It seems like it might be hard to top last season's stunt, which featured cameos from showrunner Bill Lawrence's stable of actors from his past shows, including Zach Braff, Donald Faison, Neil Flynn and his wife Christa Miller, as well as Minnie Driver, Kate Walsh, Victoria Justice, Dr. Drew Pinsky, Scott Foley and Ed Sheeran.
But as they discussed with me below earlier this week, Bill and his fellow showrunner/Undateable creator Adam Sztykiel have many surprises and tricks in store for us -- from the opening credits onward, Bill teases, so pay attention! -- as well as innovative new ways to enhance the live experience for today's multi-media, multi-tasking viewer.
Must-Hear TV: The latest news from NBC explains that tonight's special one-hour season premiere will air live on both the East and West coasts, as was the episode back in May -- but then the rest of season 1 will be performed live only once. What's the thinking behind the decision?
Bill Lawrence: [The decision to air live once versus twice] will depend on the night and what we feel like. It doesn’t cost that much extra money to do it twice. [For the show's crew] part of the appeal of doing a live show on Friday nights is maybe seeing your kids at 6:30. But we promised the network that anytime we’re doing an hour-long special like this first one, we’ll do it [live for] both East coast and West coast. Just because then we can fool along with the medium and have the bands do different songs, and have our guests do different things, like Ed Sheeran and all those people did last time.
MHTV: There was such a difference between the two live episodes last time. You could really see the difference between the two feeds, and how loose you were for the west coast, knowing you had it in the can once.
BL: Also, we’re west coast guys. So with the west coast show, we were like, "No one’s watching this! So let’s be idiots and see if we can get ourselves thrown off of television!" But I think we’ll try to do it a bunch more than just the first time. We just have to be careful about what we’re allowed to say and not say [language-wise on live TV]. But I’ll say it, yeah, we’re going to do more than one of this season's episodes live on both coasts for sure.
MHTV: What can you tell us about [tonight's] season premiere?
BL: Last year, when it was just a one-off live episode, we made it kind of like a variety show, just “Hey, it’s the night of 1000 stars!” and Ed Sheeran is singing, and the cast is going to wink at the camera 9,000 times. So [for this season] Adam and I had to come up with an idea of how to bridge that gap where we can still tell stories, but kind of acknowledge that the show is live.
So what we’ve been trying to sell to the network – we’ll see if they buy into it or not – is a live experience. Which means that the show for us is a weeklong thing. Every day at 4:30 [Pacific time] we put out live content. Viewers have access to all the cast members, to the bands that are here, to everybody who is coming by and doing stuff for the show. That leads up to the show, and then even during the show, there’s the opportunity for live interaction.
Chris D’Elia very proudly last year said he was the first actor ever to live tweet a show whilst he was simultaneously acting on it. So one thing we're doing is passing out phone numbers for real cell phones; so that if the phone rings, it will be an actual fan at home calling [in to the scene]. We'll be Periscoping in the downtime during commercial breaks. If any actor is typing on a phone, it’s not fake the way characters drink coffee on normal shows; he or she is probably interacting with someone who’s watching. It’s like last year, where someone tweeted to Chris, "No way! You’re not talking to me while I’m watching this!" And he was like, "I totally am! I’ll touch my head right now!" That type of immersive experience will hopefully be fun for people.
MHTV: That’s real showmanship for the 21st Century.
BL: We’re trying hard.
MHTV: It sounds exhausting.
BL: It is exhausting. You’ve got to make current event jokes, and you still have to make a show that people give a crap about, that has emotional depth. Adam always says one thing, that I truly believe, about why we’re doing it live...
Adam Sztykiel: Whether it’s the perfect show or an epic disaster, it’s still going to be more interesting than routine half-hour TV. There’s so much on TV now that you have to do something to separate yourself from everybody. So I look forward to those handful of episodes where the wheels come off a little bit.
BL: I don’t know if our network does, but we embrace the potential for disaster. We saw it almost happen last time in the west coast feed. Scott Foley was getting dangerously close to us getting fined.
MHTV: The scene that looked like it was going to turn into a possible blowjob?
BL: Yes, because he was riffing.
AS: Bill was literally inches behind the camera line, leaning in, about to jump in front of the camera.
BL: The second I knew we were going to lose money, I was going to put my head in and say “We’re going to keep moving!” I have my SAG card. I would have walked in like, "Hey, Justin! Hey, Danny! It’s your neighbor from this fake door over here! We’ve got to keep this thing moving!"
MHTV: I’m SO hoping that happens this season.
