Monday, November 23, 2015


UNDATEABLE LIVE is unlike any sitcom I’ve ever worked on. And of course, I’m old enough that the first sitcom that ever put me on staff was run by Euripides. I’ve done single camera, multi-camera, block-and-shoot, tape, film, High-Def, and Greek Chorus, but I’ve never done one that aired live.

Last Friday I attended the broadcasts (I can’t say tapings) of UNDATEABLE LIVE after writing a post about the show saying I was curious to see what it’s like – the process and the contrasting experience of witnessing the broadcast and then seeing it on television.

This was my second attempt at this. Thankfully, there were no worldwide catastrophic events that caused cancellation. I understood why the producers and network cancelled last week and understand even more having now seen the process. It’s a party.

For a studio audience, it’s the best sitcom experience ever. Normally an audience will be there for at least three hours. Scenes are filmed multiple times and there are generally lengthy delays for costume changes, joke changes, and one light bulb goes out on the set necessitating six ladders, seven guys, and twenty minutes. With UNDATEABLE LIVE you’re in and out in ninety minutes tops. You sit down, a warm up guy gets you revved, there’s a band and musical guest, the cast is introduced, you watch the show ONCE, the musical guest does a few more numbers, and you go. Compare that with FRIENDS where it took so long to shoot an episode they literally had TWO audiences. After four or five hours the first audience was mercifully released and a new one took its place. Navy Seals in training are not put through that torture.

UNDATEABLE LIVE does two performances – one for the East Coast at 5:00 PM (8:00 back East) and 8:00 for the West Coast. Some changes are made between shows.

Me and Bill Lawrence
UNDATEABLE LIVE embraces the convention, which – what the hell? You might as well. Several of the cast members are stand ups, so they’re comfortable tossing out an ad lib now and again. And part of the fun of the show is watching to see if something unexpected happens – if an actor flubs a line, someone breaks up, the Messiah comes. There are meta lines where they occasionally break character and take shots at each others' career, and producers will sometimes give an actor a line intended to throw off another actor, but it’s clear viewers are watching the making of a television show; they’re not suspending belief and pretending there is a reality to the setting and situation. That’s the trade off, but again, what the hell? Their primary goal is to entertain so why not use all the tricks at their disposal?

Interaction is the key. They even give out a phone number and cast members have been known to talk to viewers during the broadcast. If only I could have called the Bionic Woman and asked her out.

The half-hour warm up is streamed on Periscope. Show runner Bill Lawrence also interacts with fans. Ironically, years ago only union photographers were allowed to take pictures on a sound stage. And now everyone including the dog is snapping photos and selfies.

Because of the looseness of the format and storytelling, scripts are only about 22 pages long. CHEERS scripts used to be almost double that. (Of course we also had more program time and no musical guests... except the Righteous Brothers).

Me and Phill Lewis
Unlike normal multi-camera shows where you have four cameras; UNDATEABLE LIVE has nine (eight standard cameras on rolling tripods and a hand-held). Credit to director Phill Lewis who can wrangle all of that and not emerge like Ozzie Osbourne after New Years Eve at a frat house. As a director myself, I can honestly say – a live sitcom is like working in the Hurt Locker but with more pressure.

During the show the writers all Tweet. The goal is to get the show trending. I remember Desi was very big on this during I LOVE LUCY’S heyday.

There is a running time that shows how many seconds or minutes they are over or under. During commercial breaks, Bill Lawrence goes out on the stage and makes cuts on the fly.

During the show it’s organized chaos. After the first scene they moved the bandstand and sixty people had to clear out. To my knowledge, no one was trampled. Even the network executives were forewarned. 

The show seems to go by like a shot. Of course, we’re not seeing the endless parade of commercials.

For the second show, they made cuts and added some new fun schtick designed to throw off the cast. Guest star Christa Miller (Bill Lawrence’s wife) grabs Chris D’Elia’s crotch. And Bianca Kajlich notes that when Christa was on THE DREW CAREY SHOW she was only five. (Christa was a good sport... and very funny.  It's not easy for a guest actor to join this insanity.)

I then went home and watched the West Coast version. It captures some of the craziness but not all. It’s obviously more of a delightful surprise when an actor says a line you know is an ad lib. Or when an actor does something physical that improves upon what he did in the first show. I imagine watching the Presicope pre-game and following the live-Tweets helps the home viewer feel like he’s part of the inner circle.

I love how experimental the show is, and wonder if I could make a suggestion? This occurred to me after watching the show on the air. I wonder, if one time, the audience could be told beforehand what tricks the writers have planned for the actors? The actors are off behind stage and Bill Lawrence or whoever takes fifteen seconds and tells the audience someone is going to grab Chris D’Elia’s crotch and Bianca and Bridget will be put on the spot. On the one hand you spoil the surprise, but on the other you have the fun that the audience is ahead of the actors. The audience might be more invested if they’re watching for these moments. I dunno. Could be a horrible idea.

