Thursday, May 21, 2015

The pros and cons of doing LIVE shows

Here’s a Friday Question that became a whole long-winded post:

The Bumble Bee Pendant asks:

Ken, a favorite show of mine, Undateable, has been renewed, but according to NBC, all of its episodes will be broadcast live. While the Live episode the show recently had worked, what would you think (as either a director, writer or showrunner) if the network forced this on you? How would it change how you drafted scripts or blueprinted the series?

To me it’s just a gimmick, and the novelty will wear off quickly. What you’re then left with is a sub-quality product. Yes, there’s the fun of the unpredictability of watching a live performance. And there will be mistakes. But most of the time they won’t be major gaffes, there’ll be mangling lines or killing good jokes because they’re not told correctly. And a level of nerves that will permeate the performances.

The regular cast may get more proficient but the guest cast won’t. You might see two levels of acting going on. There also may be actors you’d like to hire for guest star roles who will pass because they don’t want to go on live.

Actors may not always hit their marks or cameras will be late in getting to shots resulting in some ragged on screen moments. Boom shadows and other technical problems may arise from time to time. A light blows out and suddenly an actor is in shadow in the middle of a room. Yeah, these are glitches but they’re not fun glitches.

On these live shows now the cast and crew are generally given more time to rehearse. And everyone is on their toes. What happens when you’re cranking them out every week? There will be many sloppy moments.

And good luck if someone gets sick. There are no understudies.

Scriptwise, you are very restricted. Stories must be plotted that can be shot in real time. Wardrobe changes must be finessed. You must design the scripts so that you can add or subtract in the last five minutes. It’s not like SNL where they just feature silly skits. One story has to carry through the entire episode. And the actors must never break character. If there is a flub that’s noticeable it can take the audience right out of the show. Or if an actor accidentally drops an important piece of information then the audience will be confused as the story unfolds.

Writers won’t have as many opportunities to tweak the script in live situations. You need to give the actors sufficient time to learn their lines – especially if they have only one chance to get them right (or two if they do a separate version for the west coast, which they should otherwise it’s not live to them). Normally on a multi-camera show, we’ll give actors new lines right before they go on camera. But we can always shoot it again if the actor flubs.

You can’t fall behind on scripts either. You can’t just juggle the production schedule to add a hiatus week. And in this day and age, networks note you to death. Do you think that will change just because the show will be live? No. Showrunners will still have the logjam when network notes on outlines and story notions and drafts are late in arriving. Everything will be a mad scramble. Not the best way to mount a show.
It’s almost impossible to accurately gauge the time of a sitcom episode – especially one shot in front of a live audience. You don’t know how long the laugh spread will be. Generally, when we tape shows they come out a few minutes long. This gives us the opportunity to cut jokes that didn’t work, adjust the pace, select the best performances, and really craft the episode. If a joke bombs on live TV it bombs. And if enough of them bomb then the actors get scared. It’s bad enough they’re nervous. Nervous and scared is a lethal combination. And I don’t blame them. They’re out there for the world to see without a net.

Here’s the good news for showrunners – no pick ups, no post production, no editing, no network editing notes. The show’s over – you go home. But that’s the only good news.

At the end of the day, you’re going to turn out a product that’s less than your best. Showrunners are going to cringe when watching it back. There will be fifty little things the showrunner would want to correct if he could. If the show was filmed he could correct forty of them.

To me, the only reason to do it would be if you had a series that was extremely topical.  That way the jokes could reflect news events or pop culture events in a timely fashion.  

For UNDATEABLE, it’s the Faustian contract they signed. Without the “live” gimmick they most likely never would have gotten renewed. But they’ll be paying the price. It’s a bitch to do a decent sitcom even when you have time. This just adds a whole extra layer of pressure.

Is it worth it? We’ll see when the ratings come out.  I sincerely wish everyone concerned the best of luck. 


The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

Ken, Thanks for answering my question. It sounds like a massive inconvenience and headache for the great Bill Lawrence and company.

