I was sitting at the bar when “Undateable” executive producer Bill Lawrence ordered a tequila on the rocks at 4:30pm, Pacific time. “I’m doing this just because I can,” he said. He asked for lots of limes.
This was not an ordinary bar, though. This was the “social media lounge,” a constructed (though fully stocked) facade of a bar built within Warner Bros. Stage 19 in Burbank, where NBC’s “Undateable” shoots new episodes on Friday nights. Also, this was not an ordinary night, and Lawrence had a solid reason for ordering a drink.
In half an hour, “Undateable” was about to begin its third season as the newly branded “Undateable Live,” NBC’s only uncanceled comedy series from the 2014-2015 season, and also the first show to commit to shooting live regularly for an entire season for over 20 years. (The last show to be produced that way was the second season of Fox’s “Roc,” from 1992-1993.)
And, to make things interesting, one of the show’s stars had been in the hospital just a few hours before, getting stitches after biting deep into his own tongue (NSFW for blood). Rick Glassman at that point was on set and speaking relatively coherently, but you can’t blaim Lawrence for being nervous.
Before now, shooting a live episode of a show was considered a bold experiment, a one-off for established players like “E.R.” or “30 Rock.” This season, for “Undateable,” it’s a way of life. Ordered for 13 episodes, each one will be shot live for the East Coast (with the exception of the premiere, which was shot live for Pacific time, as well). It’s both a fun experiment in anarchy and a kowtow to corporate interests; specifically, NBC’s investment in finding live TV opportunities wherever it can. Football gets ratings. “The Sound of Music” gets ratings. So, what’s next?
The season premiere of “Undateable” (I’m going to stop appending “Live,” by the way, because the word’s gonna get worn out fast otherwise) didn’t get too heavy, plot-wise, beyond moving the football forward for a “will they or won’t they” relationship between two characters. Not that it’s ever been a particularly dense sitcom: The show revolves around the classic “friends hang out in a public food/beverage establishment, giving each other crap” premise that describes roughly 50 percent of sitcoms made in the last 30 years.
It’s a format that has always lived or died depending on the talent involved, a situation that “Undateable” attacked by casting a number of stand-up comedians who knew each other before the show came together. As Lawrence told me earlier this year at SXSW:
“What I think makes TV shows work is when you think the cast are friends in real life — that cast chemistry. It used to be that you had a whole year to work that out, and now you have like three weeks before the network cans it? So we cast all comics and all comedians. Most of these guys have known each other as friends for at least five years, and in Chris [D’Elia] and Bianca [Kajlich]’s case, 17 years. So they have an instant rapport. I wanted people who were comfortable around each other riffing and talking.”
That was before “Undateable” produced even its first experiment in live television, last May, but it’s a formula which seems key to keeping “Undateable” moving forward this season. Last week’s episode featured a few notable flubs, star Chris D’Elia scrambling a little bit to find his patter and some intense moments of scene breaking, including a climatic moment featuring Scott Foley (I’m sorry, I mean “TV’s Scott Foley,” as he’s referred to on the show) and an unscripted kiss.
Live sitcom tapings always have a fun energy to them — believe it or not, the studio audience laughter you hear is genuine — and “Undateable” was no exception, enhanced by the fact that unlike its non-live ilk, there were no second takes, no pauses to move the cameras from set to set. Everyone around, not just the actors on set, lost it over that kiss — “That was not rehearsed!” someone shouted — and waiting to see if the show would land smoothly added an extra sense of tension to the night.
Of course, “smoothly” is a hard thing to gauge with this sort of programming. If you’re looking for the crisp, professional execution you might expect from a Chuck Lorre joint, “Undateable” might not be for you, but if your favorite part of “Saturday Night Live” — as Andy Samberg and Adam Sandler famously sang during the 40th anniversary show — is when they break, then “Undateable” should be a lot of fun.
That’s not meant as a slam. There’s a lot of joy to be found in seeing a performer break the fourth wall (oftentimes because another performer has goaded them into it). And the writing of the show leaned into that, with plenty of poking fun not just at the the importance of watching television live, but even its own storylines. “We have to sit here and watch this repetitive junk all season long?” D’Elia as Danny said, looking into the camera. (It was not the first time the characters had looked into the camera that night.)
The live numbers for Friday’s show weren’t great — final ratings had it coming in at 2.5 million viewers — but every time I reloaded Twitter, the core fans were turning out in droves. And those numbers aren’t the limit of the show’s reach, which speaks to the new and different kinds of audiences that networks should be looking towards. The 24-year-old watching “Undateable” on commercial-free Hulu the morning after might not technically be who NBC is looking for, but the 24-year-old watching on commercial-free Hulu the next day might also be far more likely to buy an “Undateable” t-shirt, or actually pay attention during a strategic bit of product placement within the actual show.
The one major concern that “Undateable” needs to address is the consequence of going live, in that it may become epheremal. And that’s not the way television works anymore on a long-term basis. We can watch “Friends” or “Cheers” reruns over and over again, years after the fact, because by and large those shows hold up. “Undateable,” meanwhile, leans into its emphasis on day-of viewing with topical jokes and frequent reminders about the power of live TV. But in an age where syndication means less and less, it’s heartening to see experiments like this. Especially experiments featuring TV’s Scott Foley.
“Undateable Live” is happening again tonight on NBC at 8pm.