Unfortunately, for UNDATEABLE it airs on a bad night and has an awful show that follows it. The audience for UNDATEABLE is out dating on Friday night. And 8:00 is a little early for some of the humor. The ratings have been bad, but what can you expect? What I’d like to see is NBC airing it one night after THE VOICE to really give the show a chance to prove itself. I don’t think NBC could get numbers Friday night at 8:00 with Kardashian sex tapes.

Thanks to Chris Luccy, the staff, and Bill Lawrence for letting me hang out. Usually you never like to look behind the curtain, but in this case, I wish everyone could. You need enormously skilled people to pull off a live sitcom – from the actors who get thrown new lines at the last minute, to the director who must adjust to changes live on the air, to the cameramen who have no second chances if they blow a shot – everyone is a tightrope artist and yet somehow they make it seem easy. The behind-the-show is awesome, and the show itself is getting there.


VP81955 said...

Sounds fascinating, andf something I may have tio take in. (I suppose airing in the Friday night ghetto enables Lawrence to try some things he couldn't do if "Undateable" aired earlier in the week.

Your comments about the length of taping a "Friends" ep makes me appreciate how fortunate I've been as a sitcom filming attendee. The four I've been to ("Frasier" in 2000, "Hot in Cleveland" last December and two eps of "Mom") all went rather smoothly, 2 1/2 hours tops (not ncluding warmup, showing a previous episode to inform the audience of story arc changes, etc.)

Incidentally, the second "Mom" ep I attended -- the first one filmed this seasonm back on July 31 -- will air Thanksgiving night. In retrospect, it's not an especially strong episode, which is why it's been relegated to a holiday eveniung, though it has its moments...and those who are fans of Sadie Calvano (Violet) should enjoy it.

Matt said...

Maybe this is a silly comment, but why is this significantly different from a play?

norm said...

Well, Friday night.......hmmmm how about we put it up against Tim Allen?

As in he is washed up, old guy right?
Not to mention "Friday Night Flights"
Which is football at the high schools here in the midwest. NBC - "Not Bright Correct" !

VP81955 said...

Norm, are you saying networks should go dark on Friday nights?

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

Yes, it's a party and that's why we enjoy watching it and being a part of the fun.

This past week's undateable was actually the weakest of this season's shows. Which was odd considering they had twice as much time to tweak it.
Maybe it was because so many lines was given to the guest star which took away from the interaction of the cast.
Haven't watched the west coast version yet which is generally zanier and wilder than the East coast.
I don't think the show could be transferred to any other day for NBC. Sponsors may notice a lot of bitch and penis jokes.

KEN, Question... it seems that the audience changes between the East and West coast broadcasts. Do they just make everyone swap seats or is it a different audience?

BTW, Norm, I happen to enjoy the Tim Allen show. It's not a classic by any means, but I have laughed out loud on a number of occasions.

Ken Levine said...

Different audiences for the east and west coast shows.

Dave Creek said...

Matt, it's significantly different because a stage play isn't being broadcast. The home audience isn't just watching from a fixed spot in a theater, it's being shown multiple angles by the camera operators and director, the mics have to pick up the audio without being spotted on camera, and the actors didn't spend weeks perfecting their performances before the performance.

Also, the show has to fit a precise time slot down to the second. That's tough, too. I've produced thousands of live newscasts, but you can talk in an anchor's ear and drop individual stories if you start to run long. I have no idea how you instantly shorten a storyline that has to play out (and pay off!), and I have no idea how you count down the actors on the fly to make sure you're off on time.

Mike Barer said...

They saluted the live show once by one of the characters asks what's on TV, turns on the TV and sees himself on it.

Mike Barer said...

It does go up against the Amazing Race, which, I believe still has great ratings in spite of it's Friday time slot.

Howard Hoffman said...

The use of Periscope is integral to the show's experience. Bill Lawrence hopped on just before the West Coast show and told us after the cast was introduced to the studio audience that he was "gonna get" Chris D'Elia. He let us in on his giving a note to Christa about grabbing his crotch (and that the network gave him the okay to do it). Sure enough, she does it, and D'Elia screams "OH MY GOD!!!" The audience was in convulsions, but D'Elia recovered perfectly.

Other things they reveal in their daily Periscopes: They hire their handheld camera operators from NBC Sports and ESPN because they know how to cover "the plays." Their favorite and easiest crack-up targets are Brent Morin and Bianca Kajlich. And everyone is completely behind doing live shows for the remainder of the run.

Do yourself a favor. Join Twitter, download Periscope, be there every day at 4:30 PT to track that week's show, then nestle in on Friday night as they 'Scope the show, starting an hour before airtime and during every commercial break. You'll be in on the fun.

