown actors of a size rarely seen on television in leading roles. (It was Lorre’s idea to have their first encounter take place at an Overeater’s Anonymous meeting.) Soon after “Mike & Molly” was commissioned, people began calling it “that show about fat people.” An excellent way to make Lorre mad is to mention this.
The network run-through had come to a crucial, mid-episode scene in which Mike takes Molly to a bowling alley, where he hopes to impress her with his skill. Mike’s plan does not go well, and he ends up humiliated. In Roberts’s script, Molly rolls two strikes in a row, after which a now nervous Mike steps up to the lane, begins his elaborate pre-roll ritual, swings his arm back, and loses hold of the ball. Mike’s bowling ball was a squishy prop, and the sound effect used to simulate its crash was a shattering-glass cliché, but Roberts, Lorre, and the episode’s director, James Burrows, all burst out laughing. These men had seen thousands of sitcom rehearsals between them. Hearing them laugh at such easy slapstick felt a bit like encountering Henry Ford, near the end of his career, whistling in awe as another Model T came off his assembly line. Lorre’s laughter was the most distinctive: high-pitched, desperate, I-may-be-dying laughter. It had chord changes and movements, sometimes turning into a coughing fit or terminating with a foot stomp.
Lorre laughs like this during every run-through and rehearsal and filming, even when it is a joke he heard just moments before, in a previous take. My first thought was that Lorre was laughing for the benefit of the network people who were there to watch a new, untested show. When I asked him about it later, he maintained that his laughter is completely sincere, but that it is also a useful mechanism to get the actors to imagine the audience. “But it’s got to be genuine,” he said. “If you laugh and there’s no laugh there, you’re preparing them for disaster.”
It was surprising, then, that the moment Lorre finished laughing he began to question whether the bowling-ball moment needed to be included at all. The point of the scene was not to stress Mike’s oafishness but to establish his feeling of unanticipated inferiority to Molly, and he’s defeated, dramatically speaking, the moment Molly rolls her strikes. “What is it going to get us to see him bowl?” Lorre asked. No one had a good answer, and the sequence was cut.
Lorre claims to have learned how to work hard from his father, who ran what Lorre describes as “an eight-seat luncheonette” in Bethpage, on Long Island, and Lorre does not remember him ever taking a day off. Lorre was born Charles Levine in 1952, and by the time he was twelve he was working in the luncheonette as a short-order cook and soda jerk. At night, he and his father watched television together, usually comedians like Jackie Gleason, Jack Benny, and Bob Hope. Lorre told me that one of his “most formative” television moments occurred while watching “The Ed Sullivan Show.” “Henny Youngman came on and said, ‘I went to the doctor and said, “Doctor, it hurts when I do this.” And the doctor said, “Don’t do that.” ’ It was the funniest thing I ever heard in my life. Don’t do that. The logic of it was astonishing.”
After high school, Lorre enrolled at SUNY Potsdam, but dropped out to play the guitar professionally. Photographs of him around this time show a young man with the smeary mustache of a nineteen-seventies porn stallion and a stupendous head of black curls more cowl than hair. At the age of twenty-eight, he changed his name to Chuck Lorre. “My mother hated my father’s family,” Lorre explained. “ ‘You’re no good; you’re a Levine’ was routinely thrown my way.” Today, he wishes that he had remained Chuck Levine.
Lorre admits to having lived hard and unwisely during seventeen years spent playing cruise ships, bat mitzvahs, weddings, and “Big Daddy’s Lounge in Miami Beach from 9 P.M. to 4 A.M.” He did manage to write a pair of songs that stuck to the sneaker sole of American pop culture: the theme song for the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” animated series, which he co-wrote; and “French Kissin’,” Deborah Harry’s biggest non-Blondie hit, which Bill Prady, who co-created “The Big Bang Theory” with Lorre, has described—accurately—as “remarkably average.”
