‘Undateable’ Is the Most Compelling Live Comedy on TV

undateable_liveIt’s no secret that NBC has been expanding on their slate of live television programs in an attempt to draw more viewers into, well, live viewing. Under this initiative, the network has found modest success in capturing the zeitgeist with annual musicals (The Sound of Music, Peter Pan, and soon The Wiz) and Neil Patrick Harris’ weekly variety show Best Time Ever. However, their best live project may be their least promoted. Undateable is hitting all the stops necessary for most shows to thrive in a modern era, and is arguably the most compelling, well-put together live entertainment program the network has (aside from that little known underground comedy broadcast they do on Saturday nights).

Undateable began as a typical pre-taped multi-cam show, but after shooting their second-season finale live, NBC renewed the show for a completely live third season. (While last season’s finale and this season’s premiere were performed live twice, for both the east and west coasts, the upcoming episodes will apparently only be shot once.) Like most live and “event” programming, it offers guest appearances by stars (Zach Braff, Donald Faison, “TV’s Scott Foley” as himself), and a different musical guest each episode (Ed Sheeran, Nico & Vinz). But the best additions that the new live format has brought to the cast are the actors who have been their since the beginning.

With roots in standup comedy and improv, the cast is seen from a new angle and subtly alter what they bring to the show. Whereas the show used to encourage improvised takes, it now thrives on it. Some of the show’s best moments are hybrid scripted-improv changes that are even more entertaining in the moment, with the actors going off-script, or writers feeding one of the cast members new lines or stage directions without the others knowing. In Friday’s episode, the cast broke into laughter live when actress Bianca Kajlich unexpectedly kissed guest star Foley.

This new energy is breathed even more life by the show’s tendency to break the fourth wall with jokes about the show itself, such as when Brent Morin unexpectedly told Chris D’Elia’s character, “At least I don’t look like that ugly guy from Whitney” in last season’s finale. This kind of humor took on new heights with Friday night’s premiere, with Morin telling D’Elia, “You know how you think you’re the star around here? Well, guess what? [Co-star] Bridget Mendler’s more famous than you.”

The show also takes meta jabs at itself, with the cast at one point remarking on how Morin and Mendler’s characters’ “will they, won’t they” arc is “repetitive tripe” that “could easily last all winter.” At another point in the West Coast version, D’Elia tells co-star Ron Funches, “You know deep down you’d rather be on The Jerrod Carmichael Show.”

However, for all the inside baseball jokes Undateable has to offer TV fans, it’s also breaking the fourth wall in a much more significant way. With the help of both social media and live stunts that allow viewers to insert themselves into the action, the show is managing to do what few have been able to: develop a working interactive relationship with the audience. This not only makes the capitalizes upon the live element of the show and makes the episodes more entertaining, but also helps attract the live eyeballs that are so fleeting in the current time-shifted state of the medium.

Like those of other television shows, the writers room has its own Twitter account, but Undateable takes their online presence one step further by allowing behind-the-scenes access even during tapings, like when D’Elia tweeted a live video from the wings of the set during the broadcast. Executive producer Bill Lawrence even gave a “post-mortem” of the latest live episode on Periscope.

The second season finale required Morin to get his chest waxed live on air after losing a bet, providing both an entertaining real-life reaction from the actor, as well as a real sense of dread in him in the scenes leading up to the big moment. In Friday’s episode, the phone number for the phone D’Elia’s character was holding was given out live on air, allowing people to interrupt him in real time. It worked, and he answered. Expanding upon the relationship with viewers, the phone was handed off to other show staffers during breaks, with the cast popping back on the line from time to time. Moreover, creator Adam Sztykiel said on Twitter that the phone number will be active all season.

Undateable is impressive in that it is able to toe the line between ignoring the live element and exploiting it. While it would be easy for the show to sabotage its quality in the name of touting the fact that things are happening in real time, Undateable has remained a coherent and quality broadcast in terms of both writing and production, while still being able to use the live aspect to its advantage. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the possibility of chaos at any given moment isn’t another gripping reason to tune in. Such was the case last week when actor Rick Glassman badly injured his tongue four hours before the first live broadcast, requiring him to do the show with a mouthful of stitches and medicated by painkillers.

In some ways, it feels as if Undateable is TV coming full-circle, conceptually speaking — returning to the days of live sitcom broadcasts while also retaining what we’ve learned along the way: the different angles and methods of getting more laughs, and nowadays, more eyeballs.

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