Live television is standard operating procedure for newscasts and sports, but it is as suspenseful as a high-wire act in the world of the scripted series. The ever-present possibility of unscripted disaster gives the proceedings an added edge -- especially to the already edgy antics of comedy, as these famous examples demonstrate:
Your Show of Shows
Live TV was commonplace in the early 1950s, when this pioneering sketch comedy/variety show aired. But the cast of comic powerhouses (Carl Reiner, Howard Morris, Imogene Coca and of course funnyman supreme Sid Caesar) seemed to be particularly energized by both the fans in the theater before them AND the unseen viewers on the other side of the lumbering cameras of the era.
Those two worlds came together in the classic This Is Your Story sketch, in which Caesar played an unsuspecting audience member -- planted in the actual audience -- who violently resists participating in a TV program about his own life. Hard to believe this relentlessly creative farce was eventually deposed by the soporific strains of The Lawrence Welk Show, which in its first years was also live -- if you call that living.
A Your Show of Shows for a new generation, Saturday Night Live has long since bested its predecessor in longevity (though hardly in quality). But like YSOS, SNL obviously feeds off the energy of its audience in the studio -- who clearly consider themselves part of the experience -- and across the country. SNL also takes advantage of the live format to produce highly up-to-date material. Both the "cold open" and Weekend Update segments play off events rarely older than the previous week, and these are frequently the most viral videos from the show in the days after it airs. Then again, What's Up With That? barely changes at all week to week and yet it remains eternally funny -- so topicality alone hardly explains the appeal of live TV.
The '90s sit-com Roc focused on the life, loves, friends and frustrations of an African-American sanitation worker in Baltimore. Its theatrically-trained star Charles S. Dutton grew exasperated with the drawn-out process of taped TV production -- and when a one-off live broadcast of the show proved a success, Dutton suggested doing the entire following season that way. The rest of the cast, who also had serious stage chops, readily agreed. The result was the first entire season of a TV show to be presented live since the late '50s (a record that still stands). The scripts included enough references to current events to convince viewers that the performance was indeed being aired in the same moment it was being acted. Case in point: The program aired on Election Eve 1992, which featured a literally lively discussion between the characters on which candidate would get their vote the next day.
Will & Grace
Will & Grace was a breakthrough sitcom when it debuted in 1998, and to this day it remains the most successful sitcom featuring gay men as major characters. But as it approached the eighth and final season, its ratings and freshness were flagging. The solution: the energy-boosting and Nielsen-grabbing magic of a live broadcast. The cast was trepidatious -- especially after a foot injury sustained by Debra "Grace" Messing required her to perform with a cast and motor scooter. But in the end, the episode self-referentially entitled "Alive and Schticking" was a giddy, giggly success, even as the actors were often on the cusp of breaking character.
Because we live on a round and spinning planet, an East Coast AND West Coast broadcast was required, and the writers kept the actors further on their toes with different gags for each half of America. Alec Baldwin, who appeared as the boss of series regular Megan Mullally, was nominated the following year for an Emmy in the "Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series" category.
The most recent excursion into live television by a usually pre-recorded program happened just last week, as 30 Rock's ensemble assembled before millions of fans for the second time in its history. The novelty turned into an almost touching tribute to the entire history of live television, with riffs on the domestic sitcoms, sexist newcasters and inebriated variety show hosts of live TV's golden years.
Regular Rocker Alec Baldwin's participation in the evening made him perhaps the only contemporary actor who has appeared live in TWO different sitcoms. Like Will & Grace, the folks of 30 Rock turned the necessity of two broadcasts into the invention of more gags. The East enjoyed a surprise appearance by Paul McCartney, while the West got Kim Kardashian -- giving Easterners another reason not to be Westerners.
Do you think live episodes of your favorite shows are a) an intriguing test of TV talent or b) a gimmicky ploy for ratings gold?