Lorre turned to television writing in the mid-eighties. Although he claims that his only ambition was to get health insurance for his family, it was, in some ways, a natural outgrowth of his music career. Many of the songs Lorre wrote were dark-edged, purposefully comic “story” songs. “I was enamored of Randy Newman,” he told me, especially the persona songs in which Newman sang in the voice of an ugly, unlikable person. In Lorre’s mind, television had something else going for it: it appeared to be easy. In music, Lorre said, “the bar seemed much higher. I mean, McCartney and Lennon and Springsteen and Stevie Wonder and the Rolling Stones—just in pop music!” He now describes his confidence as “arrogance fuelled by stupidity,” adding, “I had no idea what I was doing when I started.”
Lorre’s first steady television jobs were in animation. At Marvel Comics, he wrote “Muppet Babies” scripts and was fired from “My Little Pony.” (“I didn’t have that ‘Pony’ voice,” he explained.) At night, he wrote spec scripts for prime-time comedies and used what few connections he had to get them read. He managed to get a “Golden Girls” script into the hands of Betty White, whose neighbor he knew. White told Lorre that she liked the script, which prominently featured her character, and that she would take it to the show’s producers. The script was returned with a form letter, but it led to freelance work for lesser sitcoms, such as “Charles in Charge” and “My Two Dads.”
Lorre’s prime-time break came with “Roseanne,” on which he worked from 1990 to 1992. The first time Lorre set foot on the “Roseanne” set, he experienced a sudden, confidence-building epiphany. “Roseanne was doing a scene with Laurie Metcalf and John Goodman,” he told me, “and I turned to one of the writers and I said, ‘They’re saying what we wrote!’ I was stunned. They were big stars.”
Lorre’s work on “Roseanne” impressed the producers, who offered him the chance to create a show about, in Lorre’s words, “a fifty-year-old middle-class woman coming into her own.” “Frannie’s Turn” premièred in 1992, and was cancelled after five weeks. But it inaugurated Lorre’s long, incongruous stint developing sitcoms about women of a certain age. His next project, “Grace Under Fire,” revolved around a struggling single mother. He was pleased with the pilot, which, he said, “managed to bring in some elements that I don’t think had ever been in a sitcom before,” including domestic violence. Much of that material was drawn from the standup act of the show’s star, Brett Butler, with whom Lorre often battled. “She was dissatisfied with almost every line of every script,” he told me. “It was an impossible situation. I began writing defensively, which isn’t writing—it’s predicting the future.” He left the show after one season.
In 1995, Lorre created a vehicle for Cybill Shepherd that explored an erstwhile ingénue’s identity crisis when she learns of her impending grandmotherhood. “Cybill” had a hugely successful first season—Christine Baranski won an Emmy for her role as Shepherd’s rich, alcoholic friend—but, once again, Lorre found himself struggling with a show’s star. One legend holds that Shepherd had Lorre fired because he clapped too enthusiastically for Baranski at the Emmys. Lorre says that this is not accurate, and characterizes his removal as being more a matter of Shepherd’s unhappiness at “how the humor was being apportioned out” in the second season. (Shepherd demurs: “Chuck knows why he was fired.”)
By this time, he had begun to acquire a reputation as a difficult person. A television show provides hundreds of people with steady employment in an industry not celebrated for its stability, and successful shows are defined by their longevity. Television is thus a more or less congenial industry. A brooding artiste or tantrum champion may thrive within a short-lived film production, but television rewards those who are able to meet deadlines and get along with their co-workers. In 2007, an Entertainment Weekly profile that emphasized Lorre’s combative history described him as “the angriest man in television.”
The characterization still irritates him, and yet, to hear Lorre tell it, anger drove him through much of his early career. The success of “Dharma & Greg,” his sitcom about a mismatched couple which ran from 1997 to 2002, helped him learn to relax. For the first time, Lorre’s distinctive sitcom voice was not forced through the mediating comic funnel of a headlining star. But it was not until “Two and a Half Men,” a show about a womanizing ruin of a man and his fussbudget brother, that Lorre found comic focus: men behaving like idiots.
When I first met Lorre, he told me what he had been “slowly learning” during the past eight years: “If I’m not frightened and angry and obsessed with anything other than doing good work, then maybe an environment gets created where people can do good work.”
