The ‘Undateable’ Comedy Tour: How to Launch (or Not Launch) a TV Show in 2014
My name is Bill Lawrence, I’m 45 years old and have not done stand-up comedy in 20 years. Oh, and quick side note: Twenty years ago, I was extremely mediocre at it. When I decided to go on the road with four outstanding young stand-ups (Chris D’Elia, Brent Morin, Ron Funches, and Rick Glassman), I made the smart decision not to write any new material. I could just use old stuff and riff. Young people love to pay to listen to an old guy “riff,” right? What could possibly go wrong? I’d “work it out” and find my act on the road.
We opened at Carolines Comedy Club in New York City. I was on the stage, bombing, in a way that probably made everyone there uncomfortable. My mouth was so dry it felt like I had just eaten a handful of Fritos and paper towels, and I looked at a table off to the right. It was full of old high school buddies who had come in from Connecticut to “surprise” me. Currently, they all looked almost … sad. I mumbled something about how the people on Dateline are so dumb, and I could totally murder my wife and get away with it. No joke there, really, just the ramblings of a psychopath. Then I made a noise that wasn’t a word, and introduced the first real comic, Ron Funches, a brilliant young black comedian who started his act by evaluating my set. This is a ritual he will repeat in every city. “I don’t know if that was fun for you,” he says, “but I really enjoyed seeing a rich white guy look that uncomfortable.” I couldn’t help but ask myself, “How the hell did I get here?”
Adam Sztykiel and I created the show Undateable. It’s loosely based on a book by Ellen Rakieten and Anne Coyle, but it really came to be because of Adam’s and my love for classic sitcoms. We wanted to do a multi-camera show like Cheers; live audience, not too many sets. We wanted to populate the world with stand-up comics, because they know how to vibe off a crowd, ad-lib, and make material stronger than what’s written. We cast Ron Funches, Rick Glassman, and Brent Morin first. One of the lucky gifts was that they knew each other already. Rick and Brent even live together. Part of a sitcom is establishing immediate chemistry. Adam and I thought putting people together who are already friends might help us here. We decided to take a chance.
Brent’s mentor in comedy and good friend Chris D’Elia was currently starring in the NBC show Whitney. We cast him as the lead of Undateable, knowing if Whitney got picked up for another season, Chris would be unavailable and our show would be immediately dead. It felt worth it — Chris is an electric comic with a huge fan base from TV, Vine, and his comedy special(s). He really seems like a young talent on the verge. Plus, it’s fun to watch Chris torture Brent: “Hey, Brent, you had your own TV show for like three days, but it’s my TV show now.” We immediately put this big brother/little brother dynamic into the show. We then rounded out the cast with Bianca Kajlich, who starred on Rules of Engagement and, more important, has known Chris for more than 10 years. We all feel they must’ve made out at least once back in the day. They steadfastly deny it. (We also cast a young British comic actor, David Fynn, but he doesn’t know anyone so he doesn’t work that well for this section of the article.) We shot the pilot and … it worked. The chemistry was palpable: You could sense that they all (except David, of course) were actually friends in real life. Most of the best jokes were ad-libbed by the comics. Adam and I felt like geniuses. The show got picked up by NBC. Nothing could go wrong.
We were then informed that we weren’t on the fall schedule.
Boston and Philly
I’m still awkward on stage. I haven’t really figured out how to adjust the microphone stand yet, so I often look hunched over, like I’m trying desperately hard not to crap my pants. This is partly true (see photo below). It hasn’t yet dawned on me that I can remove the microphone. Still, I am getting better. Ron comes on stage and says, “Look at Bill working some stuff out. There were actually a few setups and punch lines in there …”
Being a midseason replacement sucks for a number of reasons. The worst one is that it immediately puts you in the position of hoping other shows will fail. TV comedy is a small community — we all have friends working on every show. You can’t want their show to die without knowing they will suffer. I’ve created an insane reality for myself to keep this in check. In my belief system, there is a Karma God that punishes you for actively wishing ill unto others. My wife points out that I work in a community that seems to actively reward assholes. The Karma Gods don’t have a huge toehold in Hollywood. “Maybe some of those crazy-rich assholes aren’t truly happy,” I say, then am immediately embarrassed by how ridiculous that sounds. To add to Undateable‘s troubles, every comedy on network TV (besides The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family) seems to be failing. Old hits are “down” and all the new “hot” comedies are getting ratings in the 1s. These are numbers that would get you immediately canceled three years ago. TV has changed.
