the industry

Inside Undateable, the Live TV Show Where Chaos Reigns — and That’s the Point

Photo: Bryan Sheffield

On Stage 18 at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, a modest bit of history is quietly being made: NBC’s Undateable Live is the first scripted show to be produced live for its entire season in 21 years (the last was a full season of Roc). But that’s only half of it: Since October 23, Undateable Live has been performed twice every Friday night, to air live on both coasts in what is shaping up to be an epic battle. As producers and actors strive to give each telecast its own energy, a coast-to-coast competition stirs on social media — which side of the country is seeing the better show?

Before last week’s episodes taped, creator Adam Sztykiel (Made of Honor) sized up the contest this way: “We’ve gotten into this rhythm where the East Coast goes pretty close to script and it’s well locked down. Once everyone has that one under their belt, they feel more comfortable playing around with it and the West Coast show always feels looser. As a producer, sometimes I like the tighter episode that feels like it’s what we practiced.”

But when actor Chris D’Elia ad-libs an incest joke after Bianca Kajlich and Bridgit Mendler unexpectedly throw water in his face during last week’s West Coast taping, Sztykiel has a quick change of heart. “I think we just created show canon,” he says, glancing at the audience as American Authors performs its hit, “Best Day of My Life,” to close out the show. “I feel like the West Coast is going to be everyone’s favorite version of this show.”

Undateable, now in its third season, began as a multi-camera sitcom pre-taped in front of a studio audience like The Big Bang Theory. Based on the book, Undateable: 311 Things Guys Do That Guarantee They Won’t Be Dating or Having Sex, the show has a classic sitcom premise. A group of single friends with relationship issues hang out at a bar owned by one of them, played by Brent Morin, who, like his co-stars Chris D’Elia, Ron Funches, and Rick Glassman, are stand-up comedians.

If there were a behind-the-scenes mantra at Undateable — the only NBC comedy to survive last season — it would be “embrace the chaos.” Or as writer Craig Doyle put it, “If we go out, we’re gonna go in a blaze of glory.” Whether its writers conceiving jokes for 18 hours straight in the writer’s room or actors learning their lines on the eve of show night, the team of 150 is willing to go with the flow because of the reward at the end of the week: Show night is a big party, with musical guests performing before the show and during set changes. (Two weeks ago, it was Meghan Trainor.) Guest stars like Scott Foley, aka “TV’s Scott Foley” (one of the show’s many inside jokes) stop by. On set there’s a bar, a social-media lounge, and actors and producers constantly interact with both the studio audience and fans at home on Twitter, Instagram, and Periscope in an effort to get the show to trend. When it does, everyone celebrates.

Undateable is a curious case for television in part because of how much they operate independent of the network. Any buzz that builds for the show comes from the cast and crew itself: Operating separately from network and studio public-relations departments, the producers and actors have taken it upon themselves to be their own publicity machine, tweeting from behind the scenes both during a show and in the days leading up to it. The main goal: to capture the attention of Hollywood personalities with a lot of social-media followers who, they hope, will retweet the posts. To date, Jenna Jameson holds the record for celebrity with the most followers to spread their message. (Yes, the writers are keeping a list.)

“I just want us all to give huge access to the show,” executive producer Bill Lawrence (Scrubs, Cougar Town) said. “Adam and I want to sell the Undateable experience.”

Undateable stands out for what it is and what it isn’t. In an era of sad comedies and edgier single-camera comedies with dramatic undertones, the show feels firmly stuck in the past. When it premiered, many dismissed it for its staid format and derivative plot machinations. But the live element is helping it win points in Hollywood for boldness; critics, who have largely ignored it, are starting to notice.

“Our show is unique because our stories can’t be complicated,” said Michael Hobert, who wrote last week’s script. “We only have so much time. We are very joke-heavy and that’s the hardest part because you want to get as many home-run jokes as possible. We don’t have the luxury of editing anymore.”

