Saturday, February 09, 2013
UP ALL NIGHT is a cautionary tale in what happens when you don’t have a strong vision for a show. Obviously, shows evolve – especially the first season – and the writers must be willing to see what works and gravitate towards that. And sometimes you get lucky and have a breakout character like the Fonz. But all of these can be accomplished if there’s still a strong foundation for what the series is.
When UP ALL NIGHT was originally conceived the focus was on a young couple coping with parenthood for the first time. That's a solid concept. Maya Rudolph was hired in a supporting role. Then BRIDESMAID hit and the decision was made to beef up Maya’s role. On the surface it sounds like “Just give Maya more to do.” But it’s more than that. What was the series about now? Was it about the couple or Christina juggling motherhood and her career? Those are two very different concepts. And from there the storyline kept changing.
When I first read about the Maya shift I thought back to the first pilot we created and produced. It was called CHARACTERS for NBC many years ago and was passed on for PINK LADY AND JEFF. But from day one CHARACTERS was like THE LIFE OF PI except the tiger was steering the boat. Here’s why:
By making them a comedy team it also allowed for two naturally funny characters. It’s not like we had to create two wise-cracking morticians. And since our arena was the world of improv, all the side characters could be as wacky and Robin Williamiish as we wanted.
So that’s what we pitched to NBC. They loved it. Wanted just one little change. The book SEMI TOUGH was the current best-seller and it focused on a love triangle. NBC was looking to develop a triangle. What if the girl in our show had a boyfriend? It would be an added complication. The network people all got very excited in the room. Something felt wrong about it to us but we couldn’t put our finger on it. And we this close to selling our first pilot. So we agreed to do that.
A fatal mistake.
The major flaw was if the Nichols & May team were just friends there was no triangle because Nichols posed no threat. And the added complication just undermined the theme. This became clear the minute we tried to break the story.
But we pressed on, filled the scripts with jokes, and did the best we could to massage the story. We hoped that when they read the draft they would see that the triangle was just shoehorned in and not necessary. No. They liked that part the best. In fact, that’s why they greenlit the pilot to be shot.
Now we faced casting problems. Originally we could have hired a weird nerdy-looking guy. Now we had to find someone handsome enough to be a threat yet still quirky and zany. We had to find a boyfriend not so handsome that it wouldn’t be a contest. And finding the girl was a bitch. We’d bring in gifted comediennes and NBC would reject them because they weren’t pretty enough to attract two guys.
Needless to say, when PINK LADY AND JEFF got the nod over us I wasn’t crushed. (Although, full disclosure: when I saw the pilot of PINK LADY AND JEFF I did say, “What the fuck?! We lost to THAT?”)
The point is if you don’t have a solid premise and a real handle on what the series is you be in the writers room up all night every night.
By Ken Levine at 6:00 AM