Milton Berle, 'SNL' & 'Undateable': A brief history of live TV
Tonight at 8, NBC's "Undateable" will begin doing something that no American primetime series has tried in nearly 25 years: producing and performing an entire season live.
It's an interesting gamble for an uneven but often quite funny sitcom that, by default, has become NBC's comedy standard-bearer. Last season's live episode seemed to best harness the loose camaraderie of the show's cast, and their gift for improvising in front of a raucous studio audience. Going live every week not only allows for more of that, but gives the show a marketing hook as it moves into a sketch Friday night timeslot. NBC boss Robert Greenblatt — the man behind "Sound of Music Live!" but also "Peter Pan Live!") — is a big believer in the power of live TV to draw eyeballs in an age of infinite choice, so why not give this a try?
Before the "Undateable" season premiere, I took a look back at some memorable series and events in the history of live television, including the classic show that all but killed the idea of doing sitcoms live.
“Texaco Star Theater”Photo Credit: NBC
Like many of TV's earliest series, variety show "Texaco Star Theater" was a transplant from the radio. It was so popular that host Milton Berle was nicknamed "Mr. Television," out of the phenomenon of families buying their very first TV sets solely so they wouldn't have to go to a friend's house to watch it. Other live variety shows of the era were better (particularly "Your Show of Shows"), but Uncle Miltie was a phenomenon.
“Studio One”Photo Credit: CBS
Live drama anthologies like "Studio One" (which featured the original version of Reginald Rose's "Twelve Angry Men") and "Playhouse 90" were at the heart of the original Golden Age of Television, proving to (some of) the harshest early skeptics that the medium had more to offer than just selling laundry soap.
“I Love Lucy”Photo Credit: CBS
Before "I Love Lucy," TV comedies came in one of two formats: shot in advance on film, like "Modern Family" and "Broad City" and other current sitcoms; or performed live in New York for viewers in the Eastern and Central time zones, with folks out west getting blurry kinescopes after the fact. But Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz and company figured out a new way: performing episodes in front of a studio audience to create the feeling of alive production, but shot on film so they could be preserved for later airings. The series was such a huge hit that genuinely live sitcom telecasts quickly died out.
“Saturday Night Live”Photo Credit: NBC
It's right there in the catchphrase that leads into the opening credits of every episode for 40-plus years: "Live, from New York, it's Saturday night!" Lorne Michaels wanted his new sketch comedy show to be live to create a sense of danger and spontaneity, though many of the moments that fit that bill tended to be ones that the franchise would rather forget, like Charles Rocket dropping an F-bomb at the end of his disastrous run as star of the show's second cast, or Sinead O'Connor tearing up a photo of the pope during a musical performance. These days, the live nature of the show is most apparent when cast members crack each other up during sketches, which Michaels originally despised, but eventually came to accept as part of the process.
“Roc”Photo Credit: Fox
All four of the leads on the Charles S. Dutton-fronted family sitcom had come to TV from Broadway, and thus had experience performing without a net. After a live episode went over successfully midway through the first season, the show's second season was performed live every week. The gimmick didn't improve ratings, and the actors were ironically too good for the audience to feel any appreciable difference, so the show went back to live-to-tape for the third season. But it was the first primetime sitcom since the ’50s to do an entire season live, and the last to try it until this new "Undateable" experiment.
“ER”Photo Credit: NBC
For their fourth season premiere, stars George Clooney and Anthony Edwards pushed "ER" producers to let them do a live episode, and to perform it twice, so west coast audiences would get to see a genuinely live version. To explain the different look, the episode was presented as a documentary being shot in the County General ER. While it may have thrilled the actors, it stripped away all of the show's usual impressive production values, turning what usually felt like a weekly action movie into a kind of community theater version of "ER" that just happened to feature the real actors.
“The Drew Carey Show”Photo Credit: ABC
"Drew Carey" creator Bruce Helford, inspired in part by that "ER" live episode, decided to try his own a couple of years later, structuring it to leave room for several segments where the regular cast and the guest stars — most of them imported from the Drew Carey-hosted version of "Whose Line Is it Anyway?" — could improvise, and do different versions of the episode for each time zone. The series repeated the gimmick several more times in later seasons.
“Fail Safe”Photo Credit: CBS
George Clooney's fascination with the ’50s era of live television continued with this live, black-and-white adaptation of Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler's Cold War thriller novel (which was previously made into a 1964 film directed by Sidney Lumet), which he executive produced and starred in, along with Richard Dreyfuss, Harvey Keitel, and his "ER" pal Noah Wyle.
“American Idol”Photo Credit: Fox
TV's most popular show for most of the ’00s was in many ways a throwback to the live variety series that dominated the earliest days of the medium. Once each season got past its audition and Hollywood rounds, and sometimes its semi-finals, the contestants would be asked to sing live for the chance to stick around another week. There were occasional flubs, like when giving the wrong phone number for a contestant forced a re-do of the whole performance show the following night, but the live "Idol" shows have been remarkably light on huge gaffes. Mock Ryan Seacrest all you want, but that guy knows how to keep things moving and sane on live TV.
“30 Rock”Photo Credit: NBC
The only surprising thing about "30 Rock" — created by and starring a former "SNL" head writer and Weekend Update host in Tina Fey, and featuring "SNL" alum Tracy Morgan and frequent "SNL" host Alec Baldwin in its main cast — doing a live episode is that it took until the fifth season to try it. The first attempt was, unfortunately, reminiscent of the "ER" live episode, in the way it stripped away a lot of what made "30 Rock" work. When they tried it again a season later, they wisely turned it into what was essentially an all-star version of "SNL" in primetime, with a collection of sketches about the history of TV that included Jon Hamm in blackface, Brian Williams as a sexist news anchor, Donald Glover as a young Tracy, etc.
“The Sound of Music Live!”Photo Credit: NBC
Current NBC boss Robert Greenblatt is both a lover of musical theater (see also "Smash") and a believer in the idea that the broadcast networks need big events to get people to watch live, rather than waiting to DVR a show days later, or binge it on Netflix a year from now. Hence, "The Sound of Music Live!," a three-hour event that put Carrie Underwood (who had some experience with live TV from her days as the season 4 "American Idol" champ) into the familiar dirndl of Maria as she taught the Von Trapp children about "Do-Re-Mi" and what the lonely goatherd has to sing. Greenblatt was proven right that night, with over 18.6 million viewers watching, and prompting a follow-up with last season's "Peter PanLive!" Unfortunately, "Girls" co-star Allison Williams as Peter proved less of a draw than Underwood, and "Peter Pan Live!" drew about half the audience of "Sound of Music Live!" That still hasn't stopped NBC from working on a live version of "The Wiz," nor FOX from developing a live version of "Grease."