Going live may rob them of some control, but it’s given the show new life. Where jokes once felt stale, they can ring with self-awareness. Undateable is hypercognizant of its limitations and works around them. It can feel meta in the moment, particularly for fans who know the cast’s rhythms and enjoy watching them break character. The actors regularly interact with the audience, and delight in getting each other to flub lines (with and without the input of writers). In last Friday’s episode, Funches made a scripted, direct plea to NBC to cast him as the Cowardly Lion in the The Wiz. D’Elia went rogue on Morin (at Lawrence’s urging), teasing him that no one will watch his upcoming Netflix stand-up special. By the time the West Coast taping came around, Morin added a comeback of his own that included plugging his show’s December 1 release date.

Then there’s the business of a working cell-phone number introduced in the season premiere, which D’Elia answered during that show, and actors and writers still take turns answering all week on and off set. “Some people panic and immediately hang up,” Sztykiel said. “Some call and are very casual about it, Hey, what’s up bro? Some people are super bummed-out when I answer and it’s not Chris D’Elia.”

Knowing NBC has been building its live television roster since the success of its musicals The Sound of Music, Peter Pan, and the upcoming The Wiz, Lawrence took a chance with the second-season finale in May and produced it as a live, one-hour show on both coasts featuring musical guest Ed Sheeran. This season, Lawrence suggested making the show live permanently for the East Coast, figuring that if the show were offbeat enough to make it stand out, NBC would be more lenient about its ratings performance. Friday’s episode pulled in nearly 2.7 million viewers but landed in fourth place (behind Fox, ABC, and CBS) among 18-to-49-year-olds, the demographic most important to advertisers.

After enough West Coast fans complained, producers decided to air two live versions beginning with the fourth episode (no sign yet whether this has changed their ratings). “I really enjoy two things about it — the live experience and the feeling that it’s dangerous and anything can go wrong,” Lawrence said. “What I say to the audience at the beginning of the show is actually true. If I could have tweeted or Instagrammed or Periscoped or talked to my favorite actors and actresses and showrunners when I was a kid, I would have never left my room.”

Vulture spent last week behind-the-scenes of production during a particularly chaotic time, which was plagued by rampant illness that spread like wildfire through the writer’s room, a touch of the mid-season blues, and some damn inconvenient puppets.

Monday: The Puppets
At the writer’s office, a team of 13 writers and two assistants are split into groups working on different scripts for the coming weeks. Hobert’s episode, which taped last Friday, November 6, was titled “A Boy Band Walks Into a Bar” at the time. In the story, Leslie’s (Kajlich) boyfriend is going to propose to her and enlists the help of the Backstreet Boys. Five drafts in, the producers have not landed the famous boy band to appear in the episode, so they are going to have to quickly come up with a Plan B.

We have a joke that whatever you title your script, that element will fall away,” Sztykiel said. “It’s the curse of the script.”

The alternative arrives when executive producer Randall Winston texts them pictures of custom-ordered puppets that resemble the actors. (Property master Gordie Germaine paid renowned puppet builder BJ Guyer $9,000 to create them.) Winston’s original intention was for the actors to use the puppets during the show’s live credits, when the actors race into the audience and mug for the cameras. But the actors flip out. They love the puppets.

“Well, of course, now the show has to be about puppets!” Sztykiel says. “When someone hands you the gift of puppets that look like your actors it just immediately removes the burden of what’s going to be silly about this episode.” It doesn’t matter that the staff has already put in the time on five drafts, Sztykiel says. The puppets are worth the extra blood and sweat. “We’ll figure out what’s funny about Brent Morin crying as a puppet. Ron Funches with a puppet — I know this is going to be funny. So in a weird way, it’s almost a safety net.”

In addition to writers needing to rush a new draft so the actors can rehearse with the new script the following morning, costume designer Carey Bennett is now tasked with finding the right baby clothes (sizes 18 to 24 months) to dress the puppets to look like their human counterparts.