Lorre remains annoyed about one thing, though—his shows’ lack of critical recognition, especially where “Two and a Half Men” is concerned. He once said of television critics, “They hate our success and believe that if they martyr themselves they’ll wake up in show business with real jobs.” He does not say such things anymore, at least not publicly, and prefers not to talk about television at all. Lorre’s standing among critics is not helped by his staunchly traditional approach to the sitcom. He is well aware of the shifts that have taken place in sitcom writing during the past twenty years, but he does not care all that much about them. “The comedies we really love, they’re not situational at all,” he said. “ ‘The Honeymooners’ was just a man struggling to get respect in the world. Archie Bunker was a man out of touch with the culture.” In place of “sitcom,” Lorre uses “character-com” or “half-hour comedy.”
By whatever name, the sitcom is an oddly purgatorial form of entertainment. The same characters appear week after week, displaying the same tics, and having the same arguments, in the same rooms, hallways, stairwells, and offices. Within the traditional sitcom, there are complications but rarely solutions; challenges but rarely triumphs. Indeed, when sitcoms attempt to do more dramatic stories, a show can come unmoored, as Lorre learned on “Dharma & Greg.” Faced with pressure from ABC to feature “promotable” story lines, Lorre eventually capitulated, which he regards as “one of the more regrettable actions in my career.” At one point, Dharma toyed with an extramarital relationship; at another, an accident consigned her to a wheelchair for several episodes. “I couldn’t have been dumber,” Lorre said. By listening to ABC, he told me, he undermined “the very nature of what’s great about a four-camera, audience show, which is an opportunity to get to know these people.” Lorre believes that the “magic trick” of the traditional sitcom is that “the characters make very small, incremental progress without ever really changing.”
Bill Prady told me that Lorre hates stories of unnecessary—or any—narrative intricacy. “And he’s right,” Prady said, “because a sitcom is now down to about twenty-one minutes. If you’re going to fill it with plot, with events that must occur, there’s no room for people to talk.” He described the number of events that happen in any “Big Bang Theory” scene as “one or zero,” and said that what Lorre most loves is a story in which the driving force is one character buying a birthday present for another.
“I was sitting in a club recently, in Hollywood, listening to different people get up and play,” Lorre told me. “I thought to myself, They’re all playing the same song. It’s a fundamentally very simple medium, the blues.” He was, I guessed, making a point about the sitcom. “Yeah,” he said. “It’s like a haiku. It’s very simple and very structured.”
Visiting the set of a sitcom you enjoy is like witnessing the exposure of a large and organizationally complex lie. The familiar and comfortable sets, once you are standing within them, seem cramped and flimsy. Touch a door and the wall shakes. Carpets turn raggedy wherever the cameras do not reach. Behind every wall is a world of chicken-coop fencing stapled in place and dark, narrow passageways somehow redolent of asbestos. Someone says, for the purposes of lining up a shot, “Lose the wall,” and suddenly half the set is folded away upon undetectable hinges. The area between the sets and the audience seating area is called “the floor,” but it is more like an alley. What little floor there happens to be is dotted with inscrutably marked pieces of tape.
During tapings of “The Big Bang Theory,” the audience sits at an angle from several of the sets, which means that it watches a good deal of the live proceedings on television monitors. Meanwhile, Lorre and his battery of writers and producers—hidden from the audience by long black curtains—sit crammed within one of the sets, watching their own monitors. Everything that is not part of a set, not bipedal, and not a chair has wheels, because throughout the night it is continually being moved to whichever of the sets is not being used.
“The Big Bang Theory” is Lorre’s best show to date. (“Two and a Half Men,” though funnier than its detractors admit, too often allows its characters to stand there and trade unrealistic sitcom barbs that in just about any other context would get someone punched.) “Big Bang” ’s main characters, Leonard and Sheldon, are physicists, and not in the vague sitcom way that Ross, from “Friends,” was a paleontologist, an occupation with which he seemed as conversant as a randomly selected eleven-year-old boy. Leonard and Sheldon drop references to Richard Feynman and to Asimov’s three laws of robotics, explain how Schrödinger’s cat is applicable to dating, and open episodes with lines like “Here’s the problem with teleportation,” before going on to reveal what, from a physicist’s perspective, the problem actually is.
