From executive producer Bill Lawrence and show creator Adam Sztykiel, the new NBC comedy series Undateable is a new comedy series about a group of friends who are close to finding a relationship, but they just need a little help. Whether it’s due to their job, their appearance or how comfortable they are socially, everyone goes through a time in their lives when they’re undateable, and Danny Burton (Chris D’Elia) and Justin Kearney (Brent Morin) are no exception. While this group of friends attempt to help solve each other’s respective problems over beers, they lovingly give each other a hard time and always have each other’s backs.
During this recent exclusive interview with Collider, Bill Lawrence and Adam Sztykiel talked about how this show evolved, putting together a cast of stand-up comedians and experienced multi-camera actors who had previously known each other, finding the right balance in the Danny and Justin dynamic, why they chose to have Justin jump into a relationship so fast, and finding a way to serialize a sitcom. Check out what they had to say after the jump, and be aware that there are some spoilers.
ADAM SZTYKIEL: There’s the book Undateable, but it’s a picture book.
BILL LAWRENCE: I think Peter Roth, the head of Warner Bros. thought it was a great title, and then Adam and I had to figure out what the show was.
SZTYKIEL: It was like, “We’re gonna make a show out of this title,” and we just kicked around what that was. We settled on the idea of doing it in a bar and setting it in Detroit, as an underdog city. And then, the odd couple dynamic emerged, that Danny and Justin have on the show. But truthfully, I feel like, from very early on, Bill was like, “I want to do a show with stand-up comics.”
LAWRENCE: I love TV. I’m a TV nerd. I’m such a fan. When we went out and about and sold the show, Adam said, “Every young man and young woman goes through a stage in their life that, due to their job, their appearance, how comfortable they are socially, that they’re undateable.” We all brought pictures of ourselves at our most undateable point. I’m from Connecticut and I so badly wanted to be cool that for awhile, in my 20s, I had peroxide white hair and earrings. I just looked so much like a white guy from Connecticut with peroxide hair and earrings. It was so bad. And he said that this was a show about people who, for whatever reason, are stuck there a little longer than they should be. I thought that would be a good show because that’s got an every-person quality.
And then, what I brought to it was that multi-camera sitcoms succeed or fail based on cast chemistry and based on the ability to sell jokes to a live audience. People think there are laugh tracks, but there aren’t, unless people cheat. We don’t cheat. It’s a live audience. When I audition people for multi-camera, no one knows how to do it anymore because no one besides CBS makes them. Stand-up comics have a ridiculous strength for vibing off the audience and having timing and pushing jokes further, so I wanted to cast all comics, or in Bianca Kajlich’s case, somebody that’s done multi-camera before. In the old days – and I can say old days because I’ve been doing this for 25 years – you knew you had at least one year to get cast chemistry. Now, after two episodes, people are like, “There’s no cast chemistry here. This show is dead.” And you’re like, “What?! It’s been on twice!” So, I wanted to try to cast people who had a friendship dynamic predating this show. I think that stuff shows through.
Chris D’Elia and Bianca have known each other for 11 years. As stand-ups, Chris is Brent Morin’s mentor. Brent was 19 when Chris got him into some doors, as a comedian. Rick Glassman, another comic, and Brent lived together. And they all tour with Ron Funches. We knew we had done something correctly when right after the pilot, NBC said, “One of the reasons we’re picking this show up is that it seems like the cast has great chemistry.” I was like, “Oh, that’s so weird that that just happened magically,” with five people who have known each other for over 10 years. We exploit them comedically and let them play, more than most shows do.
Do you feel like, if you had hired stand-up comics who didn’t know each other that they’d be more likely to be competing with each other, especially since they wouldn’t already know each other’s styles?
LAWRENCE: It’s a huge point because these guys and women are all looking to make each other shine. Chris D’Elia is a huge headliner, as a stand-up. He’s so proud when people who are a little behind him in the comedy world, some who he helped get into it, are killing it in front of audiences. And we, as writers, can just steal their real-life dynamics. True story that we haven’t told any reporters, Adam and I cast Brent first. We didn’t know if Chris D’Elia would be available ‘cause Whitney was still on. So, Brent had three days where he got to suddenly feel like he was Chris’ equal. He was like, “Chris, I’ve got a TV show, too, man. That’s all I’m saying.” And then, three days later, we cast Chris. We went out to meet them at the Laugh Factory and Chris was like, “Hey, Brent, you know your TV show? It’s my TV show now!” That’s their dynamic, of big brother torturing little brother, that we immediately put on the show.
