Going Live with ‘Undateable’s Chris D’Elia
Since 2014, comedian and actor Chris D’Elia has starred as the relationship-resistant Danny on NBC’s Undateable, a multicam sitcom about a group of friends in Detroit navigating the ups and downs of dating and friendship. After airing a special live episode for its second season finale, NBC renewed Undateable for an entirely live third season, currently airing Fridays at 8pm. The result is a show that is all at once traditional and untraditional; infusing the typical comedy of a sitcom with self-referential jokes, improvisation, weekly musical guests, and a social media campaign that bridges the gap between the program and the audience. As if that isn’t enough, it was recently reported that the show will continue to be taped live a second time each week for the West Coast, rather than airing the previously broadcast East Coast version. We caught up with Chris during some rare downtime as the Undateable cast and crew prepared for another episode.
Are you gearing up for this week’s Undateable?
Yeah. We’re in the middle of it. We’re at lunch right now.
What’s the weekly process of the show like now that you’ve gone live?
We try to get a script way earlier, but then it’s basically a trial-by-error process. We see what jokes work and what jokes don’t work, and we’re in much more of a crunch time, but we try to get more of a script finalized by Thursday. Sometimes we don’t — sometimes it doesn’t get finalized until the day of. It’s pretty hectic and crazy, but it’s a lot of fun.
How have you felt about the live version as compared to the last two seasons?
It’s just way more fun. Creatively it’s awesome because we’re all live performers.
Was it you guys or NBC who first proposed to go live with the last season finale, and then for this whole season?
I don’t know which one did first, but I know that Bill Lawrence really likes live and really liked the idea, and NBC is pretty good about being live. They like doing a lot of live TV. So I think one fit the other. Then once we did it last year, we just had a lot of fun, and we thought NBC might want to do more. And they ordered the whole season live.
Have you felt that there’s a freedom that going live has allowed you as a performer? And restrictions; is there anything you’re forced to do less of?
Well, the only thing we can do less of is take our time. A lot of times when we shoot it and it’s not live, we’ll do whatever we think is funny and we don’t think about time constraints. But live, we have to. There’s commercials coming up, and we’ve got to fit the full story in. So it leaves a lot less time for going off the rails, but we seem to find the places anyway. The scripts are just a lot shorter.
So how much of it is scripted, versus changed in the script at the last minute, versus completely improvised?
We get a script, and then as we’re rehearsing, we’ll just be like, “Oh, I’ll probably do this” or “I’ll do that.” And then it becomes a collaborative effort. We always improv. Each one of us improvs a few things every episode. Especially me and Brent, because we have the most to do. So we’ll make stuff up, and then we have a West Coast version. We’ll shoot the East Coast version and then we know we did it once. If we got it once, then in the West Coast version we kind of are like, “Alright. Well this one’s the extra mile one. So a lot of it does end up being improv.
Does it feel like a weight has been lifted doing the West Coast version, or there’s more of a drive to top the improvised jokes?
It feels like the West Coast one is done as much for us. The energy of the East Coast one, because it’s the first one, is just way different.
You guys just announced that you’re doing the live shows for both coasts for the rest of the season. Did that factor into it, getting to have two sides of a coin doing both versions?
We did it last year when we did it live, and then we did it for the opening episode this year. For the second episode, we only did it live for the East Coast, but then we felt like we kind of shortchanged the West Coast, and it seemed like it wasn’t fair. So we went back to doing both. A lot of people like to go and watch both of them, because they are different.
Bill Lawrence spoke openly on Twitter recently about how you guys are trying to find the balance between the normal heart and emotion of a sitcom, versus that meta, inside-baseball humor, referring to being live. Is that something all of you guys are thinking about?
Yeah. Live, we’re always kind of breaking the fourth wall and updating it currently as the show progresses. It’s just very meta, but we have fun doing that. We think it’s fun.
It seems like there’s more of an off-the-wall sort of behavior with your Danny character than there was in the pre-taped version. Is that a reflection of the live process as well?
Well, the live crowd, for me as a performer, gets me charged up. I know that millions of people are watching it, so as a performer I maybe do want to go off the rails a little bit. So Danny is a little bit crazier this season. But also, a lot of it has to do with me realizing — Now I’m comfortable with the character. I’ve been with him for three years now, and I’m making him a version of myself. A lot of the writers write toward my sensibilities. The writers are really great, and once they can do that…
You can really tell it’s kind of your sensibility. You said you’ve been influenced by people like Eddie Murphy and Jim Carrey, and it kind of has that same wacky physicality in a way.
Cool. Thanks. Yeah, I love that kind of manic energy, like Robin Williams and stuff like that. That’s always been my favorite.
How has it been playing off the rest of the cast? With the new episodes in particular, do you find you have to establish a trust between you guys since more is on the line?
I think the bottom line is we all really do care pretty deeply about each other. We’re there for each other. If we mess up, we’ll pick up the slack. And I think people can tell that on television when they see us. Because when we’re laughing at each other, we’re genuinely laughing. We’re not acting like we’re laughing. We’re really having a good time doing it. And we are with our friends. I knew four of these guys really well before we started shooting, and the other ones were just great additions to my life. There are no bad apples here. There really aren’t. It’s a lot of fun.
All of you seem to enjoy taking part in the social aspect of the show as well. From the live standup tour, to tweeting videos on set.
We figure it out as we go. Social media, as it grows, still feels like it’s a newer thing in this world. So we’re trying to just incorporate it with TV. I live-tweet, and sometimes even Periscope during the scenes. It’s very cool because people get to see that. We’re breaking the fourth walls anyway. And look… we’re doing a silly sitcom. We can break the fourth wall and have it be fun, because the show is just about being fun and making people laugh and keeping them interested.
I know Adam Sztykiel said that your character’s phone is going to be available for calls all season, and you guys are going to be passing it around?
Yeah, we’ve been passing that around. I’ve been answering the phone and texting a lot.
What can we expect for the rest of the season in the way of plot lines for your character?
I don’t know what they have. They keep it tight-lipped, and I think they’re all figuring it out themselves too. I have so much to concentrate on from week to week, so I truly don’t even know what’s coming up for Danny.
As you were saying, your standup influences your performance on this show. Do you think it will work the other way around as well?
Maybe a little bit, but I’ve been performing onstage, I kind of already know what I do onstage. So I can’t imagine it would influence the other way too much.
Do you have a lot of time outside of the show to work on comedy still?
I don’t have a lot of time. I went onstage last night after rehearsal, and I try to get out as much as I can so I can stay sharp.
What kind of standup plans do you have in the works now?
I’m going to do different dates around the country, just tour when I can. I have another hour, but I’ll end up figuring out how to distribute that later on next year.
Incorrigible was just released through Netflix this year, while you had Comedy Central do White Male. Black Comic. How has your experience with that new Netflix model been?
I love the Netflix model. I like whenever anyone can see my stuff whenever they want, and on Netflix you can do that. I don’t think people are really tuning into TV unless there’s something extra special about it. You know, like doing live shows. A lot of people are watching them online, so I just like that idea.
Back to Undateable, you guys have a half-season run, right?
Yeah, 13 episodes.
Would you guys consider doing 22, or is 13 enough of a grueling thing going live?
I want to do as many as possible. It’s fun.
And it must feel exciting to be at the forefront of maybe bringing back the whole live sitcom genre.
Yeah, I think it’s great. If we pave the road for more shows to do it, that would be awesome. That’s how some multi-cameras should be. It’s way more fun.