The show was not an immediate hit. I happened to catch the pilot the night it aired, in September, 2007, and heard, in the first minute, references to Papa Doc Duvalier and Vladimir Nabokov. Its prospects appeared to me valiantly doomed, like those of a dog walking a tightrope. But when the writer’s strike that year crippled production CBS ran the first batch of episodes several times, which played to the show’s gabby strengths. Before long, it had earned a huge and devoted following.
In the show, Leonard and Sheldon live across the hall from a beautiful aspiring actress named Penny, for whom Leonard pines. Leonard wants more from life, which is his tragedy. Sheldon does not, which is his tragedy. A man of Vulcan arrogance and deeply hidden vulnerabilities, Sheldon says that as a child he did not have imaginary friends; he had “imaginary colleagues.” Not many sitcoms would permit Sheldon’s unpleasantness to be so emphatic, but CBS maintains a relatively hands-off approach to Lorre and his shows. Dave Goetsch, a writer on the show, says that “edges that get sanded over in other network sitcoms” become, in “Big Bang,” the “cornerstones of comedy.”
A typical episode of “Big Bang” takes around four hours to film, with lulls that can last twenty minutes or more. The many things that slow the process down include the frequency with which Lorre and his writers send the actors revised or new jokes; the banter among the actors between takes; the announcement of a guest star; and the patter delivered by a standup comedian (“Which side of the room is having a better time? This one or . . . this one?”) who is thanklessly tasked with keeping the audience’s energy up.
At the taping I saw, lines that the actors had grown visibly sick of during the camera run-through, lines that even Lorre had stopped laughing at, were getting huge laughs. Everyone seemed lightly narcotized by the audience’s presence, the audience included. Lorre’s shows are sometimes condemned for using a laugh track, a charge that infuriates him. His shows, Lorre insists to anyone who will listen, never use laugh tracks. When, later, I sat in on a sound edit for “Two and a Half Men,” I witnessed several occasions in which Lorre requested that the laugh be brought down from its recorded level.
For much of the night, the rewriting tasks were mild. “You keep tweaking until you run out of time,” Lorre explained, adding that he found this way of working nerve-racking. “I like to write in a room, privately, not in here with two hundred people waiting for us to finish. The danger is you might come up with a new line that gets a big laugh not because it’s better but because it’s new.”
We came to the episode’s central scene. Sheldon and his girlfriend, Amy, a neurobiologist, sit down with Leonard and two other friends in the physics department cafeteria. Sheldon explains that he has brought Amy to see his work, which Amy concedes is “very impressive,” before adding, “for theoretical work.” Sheldon asks Amy if she’s being condescending. Amy responds, “Compared to the real-world applications of neurobiology, theoretical physics is . . . what’s the word I’m looking for? Cute.” What follows is an argument that Prady, who worked on it, described to me as “very technical” and “jargony.” He first showed it to Lorre to see if it needed to be shortened. “No,” Lorre told Prady. “This is great. In what other comedy do you see this?”
Sheldon asks Amy how a neurologist like Joseph Babinski could ever aspire to the significance of great physicists like James Clerk Maxwell or Paul Dirac. Amy’s scripted response:
Oh, Sheldon. My colleagues and I are mapping the neurological substrates that subserve global information processing, which is required for all cognitive reasoning, including scientific inquiry, making my research ipso facto prior in the ordo cognoscendi. [TO THE OTHER GUYS] That means it’s better than his research, and by extension of course, yours.
In the script, Leonard responds to this Latinate avalanche with a curt, startled “Sure, I got that.” But the audience responded with a restive, uncertain chuckle, and so the writers went to work. First came the dead spot of Amy’s opening, “Oh, Sheldon.” Steven Molaro quickly came up with a line for Amy that had Lorre slapping his knee: “I’m stating it outright. Babinski eats Dirac for breakfast and defecates Clerk Maxwell.” Next came Leonard’s “Sure, I got that,” a line about which Lorre said, “There’s nothing there.” The writers lowered their heads, and a few moments later the rewritten line—Molaro’s, once again—was sent out to the floor. Now when Amy finished her rant, and turned to Leonard, his line became “I’m still trying to work on defecating Clerk Maxwell.” It got the biggest laugh of the evening. I asked Molaro how it felt to experience something like that. He said that changing jokes on the fly, working under all the lights, and before a live audience, had a definite “athletic” component. He then added, “It’s the only athletic component.”
