Two Comedy Directing Veterans Debate the Pros of the Multicamera Format

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Among the seven Emmy-nominated comedy directors this year, two earned noms for directing multicamera sitcoms: James Burrows for B-Positive and James Widdoes for Mom. While neither CBS show earned a series mention, Burrows’ and Widdoes’ noms are meaningful. At a time when single-camera comedies earn prestige, the multicam format continues to be successful not only on broadcast lineups but also on streamers, which have used the nostalgic charms of classic multicam sitcoms to lure subscribers of all generations.

Burrows is an 11-time Emmy winner with Will & Grace, Cheers and Taxi on his résumé, while actor-turned-director Widdoes has earned his first nom after directing 123 episodes across Mom‘s eight seasons. They spoke to THR about viewers’ fickle (yet enduring) relationship with the multicam comedy.

How did you get your start in multicam sitcoms?

JAMES BURROWS I was directing dinner theater in Connecticut; I turned on the TV and there was The Mary Tyler Moore Show. They were doing a 23-minute theatrical piece in a week with a live audience. I thought, “I can do that.” I wrote her a letter, and that’s how I got in.

JAMES WIDDOES When I was still acting [in the ’80s], I did a lot of pilots and a few series — they were all multicams. It was back when every network had 12 to 14 comedies on their schedules, four to six backups, and there were probably 60 or 70 pilots a year. I gravitated to multicams as a director because it’s what I learned from being in the theater. I love Friday nights in front of an audience. I love the pressure of those 200 or 250 people out there ­— will what worked for us all week work for them?

Are there any elements to the format that have changed as you’ve been directing through the years?

BURROWS It’s still a writer-driven medium. The thing that had changed over my years is that now they shoot scenes over and over. When we started out [we were shooting on] film, and the more you kept doing it, the more you would waste film. Digital enables people to obsess about the form, which doesn’t bode well. It’s [about] the reaction that happens in front of your audience, not a group of people saying, “That’s funny, that’s not funny.”

WIDDOES One thing that messed it up for all of us was not having a [live] audience. Even on Mom last year, we couldn’t have an audience because of COVID. In the new paradigm, we’re generally pre-shooting 30 to 50 percent of the show anyway, because there are scenes in cars and on sets that the audience couldn’t see. Then we would play those scenes for the audience and record their laughter.

As multicam veterans, what do you notice when you watch a single-cam comedy?

BURROWS The single-camera shows are much more low-key, much more subtle. The jokes that make the writers laugh when they’re filming or in the room are not necessarily going to make an audience laugh. In a single-camera, there’s no audience to play to. In multicam, you have to play the audience’s laugh, you have to act when the audience is laughing.

WIDDOES The theory was, if you’re in your living room watching TV and you hear the audience’s laughter, you feel like you’re part of a larger group watching the same thing. I was always taught, “Don’t make the audience aware of the camera. Make the audience aware of the actors and the words.” If you look at Parks and Recreation or The Office, you can’t not be aware of the camera. The camera’s literally panning off of people in the middle of a line over to a reaction, and then back to the person who’s speaking. So you’re keenly aware of the camera, which is yet another way to pull the audience into the show.

The streaming platforms are producing more single-cam shows, but they also boast a lot of multicam classics in their libraries. What does that say about the future of the format?

BURROWS The great stuff holds up. I can’t tell you how many people come over to me and say what a good show Cheers was, or Taxi. People now have different tastes, but they still go back to those. You know, I’ve been around for the death of the multicam a number of times. I always say, when I started out in the ’70s, there were 30 great comedy writers and three networks. Now there are 500 networks — and 30 great comedy writers.

Do you see a future in which the two formats come together?

WIDDOES I just loved being able to work on Mom because we tackled very funny things and monumentally serious things at the same time. And we were willing to do both in front of an audience. In that way, the writers and the cast were challenging the form to say, “We can do both.” — T.C.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in the Aug. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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