It used to be so simple. Shitty shows went away, good ones survived. Now it seems like even shows with potential are failing, disappearing before they can find their voice. The issue: awareness. There are so many options on TV now, and how do you get people to check out your show in this landscape? At Undateable‘s headquarters (Adam’s crappy office), we figured we would go on in early spring, after the Olympics. We knew it would be hard for NBC to launch our show quickly. It’s tricky for networks nowadays — they can’t just air promos and hope people see them. The landscape is too vast. Luckily, our cast is composed of stand-up comedians, with Chris (and now Ron and Brent) starting to get national exposure. We decide to use them in a grassroots effort to promote Undateable. We will go on a national comedy tour. I’ve created some other TV shows (Scrubs, Clone High, Cougar Town, Spin City), so it’s decided (I decide) that I’ve got a big fan base, too (I don’t). I will “MC” the tour. We will take Undateable to the people, and we shall win them over.
I killed at DC Improv. Seriously, if we ranked how each comic did, and one of the other comics had an off night (they didn’t), I might not have come in last. My “act” had started to form. It all centered on one basic idea: how much I hate young people. Traveling with these comics, this hatred developed naturally — watching them eat cheeseburgers at midnight, go out drinking, then feel fine in the morning. Anyone under 40 reading this: Never doubt how much those of us over 40 despise you. My hangovers now last for three to five days, and I occasionally hurt myself sleeping. After this set, Ron comes onstage and we hug. Onstage. I may have cried a little.
Here’s the utter stupidity behind a “grassroots” promotional tour. The Nielsen ratings decide your show’s fate. Roughly 30,000 homes represent what the entire country is watching. I’ve done national promotion campaigns for my other shows (Scrubs and Cougar Town) and never once met a Nielsen family. They are like Snuffleupaguses to me. I don’t believe they are real. This tour will not “reach” one of them. If you are a Nielsen family and you’re reading this, first off, congrats on being real. Second, if you watch Undateable, contact me on Twitter (@VDOOZER) and I’ll send you a set of snow tires or some cheese or something.
The other truly stupid part I had forgotten: The road is awful. Traveling around in a van from city to city. Never sleeping. Eating like crap. The comics are used to it. Ron says he’s “used to sleeping at shitholes where people spit in your mouth while you sleep.” On this tour, thanks to NBC and Warner Bros. (our studio), we are in nice hotels. Brent and Rick even get massages, and not from each other. I’m still in hell. I miss my kids, and my bed, sometimes in that order. The other comics always tell me how long the van ride is to the next city in hopes that I will get us plane tickets. I sometimes do, if I can reach my wife to ask permission.
All this aside, we set out on the comedy tour with hope and optimism. We were on the road when NBC called and said the new Tuesday-night comedies, About a Boy and Growing Up Fisher, are working. There are no other available time slots, because of previously announced programming. Undateable will not be on until after the season is over. This is usually a deathblow for new shows. I actually got this phone call right before I walked onstage in Houston.
Dallas and Houston
Have you ever been so upset by something that you enter a daze for like 20 minutes? Maybe you just drove home, and you have no idea how you got there? That happened to me. Unfortunately, I snapped out of it to find myself on stage, in front of 300 or so people, in the middle of telling non-jokes to annoyed Texans. I’m so lost, I try to find the notes I keep in my front pocket as a security blanket. After fumbling with the ChapStick in that same pocket like I’m doing some horrible masturbation joke, I give up and introduce Ron. He looks at me and starts his act. I think he senses that tonight wasn’t a good night to give me more shit, god bless him.