As we moved to another set, I asked Lorre whether single-camera sitcoms suffered by not having this audience-writer feedback loop. Lorre was hesitant to say yes, but he pointed out the biggest danger for sitcom writers whose material was not vetted by an audience: “You never find out if you’re wrong.”
Lorre’s house is one of his neighbor hood’s more modest, and his car one of its least obviously Viagral. Most of the homes nearby stand behind walls or hedges. Lorre’s can be seen from the street.
“Welcome to the sitcom house,” he said, opening the front door.
While he made tea in the kitchen, he asked me to look at some text on the screen of his laptop. I recognized what I was reading as one of Lorre’s vanity cards. Vanity cards are the production-company logos that TV producers flash up onscreen just after the credits have rolled. On the first episode of “Dharma & Greg,” Lorre pushed the name of his company, Chuck Lorre Productions, up to the top of the screen to make room for a message far too long to be read in its brief moment of screen time: “Thank you for videotaping ‘Dharma & Greg’ and freeze-framing on my vanity card. I’d like to take this opportunity to share with you some of my personal beliefs.” An eclectic set of convictions followed—“I believe that Larry was a vastly underrated Stooge”; “I believe my kids are secretly proud of me”—and continued on the card for the next episode, and the next, and the next. Soon, a vanity card announced that Lorre had run out of beliefs, and the texts started to range more widely.
In the twelve years since then, they have included elliptical fictions, rueful musings about his life and the state of the country, and jeremiads against CBS censorship. (Sometimes he relays obscene jokes that he was prevented from using in an episode, and sometimes CBS ends up censoring the card, too, in which case he posts the unexpurgated version on his Web site.) If any single mode predominates among the more than three hundred cards Lorre has written, it is probably the rant, and it is hard not to see these compressed, intense utterances as a rebellion against the constraints of TV writing—moments of id, on the run from the superego of network programming.
The vanity card that I read on Lorre’s laptop was directed at television critics: “You have absolutely no power to affect ratings and the likely success or failure of a TV show. In that arena you are laughably impotent. You are not unlike a flaccid penis flailing miserably at a welcoming vagina.” Lorre had just decided not to use this vanity card for the first broadcast episode of “Mike & Molly.” I told him that I thought he had made an extremely wise decision. He wound up using it, minus a few genital references, on “Two and a Half Men.”
We went out onto Lorre’s red brick back patio, its small pool surrounded by a dozen deck chairs. When he was married, Lorre told me, there had been rose gardens outside and the house was much more elaborately decorated. He has been married twice, a topic about which he has sensibly little to say, and has two children from his first marriage. His daughter works with him on “Big Bang,” and his son is a nurse.
We talked about things I had found surprising when I watched him at work. I mentioned having seen Kaley Cuoco, who plays Penny on “Big Bang,” sitting on the couch in Leonard and Sheldon’s apartment during a rehearsal, apparently checking her e-mail on an iPad. The sight of Cuoco engaged in nonfictional behavior within fictional surroundings, I told Lorre, was strangely distressing.
“After all these years, when I watch the actors on one of my shows go on Leno or Letterman and talk about the funny thing that happened to them while they were building a sauna in their Beverly Hills home or whatever, it just breaks my heart,” Lorre said. “I want to protect the fiction. I don’t want to know what goes on behind the screen.”
I asked if this accounted for his inability or unwillingness to delegate more of the responsibility for his shows.
“It’s a body of work,” he said. “Whether you like the body of work or not, it’s a body of work that I have accumulated, and I want to stay close to it and protect it.”