Tuesday: Puppet Problems
After the writers spend the morning brainstorming aspects of the episode that airs tonight, “An Origin Story Walks Into a Bar,” it’s time for the cast’s first rehearsal of Hobert’s episode, now titled “A Puppet Walks Into a Bar.”

It’s a vastly different script than the one the actors read in front of studio and network executives the week prior. “It was kind of a disaster,” Hobert said. “We leaned too heavily on the puppets. We didn’t have all the right scenes in there.” When the actors reach the end of what turns out to be a low-energy rehearsal, Lawrence acknowledges the puppets have taken over the episode and promises the cast that he and the writers will work to smooth it out.

“It was a pretty lackluster effort on that day,” recalls Kajlich who plays Leslie, Danny’s sister. “I think everyone was very tired and confused by the puppets. When that happens, the honest truth is you leave a little worried. But then you give each other pep talks. I feel there’s always one or two of us that fall to the worry syndrome and the others are like, ‘Remember this happens every week.’ I feel like every Friday I wonder, why do we even bother worrying in the middle of the week?”

Back at their offices, the writers meet with Lawrence and Sztykiel to discuss restructuring the story and what elements must go. There’s much work to be done, but around 7 p.m., Lawrence and some of the writers leave for their weekly basketball game, and the rest of the staff goes home. “Bill loves basketball and it’s really fun,” Hobert said. “It clears our minds. But you know you will pay for it at some point.”

Wednesday: Into the Night
That point comes the next day, when the writers report to work at 9:30 a.m. for what they expect will be a marathon writing session. Hobert treats everyone to coffee and they divide into three rewriting groups. The first scene after the show’s cold open and credits — considered its most critical because it could persuade viewers to stay or leave during the first commercial break — is rewritten four times.

“Bill has a very specific thing — he knows what he likes, and you have to figure out what he wants,” Hobert said. “It’s not easy, but it’s fun.” Several writers have been sick with colds all week and, as the day wears on, a few feel like they’re getting worse. They drink coffee and Red Bull, eat Mexican for lunch, snack on popcorn, and order dinner all while hammering away at the script. The inevitable, delirious giggle fit happens just before 11 p.m.

About half an hour later, Lawrence sends half the staff home. Those who stay make more coffee and continue writing, aiming for jokes that make every single person in the room laugh. Among them is Sztykiel, whose health is deteriorating as the night wears on. “I was in the fetal position, just coughing,” he said. “I sounded like I had consumption or something.”

“Adam was 100 percent dying,” confirms Hobert. “But he came up with an awesome joke.”

Thursday: Two Shows, One Day
Around 3 a.m., Sztykiel describes getting “one last burst of energy” while going over a scene between Danny (D’Elia) and Justin (Morin) in which they argue about who’s to blame for Leslie being upset.

“I was acting it out as I tend to do,” Sztykiel said. “I have to physically perform things out. It is my annoying habit to do it in my approximation of the actor’s voice. So I got up and was doing Chris and happened right into the joke.”

In the scene, which got a big laugh during last week’s live shows, Danny says, “Why would I get involved? Who pushed me into it? I feel like the answer is on the tip of my … tongue.” As Danny says “tongue” he licks Justin’s nose and the two men proceed to get into a tongue fight.

It’s exactly the kind of off-the-cuff physical humor the show thrives on — staged spontaneity, if you will.  Earlier in the episode, Shelly (Funches) and Brett (David Fynn) kiss while pretending to play Spin the Bottle. The actors knew the smooch was coming; in fact, they got teased during rehearsals for really kissing every single time they practiced. In previous episodes, Ed Sheeran planted one on Brent Morin and Kajlich smooched Scott Foley without any warning to the recipients.

Lawrence, who has run TV shows for 22 years and amassed a long list of celebrity friends, calls on them to make guest appearances. Of his former Scrubs gang, Zach Braff, Sarah Chalke, and Donald Faison have accepted the invitation. “It’s not that hard to lure them if you use the words live and bar,” Lawrence says.

