Up All Night is Down

Professional TV watcher Jaime Weinman on the saving of a sitcom

I was wondering the other day what became of NBC’s plan to retool Up All Night as a studio-audience sitcom, a plan that already resulted in the creator leaving (par for the course for NBC at this point, which has let creators go from many different shows). I was wondering if it was actually going to be taped or if they’d just forget about the idea. Now star Christina Applegate has quit the show, declaring that she can’t go on with it in the new creative direction. And according to the report, NBC still hasn’t given up on the idea and is trying to get Lisa Kudrow to do it. Maybe that will never happen – hopefully – but the very idea is hilarious. Would Kudrow really even consider becoming the new Sandy Duncan (update: hence the Hogan Family clip below; that story never gets old), or is this just a fake idea someone leaked to make it sound like the project isn’t dead yet? (Update: An associate of Kudrow’s has already denied the rumour, so it sounds more like “fantasy idea someone floated to the press.”)

Update 2: Kate Aurthur of Buzzfeed (who previously wrote the in-depth reported piece on Smash‘s troubles, and is therefore an expert on problems at NBC) confirms a rumour that I’d heard floated in Deadline comments, but which I thought was a joke: The idea for the retool of “Up All Night” is to turn it into a behind-the-scenes show about the making of a sitcom, with the actors playing actors on the show “Up All Night.” This, presumably, is why they can even consider going on without the star, because they could theoretically write the replacement into the behind-the-scenes story. I’d personally bet on it not happening, but who knows; if they’ve already poured money into the retool, they might be searching for some way to keep it going.

How they thought this idea was going to make the show more mainstream and broad-appeal escapes me, but I’ve already said my piece about how network executives don’t really seem to have very clear ideas about what is and isn’t “mainstream.”

The stated idea behind this retool was sort of well-intentioned in a way. As NBC president Bob Greenblatt noted recently, there’s sort of a lost generation in sitcoms, of writers and actors who have no multi-camera sitcom experience and aren’t interested in doing them. (This is how former Friends writers get pilots every year.) The hope behind this retool of a single-camera show that wasn’t working anyway was, as Greenblatt put it, that “it would have three of the classiest actors doing multi-cam,” bring some respectability back to the form in the world of NBC, and maybe get some pitches and ideas going again.

One of the many problems they’re currently stuck with is that “classy” actors don’t want to do multi-camera even when they obviously should – look at Matthew Perry, who already struck out with Mr. Sunshine and went right back to the same format with Go On. Go On should have been multi-camera, if only to distinguish it from Community, but it wasn’t going to be made that way in a world where most stars are reluctant to go back to that presentational style of acting. So the theory behind Up All Night was that it would come back, it would have three reasonably cool people doing this kind of comedy, and other actors would want to follow. That was the theory, and a lot of things work in theory.

The problem with the theory is that there was no way the show was going to take off in this new format. Especially not after the creator left and the current showrunner left. So Applegate bailed, and while she’s hardly a marquee attraction, she’s probably more of a marquee attraction than Will Arnett or even a post-Bridesmaids Maya Rudolph.

Even in the very, very, very unlikely event that they get a Lisa Kudrow to replace her (and what would they do? Recast? Make the show about Arnett and Rudolph working for her and leave Arnett’s wife offstage? I doubt they’ve thought this through), it probably doesn’t matter. Even accepting the premise that the form needs “saving,” it’s probably not going to be saved by aging sitcom stars; otherwise, why is it that the most popular comedy stars a minor character from Roseanne, John Ritter’s TV daughter, TV’s Blossom and a guy nobody had ever heard of before 2007? Part of the problem with the idea that sitcoms need to be “saved” is that the popularity of sitcoms is not judged by the names of the people you can get to do them – if Matthew Perry doesn’t want to do it, there’s probably an unknown out there who can do just as well (or at least just as bad).

Still, if the actors and the creator had all been on board with this as a way to save the show, it might have been worth trying, at least because there was nothing to lose. As I said when the retool was announced, nobody was watching the show in the first place, so why not experiment, at least try to send the signals out there that this was the kind of thing NBC was in the market for? But if, as it turned out, the creator didn’t like this and the star didn’t like this, it’s probably time to move on and put resources into something else in the same format. Lorne Michaels is producing a multi-cam sitcom pilot created by and starring his Saturday Night Live protégé John Mulaney, and it would seem to make more sense for him to put his energy into trying to get NBC to buy that show, instead of trying to keep Up All Night alive. Just as networks will probably get farther in general by finding the next new star than trying to hang on to people like Applegate and Arnett, who have already repeatedly struck out as leads.

But the one bit of good news here is that if NBC does continue trying to keep this retool alive, it will give people something to make fun of besides that other show that was Greenblatt’s baby and that he keeps trying to save – Smash. “Hate-watching” can only last so long, and it already seems like yesterday’s fad. Time for some good old-fashioned snickering at the behind-the-scenes tribulations of a show almost nobody will watch, in hate or love.