With its decision to switch from the more cinematic single-camera format to the traditional multicamera, the NBC sitcom Up All Night seems to be making a statement of some kind. A bewildering, random and somewhat off-putting statement, but a statement nonetheless.
After it wraps its current batch of episodes in production, the last of which will air in December, the comedy about a formerly cool couple played by Christina Applegate and Will Arnett trying to adjust to parenthood will undergo a three-month hiatus so that the conversion can be made for filming to accompany a live studio audience. The company line is that the creative people in charge believe having the energy of an audience to feed off — with all the hooting, hollering and applause — will better utilize the cast’s talents.
One can’t help but think, though, that the show’s modest ratings and overall lack of buzz has something to do with it. Yes, Applegate (Married With Children) and Maya Rudolph (Saturday Night Live) are old pros when it comes to wringing the most out of laughs in front of an audience, but that doesn’t change the fact that Up All Night will look hopelessly out of place. As part of NBC’s resurgent Thursday night lineup, Up All Night is an also-ran to a group of shows (Parks and Recreation, The Office, 30 Rock) that pretty much have defined the modern single-camera format. Last year Whitney felt like the multicamera turd in the single-camera punch bowl, and while it managed to land a second season, Whitney isn’t coming back to Thursday nights. Instead it’s fleeing to Wednesdays to hang out with Guys With Kids. They deserve each other.
Since Up All Night isn’t really imprinted on many people’s minds, perhaps the move will work. It does have a great cast, and the episodes I’ve seen have been enough to keep it in my DVR lineup. But the producers are kidding themselves if they don’t think it’s going to be jarring. The difference between single-camera and multicamera has been put on display a few times, and when the results aren’t supposed to be a joke, they’ve been downright awful:
Family Ties Vacation
The Keatons go to England! This is a reverse situation, where the multicamera show loses its laugh track, and everything just seems wrong. The actors seemed to forget that they don’t need to project to the back row, and the writers forgot to write jokes to help them remember. Michael J. Fox actually shot this right after Back to the Future, which has to qualify as one of the biggest career comedowns of all time. Kudos to him for sticking with the show another four years after this mess. Also see: The Facts of Life Goes to Paris, Growing Pains: Return of the Seavers, and The Bradys.
30 Rock (“Live Show”)
When you’re as anarchic as 30 Rock, pretty much anything goes, and a live episode here and there doesn’t give anybody pause. Truth be told, the switch has been more distracting than anything, the odd cameo from Amy Poehler and Jon Hamm aside.
It was a big deal for what was TV’s highest-rated show to go live. Especially since it depended on impossible medical dialogue and elaborately choreographed operating-room scenes. While most reviews painted it a success, it wasn’t anything viewers were craving for on a regular basis. I especially remember seeing the baseball game the docs were watching in the break room being the same one that happened to be on just a few channels over. Nice touch. This was just the first indication that George Clooney had a fondness for old-fashioned television, also spearheading a live 2000 remake of Fail-Safe, and the valentine to TV’s Golden Age, Good Night, and Good Luck.
Scrubs (“My Life in Four Cameras”)
The ultimate meta-commentary on multicamera vs. single-camera, this Emmy-winning 2005 episode of the boundary-pushing sitcom explored how different it would be if it were filmed before a live studio audience. The jokes would be broader, the outfits skimpier and the mugging even more shameless.
Photo: © 2012 NBC