As a followup...knowing all these downsides with little upside in quality, why would the network make this decision? Or is the cynical answer in my head the correct one?

MikeN said...

They should do an episode that is live and unrehearsed. That is, the cast doesn't know there lines until they are on stage.

MikeN said...

Does Comedy Central or producers provide writers for noncomedians at celebrity roasts? Have you ever written for someone at a roast?

Terrence Moss said...

i disagree with most of this, but i am admittedly coming more from a viewer perspective. the cast is largely made up of standup comedians who are used to performing live. 20-plus years ago "Roc" did an entire season live. the cast was made up of theatre actors so it worked there as well just as i think it will here too.

so i don't find it gimmicky at all. i find it to be a wise move to generate much-needed interest in anything going on at NBC.

Mike Schryver said...

As a viewer, I'm slightly more likely to watch this show knowing that it's live (or was live to the east coast, at least).

Joseph Scarbrough said...

I honestly can't understand how that show got renewed, it's a terrible show to begin with.

Stephen Robinson said...

Standup comedy is not the same, I think, as live theater. The former is material that's been workshopped and refined. Yes, the comic will react to the audience (hecklers or even just a bombed line), but they still only have to worry about their own performance.

These stunts are also different from actors performing a play. There are weeks of rehearsal and out-of-town tryouts and then previews before the play "opens" and then it remains mostly the same (with minor changes) for the run of the play. It's not new material every couple weeks.

Remove the intimacy of the audience in live theater and you still have a TV show but not a polished one.

cd1515 said...

Friday question: I know it’s hip now to blast the network suits for interfering, but have you seen or heard of examples where a network “note” was correct and actually improved the product?0

Igor said...

Ken, reading your post today, it's as if...

"Mrs. Lincoln, we understand your husband will be shot dead tonight at Ford's Theater. Other than that, how do you think you'll like the show?"

MikeN said...

>where a network “note” was correct and actually improved the product?

When they told Ken they thought casting looks over funny was a bad idea for Cheers.

When they told him Nancy Travis was a mistake for Becker.

Johnny Walker said...

FRIDAY QUESTION that leapt to mind as I started write a CHEERS spec for practice:

How did Cheers separate its scenes in its script when sometimes pretty much the entire show took place in one location, with characters frequently jumping in and out of storylines? M*A*S*H was always apparently five scenes in each act, and a tag. How did you break it down in the Cheers room?

Also, for anyone reading: There's nothing like trying to write a Cheers episode to see just how difficult it is to reach that standard. Wow.

Mike said...

@Johnny Walker: Why not write a comedy about a web programmer (e.g. Barney Lumsden of Perfect Curve)? #waytogo

(These food captchas are hard. Google, eh? Their entire intellectual property provided by the Department of Defense, paid for by US tax dollars, pay no tax themselves and can't produce a usable user interface to save their lives.)

Anonymous said...

This old article may be good source material for discussion of BTS goings on for network TV.

Mike said...

Bill Lawrence will do anything to keep his hopelessly mediocre, poorly-rated shows on the air.

Craig Byrne said...

Mr. Levine,

As always, love your writing, and your insights to the process.

I've been to two tapings of Undateable - the first felt like about 5 hours, multiple takes... it was fun to see the different tries that these guys do... but the live show, which I also saw them doing, was a LOT smoother. Yes, there is definitely the worry about guest stars, but as far as timing, that cast really seems to know how to riff on each other to fill space.

I do prefer seeing the show done live in person vs. watching on TV, but I think that's also the nature of seeing some comics who are used to performing in front of an audience.

If always being live means more of the show, it's great. They can build on it and hopefully do well with it. I miss multi-cam sitcoms, and there's a lot of comfort for me, as a viewer, to watch. So, I'm not worried, and I'm curious to see how they make it all work.

Cap'n Bob said...

It makes you wonder how they did it for so many years in the early days of TV.

DetroitGuy said...

"Undateable"? "Unwatchable" is more like it.