After coming up with the joke, Sztykiel says he “collapsed” and went home feeling like a “slacker” because the rest of the writers soldiered on until 5 a.m., when they finally sent the script to the crew and actors. Instead of getting the usual day to stage the episode, director Marty Pasettta Jr. only had 90 minutes to prepare it for the first rehearsal in front of producers and network executives. The writers all return to the lot for the run-through at 12:30 p.m.

“We’ve gotten late scripts before, but we didn’t have to tape live so we could make mistakes and go back and fix it,” Funches said. “This one was, well, we don’t know what we’re doing and if we make a mistake, it’s all on us. So it got a little hectic but I think it brought out the best in us. We all trusted each other and pushed it up.”

Around 2 p.m., the actors and writers switch gears to read tonight’s script (written by Amy Pocha and Seth Cohen) in front of studio and network executives, who have few notes. Lawrence tells the writers it’s a good script, but it has too much of the same comedy beats. He also wants them to flesh out the character of Danny’s first love more. “Right now, she reads like a magical wizard,” he says. “We need to know who she is.”

After Sztykiel goes to the doctor (he was diagnosed with bronchitis) and Lawrence takes a nap, the writers reconvene to punch up jokes and tighten the script, working until about 8 p.m. A new joke involving a puppet PSA about safe sex is added, while a joke about an image of four penises gets cut.

“It didn’t play the way that I thought it would,” Sztykiel said. “You are always concerned that the blue humor of penis jokes and all that stuff, it feels too easy. It will get a laugh, but am I going to hate myself for it? That one was too confusing, to be honest. Which is sad that you made a penis joke too confusing. It might be my lowest moment as a writer.”

Friday: East Coast Live
The day for the writers begins with a basketball game on the lot.

Then Lawrence kicks off an all-day social-media blitz by introducing their followers to Bill Puppet, a Christmas gift from Winston when they worked together on Scrubs. Bill Puppet is a peacemaker. “West coast. East coast. No beef tonight,” Lawrence tweets out with a picture of him and his puppet alter ego.

The writers also scour the Internet for last-minute ideas — topical jokes they can sneak into the shows later. “Part of the value of being live is that you know what happened that day before you shoot it,” Sztykiel says. “It reminds you that you’re watching something that’s happening at that exact moment in time.”

On set, the actors concentrate on learning their lines and rehearsing revisions that arrived in the morning. “This was a close one,” Glassman says. “There’s never been an episode where we got the script and everything was working perfectly. but there’s never been an episode either that by the time we get to shooting, it wasn’t ready.”

At about 4 p.m., the writers change from sweatpants into their dress clothes to head to set. Hobert has decided — against his wife’s advice — to wear his lucky canary-yellow suit and ruffled purple shirt. Each week, the writer of that episode appears on camera holding a card with the musical guest’s name on it as part of the show’s opening credits.

When the audience is seated, Lawrence welcomes them and Morin introduces the cast. As the countdown begins, nine cameras take their places onstage while the director and other crew members work from trailers outside and a control room on set.

One of the most tense jobs belongs to script supervisor Kirsten Robinson, whose task normally would be to make sure actors are sticking to their lines. On a live show, however, Robinson’s job is to keep track of the time, an endeavor that includes estimating during rehearsals how long the audience’s laughter will last and incorporating that into the length of the episode. During the tapings, a computer helps her keep count.

Robinson estimates the show is almost two minutes overtime before it’s even started on the East Coast. If she’s right, Lawrence and Sztykiel will determine what lines to cut on the fly.

Considering how quickly the actors and crew learned the script, there are few hiccups. Morin can’t hold back a laugh during his tongue fight with D’Elia and scrunches his face when D’Elia delivers his surprise Netflix punch line. The camera takes a little too long to find Fynn’s puppet for his PSA, but Robinson’s estimate is spot-on. During commercial breaks, Lawrence and Sztykiel huddle with actors to cut scenes (they have scenes they call “accordions,” designated beforehand as plot points that can go wholesale if need be).