Do you play a lot of attention to the dynamic between Danny and Justin, and make sure that one doesn’t overshadow the other?
LAWRENCE: I think that Chris is a huge talent, but one of the hardest roles is Brent’s. If he seemed like a milk toasty weak link, you would be doomed. Adam noticed, early on, that Brent has an incredible misplaced confidence that shines through and makes him seem like a big character.
SZTYKIEL: Whether the show succeeds or fails, he’ll have a career in television, as long as he wants it.
LAWRENCE: To come into that role, which in lesser hands could be the straight person on the Chris D’Elia show, it’s a fun dynamic for us to watch. The people that do like this show vary as to whether they like Chris the most or Brent the most, so they torture each other. I don’t know how they do it and stay friends. It’s insanely mean.
The fact that Brent sings all the time is just hilarious, especially because he does it so well.
SZTYKIEL: That was just a gift. When Brent came in, part of his first audition involved singing. The scene opened with “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” and he belted it out.
LAWRENCE: The added bonus is that, in real life, he does that a lot, and there’s nothing that Chris D’Elia, as a real person, hates more than Brent singing and everybody looking at Brent. Chris was like, “Oh, my god, it’s like I’m burning alive when you sing.” And I was like, “That has to be on the show, every week!” He’s shockingly good. You don’t expect him to be that good.
LAWRENCE: It was talked about a lot. I’ve done this for a long time and I feel that “will they or won’t they” has been done so often and so well and so poorly by so many different people that the second you do it again, people go, “Nooo.” So, we talked early on and said, “Here’s how you make it a little different. To help with the will they or won’t they thing. Let’s just do it, right away, and change the dynamic.” There are so few stories you can do about young people that like each other, but one’s afraid to jump in and the other has got complications going on. I wrote on Friends, and they did it very, very, very well. I was a huge Moonlighting fan, and they did it very well. We love Cheers, and we’re, without a doubt, considering this an homage to it, and ‘s they did it the best of all. I just think that’s a little dead. You can’t fight it, by the way. It’s my nightmare in television. On Scrubs, I said, “We’re gonna blow J.D. and Elliot out, right away, and it will never be will they or won’t they.” But just by having them hook up, at the beginning, and break up, all of this internet traffic was like, “When are they getting back together?” I was like, “Stop it!” You can’t fight it. And Adam was cool with just throwing it together and seeing what happens.
How challenging is it, when you have such an integral storyline like that, but your actress (Briga Heelan) is also on another show?
LAWRENCE: For this season, we were only able to use her in seven of the 13 episodes, with our plan being that, if Ground Floor didn’t come back, she’d be in 13 of 13 next season. What we did was back her up with Susan Sarandon’s daughter, Eva Martino. But, our hope is that Briga will be allowed to do double duty, if this show goes on. People are very protective, as they should be, in the first year of shows, but these shows don’t really air at the same time. I think the TV landscape is changing so much that people don’t care the same way, if people are in two different places. I just think Briga is really talented, too.
And that role was recast, right?
LAWRENCE: What happened was that we put Briga in the pilot because you never know what shows are gonna get picked up. She was just so talented that we hoped she would be in one show, but then both the shows got picked up. And I had Briga on Cougar Town a bunch, too. It was just very hard for us to get passed thinking that she was the best person in the role ‘cause she was the first one that did it.
LAWRENCE: Shelly because Ron Funches turned out to be a space alien.
SZTYKIEL: Ron’s voice is so specifically unique that you just realize he can say any words and it’s funny.
Are you telling an overall story with this show, and then also having individual storylines?
LAWRENCE: The modern landscape for multi-camera has to be self-contained episodes that anybody can drop in and watch. It’s pure escapist entertainment. With single-camera, like Scrubs and Cougar Town, people are forced to pay attention more because little nuances of plot carry on. But, we still talked about an over-reaching arc for the first season. The easiest thing for us to do in a complete first season was Brent and Briga’s relationship. We’ll have a beginning, middle and end to the season, but no one is going to be handicapped by missing three episodes. You get these stats, as TV writers, that would horrify you. They sit you down and go, “Your greatest fan will watch one out of every four episodes.” First of all, that’s not true. Not in the modern age of binge watching. But it’s why networks really beat you up on the comedy side, in regards to becoming too serialized. I did it anyway. The coolest thing about TV is that, if you make it past the first season, you can do anything.
Undateable airs on Thursday nights on NBC.