It’s tape night on the set of “Abby’s,” located behind one of the homes built on the fabled Universal Studios backlot. As the night falls and a chill sweeps in, the NBC comedy’s producers are facing the kinds of obstacles that no other multi-camera sitcom has likely ever confronted. Out come the dewdrops, crickets, helicopters, gnats, and skunks that have made shooting the sitcom a unique challenge.
That’s because “Abby’s,” which premieres Thursday, is the first multi-camera comedy to be shot entirely outdoors — and it’s been a learning process for everyone involved. Take the crickets, which have been much louder than expected. It’s driving the show’s sound engineers bonkers.
“Oh gosh, we have a lot of cricket issues,” creator and executive producer Josh Malmuth told Variety on set in October. “It’s a huge topic of conversation. A lot of the editing room is, ‘are we locked into our crickets here?’ The people who did the sound mix for our pilot, I asked them how it went. They looked at me and said, ‘this took us four times as long as a regular show!'”
“Abby’s” stars Natalie Morales as a former Marine who opens up an unlicensed, makeshift bar in her backyard. The show, which takes place in San Diego, also features Neil Flynn, Jessica Chaffin, Nelson Franklin, Kimia Behpoornia and Leonard Ouzts. Because most of the action takes place with a colorful cast of characters in a neighborhood tavern, “Abby’s” has been compared to legendary sitcom “Cheers” — a reference that Malmuth and executive producer Michael Schur welcome.
“I like talking about ‘Cheers,’ so whenever someone wants to talk about ‘Cheers,’ great,” Schur said. Added Malmuth: “When you commit to doing a show that’s on a single set and it’s a show about people just hanging out and spending time together, you’re going to live or die by the chemistry of your cast, by how strong those character relationships are, by how strong the characters are.”
Morales called “Abby’s” “truly one of the best experiences of my life.” Beyond the aesthetic of shooting outdoors, the show is also making history with her casting in the lead role: “They just told me I’m the first Cuban American lead of a sitcom since Desi Arnaz, which means I’m the first female ever. And also I think the character is the first bisexual lead on a sitcom.”
The first thing viewers may notice about “Abby’s,” however, is its unique outdoor hillside set. Every episode opens with a voice over that proclaims, “‘Abby’s’ was filmed in front of a live outdoor audience.” And some of the show’s episodes feature opening scenes that break the fourth wall to prove it, as a camera shot comes off the Angeles mountains, over the Universal backlot, up behind the audience and on to the show.
Because of the show’s plot, most of “Abby’s” takes place at night and outdoors. But that presented an immediate challenge for the sitcom, as Malmuth said the idea of creating a dark, exterior set on a soundstage seemed daunting. And turning “Abby’s” into a single-camera show with a five-day night shoot also felt incredibly punishing. “So we had the thought, what if we do it as a multi-cam outside?” he said.
Schur had the same concerns of shooting the show inside, especially given the history of completely unrealistic outdoor scenes on multi-camera sitcoms.
“This came from a personal fear of mine at least that was like, the ‘Wilson’ from ‘Home Improvement’ scenes,” Schur said. “Where [the show] would go to his backyard and the shot would be this incredibly shallow angle of a patch of obviously fake grass and a fence. And it would be like, ‘we’re outside!’ No you’re not! People did the best with what they could muster. But the world has changed and we don’t have to fake it anymore.”
Schur said he and Malmuth were “scrapping for a fight” in order to convince Universal TV execs to play along, but the studio was on board from the start. The cost of shooting outdoors was actually comparable to inside on a stage — but just in case there was a problem, or weather forced them indoors, a secondary, complete replica of the outdoor set was also built inside a Universal soundstage. The show never had to use that stage — but that’s because Season 1 wrapped before this particularly wet L.A. winter got underway.
Scouting for a house and backyard that could hold a studio audience and an entire set, Schur and Malmuth found on on the Universal lot in the neighborhood now dubbed “Wisteria Lane” (thanks, of course, to its long-running stint as the cul-de-sac on “Desperate Housewives”).
“Everybody from the director on down to the grips had to come up with a different way of approaching their job,” Schur said. “It’s windy up here so the sound situation is different and the lighting situation is different. We did a lot of camera testing for the pilot.”
Among other obstacles, the show only had access to the house twice a week, as the street is used for other productions the rest of the time. As a result, co-executive producer Franco Bario said the show had to come up with a plan to quickly get the entire company up to the house and back down swiftly.
“Doing a full-scale show that would normally take up a stage or two and then scram again was pretty intense,” he said. “That was a lot of logistical planning. But once we’re up here, everyone has gotten very comfortable. They can’t wait to get back up here. You’re just dealing with the elements.”
Veteran TV director Beth McCarthy-Miller, on hand to helm that night’s episode, said she embraced the look and feel of shooting outdoors. “It looks really real,” she said. “I find from the cuts I’ve seen that it looks beautiful. Because it’s a real tree, it’s not a backdrop with a fake three standing in front of it.”
But the biggest challenge for her was blocking shots in the middle of the day, with the sun blazing down, knowing that the scenes would look different, and have different lighting, at night. In the evening, her concern turned to helicopters, police chases, and noisy flights coming out of nearby Hollywood Burbank Airport.
“We were pre-taping last night and we had to stop for planes and helicopters,” she said. “We just stop, pause, and do it again.”
Schur and Malmuth said they soon discovered that the Burbank airport flight patterns depend on the crosswinds, and that would impact their shoot. “We all learned a lot about aeronautics and weather and the city of Burbank,” quipped Malmuth.
But most of that natural sound, such as train horns or automobile traffic, will make it into the sound mix. They are outside, after all, and the real-life elements add to the authenticity they’re aiming for.
“It’s free production value!” exclaimed McCarthy-Miller. “We were going to put that fire engine in!”
Even the dialogue sounds a bit different because it “doesn’t have that squished soundstage feel,” Malmuth said.
The producers are especially excited about shooting scenes at dusk — the so-called “magic hour” that can’t really be duplicated on a sound stage.
“Then you’re really getting a sense of the outdoors,” Bario said. “We just can’t shoot during the day because you can’t control the sun everywhere. But dusk, when the sun drops behind the mountain, it’s still light out and it’s beautiful.”
Even when the sun fully sets, the set doesn’t need to be overly lit, because video technology has improved so much in recent years. Instead, clip-on lights purchased from Home Depot have done the trick — further giving the set a realistic feel, as it’s all practical lighting.
Of course, there’s nothing more realistic than the critters invading the set. Morales said there was a family of mice that “was into the Chex mix” at the craft services table.
Added Bario: “There was a particular raccoon that really did not want to get out of our way, just kept wandering on the set while we were lighting. Then there was a skunk while we were shooting an audience show that came right down to the other side of that fence. They got plans. If they see something they’re coming in.”
Thankfully audiences never had to deal with a skunk spray — just the evening chill (blankets were passed out to keep people warm).
“This is an insane thing to say, but it’s the only analogy I have,” Schur said. “Have you ever been to Shakespeare in the Park? It’s the same thing, like you’re watching a play and you’re outside. It’s a rare experience. And I’d say Josh’s writing is roughly as good as Shakespeare. I think this show will have more of a lasting impact on our culture.”
Abby’s premieres Thursday, March 28, at 9:30 p.m. on NBC.