The audience doesn’t know it at the time, but D’Elia reveals after the show that he almost passed out on live television. “Especially when we get the script so late, I do this thing where I’ll check in with myself when I’m like five lines away from my line to remember what I’m supposed to say next,” D’Elia said. “Tonight, I’m doing that and I can’t think of it. And I almost fainted! It was an important line. And I went like, Come on, dude. Oh, that’s it. I almost went down!”

The writers would have gotten a kick out of it: It’s their fantasy to get D’Elia to crack on camera. He’s the only actor who never has. “My favorite thing is when I see someone start to laugh and lose their mind,” Lawrence said. “We always try to turn someone. I like to get Bianca laughing because it makes me laugh that when she starts laughing, she can’t stop. But we can’t get Chris.”

Friday: West Coast Live
The East Coast telecast wraps three seconds under time. In the two and a half hours between shows, the actors tape promos, drink at the bar, and imagine new ways to trip each other up on live television. Kajlich and Mendler reveal they are planning to slap D’Elia during a scene, which later changes to throwing water in his face. Fynn, who is supposed to put a liquor bottle in Kajlich’s purse, is going to load it up with more bottles, napkins, and any snacks he can find. After his kiss with Fynn, Funches will ask him why his penis is out, a joke that Lawrence fed him. Morin is scheming to get back at D’Elia if he reprises the Netflix joke.

But there’s a bigger surprise in store for D’Elia than a little water. Lawrence asks Morin to throw in some cracks about D’Elia’s failed sitcom history at the top of the show. (D’Elia previously starred on NBC’s Whitney.)

This time, with all the adjustments the producers made during the break, Robinson’s computer puts the show at only 44 seconds over. The energy in the room is electric. Glassman explains why: “There’s an unspoken definition around here between the two shows. The East Coast feed is the show and the West Coast feed is for us. It’s play time. It’s like after the East Coast feed we got into college, and now it’s just time to party.”

In the West Coast airing, when Morin delivers the failed-sitcom jab via Justin’s puppet, D’Elia pauses and almost laughs. Grabbing his own puppet, he ad-libs: “At least he wouldn’t live in a dirty apartment in the Valley,” which a writer later explains is a true statement about Morin’s pad.

When D’Elia returns from the audience bleachers, where the actors tape the opening credits, he quickly shuffles by Lawrence, smiling, “That was a really good one.” Next comes Kajlich’s and Mendler’s shot: They throw water at his face. D’Elia, stunned, runs away, but composes himself in time to throw out the night’s improvised zinger: “Just as wet as my cousin Amy was.”

Morin and Funches, who are in the scene with him, crack up. But Morin doesn’t miss a beat. “Dude, that’s not a brag,” he ad-libs. “Whatever, dude, when you got it, you got it,” D’Elia retorts before launching into the scripted tongue-fight sequence.

“That was insane!” says Hobert, who is watching the scene on a monitor with the rest of the writing staff. A lot of high-fiving ensues. We just went off the rails!” says Sztykiel.

“This is why we stay up until 5 a.m.,” says writer Jon DeWalt. “That made it all worth it.”

As the taping nears its end, the computer shows it’s running over a minute long. The control room starts panicking and yelling at Robinson in her earpiece, “The show’s gonna end!” But the actors are on a roll and Lawrence doesn’t want to mess up their groove. “Tell them to shut up!” he tells her. “The show’s gonna end!” they repeat.

Lawrence eventually signals the actors to move faster, and they do. They make it to the puppet group hug, but the West Coast doesn’t see Burski’s puppet chasing Leslie’s puppet off set. American Authors plays out the show as actors, writers, and puppets rush the stage to dance. Lawrence Periscopes the dance party and gives his postmortem about how the night went to his followers. Tonight, it starts all over again.

Inside Undateable, a TV Show Where Chaos Reigns