Our show, Undateable, is premiering Thursday, May 29, at 9 p.m. ET on NBC, with back-to-back episodes. Bob Greenblatt (the president of NBC) and I spoke. He was honest and generous with me. He knows this is not what I wanted. Still, he feels this is the best chance for the show to succeed. “TV has changed,” he says. “Programming is year-round now, and NBC is doing more original, off-cycle programming than any network.” And you know what? I believe him. Besides, this show is funny, and I’m not biased, like, at all. The past few years have seen some big successes outside the normal scripted-TV season. Hell, cable shows premiere whenever/wherever, and succeed or fail mostly based on merit. This could work. On with the tour.
Chicago and Detroit
Chicago is crazy because our show is on St. Paddy’s Day. This is a comedy town and we performed at Second City. Everyone kills. I even have some “fans” there. One passionate Scrubs fan asked me to “Eagle” with him (a staple of the show). I carry him on my back and scream “Eagle!” as people video us, and I pretend it doesn’t hurt intensely. Detroit goes even better. Undateable is actually set in Detroit — Adam, Jeff Ingold, and Randall Winston (two other producers of the show) are all from Detroit. The city even motivated our show’s NBC tagline, “Every underdog has his day.” My act has expanded from “hatred of young people” to also include “my wife drives me insane.” Tried and true, I know, but it works for me, because people can sense that it’s real. Onstage, Ron pretends to be pissed off that I did well. It means the world to me.
Jeff Ingold (my business partner) also executive produces Undateable, and has been on this trip acting as a tour manager of sorts. His optimism never wavered. Adam and I realize why when it’s pointed out that each city we have visited is home to one of NBC’s top affiliate stations. Jeff has enjoyed the comedy (I saw him laugh once or twice), but his priority has been different. In each city, he shuttles us to those stations to meet the creative directors and station managers, shoot promos, shoot the shit. People used to do this with their TV shows: take them around the country, show how passionate you are, and ask for help and support in launching your show. Jeff believes this will be a key component in the future of TV, marketing national shows on a local level. It’s fun to see what these people do and realize that their stations, their cities are the ones that really decide if a show survives. Not Hollywood. We offer to do anything to help — shoot messages to sponsors, fly in and do their morning shows — you name it. This is Brent’s first TV job ever. He tells one station manager that he will perform at a barbecue at the gentleman’s house. The station manager wrongly assumes Brent is joking.
I got to perform in front of close to a thousand people. It felt fun, not nerve-wracking. I had so many friends there. My wife, Christa, even runs to the stage and kisses me when I’m talking about our sex life. I got distracted by how great she looks, and by the feeling that I might get lucky later. I regroup, then stand in the wings and laugh alone as Ron talks about the “very relatable problems of a successful TV producer” and everyone laughs with him and at me.
I have great pride as I watch each comic. Chris D’Elia has that energy and excitement attached to his live performances that mark the coming of a comedic voice that will be remembered. He’s that good. Ron Funches will be a comedy superstar before you know it (his first special is premiering in June). Rick Glassman is Andy Kaufman–esque. His set is almost like performance art. And Brent Morin is not only an insanely talented comic, but Adam and I know that no matter what happens, we will get to say we “discovered” him. Hell, even though it’s not true, we can say that about each of them. And David. And Bianca (though people have seen her on TV a lot). Still, that’s not what I’m proudest of.
L.A. is a cynical town. Ultimately, Undateable is just a throwback sitcom about a group of friends who are all stuck in a rut. Nothing really out of the box. But they love each other, and that feels real. And it’s funny. I don’t know if the show will work or not. I do know that if you talk to a Hollywood type, they will most likely say “no way it works,” then tell you about their new exciting project. But they don’t know anything. That’s the big secret: No one knows. I’m just proud that no matter what happens, we all really tried. And also that I never have to do stand-up again.
Bill Lawrence is the co-creator of Undateable, which premieres at 9 p.m. ET Thursday night on NBC. He also created Scrubs and co-created Spin City, Clone High, Cougar Town and Ground Floor.