Saturday, February 09, 2013

Christina Applegate leaves UP ALL NIGHT

Last Friday it was announced that Christina Applegate has decided to exit UP ALL NIGHT in light of the format change from single camera to multiple camera (shot live before a studio audience). Since she was the star and best thing in that show I would say that’s a blow. But it’s just the latest in a series of tweaks, retooling, and rebooting that troubled series has undergone since even before its debut. UP ALL NIGHT has had more facelifts than Mary Tyler Moore. Showrunner-wise it’s been a revolving door. At what point do you say put it out of its misery? The expression we have in the writers room for all these changes is they’re rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

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:

I had read the book SOMETHING WONDERFUL RIGHT AWAY about the formation of the Second City improv troupe in Chicago. Many great people came out of that group including the team of Mike Nichols & Elaine May. For about five years they were a national sensation.  (Good article about them in the recent comedy edition of Vanity Fair.) So our idea was to center the show on a Nichols & May-type team. And since me and my partner David always have a theme for our shows, this one was “can a man and woman work together and be friends without letting romance get in the way?” That seemed fresh and interesting. Yes, it was WHEN HARRY MET SALLY but ten years before that movie.

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.

Somehow we put it together and found a terrific cast. Maggie Roswell played the girl, Philip Charles MacKenzie played her partner, and Terry Lester played her boyfriend. All did a terrific job. But I remember standing on the stage on the night we filmed it. The audience was laughing and an NBC exec said, “This has a great chance of getting on.” And I thought, “Holy shit! Then what do we do? How do we make 13 more of these? Or even 3? I have no idea what this series is about.”

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.  

20 comments:

unkystan said...

But I ask again. Contractually can a star just bail out? And your thoughts on stars quitting failing programs midstream.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I haven't followed the painful path of UP ALL NIGHT because I hated it utterly when it began, but it sounds like a fascinating case study. But here's a Friday question: what did Chuck Lorre do right to make TWO AND A HALF MAN survive Charlie Sheen's meltdown? Personally, I tend to think that Jon Cryer was a lot more responsible for the show's success all along than anyone gave him credit for. When I've seen the show since the arrival of Ashton Kutcher, it still seems to me kind of unfocused and directionless. And yet...it's still one of the top few comedies. So somehow they've got a formula going that isn't apparent to me.

wg

Matt Bird said...

I'm with Unkystan... isn't this impossible? Didn't she have to sign a seven year contract? Is the contract somehow invalid because of the shirt to multicam? Or the changes in showrunner?

Don't get me wrong, more power to her, but I thought that Networks had contracts in place to keep stuff like this from ever happening.

Anonymous said...

I'm betting she had a contract and the change is just an excuse to leave because the breast cancer returned.

As for the show this new format is great. Get rid of Mya Rudolph, Lorne Michaels and Will Arnett and just reboot it as a new laugh track sitcom with an entirely new cast.

Larry said...

Didn't Woody Allen do a pilot in the early 60s about an improv troupe? I'd like to see that on a double bill with Ken's pilot.

Anonymous said...

Again, non-creative suits who don't know how to structure a joke, let alone a story are telling creative writers how to do their show. THAT'S the problem. Would non-cinematographers come up and tell them how to light the scene and what gels to use? No. But everyone thinks writing is easy and anyone can do it - until they truly try.

Little Miss Smoke and Mirrors said...

@unkrystan - I have been hearing some salacious gossip coming off that set since day one that, unfortunately, I now believe is true, considering the demise of the Poehler/Arnett marriage. Thinking Applegate made a mistake, but then had some leverage, if you can read between the lines.

All that said, this show was mediocre in the first place, but became unwatchable in fall 2012. The only real choice here is cancellation, although I'm hearing they want Lisa Kudrow to replace Applegate. WTF?

Mike Schryver said...

Ken, I'm sure not getting your pilot picked up was disappointing, but if it's any consolation, NBC's decision gave us one of the most gloriously bad spectacles in the history of television in PINK LADY. I tremble in awe at the cast and crew's achievement in making something so terrible. Honestly. Mediocre is easy to do, but sonething that bad was an achievement.

Then again, if they'd picked up your show, maybe their comedy renaissance could have begun a couple of years earlier.

Pamela Jaye said...

Thanks for answering that :-) (and yes, I, too wonder how she got out, but I believe TR Knight and Katherine Heigl asked to be let out of their contracts early, and were allowed)

Interesting about Network Exec changing premise (I hated what they did to Almost Perfect. I really loved the Romantic Comedy). When I heard of Up All Night it already had Maya - but I enjoyed it that way. When her show was canceled and brother Scott came - it's all been downhill...

I didn't watch Samantha Who. Ever. Even after they finally settled on a name. Naming! another problem for new series (especially Cougartown and Quantum Leap)

Johnny Walker said...

