This past Tuesday, Shout! Factory released WKRP In Cincinnati: The Complete Series, a 13-disc set comprising the full run of the classic CBS sitcom. Chronicling the episodic squabbles and struggles of the freaky disc jockeys and the square management at a middling Midwestern broadcaster, WKRP is a dispatch from a golden age of live-audience TV comedies, a wave kicked off by its ancestor at production company MTM Enterprises: The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Like all the great sitcom ensembles of the era, WKRP’s cast feeds off the energy of the individual players and the people in the bleachers, an appropriate vibe for a show set in the world of rock ’n’ roll radio. It’s an atmosphere fine-tuned for controlled chaos, as seen in the first-season episode “Fish Story,” which finds a pair of WKRP promotional stunts going riotously, hilariously awry, the audience’s laughter clearly goosing the faux-drunk antics of stars Howard Hesseman and Tim Reid.
Coincidentally, Shout!’s WKRP set debuts the same week as CBS’ newest sitcom, The McCarthys. While the former marked the end of an era—following WKRP, MTM shifted its focus to dramas like Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, and Remington Steele, scoring one last long-running comedy with 1982’s Newhart—the latter represents a new, exciting direction for TV comedy punctuated by disembodied laughter. For the past decade and a half, the multi-camera sitcom—staged and performed like a televised play, as opposed to its single-camera cousins, whose look and filming techniques are more akin to movies and TV dramas—has acted as if its lineage begins at Seinfeld, Friends, and Everybody Loves Raymond. All three are excellent shows, but their influence and popularity has proven toxic to a whole generation of TV comedies—many of which thrived long enough to ensure their own eternal afterlife in syndication. Their influence trickles down to The McCarthys, ABC’s Cristela, and Fox’s Mulaney as well, but this trio of shows has a longer memory. Those three shows became the best new class of multi-camera sitcoms in recent memory by doing nothing more radical than tapping into the traditions of TV’s most storied format.
It’s an unexpected development for a fall season that’s otherwise broken from sitcom tradition, even on the schedule of stodgy old CBS. For the first time since 1951—the year Desi Arnaz, Lucille Ball, and Metropolis cinematographer Karl Freund pioneered the three-camera setup, the better to capture the energetic buzz issuing from the I Love Lucy stage—the Tiffany Network did not program a comedy at 9 p.m. on Mondays. Meanwhile, NBC—which picked up the multi-camera torch in the 1980s and ran with it through the Must See TV relays of the ’90s—chose a fall slate featuring only single-camera comedies.
Yet, the season’s funniest pilot just might be The McCarthys, an old-fashioned family sitcom about a tight-knit Boston brood. The family trades insults, but without a trace of post-Raymond spite; protagonist Ronny (Tyler Ritter) is gay, but his sexuality doesn’t make him a family pariah, nor is it the only facet of his personality. Unlike recent multi-camera efforts to synthesize an ensemble out of incompatible-yet-recognizable names and faces (Guys With Kids jumps immediately to mind), the dynamic among the McCarthys is immediately authentic and lived-in. The banter about basketball and The Good Wife is natural enough that the presence of New Kids On The Block’s Joey McIntyre—as one half of the family’s set of mismatched twins—isn’t the least bit distracting. Anchored by Ritter (the son of Three’s Company star John Ritter, suggesting this sort of show runs in the family) and Roseanne alumnus Laurie Metcalf, the McCarthys pilot is also a well performed piece of TV comedy. That’s a crucial component in multi-cam, which is more of an actor’s and director’s format, whereas single-cam tends to showcase smart writing and sharp editing.
Playing to those sorts of strengths elevates Cristela’s game as well. That goes beyond Cristela Alonzo’s avowed affinity for the format and extends to the ways she modulates her performance to suit her dual audiences—the one in the studio and the other at home. A seasoned stand-up comedian, Alonzo has plenty of experience in front of a crowd, but her reactions and responses lose none of their energy when translated through TV cameras. They don’t threaten to overload the circuitry of those cameras, either; Alonzo has remarkable command of sitcom dynamics, recognizing that the performance notes that make the most impact—whether it’s responding to Cristela’s entitled law-firm co-workers or shooting down the advances of Alberto, a wannabe Casanova played by fellow stand-up Gabriel Iglesias—are entirely wordless.
