Inside the Demise of NBC's Once-Promising Comedy Up All Night
Up All Night | Photo Credits: Gavin Bond/NBC
NBC's Up All Night should have been a hit. The show came with a strong comedy pedigree: It starred Christina Applegate, Will Arnett and Maya Rudolph and was produced by Saturday Night Live don Lorne Michaels. At the center was what seemed to be a relatable premise for the young adults watching the network's upscale comedies: a hip, young couple adjusts to life with a baby.
But two years after creator Emily Spivey shot the pilot (then called Alpha Mom), Up All Night is all but gone, suffering the death of a thousand tinkers. A heavily touted plan to morph the show into a multi-camera sitcom is now mostly abandoned, and some of the outlandish ideas bandied about for the revamp (including one idea involving rock star Melissa Etheridge) will never see the light of day.
When NBC announced the show in May 2011, Applegate was going to be playing Reagan, a successful public relations exec and new mom; Arnett was her stay-at-home husband, Chris; Rudolph was her boss and best friend, Ava; and James Pumphrey was Brian, Reagan's socially awkward hipster assistant.
Then came Bridesmaids. The feature surprised Hollywood by becoming a mega-hit and raised Rudolph's profile, something both NBC and Michaels wanted to exploit. The PR firm angle was soon tossed, and the pilot was re-shot with Ava as an Oprah-esque talk-show host. "That was Lorne's creation," says one insider. "It wasn't meant to be there." Reagan became Ava's producer, and Pumphrey was replaced by Jennifer Hall as Reagan's ditzy assistant, Missy. The show's focus began to center more and more on the talk show workplace and the relationship between Reagan and Ava.
"A talk show for Maya's character, Ava, is just more fun," Spivey told reporters that summer. "It seemed like a natural progression." In hindsight, though, some insiders say that decision doomed Up All Night from almost the beginning. "I always felt the Maya and work stuff ruined the essence of what worked about the show: Christina and Will's relationship," says one insider. "They thought Maya was a star and ruined the show to accommodate her. I'm not sure why they didn't just develop a different show for her."
But the changes were just beginning. Nick Cannon was brought in to play Ava's sidekick (although he ultimately had just a minor role). Steven Pasquale later came in as a foil to Reagan and Ava's exploits on The Ava Show.
By the time it moved from Wednesday to Thursday, the struggling show had lost more than half the audience from its premiere. Up All Night then underwent another overhaul in Season 2: The Ava Show was canceled, bringing Reagan back home. Arnett's character, a former lawyer, became a contractor. Hall was gone, but new to the show was Luka Jones as Reagan's slacker brother.
Even NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke admitted that the Season 2 changes exasperated Up All Night's problems. "That's part of the confusion," she told TV Guide Magazine last fall. "Taking Maya out of that show and Christina out of that workplace actually made it even more low-concept, and handcuffed Maya's abilities in some ways."
Also gone was original executive producer Jon Pollack, who had been tapped to guide Spivey (who had never run a show) and manage Up All Night in its first season. These arrangements are increasingly common in primetime, as networks and studios bring in more seasoned producers to oversee creators with no showrunner experience. Sometimes it works, but often it leads to creative clashes.