Laugh at Will Arnett, studio full of tourists

I have created a reputation for myself, a brand if you will. When it was announced today that Up All Night is going to switch to a multi-camera, studio audience format, at least four people asked me what I thought. Some people online make their niches in the field of public policy, parking issues, polling analysis. This is my niche, except without any actual social utility.

Okay, so what do I think of this? I was not a fan of Up All Night before, so I don’t think I’m going to suddenly become one (you never know of course). The show had one thing that people, in my experience, really seemed to like: a comic portrayal of a marriage that real-life snarky, happily married people can identify with. Most married couples on TV comedy are fighting all the time, or they consist of a wacky man-child and a down-to-earth woman (or occasionally the reverse). But many young married people of my acquaintance are more like the Christina Applegate and Will Arnett characters – somewhat hip but not cool, happy but not cute – and they could see themselves reflected in this show. (I don’t respond to them that way – Will Arnett doesn’t really do it for me as a lead, I must admit – but I know that couple appeals to a lot of people.) That was what kept it on the air through multiple retools. It was always a little light on laughs, and NBC attempted to fix this after the pilot by adding in a 30 Rock-style media setting – which didn’t really please much of anyone, since the people who were watching it were watching for the married-couple comedy.

So they dropped that setting for the second season, dropped the original premise of a woman trying to get back to work after becoming a mother, but they were left with the same thing: a low-rated show, light on laughs, with a couple that the core audience seemed to like. Which is where the retool comes in. Part of the explanation for it is that it’s been through several retools that didn’t fix the basic lack of big hard laughs, and the hope is that putting it in front of the audience will give it more energy and make it feel less like an indie dramedy. Of course, that’s what they hoped would happen with the other retools as well.

As I see it, this isn’t so much a retool as a new show with the same premise. With its current ratings, and placed on a Thursday night lineup that is about to end (since two of the four comedy shows are going off the air, and Parks & Recreation is the one to save if NBC is going to save one of the two that are left), the show was going to be canceled. But NBC likes the show, or at least likes Christina Applegate and Will Arnett and Maya Rudolph; getting this big-name cast together was one of Bob Greenblatt’s first big coups after taking over at the network. So someone probably decided that since they had this cast under contract, they might as well try and use it to experiment with getting back into the three-camera sitcom world. After all, it’s cheaper to do and is easier on the schedules of the actors. The development of new three-camera sitcom pilots isn’t yielding any great casts or ideas. So it seems like this is almost a free spot for NBC to experiment: if it works, it works, and if it fails, well, it was about to be canceled anyway. Think of it, in other words, as NBC launching Up All Night: The Next Wave in lieu of a new show, because this show has a bigger cast than any new multi-camera sitcom they could put together.

Will it work? I can’t be optimistic that it will do wonders for the show or the reputation of the form. This switch has been done a number of times since The Odd Couple, the original switcher. Most recently it was done with Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s Watching Ellie, which lasted one season in both formats. Only twice did it truly turn a show into a long-running success: The Odd Couple and Happy Days. Both those shows had things going for them that made the transition easier, starting with the fact that they had artificial laugh tracks to begin with. And The Odd Couple was based on a familiar theatre property, and Happy Days was a moderately successful show that just needed a shot in the arm. But also, those shows were riding a wave: multi-camera was “in” at that time and there was pressure on studios to make the switch and develop multi-cam shows to compete with Norman Lear and MTM. What we have at NBC and Fox (not so much ABC, which has a huge single-camera hit and is successfully building its comedy brand around single-camera family comedy) is executives trying to find ways to revive a format that they’ve lost the ability to do well. They’re casting about for ways to get some life back into the form, and I sympathize: the development probably isn’t there for new shows in this form, and if they can get some prestigious shows in that vein, others may follow.

I come off like a monomaniac on this subject on Twitter, partly because it’s Twitter and partly because it’s my thing™. But I don’t think every show should be three-camera any more than that every show should be one-camera. (Up All Night does seem like the kind of show that would be suited to the three-camera format, because it’s so focused on one couple in one house, because Christina Applegate comes to life in front of a studio audience, because the attempts at making the neighbourhood a character on the show aren’t really that successful. But that’s the sort of thing they should have thought of before they started making the show, not right in the middle.) I do think that TV really needs some high-quality, smart three-camera shows. The question, I think, is not whether Up All Night is destined to be that show, but whether it will pave the way for such shows to be created.

It seems like sort of a signal by NBC that this is the sort of thing they’re in the market for, and could theoretically lead to better pitches, or pitches from creators who are not the usual suspects (e.g. the Friends writers who have come up with so many dismal multi-cams in the past few years). That’s what may be most interesting about this: not so much what it says about the future of Up All Night, but whether it could lead, indirectly, to NBC improving its comedy development. If it does, of course, we’ll never know.

If nothing else, it gives NBC some options if they want to keep a multi-camera show on the schedule next year. Otherwise they’ll have nothing else to renew except Whitney and Guys With Kids, both of which are in the “sorta not completely unpopular” category. This at least gives them another show to throw into the mix, one with a more prestigious cast and pedigree. I’m sure that if they have a multi-cam they like for next season, they would rather pair it with a rebooted Up All Night than Whitney or Guys With Kids.

One other thing: you’ve got to hand it to Lorne Michaels. The guy is just unstoppable when it comes to keeping his shows on NBC, even granted that he is one of the kings of that network. With 30 Rock about to end, he managed to throw a Hail Mary that kept his other sitcom from being canceled. What I wouldn’t have given to be in that meeting and listen to that guy pitch.

One other other thing: On the off chance that the retool works and this show runs for a few years, how strange will syndication be? It will be like having two different shows running, one after the other.

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