There’s an argument going around that, with the rise of streaming services and on demand programming, one day all that will be left of the slow-dying medium that is network television will be live programming. News and sports mostly, but networks have been trying out a few other things as well. NBC has been especially open to the concept, with SNL, two 30 Rock live episodes, and specials like The Sound of Music and Peter Pan. Last week they aired a live episode of their comedy Undateable. Why this show, you might ask?
Adam Sztykiel, the show’s creator, reasons it out: “We have an entire cast of amazing live performers and that’s what kind of separates us from other shows. What better way to showcase it than do a live show?” He’s right in saying that Undateable is a unique sitcom. Four members of the ensemble are stand-up comics (Chris D’Elia, Brent Morin, Ron Funches and Rick Glassman), and when cast, were largely unvetted in the acting world. For a scripted show, a good amount of what you see on TV is improvised, and many jokes end up on the editing room floor. “I also think that in some sort of sick, twisted way, [executive producer] Bill Lawrence wanted to take a group of guys like us and just throw us on live TV and see what happens,” explained Morin. “We do have the reputation for going off the rails and stuff, so why not just try to put that on for an hour?”
A normal Undateable episode still involves a studio audience, but takes several grueling hours to shoot. Each scene is shot multiple times before moving on, and the cameras reset for each scene change. The actors and writers keep it lively by taking note of the audience’s reaction and changing up jokes on the fly. Things can sometimes get a little rowdy, with Brent Morin and Chris D’Elia pushing jokes as far as possible, and cast members often cracking up in response. It builds a pretty impressive blooper reel, which was shown to the audience before the live episode shoot. It helped get everyone laughing and built some excitement, but it also showed just what could go wrong that night.
Bill Lawrence confessed that he was nervous before the shoot. “Saturday Night Live, I like it when people start giggling and blow it. I don’t like it if they do it too much. And everyone here has announced that they are not trying to be helpful, they are trying to make each other mess up. It’s a nightmare.” But with a show like Undateable, there’s something missing when you watch it at home compared to watching it live during a taping. Lawrence and others are aware of this, and decided a live show was the answer. “Bob Greenblatt [Chairman of NBC] loves live television, and he said man, I wish I could replicate what it’s like to go to a taping of this show, because it’s borderline insanity.”
When it came time for the first live shoot—they did an east and west coast version, so that it would be truly live for the whole country—the energy in the studio was electric. Everyone seemed prepared, but tap dancing on a cloud of nervous energy. It was similar to the feeling of an opening night, but as cast member David Fynn reminded us, “the thing with doing a play is you have 6 weeks to prepare for it, and we had 6 days.” The cast all exclaimed they were excited, but Fynn quickly added “I think the excitement comes from terror. Like standing on a train track and jumping out of the way at the last minute.”
As the countdown began, nine cameras took their places and the audience warm-up comedian reminded us (yet again) to laugh. Outside, a large trailer packed with screens, tech, the director and a small crew prepared to make quick decisions and call the shots. There were no applause or laugh signs, just an audience ready to react to whatever might appear on the stage in front of them. And when musician Ed Sheeran walked in to open the show by playing a song at the bar, they were pumped. They clapped along to the soulful tune, and the show was off and running.
Live music was peppered throughout the episode, thanks largely to musician WAZ, who actually writes and performs the score for the show. He sat on a stool in the bar, playing the opening theme and transitions live, with the script calling attention to it just enough. It was a fun element that was appropriately self-aware, especially during the opening sequence. WAZ strummed the theme music on guitar, and each cast member posed for hammy close-ups in real time a la Family Matters. It ended with a shot of a passed-out drunk on the ground, played by show creator Adam Sztykiel, who probably needed the chance to lie down.
The east coast shoot went smooth, with some camera mistakes but nothing too outrageous. The actors kept their cool, rarely breaking or going off-script. The writers and actors even threw in a few surprise jokes in hopes of cracking up other members of the cast, namely Brent Morin. A few days before the shoot, we asked the cast who would break first. Each answered Brent without hesitation… even Brent himself. “Me. 100% me. There’s no doubt in my mind that I will ruin it.” The west coast shoot was a different story. Everyone was more relaxed and having more fun with it, and there was more laughing from everyone, including, as predicted, Brent. “The east coast show was near perfect and the west coast show was perfectly imperfect,” said Sztykiel, “a little more loose and wild, which was fun.”
Each show featured the same guest stars with one exception—Minnie Driver made an appearance in the east coast version, while Kate Walsh played the same role in the west coast version. Ed Sheeran seemed to really enjoy taking on his role, and ad-libbed a few jokes. He surprised everyone, writers included, when he planted a big kiss on Brent Morin during the west coast episode. The audience and crew roared in approval. Scott Foley embellished his scene during the second shoot, making Chris D’Elia get down on his knees and making the live crew nervous, but ultimately keeping it PG-ish. The east coast version ended with guest star Victoria Justice and cast member Bridgit Mendler singing Mendler’s song “Undateable” at the bar, while the west coast saw Ed Sheeran perform a cover of “Hit Me Baby One More Time” with Justice and Mendler on backing vocals.
The entire cast felt relatively at ease doing a live show, with Chris D’Elia seeming the most in his element as he embellished with physical comedy and adjusting jokes on the fly. “It’s unpredictable when you get onstage and do stuff anyway,” explained D’Elia before the show. “We come from that background. There’s four or five of us that perform live all the time. We do it live in front of an audience anyway, but this is just cool knowing that millions of people are going to see.” They don’t normally wax someone’s chest hair live on set, though, which is how the shoot ended—with a pained Brent Morin sporting two bright red bald patches, and Chris D’Elia triumphantly holding a strip coated in wax and hair.
Some of the fun of being an audience member is witnessing things that you couldn’t see at home. After the first scene, the cast had a very quick change involving velcro clothes and some fast maneuvers. During one shoot, a crew member was attempting to get the extras in their proper places, and very nearly appeared on-air before someone yelled “GET OUT!” She darted out of frame just in time. The scene began with an extra ducking into a bar booth off-camera and no one was the wiser. The two guest stars from Scrubs, Zach Braff and Donald Faison, were having a great time, with Faison singing and dancing for the audience to Bell Biv DeVoe’s “Poison” during a commercial break. He finished his stellar performance by tossing the mic back up to the warm-up comedian, and nearly taking out an audience member’s head in the process.
After the final live shoot was done, the cast and crew exploded with relief, and all gathered to drink and be merry in, appropriately, the bar set. People danced, congratulated each other, and breathed a sigh of relief. When we asked Sztykiel how he felt now that the deed had been done, he smiled. “Relieved, proud and invigorated. Relieved that it was a success, proud of everyone involved for making the first ever live one-hour sitcom, and invigorated creatively—it was so much fun, I cannot wait to do it again.”
It looks like he’ll get his wish, with Season 3 greenlit for an entirely live season. It could inject some much-needed energy into the multi-cam sitcom medium, and add an air of unpredictability. Who knows? Maybe it’ll even give viewers a reason to tune into broadcast TV in real time, and laugh along with the live audience (..and Brent Morin).