“Up All Night” returned for its second season with what seemed like a massive facelift. A sitcom that had once split its time between Christina Applegate’s life at work with Maya Rudolph and at home with Will Arnett and their baby instead refocused on the home life, canceling the show-within-the-show (and getting rid of the other characters who worked there), having Applegate replace Arnett as the stay-at-home parent, and introducing Luka Jones’ as Applegate’s brother and Arnett’s partner in a new contracting business.
Compared to what the show is about to do, all those changes amount to little more than getting a little collagen injected into the lips. The real overhaul is just beginning, and it will leave “Up All Night” unrecognizable by the end.
NBC announced today that the show is about to embark on a three-month production hiatus, during which the sets and stage will be converted from ones that can be used for a single-camera sitcom (shot on film, no audience or laughtrack) to a traditional multi-camera one (shot in front of a live studio audience). Six episodes have aired so far this season, and another five under the old format will air between now and December.(*) The series will return sometime in April or May with five multi-cam episodes, as a last-ditch attempt by NBC to get people to watch a show with stars they like, from a producer (“SNL” creator Lorne Michaels) they’ve been in business with forever.
(*) The mid-season hiatus leaves a second hole on the schedule (after the one “30 Rock” will leave when it finishes its final 13-episode season) where NBC might place “Community.”
“This was an idea we and Lorne came to in order to infuse the show with more energy,” NBC’s Bob Greenblatt said in a statement. “We know what the multi-camera audience does for the live episodes of ’30 Rock,’ plus after seeing both Maya and Christina do ‘SNL’ within the past few months, we knew we had the kind of performers — Will Arnett included — who love the reaction from a live audience. We think we can make a seamless tradition to the new format. Also, we’re committed to the multi-camera form and this will give us another show to consider for next season in this new format.”
What Greenblatt is alluding to without coming right out and saying it is that with the exception of “Modern Family,” all of TV’s big sitcom hits are presented in the traditional multi-camera format. There are other single-cam shows that do okay for themselves (ABC’s “The Middle,” for instance), but most of them tend to be like the rest of NBC’s sitcom lineup: low-rated critical darlings that hang around because someone at the network likes them, and/or because they don’t have anything better available. Critics and some younger viewers may consider the traditional format tired, but the audience at large has made its preference known, over and over. NBC has announced its intention to get out of the boutique comedy business, which is why the network introduced two multi-camera sitcoms (“Whitney” and “Guys With Kids”) over the last two seasons, and why the network will likely have even more of them next season.
As Greenblatt notes, several of the stars of “Up All Night” have a lot of experience performing in front of an audience (Applegate also did 11 years on “Married… With Children”). One of the show’s producers, Tucker Cawley, was a longtime writer on “Everybody Loves Raymond,” and creator Emily Spivey wrote for “SNL.” But it’s going to be a very, very different show. The rhythms of single-cam and multi-cam humor tend to be very different(**). Single-cam jokes can be more conceptual and can take more time to develop, whereas multi-cam shows today have to keep feeding its audience gag after gag after gag to keep the laughter flowing.
(**) The one exception, unsurprisingly, is “Modern Family,” which employs a lot of writers with long multi-camera resumes, and which frequently smuggles the set-up/joke/set-up/joke cadence of a multi-cam show inside the mockumentary format of “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation.”
Veterans of the multi-cam world will often complain that single-cam shows have it easy, and don’t have to try as hard to make people laugh because they’re not being performed in front of that audience. And “Up All Night” has generally felt like a poster child for that sentiment, with a lot of talented people placed in situations that seemed pleasant but rarely uproarious. This may, indeed, be a better use of everyone’s talent.
That said, this kind of format switch is an extremely rare move. It happened most famously – and successfully – in the ’70s when both “Happy Days” and “The Odd Couple” switched from single to multi early in their runs, but those were also shows that featured a laughtrack even in their single-cam days; the look changed much more significantly than the style of humor. A decade ago, NBC tried this same routine with “Watching Ellie,” a short-lived Julia Louis-Dreyfus sitcom that began life as a high-concept show (a real-time sitcom), then became a more familiar single-cam sitcom, then went multi-cam in its second season, without the ratings ever increasing notably.
Without the format change, “Up All Night” was a strong cancellation candidate. The only reason it’s even still on at this point is NBC’s attachment to the talent. But if “Whitney” and “Guys With Kids” are any kind of signpost for what NBC is looking for with its sitcoms going forward, don’t expect much more out of the new “Up All Night” than the old – perhaps even less.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org