Howard Hoffman said...

Oh, and after you download it, add the cast and crew to the follow list. You'll get a chirp on your phone when they're on.

Official Undateable Live - @NBCUndateable
Bill Lawrence - @vdoozer
Ron Funches - @RonFunches
Chris D'Elia - @chrisdelia
Brent Morin - @brentmorin
Bianca Kajlich - @MissKajlich
Rick Glassman - @rickglassman
Bridgit Mendler - @bridgitmendler
David Fynn - @davidfynn

And now I'll leave before I sound creepier than I already do.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

VP81955: Glad to hear Violet's coming back. I miss her.


MikeK.Pa. said...

Interesting to read how they are using social media to help build interest and an audience. I'm a big fan of Bill Lawrence, especially his work on SCRUBS. Didn't realize he was involved with the show and will give it a shot this Friday. Having Christa Miller pop up more couldn't hurt. I still catch DREW CAREY SHOW reruns with its memorable cast and laugh just as hard as I did when I saw them in the original run.

Pamela Jaye said...

if it wasn't mentioned - I can't remember - this is actually the third season of undateable. I had been recording it on my DVR but only watched 3 episodes and somewhere last season I just decided to dump all of them. And then they had the live episode last season, which I recorded but hadn't watched until after this season that night I had two full hours which was really too much. but I really like Bill Lawrence and I was a big fan of Scrubs although I just couldn't get into Cougar Town and I tried twice. the window is on Periscope, I tend pay attention. sometimes he lets his daughter sing or shows us what Christa is making for dessert.

it's true I didn't like this episode as much as some of the others although I did like Christa. Chris was mingling his lines on the East Coast feed which was the only one i saw. and in general, if this show wasn't live I wouldn't be watching it. danny is not a character that appeals to me at all. it was kind of cool to see him in khakis with his hair pulled back though.
I was sad last season that surviving jack didn't even get 9 episodes on the air. It was funny and it seemed to me that it was what s*** my dad says was supposed to be, even if the kids were younger. ground floor was good. I really didn't get into enlisted and I never could get into Cougar Town.
if only I could remember WHen the L AFF network airs those Spin City reruns...I mean the ones that aren't on in primetime. back when Spinn city was on I watched it and loved it and obviously like Michael J Fox and had no idea that Bill Lawrence existed.but since scrubs I've tried to be loyal.
and I love the shot of the control room with all the monitors because I am a production geek even though I only got to do it for a little while on cable access. I always wanted to be the one to take camera one and take camera 3 but I ended up just doing the graphics.did I say thanks for the report? Thanks :-)

Mike said...

I'll second @Matt's comment. This seems very retro - essentially farce theatre or pantomime with a massively enlarged audience through television and social media. Which is probably a compliment. There's a unique electricity to a live performance.

Reminds me of British Saturday night television in the '70s or '80s when variety shows were the big draw. Watching back classic clips of Morecombe & Wise, it all seems to be filmed in one take. Any mistakes are worked into the act and used to embellish it - often the best parts. The accursed Noel's House Party would hide live cameras around the living room of an unsuspecting viewer, than deposit the viewer live onto national TV without warning. I assume America had similar programmes.

D. McEwan said...

Most interesting. I'll have to see if I can get tickets to a broadcast, as I'd find it fascinating also.

I've been recently to a taping of @Midnight (and am going back again on December 7). What impressed me most was that they shot almost an hour for a 22 minute show, and had at most 5 hours to edit it for broadcast, yet when I saw the broadcast, the edits I knew were there were so seamless as to be undetectable if you weren't there, though they lost some good stuff in the edit, but the unedited shows can then be seen online. (I was mildly creeped out by the one woman in line who attends EVERY broadcast of the show, having apparently no other life, who is on a first name basis with the entire production crew by now.)

Stephen Marks said...

What happens when it goes into reruns, do the actors and crew have to go to the studio and do it again at 2 a.m. for WXY TV in Toledo for 3 cents of residual payments? See folks its not as glamorous as Robin Leach made it out to be.

Sarah said...

This sounds like an interesting experience, and I applaud Bill Lawrence for embracing the current social media culture and having Twitter and Periscope be integral to the experience. That said - as much as I like Lawrence (loved Scrubs and the bulk of Cougar Town), it seems like too much "work" to watch this show properly. (I say this as someone in their mid-30s; not young but not out of their target demo, either.)

My question is - how do you think this show would do in reruns and/or next day on Hulu, etc? Not ratings-wise, but experience wise? Is it truly something that needs to be seen as it happens, or will it hold up on repeat and/or delayed viewings?

Lyn Palmer said...

I can answer that, as I have never watched it live. TiVo doesn't take away from the experience.The atmosphere is charged with that "dancing on the razors edge" of a live broadcast.

