Raising a sitcom: Creators look back
By Randee Dawn
No wonder sitcom creators liken getting a series on the air to creating a child; months or years of development need to combine with patience, love and the willingness to modify and tweak a concept until it hurts. Here, we talk with some of TV’s top sitcom (and one dramedy) heads about those first-show birthing pains and learn just what they were up to the night baby took its first steps on the airwaves.
on ‘30 Rock’
Christopher Lloyd and Steven Levitan
on ‘Modern Family’
on ‘The Big Bang Theory’
Dave Finkel and Brett Baer
on ‘New Girl’
on ‘Parks & Recreation’
on ‘Raising Hope’
on ‘Burn Notice’
on ‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’
Ali Goldstein / NBC
In the beginning: "The whole first year we were dumb enough not to realize how hard it was to do what we were trying to do. We just walked blissfully like babies into it."
Needs fixing: Adjusting the Jack (Alec Baldwin) and Liz (Tina Fey) relationship was key. "You could see a version where he was just a stuffed shirt and she just a knee-jerk do-gooder. That's what was on the table for the first few episodes."
About that night: On the "dance floor in some back room" of a bar or restaurant, the cast and crew watched the first episode "en masse." "The sound quality was terrible, and there was a terrible storm outside — they had a satellite hookup and the video kept dropping out. We were trying not to convince ourselves that it was a sign of things to come."
Christopher Lloyd and Steven Levitan
Peter Hopper / ABC
In the beginning: An “enormous amount of character work up front,” says Levitan, meant the actors and writers were very comfortable early on. “By the time we started, we really felt we knew these characters.”
Needs fixing: Quickly the “camera confessionals” the characters did directly to the cameras fell away, because they interfered with pacing, says Lloyd. “We found moving fast suits everyone,” he adds.
About that night: There was a “low-key opening night launch party” in West Hollywood, recalls Lloyd, while Levitan monitored Twitter for East Coast feed comments. “I could read about the show playing in real time,” he says. “I still do it sometimes. I love to hear how the jokes are playing.”
Monty Brinton / CBS
In the beginning: “Theory” caught a lucky break early on, getting a second shot at a pilot from CBS after the first one didn’t go over so well. “This is the only time I ever got a do-over.”
Needs fixing: Everything, basically, but tone especially. “There’s a sweetness to these characters being unable to handle the day-to-day stuff, and we embraced that vulnerability the second time.”
About that night: For many years, Lorre had a party at his home with the casts of “Two and a Half Men,” “Theory” and “Mike & Molly,” since their season premieres dovetailed. “We’d watch it on the air, then pray for the next few hours until the ratings came out,” he said. But after some CBS schedule reshuffling, “it became fractured,” and “we took a break this year.” Does he miss the gathering? “No. It’s nerve-wracking.”
Dave Finkel and Brett Baer
Greg Gayne / FOX
In the beginning: Shifting to 24 episodes with “New Girl,” up from 12 on “United States of Tara,” was eye-opening, and the pair had to get a grip on the four-act structure that broadcast wants. “With 12 episodes, they give you much more walk-up time,” says Baer, “and the nature of broadcast shows is you don’t have that latitude.”
Needs fixing: Less “adorkable,” more depth for their title character, Jess (Zooey Deschanel). “Season 1 was all about finding our feet,” says Finkel.
About that night: Despite a big planned party in the writers’ room, the pair were stuck editing reshoots for the second episode. “We fell asleep at 5 in the morning, wrapped in Snuggies and sleeping bags, and two hours later the phone started buzzing and the numbers came in and they were positive,” says Finkel.
Chris Haston / NBC
In the beginning: When the “Office” formula did not export to “Parks,” Schur and Greg Daniels needed to find a new approach. “You don’t truly know a show until you’re around episode 10, certainly not when you’re making the pilot.”
Needs fixing: Casting was solid, but it took a while for the writers to know what kind of humor to hand their actors. “You have to embrace change once the show is cast and characters are milling around.”
About that night: With their star (Amy Poehler) pregnant, they raced to shoot several episodes back-to-back and were editing when the pilot aired. “We left the edit bay, drove to a little party at a bar and were like, ‘Yay! The show aired!’ and then went back to the edit bay. I didn’t even get a drink at the bar. I needed my wits about me.”
In the beginning: Working with many of the same crew he’d paired up with for “My Name Is Earl” made “Raising Hope” a fairly smooth-starting show. “It felt like being home again.”
Needs fixing: “The pilot episode is very eye-opening, because as you write the next couple of episodes and film them, the world grows and you can steer it in a particular direction — but you can only control it so much.”
About that night: “I cannot remember!” Garcia had already watched it with family and friends, as well as in editing and upfronts, “so by the time it aired on TV, everyone I cared about had seen it. There wasn’t a reason to have a big hoopla at that point — and most likely we were shooting straight through the premiere.”
In the beginning: “Picture a vertical cliff as learning curve.” Nix learned quickly that he couldn’t do everything himself and he’d need to rely on his teams in writing and production to get the show on the air.
Needs fixing: “I have learned how to invite other people into my process. This is a band you’re trying to get to play in harmony, not an army you tell to march and take that hill.”
About that night: Nix has had blowout parties in his backyard for every season premiere. But that first year he still lived in Pasadena and didn’t even have a backyard — so they rented a big screen and beanbags and held it in the frontyard. “We were in a far-from-fully gentrified area, and people were like, ‘Is that a housing project down the street?’ And it was.”
Aaron Rapoport / FX Network
In the beginning: As “complete neophytes” to writing and producing television, McElhenney and his team were “making it up as they went along.”
Needs fixing: The title of the original show was “It’s Always Sunny on TV,” a backhanded wave to a song by “Take on Me” hitmakers A-ha, and was to have been based in Los Angeles. But L.A. had a glut of locally based shows, so the series moved east and got a new name. “From our experience, we knew you could find degenerates anywhere.” It still took three seasons before they realized they could ask for more from the network than one trailer shared by all, for all purposes.
About that night: “We threw a party in a Santa Monica bar called the Shack because it’s a Philly-themed bar and watched the episode. I wasn’t nervous but we’d produced, and edited seven episodes — and we were exhausted.”