I'm guessing that, ultimately, being under contract doesn't mean all that much if the actor doesn't want to do the show any more. Sure, they could sue, or threaten to sue, but what's the point?

It's more interesting to me that she decided to leave the show for, apparently, creative reasons. That's got to be a tough decision, as you've essentially just put all your co-workers on brink of unemployment.

I wonder what they make of it?

Johnny Walker said...

Ken, I'd love to know your thoughts on Tippi Hedren's sudden public turn on Alfred Hitchcock. She makes some pretty wild allegations (she had to be sexually available to the director, and when she refused to be, he buried her career).

It's horrible if true, but it also sounds completely improbable. Any thoughts?

A_Homer said...

Up All Night felt confusing with the changes in comedic tone as well - is it closer to a sitcom or Arrested Development? It got quite spread out between Arnett and Rudolph and Applegate. No one was going to really be a "sidekick" to the star, and if it wanted to now be a sitcom, three near-equals isn't helpful in focus (Look at C.Lorre: 2.5 men, Sheen was the star with Cryer and kid; BBTheory seems ensemblish now, but nothing happens without Sheldon etc..) Applegate showed a gift for comedy in Samantha Who, where the concept was unique and clear enough out of the starting gate, and she definitely had a great comedy sidekick in the form of Melissa McCarthy. But there the sharpness of the initial pilot concept was too quirky, it left little room for maneuvering growth. I'm not so sure Applegate can really carry a show/sitcom but she can definitely do comedy enough to hold a good role within a better one. Pity with Up All Night.

Michael said...

The theme of "Almost Perfect" had a significant change mid-stream when the boyfriend was written off the show. Was that something forced on you by the network and, if so, was it difficult for you to make the adjustment?

ScottyB said...

All of this reminds me of what someone once said about the comic strip 'Nancy': "It seems to be a program by Russian government scientists to develop the joke."

Janice said...

Call me crazy, but I actually enjoyed Christina Applegate's 1998-2000 series, "Jesse".

That being said, I turned off "Up All Night" during the first scene of the first episode and never looked back.

cadavra said...

Applegate's done Broadway, not to mention 11 years of MARRIED...WITH CHILDREN, so it's not like she has a fear of audiences. I wonder if she wanted out all along and just used the shift to multi-cam as the excuse...

Rg said...

I am an attorney but not an employment one. I believe the reason one can quit a contract/show is we no longer have indentured servitude. Think of a pro football player who holds out. The team is not required to pay the player and the team can prevent the player from playing for another team, but the team cannot force the player to play. In this case NBC is not required to pay xtina and can prevent her from acting on another show unless terms are worked out, like a buyout or other arrangement. Hope this helps people understand how she can quit while under contract.

Terri said...

I'm guessing Christina signed on for a show in which she was the star. As the direction of the show changed, and NBC decided Maya was the more bankable star, she found herself in more of a supporting role. I would bet the laugh track revamp also gave Maya more screen time. That could be how she was able to walk out of the contract, maybe?

Nat Gerter (sitcom room veteran) said...

I seem to be in the minority here, as I actually enjoyed Up All Night originally; playing Rudolph as Oprah simply made the stress aspect of Applegate's character work. But it did slide about more than a little that first season... and season 2's rework was a disastrous mess, adding new characters and storyline that meant nothing, violating character all over the place, and generally leaving this confused blah mess.

D. McEwan said...

"Johnny Walker said...
Ken, I'd love to know your thoughts on Tippi Hedren's sudden public turn on Alfred Hitchcock."


It's not really sudden. She's been selling this story for decades, but she has gotten more vitriolic about Hitch in recent years, in part due to egging on by an opportunistic writer of biographies named Donald Spoto. The recent TV movie about her just cast it in a spotlight.

Is it true? Well, some of it is. Ask Vera Miles. Her case was less-extreme, but when she got knocked up by her new husband (Tarzan, no less. Why wouldn't these hot blonde stars prefer a fat, middle-aged British genius to young, hot men their own ages?) just as she was to star in Vertigo, Hitch went off her. The role in Psycho, the less-interesting role, was punishment and a way of ending her contract.

Some actresses had terrific experiences working with Hitch, like Janet Leigh, Kim Novak, and Eva Marie Saint, but others did not, and Tippi, who was the last of the "proteges," was also the most-extreme. How much harm did Hitch do to her career? Well, he wasn't responsible for A Countess From Hong Kong, and Marnie isn't intentionally bad, but some of it is certainly true.

Up All Night got such great reviews that I watched the debut. Meh. Never tuned back for a second episode, and I've been watching Go On, so it's not like a show has to be Fawlty Towers to get me to tune back in.