Sitcom and the Standup Experience: NBC’s Undateable

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In January, Warner Bros. Television gathered journalists in Pasadena for an event built around their comedy slate. Although there were screenings for both long-standing hit The Big Bang Theory and freshman success story Mom, the centerpiece of the evening was NBC’s Undateable, which debuts tonight at 9/8c with its first two episodes.

When the event took place, Undateable didn’t even have a release date. In talking to executive producer Bill Lawrence, though, this wasn’t necessarily a sign the show had no support. Even moving beyond the fact that Warner Bros. was using the evening as a platform for the series, NBC was also in then process of greenlighting what would become the Undateable Comedy Tour, a preview of which was offered to journalists to close out an evening that began with the screening of an episode of the series. It’s more support than you’re expect for a show airing at the end of May, a sign of the new state of summer programming and also the basic logic that pervades Undateable as a series and as an experience.

When the four comics at the heart of the series—Chris D’Elia, Brent Morin, Rick Glassman, and Ron Funches—took the hilariously tiny makeshift stage in Pasadena that night, you could tell this was something of a corporate gig. This was not an audience primed for standup comedy, although I will admit that as part of a group sitting four astride on a couch five feet from the stage I felt a certain responsibility to be a conscientious audience member. I laughed expressively when I found things funny; I smiled politely and put my head down slightly when I didn’t; I avoided spilling popcorn (there was popcorn) and putting my feet up like the person next to us, who drew the attention of the comics scanning the room looking for transitional material. However, this is a room of critics who—in the two weeks of the Television Critics Association press tour to which this event was attached—have trained themselves to not respond to “talent” in this way, making it an audience more akin to a corporate retreat than the typical audience a standup comic would expect at a comedy show.

It’s fitting, though, that the tenor of the audience would be a topic of conversation coming out of the event, given how central it is to Undateable‘s construction as a series. The producers—I spoke with Lawrence and co-creator Adam Sztzkiel during the event—heavily emphasized the role of improvisation in the series, and in their goal of bringing together standup comics with a preexisting relationship that would make it easier to welcome that improvisation from an early stage. The results show up in the first six episodes, which take some time to get going narratively like any freshman series but is very quick to establish the basic rapport between the characters in question. The show isn’t built to blow you away: it’s a very simple show about friends who hang out at a bar in Detroit and have conversations that center around dating and life more broadly. However, it’s also the version of that show that feels capable of surprising you a little, and in being just off-kilter enough to disrupt the very traditional appearances of the production. And in brief moments where the performances get a bit broader, and when the audience responds as though they’re in on the joke, it becomes clear that this is a sitcom built on performance and persona rather than on trying to construct a certain kind of humor one expects from a multi-camera series.

Undateable is not a deep show, content largely to ruminate on dating issues as opposed to constructing any kind of larger argument about what exactly they mean. Morin gets the most substantial storyline, an evolving relationship with Briga Heelan as the bar’s bartender, but the other characters mostly float through each storyline offering biting commentary or serving as a catalyst for smaller story developments. And yet that’s a role that’s a good one for standup comics like D’Elia, Glassman, and Funches. When Morin, Glassman, and Funches appeared on Comedy Central’s @Midnight, this dynamic was reinforced—these are funny people who are quick on their feet, which doesn’t always result in a great sitcom episode but almost always creates at least a few genuinely funny—and sometimes unexpected—moments per episode.

As with any press event, the goal of the Warner Bros. comedy event was to promote the shows in question, which the earlier screening and Q&A with the producers did in very traditional ways. However, the four short standup sets by D’Elia, Morin, Glassman, and Funches weren’t really promoting the show itself. They were promoting the potential of the show in the abstract, selling us the comedy of each individual as a reflection of what they were capable of tapping into when diving into improv or punching up a particular scene. Funches, the series’ breakout supporting player, sold some critics on his bubbly personality and distinctive laugh, qualities that equally came through on @Midnight (which served a similar function for audiences at large as this event did for critics). Morin, who is arguably the show’s lead even if we accept D’Elia as its “star” following his turn on Whitney, showed a side of himself the show doesn’t expose as often given Justin’s romanticism, adding a bit of edge to a sometimes soft—this isn’t a criticism, it works—character. Together, they sold potential in the same way as any TCA panel would, but in a language—standup—that has been directly built into the series’ DNA.

It will be interesting to see how the show performs, as it has been promoted (at least to critics) based less on its premise and more on the premise behind its creation as a television production. Hiring standups enables improv which engages the audience and creates a more dynamic product with a greater potential to surprise and move beyond its basic structure to create compelling comic scenarios; it’s not a traditional pitch for a television comedy, but it’s one that distinguishes Undateable in meaningful ways and has the potential to connect with audiences that are willing to embrace the arrival of “real” summer programming in the form of a traditional sitcom with a contemporary edge.

Cultural Observations

  • I’m actually working on a dissertation chapter at the moment where I consider the series’ engagement with Detroit, a distinct setting for a multi-camera sitcom in the contemporary moment. I’ll be curious to see how those from Detroit respond to the series on this level.
  • This is Lawrence’s second multi-camera sitcom to debut in the past year, and it’s also the second to somewhat shamelessly integrate impromptu musical performances based on the fact the male leads can sing. I’ve decided I’m okay with this.
  • As is often the case, Lawrence has lots of intelligent reflections on the promotion of the sitcom and what it means to launch a series in the contemporary moment in this “Tour Diary” at Grantland.
  • Ron Funches had my appreciation based on a great Detroit storyline in the series’ third episode, but he won my love with his Ravishing Rick Rude t-shirt on @Midnight.
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1 Comment

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One response to “Sitcom and the Standup Experience: NBC’s Undateable

  1. Pingback: Standup Comedy: Chris D'Elia, King of Vine Comedy - Voodoo Comedy Playhouse - Denver, Colorado

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