BL: Part of the fun of this show is that these actors and actresses are adept enough and quick enough on their feet that they can handle this stuff. You can’t fabricate it. You can’t ask a performer to fake a spontaneous moment. And so one of the things that they’re all up for, if you go back and look at [last season's] live show, and we’ll be doing it in every episode, is we'll give certain performers lines that the other performers don’t know are coming at certain spots in the scene. The cameramen are ready to handle it. So like last year, Brent Morin didn’t know Ed Sheeran was going to kiss him. Brent Morin had no idea that when they were fighting, that in one take, Chris was going to say, “Oh yeah? Well you’ve gained a lot of weight since this show started!” Chris didn’t know that Scott Foley was going to make him get on his knees and do all that stuff. We want to watch to see what happens and hope that the people don’t have panic attacks.
MHTV: "People" meaning the network censors, or your cast?
BL: Cast. I mean, look at Bianca [Kajlich]. If she starts laughing, she can’t contain herself. So I truly hope that happens this year, because everyone will try to dive in and save the scene. But watching that train wreck, we equate it to Saturday Night Live. I love when Jimmy Fallon used to kind of screw up. I wouldn't have liked if he did it in every single sketch. But when it happened once in a while and was real and organic, it made me feel like I was part of watching something cool.
MHTV: Will we see any of the character interactions changing, like Justin and Candace, or “Lursky?”
BL: "Lursky," I like it! The season premiere picks up where the last season ended. We’re really tracking Justin and Candace, and Leslie and Bursky. Because that’s what I think a hangout sitcom is. We’re trying to find the way that you can bridge this weird kind of live show that knows it’s live, in which there’s a live opening credits every week with cast members up, interacting with the audience, into a show that you actually watch, trying to buy into the characters. We think we’re pulling it off.
MHTV: Is there an eye on replays of the show or syndication when you’re doing it live? It’s fun now, in the moment, but does that affect how fun it is 10 years from now in repeats?
BL: If we weren't thinking about [the show's later life], we wouldn’t care as much about telling ultimately stories that still hold up as sitcom episodes. So I think one of the things we’re proud of this year is, if you took the live winks out, the stories hold up just as when I wrote on Friends or did Spin City. They’re classic sitcom stories, hopefully with a fresh spin because of the way we’re shooting them.
MHTV: How do you plan on testing the audience this season in terms of pushing the boundaries of comedy, to leave the audience gasping but at the same time tuning in every week?
BL: The reason we wanted to do this is, if you see any of these standups live, they’re all very dangerous. They do things that make you uncomfortable in your stomach. Rick Glassman as a standup got compared at [Montreal's annual comedy festival] Just For Laughs to Andy Kaufman, because he makes the audience so uncomfortable. And I think really good comedy is dangerous. We’re on a network, and we’re almost constantly in battles and policing ourselves upstairs in the writers’ room – can we really do this? And I think that, as people get into it, we can get a little more risky. We had a politically charged joke last night that we were talking to Ron [Funches] about. We couldn’t decide if it would just take the audience out of it...
MHTV: Was it politically divisive?
BL: Justin was describing a reaction of Danny’s, saying, "I thought you turned quick, like you heard a gunshot. But with a smile on your face, like a happy gunshot." And then Shelly says, “Sounds like a Fox News headline: 'Annoying peaceful protest silenced by happy gunshots.'” And that’s the type of stuff that those guys would do in their standup acts. But we were like, "Yeah, is that something we want to do in the first episode, and have some people up there [in the live audience] if they like Fox News, being like, 'NOOOO!'” So we’ll probably ease our way into [topics like that.]
MHTV: Any guest stars you can tell us about coming up? Any Detroit-specific elements?
AS: Detroit – obviously we will always tag it as much as possible. So Leslie’s job as someone who markets the city is going to be a big part of the show. And of course Shelly living and loving everything Detroit, that’s going to be a big thing. And then hopefully we'll have a few guest performers whom I won’t mention yet, who will have ties to the city, down the road.
BL: We’re doing so much immersive stuff here, and our guest cast will be part of it. Besides seeing the band in the show, they’ll finish their act, and then here afterwards we'll have kind of a VIP lounge where hopefully comics and other friends of the family will be there, not only participating, but tweeting.
This isn’t a traditional TV show in the sense that, in network television were I to call up Zach Braff like last time and say, “Hey, I want you to come be a guest star on my show,” they’d have to do contracts, and then he'd have to be on set all week, and shoot 4 days. The reason we’re able to get a lot of guest stars is instead I can say, “Hey, if you come Friday between 4:15 and 5:20, and just hang out for an hour and five minutes, we can give you a really funny cameo on a live show, and you don’t have to rehearse at all during the week, and whatever happens happens. I can’t pay you a lot, but in return we’re not going to use you to promote and sell the show.”
That’s really our business model. If last year's live episode had been normal episode of TV, and we'd had to pay everyone as a special guest star, that would have cost like $5 million. You can’t do it, with that sheer amount of people on. On the other hand: "Hey, you feel like coming by and getting 3 free drinks and then walking out and doing something ridiculous?" And then most people are like "Yeah, that sounds like it might be fun."