Later, he expanded on the point. “This is the shot I’ve been given to communicate as a writer,” he said. “This is my shot. This was the door that opened, and if I take it for granted then it’s ridiculous.” He went on, “When I started out writing, in the late eighties, I heard guys say, ‘Aw, screw it. It’s just a sitcom,’ or, ‘It’s just TV. We’ll add laughs to it in post, and it’ll be fine. No one will know.’ I heard guys talk that way and it was really offensive. It was really offensive.”
Films, perhaps, show us who we want to be, and literature shows us who we actually are. Sitcoms, if they show us anything, show us people we might like to know. Because of this, the sitcom is a medium designed to reassure. The more reassuring the sitcom, the better its chances become at winding up in the financial promised land of syndication, where multi-camera sitcoms fare far better than their single-camera brethren. Most sitcoms are about families, and, for the millions who watch a sitcom, it becomes a kind of mental family. Week after week, your couch faces the couch of characters you feel you know, characters whose problems can never quite get solved.
A lot of sitcoms are, in fact, darker than you realize. At its core, “Two and a Half Men” is about loneliness. “The Big Bang Theory” is about alienation. “Mike & Molly” is about self-hatred. You would never know it from the shows themselves, but you do, sometimes, feel it while watching them. To laugh at these things with our mental families may allow us to cope with our own loneliness and alienation and self-hatred. It may be that the sitcom’s constant avoidance of any final, dramatic catharsis is its accidental strength. If so, that would make this least lifelike form of entertainment the most comfortingly similar to real life.
I arrived at the “Mike & Molly” taping, a few days after the network run-through, to learn from a smiling Lorre that the live audience had loved the show’s pilot. There was always a risk, he said, in showing something new to an audience. “These are brand-new faces, and they really responded.” Early in the taping, the audience laughed hard at things that were not even intended to be funny. I wondered what might have happened if the bowling-ball gag had survived into the live shooting, and asked Lorre if an audience can ever be wrong. “Sure they can be wrong,” he said quickly. “We need to ask if the experience will translate to a person sitting alone on their couch. And that’s a judgment call.”
Lorre’s attention was soon consumed by another editorial legacy of the run-through, when a Standards and Practices representative from CBS refused to allow Molly to call Mike a “dick” in a moment of anger after their date. Molly’s line had become “You big knob!” It got a laugh from Lorre during the camera run-through earlier in the day, but, hearing it now, he seemed frustrated. Nothing about it worked, he decided, because Molly’s motivation did not line up with her reaction. “She’s been charming,” Lorre said of Molly. “It’s his problem; he’s an asshole. But CBS won’t let us call him an asshole.”
After several minutes of fretting, Lorre looked up. Why doesn’t Molly insult Mike’s bowling ability? That, he said, was a convincingly nasty thing for her to zero in on. Mike hurt her; she is now going to hurt Mike. A line, Lorre’s, was rushed out to Melissa McCarthy: “You bowl like a girl!” What made the line so funny came from the explosively vicious way that McCarthy delivered it. She seemed surprised by her anger, which was exactly what Lorre had intended.
The evening’s most interesting dilemma surfaced when Mike retreats to his friend Carl’s house after his date with Molly. While Mike and Carl chat, Carl’s grandmother, played as an aging sexpot by Cleo King, comes downstairs and tells Mike that he was threatened by Molly’s intelligence, and advises him to go back to her, since there is “nothing sexier” than a man being honest. At the end of this lesson, a male voice calls Granny back upstairs. She smiles and crosses the set. “That man is honest as the day is long,” the script has her say. “And vice versa.”
The joke utterly died in performance, which stunned Lorre and his writers. “I would have bet the mortgage on that one working,” Lorre said. “But it’s a thinker. There’s too many steps.” The writers looked blankly at the floor. Suddenly, one of them, Don Foster, began nodding. He had something. This was what he had: “That man is honest as the day is long, and had he not been honest I never would have found out he was long.”
It was, I thought, terrible: clunky, wordy, and marred by a rhythmically meretricious repetition of “long.” But when King delivered the line, with a slight backward look and a little kick to her rump on that second “long,” the audience exploded. It was a good line, after all. Lorre, for once, did not laugh, but stared contentedly at his monitor. ♦