Consult this diagram later in the update to better understand what a 'three camera sitcom' is. DISREGARD THE FOURTH CAMERA.
Things women say to me a lot:
1) "Please stop texting me."
2) "Do you watch How I Met Your Mother? It’s so good!"
3) "Oh my God, you mean… Wow, this whole time I thought you were gay. That’s really weird! Uh, but actually, I have a boyfriend, so no. It’s really sweet of you to ask, though!"
Let’s focus on #2!
The show How I Met Your Mother has been recommended to me dozens of times by dozens of people, usually women who have huge crushes on Neil Patrick Harris.* And, as I do whenever people recommend something to me, I usually respond by saying, “Yeah, I’ve heard that’s really good! I’m definitely going to watch/read that as soon as I get some free time,” and then promptly not doing that thing when I do have the free time.
*I also have a huge crush on Neil Patrick Harris, but the difference is that I have a way better shot at getting into his pants than any of you ladies.
It’s not like I’m deliberately avoiding your advice – it’s just that in my spare time I’ve always got something that I want to do, and the things that I genuinely want to do usually trump the things that other people tell me I’d like doing. Long story short, I’m probably not going to read the fucking Hunger Games already, so maybe you should all just stop telling me to.
Such was the case with How I Met Your Mother. I even ranked it pretty low on the list of TV shows that I was meaning to watch, and this was with full knowledge that it featured Neil Patrick Harris, one of my favorite people.* I was doing this because I’m a gigantic TV snob – and for that, I apologize.
*Honestly, do we even need to say that we love Neil Patrick Harris anymore? I feel like that’s pretty much a given these days. I’ve never heard anybody say, “FUCK Neil Patrick Harris. I HATE that guy.” The only reason that gay marriage is still controversial is because Neil Patrick Harris hasn’t gone door to door in the Bible Belt having friendly chats with everybody.
How I Met Your Mother is what we enormously successful industry types call a ‘three camera sitcom’ – it’s pretty much the slang term for a show like Cheers, Frasier, Friends, Seinfeld, Home Improvement, or Two and a Half Men: a couple of cheap sets, a live studio audience, and action that cuts between three fixed camera angles. Shows like 30 Rock and Community are ‘single camera sitcoms’, which basically means their budgets are way higher, their stories are more intricate, there’s no studio audience, and, since they’re on NBC, there’s not much of an at home audience, either.
As a TV snob, I’d thought that the time of the ‘three camera sitcom’ had come and gone – I loved Seinfeld and Frasier, and I still do, but I prefer rapid fire comedic pacing, and three camera shows can’t really do that because actors always have to pause while everyone laughs or goes Awww or Woooooooooooh! whenever something sexy happens. Three camera stories tend to be on the weaker side and are generally more one-liner driven to play to the crowd. I looked down on that from atop my high horse, which, in and of itself, was at the top of an ivory tower.
Furthermore, I knew that How I Met Your Mother was not really filmed in front of a live studio audience – the show is built to look like it is, but because of how many different sets they use they just shoot the thing in an empty studio and then edit in pre-recorded laughter afterwards. That, again, upset the snob in me.
See, the people watching at home hear the laughter, which in turn cues them to laugh themselves – it lets them know that what they just heard was funny and deserving of laughter. A comedy writer’s job is to make people laugh, so for a writer to write a joke and determine in the editing room how many virtual audience members are going to laugh at it and for how long it is like an architect designing a building that’s already there. And that bugged me, because that’s an awful lot of power for a writer to have. If I had a magic button to make you all laugh at everything I wrote, I’d be mashing the fuck out of it every week. But I don’t, so like an honest schmuck I just do my damndest to write funny stuff and fail roughly 60 percent of the time.
But then one night a few weeks ago I happened to be in the living room, drunk, with my roommate, also drunk, and he turned on How I Met Your Mother on Netflix.
And holy shit, guys, How I Met Your Mother is so good! It’s totally hilarious! Why did nobody ever tell me about this show?
In that one drunk night, my roommate passed out on the couch beside me, I watched pretty much the entire fourth season, episode after episode, cackling and unable to tear myself away. And I realized that I was wrong to be snobbish about the three camera sitcom.
It’s not outdated or inherently worse; it’s just a different template upon which to lay your TV show that has a bunch of eccentric roots in TV history. The laughs are piped in because the scripts are written with them in mind. Watching the show now almost makes me nostalgic for the afternoons I spent watching Frasier as a child while everybody else was out developing the social skills that would allow them to lose their virginities at a reasonable age – the comedy is really good, and it just happens to be wrapped up in a different package than I’m used to.
Networks benefit from three camera shows for a number of reasons – for one, they’re much cheaper to produce, but they’re also much easier for audiences to jump into. Community is hands down the funniest and most groundbreaking show on TV right now, but if you don’t start watching at the beginning you’re probably going to be pretty confused. A three camera show like How I Met Your Mother, with its emphasis more on laughs than intricate long form storytelling, is a lot easier for audiences to get onboard with whenever with little backstory, and as a result it’s easier for them to pick up an audience as time goes by.
It’s a friendly show that you can just hang out and watch – and what better format for a show that’s about a bunch of awesome friends hanging out and doing stuff?
In fact, watching all those happy young people living in the big city, making their way in the world, and being together through thick and thin has galvanized me to put together a similar team of awesome friends. I’ve already got a Power Couple, but I’m taking applications for a serial womanizer and quirky, amicable ex-girlfriend. Over 30 need not apply; must be willing to go to a bar every night and engage in shenanigans at a moment’s notice.
Truman Capps still isn’t going to take all your other recommendations, damn it.