My question is: who are the little blond boys who are always in the audience and mug for the camera?

Patrick said...

Why did Friends take so long to shoot? Was it that complicated or was it a case of everyone was such a big star that the audience just loved more and more??

D. McEwan said...

"Anonymous Sarah said...
This sounds like an interesting experience, and I applaud Bill Lawrence for embracing the current social media culture and having Twitter and Periscope be integral to the experience. That said - as much as I like Lawrence (loved Scrubs and the bulk of Cougar Town), it seems like too much "work" to watch this show properly."

You know, you can watch the show without diving into Social Media. I just watch the show (Recorded so I can fast-forward through commercials) with no active participation, and when it's done, hit "Delete."

Tallulah Morehead said...

D. McEwan said...
You know, you
can watch the show without diving into Social Media. I just watch the show."

Dougie, you lazy bastard. COMMIT! Tweet, Periscope, phone the cast and suggest how they could be funnier (They're not busy at all between scenes), live blog them! If you actually have time to look at the TV screen and listen to the soundtrack while it's on, you are soooo last century!

cb said...

Not a nitpick , just's Phill Lewis. Two L's.

Lawrence said...

Why did Friends take so long to shoot? Was it that complicated or was it a case of everyone was such a big star that the audience just loved more and more??

At the FRIENDS taping we attended, at least part of the reason it took so long was that none of the show's stars appeared to have bothered to learn their lines. For that matter, we weren't sure they'd even rehearsed. None of them seemed to know what they were supposed to be doing, and it really looked like they were rehearsing, blocking out the action, and then shooting, scene by scene, as they went along. It was really pretty boring and quite disappointing. The "least fun" taping we've ever attended. I think the fastest, most efficient taping we ever saw was for THE GOLDEN GIRLS. There were some blown lines here and there and the usual stopping and starting, but those ladies knew their lines and their business, and were impressively professional.

Bankable said...

I guess in a play there are months of rehearsals so everyone is word perfect and depending on the source material I.e. Arthur Miller or Shakespeare the audience will also have a deep knowledge of the play. Whereas neither of these will be true for a weekly sitcom

Lee said...

So Christa Miller was instructed to surprise Chris D’Elia by grabbing his crotch on live TV, just to see how he would react? I'm sure everyone was a good sport about this -- but if the genders had been reversed in this situation, it would eventually be cited as an example of sexism in Hollywood, and it would make headlines.

unkystan said...

I'm glad the show is fun for the folks in the audience. Too bad it never seems come across at home. And, I ask again, do these people actually have jobs?

Lyn Palmer said...

I can answer that, as I have never watched it live. TiVo doesn't take away from the experience.The atmosphere is charged with that "dancing on the razors edge" of a live broadcast.

My question is: who are the little blond boys who are always in the audience and mug for the camera?

Igor said...

Great post. Two things.

I thought Euripides is what you do to deez network notes.

As for the idea of letting the audience in on a joke before it happens, as I read that it had the feel of a Folgers ad. ( Not that there's anything wrong with it.

Diane D. said...

It would be sexism if the genders were reversed in the crotch grabbing scene.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

do not forget to follow the tweets the most important people...the writers.

David said...

Had the same experience with FRIENDS as Lawrence. Looked like the cast was learning their lines, rehearsing and then filming, scene by scene, as they went along. It was pretty tedious and pretty dull. And I was/am a fan of the show.

I've heard UNDATEABLE LIVE described as the result of a union between live television and those skits they used to do on Carol Burnett's old show where Tim Conway and Harvey Korman were paired up for no other reason than to see how often and how intensely Conway could break up Korman. The thing about live television these days is that it might as well not be. Like SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. Lorne Michaels takes a notoriously dim view of ad-libbing and of straying from what's been carefully scripted and rehearsed. There's no real reason for the show to be live. It's as safe and predictable and as un-spontaneous as if it was all pre-recorded and edited together days ahead of time. (In fact, many of SNL's sketches ARE pre-taped, something they've been doing for years for sketches requiring elaborate make-up or production.) UNDATEABLE LIVE is unique in the way it plays on the unpredictability that can be inherent in its being live. The audience really doesn't know what's coming next. Often, neither does the cast. It adds a level of excitement lacking in too many sitcoms these days.

Granted, it's a gimmick, and I can't help but wonder if at some point that gimmick won't burn-out, but for the moment, it's a lot of fun to watch.

Katherine @ Grass Stains said...

I'm a big Bill Lawrence fan and have liked Undateable from the beginning -- even before it was live. I do like the live shows, and I'm glad you got to attend a broadcast. I especially like that you had such a great time and it made you more of a fan ... it's akin to seeing a band play live. You were on the fence before, but now that you've seen them live, you really, really like them. :-)