Seeking the proper sense of energy, The Mary Tyler Moore Show put its actors in front of a live audience; one season later, its Saturday-night companion All In The Family was doing the same. Like Alonzo’s comedy club chops or Metcalf’s theatrical training, Martin Short comes to Mulaney with a set of tools that only work in the presence of an audience. Short is one of comedy’s last great hams; if his people-pleasing bigness smacks of desperation, it’s just part of the act. On Mulaney, Short plays Lou Cannon, a performer whose current-day reputation is much like that of the multi-cam sitcom: His time has passed, but he’s still ready, willing, and able to entertain. What he gets in exchange for that eagerness is the only TV gig more hoary than a multi-camera comedy: A game show.
Of The McCarthys, Cristela, and Mulaney, Mulaney has the longest wicked streak; the Fox sitcom ended its second broadcast with a POV shot of a newborn baby, whose first sight outside of the womb appears to be the drowned visage of star John Mulaney. (Mulaney is also the new sitcom that’s doing the most post-pilot work on itself, a bit of catch-up necessitated by the fact that it first landed at NBC as a single-camera show.) But the show is ultimately about the support system its characters build for one another when their dreams don’t pan out, the same sort of support the families of Cristela and The McCarthys offer one another despite their various disagreements. A sense of sincerity sets the multi-cam class of ’14 apart from its immediate predecessors, exemplified by Cristela’s aspirational side, The McCarthys’ air of acceptance, and Mulaney’s desire to get truly, deeply weird. Nasim Pedrad fantasizing about a dead man’s apartment in a homage to Little Shop Of Horrors’ “Somewhere That’s Green” is as sincere as TV in 2014 gets.
Contrast that to the shows that followed in the footsteps of Jerry, George, Elaine, Kramer, and the Barone family, which reached their inevitable Seth MacFarlane-shepherded nadir in last season’s Dads. Heeding Seinfeld’s “no hugging, no learning” rule, but ignoring the thrilling sense of storytelling that set up those hugging- and learning-free conclusions, a generation of multi-camera sitcoms have lobbed put-downs at unappealing characters slogging through near-plotless setups. Revisiting WKRP In Cincinnati—or Bob Newhart’s two MTM sitcoms, both of which have received a repackaging via Shout! Factory this year—emphasizes the profound effect that Friends’ laissez-faire approach to plotting had on the shows that followed it. Friends, like Cheers or The Cosby Show before it, could always prop up a storyline on the considerable chemistry of its cast. That’s a luxury that bypasses nearly every contemporary multi-cam show but The Big Bang Theory.
The new class isn’t exactly serving up Norman Lear-worthy playlets every week, either, but there are obvious, character-based frameworks in place that make for solid half-hour stories. John Mulaney’s eponymous Mulaney character combats his nervousness about human anatomy while dating a doula, and winds up attending one of her home births; high jinks ensue. Cristela’s sister signs her up for an online dating service, and she winds up on a blind date with Alberto; high jinks ensue. It’s pat stuff, but it gets an additional jolt of electricity from the presence of an audience. If only that energy could better unite their workplace and domestic settings; one of the most exciting features of The McCarthys pilot is the presence of the family living room as the show’s home base.
But most promising is the mere existence of a show like The McCarthys, evidence that the multi-camera tide is turning. Creatively, if not commercially: Fox abbreviated Mulaney’s first season by three episodes; Cristela’s ratings aren’t Black-ish-good, but they’re not Manhattan Love Story-bad, either. (Still, second seasons for the emotionally rich Chuck Lorre outlier Mom and the low-key NBC charmer Undateable demonstrate that you don’t have to be as shrill as 2 Broke Girls to make it in this sitcom climate.) Debuting at the end of CBS’ Lorre-centric Thursday-night lineup, The McCarthys stands a better chance of survival, though the 9 o’clock hour on that night devoured both The Crazy Ones and Bad Teacher during the 2013-14 season.
Of course, both of those shows were shot single-camera, so they needed to find people who would laugh at them. With The McCarthys, the audio track’s available in a pinch.